The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Mark Robinson Mr Mark Robinson , Somerton and Frome 5:31 pm, 27th June 1996

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on producing the most positive report on the Commonwealth to have emanated from Government and parliamentary sources in a very long time.

I must declare an interest of a sort: I worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat for six years and had the privilege of serving as a member of the board of the Commonwealth Development Corporation for four. I have experienced the contrast between the Commonwealth and the United Nations, whose secretariat I have also worked for. There is a great difference between the large bureaucracy of the United Nations and the tiny secretariat that supports the Commonwealth. Ministers go to the United Nations and talk at the assembled company; they deliver their speeches, attend a dinner and then go away. But when Ministers go to Commonwealth meetings and Members of Parliament come to CPA meetings, they talk to each other. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), who talked about the importance of ad hoc meetings. I know of one clear example of their importance.

I was privileged to service the Foreign Ministers' ad hoc committee that considered Belize. It met in New York while the UN General Assembly was in session and it played a key role in bringing Belize through the process of independence, against the background of a hostile neighbour state which was threatening Belize but which was eventually prevailed on to allow its independence to take place. Peer pressure from within the region was the cause.

A great deal can be achieved in small, informal meetings. I have sat in on three Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, with the task of helping to formulate the resulting communiqués. I noticed that new Heads of Government often arrive with cynical views of the Commonwealth. I think in particular of one Head of Government who went on to be a distinguished chairman of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malaysia—a complete convert to the Commonwealth family.

The reason for this is simple: it is that, at these meetings, Heads of Government talk to each other. The meetings are held in private rooms where politicians' utterances are not being recorded for the press or the outside world, so they can speak freely.

When historians come to look at the Commonwealth, as they so often do, it will be seen that an outstanding example of its role and work was the transition to an independent Zimbabwe. There may be differences of opinion about what happened, but it is certain that without the Lusaka agreement—between the Heads of Government who were meeting in Lusaka—there would have been no Lancaster House conference. It was because Baroness Thatcher, President Kaunda and the leaders of the Commonwealth were able to sit down together to achieve progress that agreement was reached.

What is more, the process snowballed. Namibia's independence, although a UN exercise, was another link in the process and the Commonwealth played an important role in it. The same applied to the process of South Africa's independence. I have not forgotten the surprise expressed by the current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, at his reception by President de Klerk on his first visit. He had been warned that the Commonwealth was not popular in South Africa and that his meeting was likely to be short and terse. It proved not to be. They talked for a long time and held a second meeting which helped to break the ice and change the attitude of the then South African Government to the Commonwealth. That in turn was important to the process of transition that followed.

The British Government in their dealings with what some call the new Commonwealth have not always in the past acted as initiators, because of a view that the process of decolonisation was still under way and that it might not be a good idea for Britain to be seen as the dominating partner in the Commonwealth. Times have now changed, however, and there is plenty of scope for Britain to take the initiative in the Commonwealth family. That is one of the key messages of the Select Committee's report.

We should note how the attitude of many Commonwealth member countries to economic policy has changed. No longer do we hear the language of state socialism; no longer is the parastatal concept dominant. Instead, the private sector is now at the heart of these economies, with an important role to play. That is why the Commonwealth private investment initiative is likely to be so significant. I hope that we will offer it strong backing, just as I hope that the CDC will be allowed an expanded role in helping the emerging economies of many Commonwealth states to link up with global business.

I have visited some of the CDC's projects and seen the success of its equity participation in many of them. I have also seen the enthusiasm of the local investors. If we put our minds to it, we and the other more developed member countries can build on that success.

As has been emphasised in the debate, we have a common language. Nor should we underestimate our common systems. We have a common system of government. Bureaucracies operate in different ways but they have come from the same antecedent. A host of Commonwealth organisations, some governmental and many non-governmental, meet in a variety of expert fields which service themselves with only tiny amounts of money. That produces an enormously strong interchange of ideas.

That has great value in diplomacy. That was one of the earliest lessons that I learnt as a junior official at the United Nations. When I worked in the Secretary General's office I had to get to know ambassadors at the highest level. The quickest way to get on first name terms with a Commonwealth ambassador was the link of education. It may be obvious, but from the moment that it was established that one had gone to Middle Temple and the other to Gray's Inn, both are friends. That happened at ministerial level too, whether it was two Ministers who had gone to the London School of Economics or shared the same university. It was a bond to be struck immediately through which business could be effectively transacted and agreement reached.

We must not neglect in our diplomacy the importance of such links in helping to break down barriers in negotiations such as those on the general agreement on tariffs and trade because we span so many regional organisations. In the Commonwealth we do not attempt to dictate, but to converse; we attempt to discover what mechanisms might lead to the removal of blockages to a successful negotiation.

Yesterday I listened to a brilliant and wonderful speech by His Royal Highness Prince Hassan El Bin Talal, the Crown Prince of Jordan. He does not represent a Commonwealth country, but he was saying things that were pertinent and relevant to what we have been talking about this afternoon. He spoke about the cultural and religious differences in the world which come out of great historic tradition. The only chance that we have of defeating the extremists is by understanding each other. In those great religious and cultural traditions, there is a strong centre of moderation and common sense. I mention that because the Commonwealth crosses religious divides, just as it crosses cultural divides, which is enormously important to its members' ability to understand one another.

Britain needs to make better use of this wonderful asset that it has at its disposal. We have that opportunity when it comes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in 1999. We have heard how small is the budget of the Commonwealth Secretariat, as is the budget of the Commonwealth. But within the Commonwealth family, small amounts of money go a long way, provided that they support sensible and constructive initiatives that are free from the burgeoning bureaucracy that we see so often in the large family of UN specialised agencies.

The finance initiative to which I have referred is just one example of what could be achieved, but there have been many initiatives in health, education, trade and industry. We need to pick up those opportunities and develop them at Edinburgh. I am sure that we shall be able to do so in a constructive manner. In doing so, we shall win and continue to win the good will of our Commonwealth partners, who are so important to the success of our diplomacy across the globe.