The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:02 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Swansea East 6:02 pm, 27th June 1996

I join the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) in paying tribute to the Chairman and distinguished members of the Select Committee, who have produced an excellent report. I have spoken to a number of old Commonwealth hands, who have been as one in praising it and expressing the hope that it will focus public opinion on the opportunities that exist, challenging people not only in this country but throughout the Commonwealth.

The report is timely. As the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, observed in the most recent issue of The Parliamentarian, the Commonwealth has reached a turning point. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at Auckland in November, key decisions were made on how best to implement the proposals presented to that meeting, and points were made about the criteria for membership. I believe that the ghosts of the Commonwealth past have largely been exorcised. Those of us who began our political careers in the 1950s and 1960s remember debates about decolonisation that tended to cloud our more objective view of the Commonwealth. Some of those debates, such as the one about Rhodesia, continued; then, in the 1960s, the question of European Community entry supervened. During that debate, the Commonwealth was paraded by some as an alternative to what I consider to be our natural trading region. The Select Committee and its Chairman, however, have made good points about the new challenges that are presented in the global trading and communications system, in which the old distances have become less relevant.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, debates on the Commonwealth were soured by the situation in South Africa, making objective discussion in parliamentary and international forums much more difficult. It is instructive to observe how far we have come in terms of attitude to the Commonwealth. Ten years ago, at the beginning of August 1986, a special Commonwealth conference on South Africa was held at Marlborough house. Venomous remarks were made by Members of Parliament, British newspapers and, dare I say, senior sources in the Government. I have looked through the newspapers of the time; one Member of Parliament was quoted as saying: the Commonwealth only costs us money; we give them aid; they kick us in the teeth and send their drop-outs to stay here. One Member, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, called the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, a "ranting hypocrite", and there were some pretty horrendous briefings from Downing street. I was in the corridors of Marlborough house at the time.

There were editorials on the theme, "Do we really want the Commonwealth? Is the old club falling apart?" That was only 10 years ago, but we have travelled a long way since then—largely because South Africa, which constituted the obstacle or blocking mechanism, is no longer a symbol of offence. It has become a symbol of opportunity, providing a model for what the Commonwealth can do, and is doing, for its many members.

Like many hon. Members, I was fortunate enough to be in South Africa in April 1994, at the time of the election. It is, perhaps, the most blissful memory of my political life so far. I saw people queuing to vote, the black servant standing alongside the white employer, and felt joy that the votes of both were of the same value. We now look forward to welcoming President Mandela next month, in Westminster Hall: we are well aware of the significance of that. It could all have been very different had South Africa not had a leader of such towering historical significance and humanity—who was, of course, helped by the Commonwealth network. Sometimes it failed, as was the case with the Eminent Persons Group in 1986, but the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, played a quiet but effective role behind the scenes.

The Government who played such a destructive role in the mid-1980s now act effectively as an advocate for South Africa. In March this year, they pressed our European Union partners to agree to a scheme enabling the Commission to discuss a free trade area with South Africa. The role that we can play in our own regional grouping as advocate for the Commonwealth in respect of South Africa and the West Indian island banana trade can be replicated by other Commonwealth countries in their own regions—for instance, by Canada in the north American arrangement, and by Malaysia and the south-east Asian nations in theirs. Thus our role in respect of South Africa sets a precedent. I hope that Singapore and Malaysia can use their trading clout and commercial expertise across the regions to help a number of African Commonwealth countries.

South Africa is also involved in our United Kingdom aid programme, not only through our contribution to improving the efficiency of the public service and the police, but through our helping to integrate the armed services—the old MK and the old South African Defence Force. South Africa is now normalised and the Commonwealth can go forward without the hang-ups and the souring effect that South Africa caused in the past.

