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Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:36 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 4:36 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, I will concentrate on two points. There has been a lot of talk about what was missing from the Queen’s Speech, mostly focusing on aspects of the European debate. However, my concern is with another word that was missing: it is “Commonwealth”. It was mentioned briefly by the Minister when she spoke but it did not appear in the Queen’s Speech, which is a great pity. Last year, we managed to get it in, but I notice that it is not there this year. The Queen is a worldwide figure, respected, with vast influence across the whole planet. She makes a speech before all the high commissioners, covering a vast area of 53 nations and encompassing a third of the human race.

This is not just sentiment. The Commonwealth network is growing rapidly, at 3.7%. It is the gateway to all the new markets, all the areas in which this country must succeed to survive. I am not saying that it is an alternative to the European Union, but the fact is that the EU is flat-lining and struggling with its unending problems over the euro, which will go on for many years; we need that to be repaired, of course. However, the truth is that all our success, all the statistics and a growing volume of evidence show that all the growth in the next 17 to 20 years will be in Asia, Latin America and, particularly, in Africa. These are the areas that the Commonwealth spreads across and to which it gives us access, along with gateways to the great markets of China, Brazil and so on.

It is a great pity that the word “Commonwealth” did not occur in Her Majesty’s Speech. It should have been there. I know that there are problems over the heads of Government meeting at Colombo, and I am very glad that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary are going, and also that His Royal Highness Prince Charles is going. They will no doubt all speak out very clearly on the causes of human rights and liberty, as they should in Colombo because there are clearly matters to be dealt with there.

However, the links between Commonwealth Governments do not matter so much. It is the vast range of links beneath, the latticework of networks between every profession—education, science, schools at every level, universities, professions, the accountancies, the legal professions—which spread out through the Commonwealth and give this country a legacy which we have so far neglected and yet which provides us with just the access we need precisely to the markets where we have to succeed.

I mentioned that the Commonwealth is growing at 3.7%, which is good by European standards. The Commonwealth countries are not just the old countries in difficulties. It is a vast range of the fastest-growing high-tech economies; the obvious ones are of course India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Canada and so on. These are leading nations with, in many cases, a higher income per head than us. On top of those is the new range of Commonwealth countries coming into the prosperity league either side of Africa, as they find through the shale gas revolution that they have fantastic raw energy resources and prospects. They are increasingly setting up their own sovereign wealth funds, from which we in this country will be borrowing. Rather than helping them, we will be borrowing from the sovereign wealth funds of the Commonwealth in order to finance our dilapidated infrastructure. Therefore, to leave the Commonwealth out of the story is a big mistake, and the word should have been there in Her Majesty’s speech. That is all I want to say about that.

I turn to the European Union issue. It makes one gasp to think of the naivety of some of my colleagues—some quite senior people—and the oversimplifications they make when they speak about the European Union as though it were a sort of canoe you could pop in and out of. My noble and good friend Lord Heseltine tells us that we will be irrelevant and marginalised if we get out, while my noble and very good friend Lord Lawson, sitting here, says the opposite—that we will be irrelevant and marginalised if we stay in. In fact, of course, both of them are gloriously wrong, and I am afraid that they are looking at a world that no longer exists.

The concern of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, about outside isolation is quite wrong. In fact, if we were out of the European Union, we would still not be in an independent state, but in an interdependent state. We are totally interdependent and bound up closely with the concerns of almost every other country in the globe, because this is a network world with super, instant, continuous connectivity. That is what changes the whole nature of international relations. There is no question of being independent. Even the rogue states find that they have to bow to international pressures. We would be bound by a thousand treaties; we would not be independent at all, but interdependent —so we would not be isolated.

Pro contra, if we stay in—and that that is the route I prefer, contrary to my noble friend—it is not true that we would be irrelevant and powerless, because the European Union is itself in total flux. It is undergoing a complete re-examination of its philosophy of integration, and the eurozone is the place where the divisions lie. People talk about Europe divided as though it were divided between the eurozone core and the countries that are somehow left out, including Britain. That is not where the division lies. The division goes straight through the middle of the eurozone. That is the slice through the middle of the apple. Half of the eurozone is made up of countries with one kind of approach, and half of countries with another, and they will continue to be in trouble and to have difficulties for years to come. They have not even succeeded in getting as far as a bankers’ union. Italy has one idea on that, and Spain, Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and the other small countries all have other views. There is no combined view, whatever Mr Schäuble says in Berlin, on what a banking union should actually do, let alone a fiscal or a political union. None of these things is going to happen.

Europe needs a vast range of reforms; that will happen, and that, of course, is precisely what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister sought to set in motion with his superb speech back in January at Bloomberg, when he said that we are trying to reform, we need to reform, and that Britain must take an intellectual lead in reforming the whole European structure. That is what he said in the first line of his speech. I know that a lot of the media has said, “No, this is all about party politics; it’s all about grabbing things back for Britain. It is all very narrow”. That is not true. The whole speech was couched in terms of how Europe can be, in a sense, reunited, despite the divisions within the eurozone. That is what he was trying to do.

That is the right course. Frankly, it requires more than speeches. It requires enormous work in gaining allies all over Europe for European reform, because the present chaos throughout the Union has so many unsatisfactory features, and those allies must be worked for. It requires huge intellectual efforts to redesign the kind of united Europe we want to meet the conditions of hyperconnectivity and the cyberworld we now live in, which are quite different to those of the 20th century. That is what we have to get on with.

The other day, the IMF said that by 2017 the European Union will have shrunk to about 17% of the world’s GNP, and the eurozone will have shrunk to about 11% of the world’s GNP, compared with the Commonwealth, which will be more like 20% to 25%. Of course it is important; it is our neighbourhood and we must be good Europeans. However, we have to settle that matter and move beyond it to where our real interests lie, which is in the Commonwealth network, in the neighbourhood next door to the Commonwealth, and in the developing countries, many of which have huge new resources. That is where our real interests lie. It is a shame that the Commonwealth was not mentioned in Her Majesty’s Speech. The policy machine that puts out these speeches and creates their text needs to wake up and realise where our future and our destiny lie.