The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 5:44 pm, 27th June 1996

The Select Committee's inquiry changed my perception of the Commonwealth, not because I do not have any Commonwealth connections—I do. For the greater part of 30 years I have had connections of one kind or another with Caribbean or African political contacts and colleagues. As the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) said, I was a governor of the Commonwealth Institute, and I underline and reiterate what he said. It would be an act of vandalism if the Commonwealth Institute closed. That would send a catastrophic signal, so I hope that common sense will prevail.

In some ways, despite all those contacts, I had become part of the defensive mentality about the Commonwealth. Speaking about the Commonwealth made one feel old, as if it was no longer relevant to the current generation of young people either within Britain or the Commonwealth.

As our Chairman expressed so forcefully with regard to economic and commercial matters, as we went around I was struck by the enormous potential of the Commonwealth network. We had not appreciated how much more political, economic, commercial, cultural and social traffic it could take.

The energies that we have consumed in trying to resolve our relationship with the EU have in some respects diverted our attention from the wider role that Britain can and should play, certainly in the Commonwealth. The C in FCO—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—has been very much a Cinderella in recent years. I hope that the Committee's report will mean that some of those in the Department will attach greater importance to our relationships with and the potential of the Commonwealth.

The most stunning and vivid part of our inquiry was our visit to the Indian sub-continent, where I had never been before, and, in particular, to Bangladesh. I had a completely false image of a country in total destitution. But I was astonished by the vibrancy and energy of the emerging early modern capitalism that is evident on the river banks in Dhaka which will lead to considerable economic and commercial development in the Indian sub-continent.

I felt that I was witnessing, in a completely different environment, the emerging capitalism of my constituency 150 years ago. We talk a lot about the development of democratic political institutions. There is another reason why it is extremely important that political and economic democratic institutions should take root in many of the emerging Commonwealth countries. Democratic political representation has been the means by which capitalism has been civilised. The past 150 years in my constituency have seen the process by which electorates grow in franchise, grow in political pressure, as expressed through political representation, and have progressively tried to civilise capitalism.

If there is to be, as everyone now preaches, a free market, and a capitalistic view of the development of Africa and Asia—I support entirely the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which plays an important role—there will also be huge inequalities. The lack of development in so many parts of Africa and Asia at the moment could be transformed into considerable economic and commercial growth, but with huge divisions in their societies as a result of the inequalities that go with such a system. The countervailing force to check that unbridled capitalism will be the development of political and democratic institutions. That is the function that political representation has played in the development of the full-blooded democratic system in this country in the past 150 years. It will have to play that role in the emerging countries of the Commonwealth if the economic growth that is promoted by free-market ideas and private investment occurs. Political institutional development will be an important factor alongside any economic development that might be created by know-how funds and the valuable role that the CDC and others will play in growing economies within the Commonwealth.

I now come to the chapter in our report that deals with the cultural diplomacy of the Commonwealth. We forget—perhaps because we have taken it for granted for far too long—the fantastic appetite of the young generation in the third world, but particularly the Commonwealth, for education. Anyone who spends just half an hour in the British Council library will see queues of young people—and not so young people—waiting to use the facilities, the telephone calls that pour in for language lessons, and the demand to take exams. I was told by my parents, in Treorchy, in the Rhondda—I could not have been long out of the womb—to do my homework, because that was the way to get out of the pile and to progress. We can find that fantastic instinct everywhere, but particularly in the Indian sub-continent. It is through the English language and British institutions that new generations of young people seek their salvation and their emancipation.

Education is an act of emancipation. It strikes me as appalling that we are, in 1996, a rich and powerful country, yet we are cheese paring on such things as Commonwealth scholarships, the British Council's budget and the BBC World Service. Perhaps in the usual convoluted discussions of the Public Expenditure Survey Committee those cuts can be justified, but I ask the Minister to take the message to Ministers, particularly his Treasury colleagues, that the cumulative effect of those cuts is that people feel that we do not care. I understand that Ministers care—Baroness Chalker has a tremendous track record on this, so it would be wrong to make such an allegation—but the cumulative effect of individual decisions made in a PESC round, perhaps to give a tax cut here or offer some alternative there, impact on emerging countries, whose younger generation look to Britain to provide and service their educational emancipation.

The hon. Member for Somerset and Frome (Mr. Robinson) spoke about the political chemistry that occurs as a result of educational contact, because of a common language and shared values. That was certainly true in the years that I spent in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, when I dealt mainly with Commonwealth countries.

There is much cross-party support on this issue. I make a plea to the Government to think again about the cumulative impact that the various cuts and changes have on our relationships with people as well as Governments. The cuts are damaging the whole concept. I hope that, if nothing else, our report has shown us all that the Commonwealth is not some nice, sentimental, ancient concept, but that it has a future and that it can go into the 21st century, as long as the British Government, British people and British Members of Parliament support it in the practical and sensible ways that we suggest in our report.