As the Foreign Affairs Committee well shows, the Commonwealth can provide for all its members an important instrument of foreign policy—networking within the family across a range of problems. That raises the question of the qualifications for membership. The issue was addressed at the CHOGM in Auckland, when Cameroon was admitted to the Commonwealth. Cameroon has had a colonial relationship with the United Kingdom, but Mozambique, which has a different language and no colonial relationship with the United Kingdom, was also admitted. Now Rwanda is knocking at the door.

How does one have a creative relationship with countries at the edge, especially when there is a danger of a turf war with the French-speaking countries? One thinks of Angola, Rwanda and, possibly, Burundi in that context. If there is a Commonwealth, there is a non-Commonwealth. What are the links that are sufficient to bring members together? I know that that question is now being looked at in detail as a result of the decisions made in Auckland.

The key point is that the Commonwealth is a dynamic organisation. We find that, rather than the Commonwealth losing members, countries can see the advantage for them in being a member. All the Southern African Development Community countries, with the exception of Angola, are members of the Commonwealth. Mauritius, situated off the coast of Africa, is another Commonwealth member; that very successful country has joined SADC recently.

Co-operation on democracy is vital, as has properly been said. The Auckland conference was a turning point as it showed that there was a determination to build on the Harare declaration on human rights of 1991 and to strengthen the means by which the Commonwealth could signal its disapproval of human rights violations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is a doughty fighter on behalf of Commonwealth interests, made a point about the Commonwealth's monitoring of elections. We must look carefully at the respective roles of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose tie I and the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) proudly wear. There is a danger that the Commonwealth Secretariat, which represents Governments, will be constrained in commenting on whether an election is proper, although it will have a key technical role in providing assistance before elections. I have seen at first hand the way in which it helped to mould and therefore to legitimise the elections held some years ago in Guyana, but there must come a point at which, rather than be part of an election process that is clearly a charade, the Commonwealth must withdraw.

A few years ago, I was about to go, on behalf of the Carter Foundation, to monitor an election in a west African country. The foundation took the key decision that it would devalue its own legitimacy in terms of election monitoring if it participated in that election. I was personally pleased that, at the last minute, the foundation said that it was cancelling the visit. I hope that the Commonwealth will be equally robust in recognising that it must preserve its credibility in such cases and that the secretariat and Governments, when saying, '"Yes, we will provide technical assistance," will realise that pronouncing on elections is best done by parliamentarians. The dividing line between the role of the secretariat and the role of parliamentarians must be clearly defined.

In its bipartisan report, the Committee comments that our Government are not sufficiently committed to the Commonwealth. Examples can be given, such as the rather limp memorandum that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office first delivered to the Committee. Other examples have been given by colleagues, such as the Commonwealth Institute and the World Service. Colleagues have pointed to the fact that the operating budget of the World Service for the years 1997–98 has, in real terms, been cut by £8 million. That is part of the cheese-paring to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) referred.

There are other problems. I personally am irritated by the fact that the Commonwealth has not addressed problems such as the security interests of smaller nations. When the Maldives were attacked in the mid-1980s, for example, books were written and conferences held. Such matters have now fallen entirely outside the frame. We need to look together at the way in which the Commonwealth can co-operate to protect smaller nations.

We have a new Commonwealth from which, as I said, the old ghosts have been exorcised; the old hang-ups have gone. We can now look forward with confidence. I entirely follow what has been said in the report about the importance attached to meetings of Finance Ministers, and I hope that similar meetings of Trade Ministers can be held. I hope that the Government are already preparing for the Edinburgh CHOGM next year.

I believe that we shall have another Government by that time—a Government who not only are more committed to the human rights role of the Commonwealth, but who will look at ways in which trade relationships can be enhanced. We have a new era in the Commonwealth with new possibilities, away from some of the illusions of the past. I believe that although the Government can be criticised for the uncertain signals—indeed, contradictory signals—that they have given in the past, they should prepare for the meeting at Edinburgh next year, to ensure and enhance the potential of the Commonwealth in the new circumstances.