The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 6:17 pm, 27th June 1996

I admit to a sense almost of despair about some aspects of the debate. Some hon. Members seemed to argue that the reason for supporting the Commonwealth and for ending the cheese-paring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) called it, in the organs that are so necessary in strengthening ties and links in the Commonwealth, was exclusively this nation's self-interest. They presented the Commonwealth as possibly yet another major market for this country and as an avenue for greater investment by this country in the other nation states of the Commonwealth.

I am prepared to accept the argument of economic self-interest as long as we realise that, in our concern to retain those strong economic ties, we must not turn a blind eye to the exploitation of child labour or endorse the use in certain African countries of fertilisers and pesticides that are banned here and elsewhere and have the most appalling effects on the workers who spray those substances on their fields. I am prepared to accept the economic argument as long as we do not close our eyes to the total lack of trade union rights in certain parts of the Commonwealth and the murder of trade union activists in other Commonwealth countries.

I was not happy to hear the Commonwealth presented yet again as a club. In my view, the essence of the Commonwealth and the reason why the Government should increase financing to contributing organs based in Britain, which disseminate information throughout the Commonwealth, is that it has the potential to be a perfect model of the future of the world. It can be the means by which independent nation states, regardless of colour, creed, religion and tradition, can acknowledge the simple humanity that all individuals share, through a shared history that has been by no means essentially calm. Some nations have survived terrible tragedies, and they have managed to overcome their difficulties, to forge a concept of a world in which all peoples can live together in harmony and develop their economies—but not at the expense of other nation states. That seems to me the central reason for supporting the Commonwealth and its real value in a world that is continually restructuring itself—not the exclusive one of economic self-interest for Britain, or even for the developing nation states within the Commonwealth.

I also found it interesting, if slightly depressing, to hear criticism of certain countries within the Commonwealth. There was also undoubtedly criticism from hon. Members on both sides of the House of the British Government. On a recent visit to New Zealand. strong criticism was expressed to me of the failure of this Commonwealth country to speak out in support of another Commonwealth country against atomic testing by a nation state that is not part of the Commonwealth.

I support the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) in that we should not presuppose that we are the exclusive arbiters of what constitutes the best form of democratic government. Although we expect all member states of the Commonwealth to be committed to democratic government, how individual member states reach that goal is particularly fascinating. They have to find their own ways to democracy and freedom.

All hon. Members thoroughly support and endorse the essential requirement that all Commonwealth states be committed to human rights. I have had reason to raise in the Chamber the absolutely appalling actions of Nigeria and its abuse of human rights as they impacted quite directly and specifically on one 13-year-old boy who lives in my constituency.

I still find it incomprehensible that the Commonwealth, working in common with the rest of the world, has not found some means to impose sanctions on Nigeria. I take on board the argument that, without unity of purpose and a world agreement to impose sanctions on Nigeria, they would not work. I refer to economic sanctions, but the ability to work with other power blocs and nation states within the United Nations should be an integral part of the Commonwealth. It should be able to bring home to Nigeria the unacceptable nature of its present regime, not only because of the appalling suffering of millions of Nigerians under that illegal, cruel and intemperate regime, but because it will be harder for other Commonwealth countries that are attempting to craft their own way towards democracy to take the necessary—and sometimes risky— steps and leap into the dark if the richest and most populous country in Africa is allowed to get away with such appalling actions. I hope that the Commonwealth will not neglect that issue. It cannot be ignored, as it impacts upon the entire Commonwealth when one state so blatantly ignores calls for the most basic human rights.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed the importance of education and the enormous gift that Britain was able to give in stimulating a desire for education. One such example is a constituent of mine. He is from Kenya, but has dual nationality. He came to Britain having obtained a place at university and was somewhat shocked to discover that he was not expected to pay in-country fees, but was charged tuition fees as if he and his family had no association with Britain and he was a foreigner. As he had considered himself to be a citizen of the Commonwealth, he found that not only shocking, but extremely disappointing.

I hope that the Government will take that on board and accept that, although it is a long time since Commonwealth countries regarded themselves as colonial countries, Britain still treasures education, human rights and a democratic system of government, and is prepared to commit itself to defending those principles and ensuring that all peoples throughout the world should eventually benefit from them. When Commonwealth citizens discover that Britain does not keep true to those ideals, they feel disappointed and almost betrayed.

Mention has been made of the importance of the World Service, and I cannot underline that too strongly. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) gave the House some incredible figures. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world listen to the World Service. It must be the cheapest Internet that the world has ever known.

Individuals in emerging countries do not always have access to electricity, to tap into the vast network that we are told information technology is making available to the whole world. It is not available to all the world, but radio is available to individuals or to a group of people listening to one tiny transistor radio. It would be a disaster if the extraordinary service that the World Service has provided over so many years were subsumed into a rationale or reconsideration of what broadcasting is about, with radio not being as important as television and the Commonwealth not being able to hold a candle to Europe and America. The loss of the World Service would be grievous.

It would be wrong, too, to believe that the British Council is essential only to teach the English language. It has taught for many years, and its teaching is valued in ways that are impossible not only to define but certainly to put a value on. The British Council provides a two-way street. Often, it stimulates in Commonwealth and other countries what is then creatively returned to us.

I am grateful for this opportunity to enter the debate. I value the concept of the Commonwealth. I believe that the majority of hon. Members value the concept too, and anything which we can do and which the Government can be urged to do to underline that value to the people of this country and, indeed, the rest of the world, is to be treasured.