The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 6:45 pm, 27th June 1996

I am sorry that I do not have long to comment on this important, well-informed and often passionate debate. The Government warmly welcome the report and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in his observations, we share its central conclusion—that in an increasingly global political system, the Commonwealth has great present and potential value for all its members. I pay tribute to the members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir D. Howell)—the Chairman of the Committee—and to the officers and officials of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the United Kingdom and abroad.

I wish to emphasise two points early in my speech. In terms of the history and the size of our contribution and the importance of the Commonwealth links to the UK, it is perhaps understandable that there are those who think that Britain is in charge of the Commonwealth. That is simply not so. It is no longer the British Commonwealth, and we cannot and should not allow it to serve an exclusive British interest. There is no senior member, and we all have an equal place around the table.

As the Commonwealth covers 53 countries and more than a quarter of the world's population, and because at its Heads of Government conference every two years it pronounces on all international issues, it is a uniquely important body. There is, therefore, the danger of overestimating what it can do. But the Commonwealth is not a treaty. It is a voluntary organisation from which some members have chosen to leave and which some countries who are eligible have chosen not to join. It has no military or defence personality, nor does it now have any supranational economic authority.

We must look at the Commonwealth with a sense of realism and proportion, as that is vital. Far from leading us to a conclusion that the Commonwealth does not have a distinctive role, it should help us to identify precisely what the role is. I would like to say a word first for Britain and then for the other Commonwealth members. For Britain, there is great value in being a member of the Commonwealth. It provides a special nature in our bilateral relations with 52 other countries, and this asset is worth preserving and working hard at. Secondly, Commonwealth links in education, law and economic policy all contribute to making the global international state system more stable and, through that stability, more prosperous.

We should not ignore the argument—as some may choose to do—that as more Commonwealth countries become more prosperous, the common language and a host of other affinities that have grown over hundreds of years can be translated into valuable investment and trade opportunities. Those trade opportunities are not just of benefit to us, but to the reciprocal countries. We must help them—as we do, for instance, through the Commonwealth Development Corporation—to increase their prosperity. To ignore our prosperity ignores prosperity and progress for them.

Britain's central and pivotal role in the Commonwealth gives us a special influence for reform through discussion with 52 other countries and, indeed, they have a special influence over us. As I said earlier, no country has to belong to the Commonwealth. No President or Prime Minister is obliged to attend the two-yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in person. If the Commonwealth is to remain an asset, it must be seen to be valuable by all its members. I believe that by the vast majority it is. In practice, this means that Britain cannot expect to table proposals that accord with British interest and simply see them adopted ipso facto as Commonwealth views. That was clear from the discussions on nuclear testing in the Pacific at the last CHOGM in New Zealand and no doubt it will be the case again, but at the same time, as we have done on global trade issues in the past 10 years and ways of tackling the heavy debt burden of several Commonwealth countries, we can get our point across and have it endorsed. We can use that to advance international negotiations in a way that we favour, but only provided that we show a sensitive concern for the priorities and anxieties of fellow Commonwealth members.

As we have set out in the Government's reply to the Select Committee's report, our record since the new Commonwealth context emerged in 1990 is a creditable one. The Harare declaration, the encouragement of multi-party elections, the promotion of high human rights standards by Governments, a strong stance against military government, and an imaginative programme of Commonwealth help to countries trying to re-establish democratic accountable civilian government are all laudable. The establishment in Auckland last November of the Commonwealth ministerial action group to monitor Commonwealth member Governments' consistency and compliance with the Harare declaration has been a success, although the greater successes are yet to be seen. Britain has been at the forefront, if not the instigator, in most of those developments.

We have also used our bilateral relationships with Commonwealth countries to good effect by keeping in close touch with other countries. That is important to us when problems arise, as they must from time to time. We have improved relationships with all our peoples. We have put a huge effort in the past five years or more into our relations with India. They are now closer and more useful on virtually every front. As the Government's reply to the report describes, we are putting a major effort into revamping our links with Australia and New Zealand. The value and depth of our relations and the deep contribution that we make to each other are not always recognised today. I believe that through these programmes we will make progress and renew our links.

The Commonwealth multilateral link provides a canopy for our relations, but it is not a substitute for the hard and imaginative work required to translate those links into closer and more beneficial relations.