The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:30 pm, 27th June 1996

My congratulations go to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), as they do to other members of the Committee. All reports that are debated in Parliament receive the usual platitudes, but this report is important and of very high quality.

In recent years, the Government have undervalued the role and importance of the Commonwealth. My party has a long association with the Commonwealth. At the end of the war, a Labour Government brought the Commonwealth into being, and under Harold Wilson's Government, the Commonwealth secretariat was established. It is true, however, that, even in the Labour party, such ties have faded over recent years.

There is a profound case to be made about self-interest and a genuine enlightened view of the world—as well as, perhaps, about the interface between the two and Britain's global role. Even if the Commonwealth did not exist, we could not invent it. Since it does exist and we do not need to invent it, we should take maximum opportunity of the benefits and advantages that it presents. The right hon. Member for Guildford certainly made some very significant points about the economic advantages of Commonwealth membership, which, as a nation, we must examine in depth.

The Commonwealth offers a common language, which is of great significance. There is a little debate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred, on how far we should expand the Commonwealth if it breaches the principle of linguistic unity. Such a breach, of course, has already happened to a degree with the addition of Cameroon and Mozambique, but, in both those countries, massive efforts are being made to ensure that English is in common use.

The Commonwealth is not just about language but common attitude and common institutions that allow access to different Commonwealth markets—not just to others for Britain but, increasingly, to other Commonwealth nations for Commonwealth nations. Britain was once at the centre of the wheel, but now, because of the world internet that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) described, it is no longer. It is simply one part of the very complicated chain of communication. We should value that, and accept that a quarter of the world's population live in Commonwealth countries. Indeed, the rapid population growth in the Indian subcontinent means that that relative proportion is likely to increase. That presents a massive economic zone and means that those who are prepared to use that economic coming together for common purpose and common wealth can do so to collective advantage and not only for narrow self-interest.

There are reasons for membership above and beyond those of narrow self-interest which, from a British perspective, we must pursue. Labour in Government will ensure, for example, that we begin to establish a role for the Commonwealth section in the Foreign Office in informing attitude and policy across the range of policy formation. We must ensure that we do not ignore the importance of the connection.

Rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East I think that it is important to establish that the choice for Britain is not an artificial one of either Europe or the Commonwealth. That is unreal—it always was. With more complicated trade and patterns of exchange, it will become increasingly necessary for us to maximise advantages for ourselves and the world by operating across a range of different economic areas. The advantage of the Commonwealth connection is that it links us to almost every major economic bloc on the planet. It is of clear and direct interest to Britain to do relatively well in accessing the markets provided by the Commonwealth.

Labour in government would certainly want to pick up on the point that the Select Committee made about the need for greater concentration on how the Commonwealth comes together economically. We would use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in 1997 to establish a Commonwealth economic development plan. We ought to begin to consider fair but free trade in the Commonwealth. We also ought to consider sustainable development and investment in the Commonwealth. We need to recognise, however, that Britain has a responsibility to our Commonwealth partners. Quite soon, the question will loom large about the succession to the Lomé 4 procedures. It is not simply in Britain's direct interest but an obligation to our Commonwealth partners to ensure that they have acceptable and fair access to the important European market, especially those in the Caribbean.

One of the Select Committee report's suggestions concerns the role of meetings between trade ministers. Certainly, Labour in Government would want to ensure annual meetings of Commonwealth trade Ministers. It is important to begin to establish such connections. The Select Committee's recommendation is therefore very important.

It is also worth picking up the Select Committee's comments on aid. I hope that the Minister will take them on board. There is increasing concern that the way in which the fundamental expenditure review seems to be easing the Caribbean out of the aid equation and the Commonwealth into a lesser role in that equation will do no good, not only to Britain but to others in the Commonwealth who still depend on some kind of support.

That point was made to me yesterday by the Prime Minister of one of the Caribbean islands when we were discussing access to European markets and the possibility that Caribbean bananas could be excluded from such markets. He made the simple point that where one can no longer grow bananas, one can grow marijuana. If we offer that choice to our Commonwealth partners, the decision will be taken not at governmental level but by those who are driven by poverty and economic opportunity. If we want to avoid that we must offer some practical and sensible assistance, whereby economic development and investment allows development in those economies so that they can continue to trade in the Commonwealth and gain access to European markets.

I want to devote the rest of my remarks to the unique role that the Commonwealth performs in human rights and what, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, we would regard as what Britain has given to the world. Our pride in the British democratic tradition makes sense only if we can say that we are putting it into practice.

The Commonwealth has made great steps. Indeed, it is one of only two global institutions—the other one, of course, being the United Nations. By definition, the United Nations must take on board all-comers. It is important that membership is not restricted. But the Commonwealth operates with a different set of principles that allow us to state that common values and attitudes must be brought to bear.

The steady development from Singapore in 1971 to Harare in 1991 of a Commonwealth perspective on what is acceptable for members has been very important. Even more important was putting some practical bones into the body, which took place at Auckland last year. At that meeting, the Commonwealth ministerial action group was set up to act in a practical way to see to what extent human rights and democracy were being put into practice within the Commonwealth.