The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges

Part of International Women’S Day – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 4:11 pm, 7th March 2019

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend James Duddridge, and to all the Members who have spoken so far. The debate has featured a common theme, namely the values that all Commonwealth countries share. That is reflected in the tremendous work that the CPA does in promoting the Commonwealth, which itself promotes friendship and co-operation between 2.4 billion people in 53 countries across the globe. That is built on our people, our shared values and our shared history. Millions of people who live in our country have strong connections with one or more Commonwealth countries. We have shared identities through our families, our diasporas and our ancestors.

I think that there can be no greater example of global Britain than the work that we undertake through the Commonwealth. That brings me to a number of themes. One, about which we have already heard, is trade, along with investment and markets. There is no doubt that the current perception of intra-Commonwealth trade activity, and of our own country’s trade links with the rest of the Commonwealth, needs to move on. We should recognise that it is no longer about the past; we need look at the future and tomorrow’s trends. We must revitalise our understanding, and acknowledge that the modern Commonwealth is no longer about a uniform group of “developing countries”—a phrase which, in my view, is becoming increasingly outdated.

We should embrace what are now some of the fastest-growing and most high-technology economies on the planet, alongside—as we have already heard—some of the smallest and most vulnerable. We must cover a range of issues including skills, technology, innovation and education, but also, at the other end of the spectrum, some of the challenges that small and vulnerable states face from climate change. That means that we must change some of our assumptions. It is not always a case of the UK providing support in some of the more conventional ways. We should recognise that some of the largest economies are becoming prime sources of capital and market growth, and we are now relying on them for investment, trade and growth opportunities. Digital, knowledge-based and service-based patterns are now generating more than half the total wealth of international commerce, and the Commonwealth has a role in that.

I want to touch on one Commonwealth country with which we have very strong links, although they could be even stronger. I can speak of that country with some personal knowledge. It is, of course, India, which, although it is the cradle of civilisation, is also a young country: half its population are under 25. More than 1 million people enter the job market every month. It is, of course, the youngest workforce the world has ever seen, and, building on our shared values, our shared heritage and some of our personal links with the diaspora community, there is much more we can do together to recognise the role of one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world. It also brings a new perspective to a modern and developing Commonwealth. After all, half the population of the Commonwealth is Indian, so we must broaden some of the ways in which we work together.

People everywhere in the world are on the move as never before and the Commonwealth can collectively provide some new answers and solutions to issues such as how we can provide and accommodate better educational transfer between our countries, how we can support new business regimes and visas across Commonwealth countries, and how we can ease some of the current restrictions on our people-to-people movements. At the same time, there are enormous opportunities, which colleagues have already touched on. They range from disease eradication to some of the climate change issues we face as well as fighting for women and girls and standing up for all the issues in the rights agenda and the equality agenda. We must not just focus on securing trade and security prospects and on wider global patterns of influence. We must recognise also that there are some key characteristics we can all bring together that demonstrate where we can build on the right shared values as we enter a new chapter, not just in our nation’s history, but also in terms of foreign and economic policy priorities.

My message to the Government is this: let us make sure that we put our friendships and partnerships within the Commonwealth at the forefront of what we do, while at the same time ensuring that we support Commonwealth nations as they seek to build their own growth, prosperity and success in the future.