The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges

Part of International Women’S Day – in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 4:34 pm, 7th March 2019

I congratulate James Duddridge on securing this debate. I share with him a lot of interest in this issue and in wider issues, on a range of all-party groups. It is very timely to be having this debate before Commonwealth Day on Monday and nearly a year after the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting took place here in London. We are marking the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. As he said at the start, it was constituted by the London declaration in 1949, building on previous constitutions, and reflecting the process of decolonisation and a willingness of the newly independent countries to continue to co-operate and develop a new and more positive relationship with the UK, as the former colonial power.

As the debate has reflected, there is renewed interest in the Commonwealth in many quarters as preparations for some shape or form of Brexit continue. It is therefore right that the Members who applied for the debate wanted to look at both the challenges and the opportunities facing the Commonwealth, which in some respects reflect those facing the wider global community, and the multilateral rules-based order in particular.

In 1949, the world was still very much in flux. Many of the multilateral or supranational organisations we know today were still in their infancy or did not even exist. Today, the marketplace is considerably more crowded, so making sure that the voice of the Commonwealth is heard and that a relevance is maintained is a challenge, both to the institution and to the member states. Another challenge was described well by Lord Anderson of Swansea: distinguishing between the “Commonwealth of declaration” and the “Commonwealth of reality”. Proclaiming support for human rights, transparency, democracy and equality is one thing, but putting them into practice is another. The legacy of ancient colonial laws, not least the criminalisation of the LGBT community in many Commonwealth countries, stands in contrast to many of the proclamations that are made.

As was said by Richard Graham, with whom I serve on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, democracy building is still a challenge in many countries. There are countries that are still, in effect, one-party states or elective dictatorships. Those in the Chamber will be astonished to hear that some Commonwealth countries still include hereditary members of the aristocracy in their legislatures. These countries include Tonga, Lesotho and a small island state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps there will be some progress there in due course. The Commonwealth has also not been without structural and institutional challenges in terms of governance, internal accountability and the role of the secretariat.

However, we should not let striving for perfection be the enemy of the good that is already being done. The Commonwealth provides the hooks on which a range of worthwhile initiatives—I believe the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East said there were more than 80—can be hung. Many Members have shared experiences of our work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I had the privilege of serving on its executive between 2015 and 2017, and have met many delegations here in Westminster. I also had the privilege of travelling to Uganda in 2016 to work with committee chairs and, last year, to Rwanda as part of preliminary outreach with its Parliament as the country prepares to host CHOGM and take on the role of chair-in-office thereafter. As we have heard, Rwanda is a relatively new member of the Commonwealth and it was not historically part of the British empire. Clearly the Commonwealth does offer some advantages through membership, even to new countries.

Monday marks Commonwealth Day, and the theme of a connected Commonwealth will drive activities that day and throughout the year. These events, activities and gatherings can help young people, in particular, to understand their roles as global citizens and promote solidarity around the world. The theme of a connected Commonwealth and protecting the oceans, as we heard about from Kerry McCarthy, is hugely important and very relevant, in looking at our common responsibility to protect and maintain the oceans, whether that is through reducing plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, or by promoting biodiversity and the conservation of sea life.

The UK has a particular role to play, not just for the rest of this year as the chair-in-office, but with the Queen remaining the head of the Commonwealth. It was agreed at CHOGM last year that she would be succeeded by her son, the Duke of Rothesay, as we know him in Scotland, in due course. The UK must recognise its colonial legacy, and ultimately if it seeks to lead, it must lead by example. If it seeks to drive positive social change in Commonwealth member states, it must ensure that people here in the UK are not being left behind, whether as a result of welfare reform or a hostile immigration environment. Platitudes from the new Home Secretary are not enough; action is needed to demonstrate that the UK truly is a welcoming place for our friends from Commonwealth countries, whether they are applying for visas simply to visit friends and family, whether they are newly choosing to make their homes here or whether, like the Windrush generation, they have lived here for decades. Likewise, on climate change and tackling pollution, the UK must always be setting the most ambitious goals that others might follow.

One of the most ambitious and visible aspects of Commonwealth life is the Commonwealth games. It is a source of enduring pride for my city of Glasgow that we hosted the 20th Commonwealth games in 2014. We were blessed with glorious weather for almost the full fortnight and witnessed world-class sportsmanship in an atmosphere of welcome and exuberance, and the legacy in terms of physical infrastructure and the good will that was generated was there to see. I am proud to sport the Commonwealth tartan in my tie today.

Of course, in 2014 we were also debating the opportunity for Scotland to take its place as an independent member of the Commonwealth of nations. That remains the goal of my party and a growing share of Scotland’s population. The “Scotland’s Future” White Paper repeatedly referenced Scotland’s ambition to become a good global citizen and play an active role in the Commonwealth. There is this idea that Scottish independence is somehow about insularity or isolation, but in fact the complete opposite is the case: we want to play our part as part of the global family of nations. As Winnie Ewing once famously said:

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”

There are challenges but also opportunities for the Commonwealth, and I look forward to Scotland’s playing its part in meeting them to the fullest extent possible over the next 70 years.