Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:56 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee, Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee 1:56 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Royal Commonwealth Society and chair of the Council of Commonwealth Societies. I greatly welcome this debate and the heightened interest it reflects in the Commonwealth and its development. Indeed, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Anelay on the personal contribution she has made to this developing interest. It has been enormous and we should recognise that. I greatly welcome all of the excellent speeches that have been made so far this afternoon—and there are many more to come.

Some people have somehow related the Commonwealth’s future to our present dilemmas and debates about how Brexit will work out and about the single market. I have never seen the Commonwealth as in any way a substitute for access to the single market—which, of course, all countries have and we will continue to have, although we hope with some special arrangements now to be negotiated. The two bodies are totally different in character, origin, structure and relevance to the UK economy. While the EU is a political construct, the modern Commonwealth is an organic growth. While the EU is a mixture of supranational tendencies and intergovernmental co-operation developed with great skill over the years, today’s Commonwealth draws its strength from the extraordinary connectivity at countless non-governmental levels that a common working language, common legal procedures, common accounting and commercial practices, cultural links of all sorts, a shared history and perhaps above all shared values allow and reinforce. What has emerged is a grass-roots-driven structure that could prove to be surprisingly more suitable to the expansion of trade and exchange in the digital age than the more dated trade blocs with a heavy top-down bias towards centralisation, scale and integration.

When the Commonwealth Trade Ministers met last week at Lancaster House in London for the first time ever, under the inspiration and leadership of my noble friend Lord Marland and with heavy support from the City of London, I heard some voices questioning whether this was really worthwhile. Some people said that the Commonwealth was not a trade bloc and never would be. That is right—I do not think so, anyway. Some asked what possible common interest there could be between giant nations such as India and the many small island states of the Commonwealth, and what the UK’s economic interest in such a disparate grouping could be.

What those doubters were and are ignoring is that the nature of global trade has changed in the last decade radically, fundamentally and disruptively, and is continuing to do so fast. In effect, in what people call a fourth globalisation, production has become largely internationalised, with separate stages and processes being spread between different countries in a maze of new global value chains. Gone are the simple days when one country made a product and exported it to another, or one country imported raw materials and then churned out finished goods. The bulk of emerging market trade now is between each other—with one another. That is a vast change in the last two decades.

McKinsey has calculated that the soaring trade flows of data and information connecting up this transformed world of fragmented and dispersed production actually generate more economic value than the whole of global goods trade—which is a vital point for us here in Britain, given that we are an 80% of GDP service economy. These are conditions in which like-minded countries, with minimum language and culture barriers and maximum similarities in legal and commercial procedures, are bound to be the winners. This is the serendipity of the scene: by luck as much as by good judgment or planning, the modern Commonwealth network fits like a glove on this new pattern and framework. That is the message that came over so strongly at Lancaster House last week, and it is a message that certainly my noble friend has accepted and that the Government as a whole have now grasped. Even some of the media may have grasped it; even the BBC may have grasped—faintly—what is happening.

I greatly welcome the development of this planned approach and pathway to the Commonwealth summit in the spring of next year, and I greatly welcome the appointment of a powerful Cabinet Office team, led by Tim Hitchens, to oversee—on a government-wide basis, not just on foreign policy, and in association with non-government agencies—a whole range of activities leading up to the occasion. Of course, I also greatly welcome the decision of Her Majesty the Queen to make Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle available for Commonwealth summit events for the first time in history.

One further consideration is that we have now the colossally expanded dominance of China trade in the supply chain nexus, as the one belt, one road programme opens up central Asia. It is the biggest investment in history, labelled now at $3 trillion—but possibly it will go further than that. When you add that to the pattern that I have described of digital trade transformation, it really becomes blindingly obvious just where trade strategies should be taking us—in other words, towards the closest possible ties with our friends old and new, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of course, the Commonwealth network is not that only beneficiary of this new trade landscape, but with English as the working language and with dozens of Commonwealth-wide professional links, with a network of 530 universities operating within a linked Commonwealth system and with a ferment of digital exchange of deals and initiatives expanding daily, it cannot but be the ideal and superbly fertilised seedbed in which both trade and investment of every sort are bound to flourish.

I will make one more point—in fact, more than one point—in the time available. The WTO rules have been downgraded by some people, but in fact they permit and encourage this new kind of trade rather efficiently. I commend for study the WTO trade facilitation agreement, which came into operation only last week and which offers still further encouragement and opportunities for open and free trade for everyone. That is what brought the Commonwealth Ministers together last week—and that answers the question of why they have not come together before. Unsurprisingly, this new momentum is attracting interest in the Commonwealth club from a growing number of other countries that would like to be in some way associated with it—one striking example being the Republic of Ireland. I hope that Ministers in our Government and the secretariat will consider its interest favourably.

There are other surprising interests. From Washington under the new President came word that they would like to know more about the Commonwealth. Indeed, I can report that the Royal Commonwealth Society has been encouraged to set up a branch in New York—and that is steaming ahead. On a lighter note, through the noble Lord, Lord Alton, this morning I had a note from Liechtenstein asking what chance it had of joining the Commonwealth. So the word is around that this is a club worth joining.

Some time ago, the head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen, with more percipience than many of her Ministers, described the modern Commonwealth as,

“in lots of ways, the face of the future”.

The description and prediction are both right and far-sighted. It could be said that, while the recent London assembly of Trade Ministers and the planned Commonwealth summit next year are about the future, the negotiations about to commence in Brussels to reform our relationship with the old EU into a new one are more about reforming the past than building this new future that is emerging.

I have one more comment to make in the minute that is left. Although so much of the Commonwealth is non-governmental, we need a strong and supportive secretariat. There is absolutely no doubt that there has been a campaign of vilification, largely unfair, against the Secretary-General, when she has been trying to do her utmost to reform and streamline the Commonwealth Secretariat organisation. Those who have indulged in this or gone along with it should examine their motives. We want a free press to print facts and opinions, not vicious and distorted rumours and abuse.

We live in a world falling apart yet coming together. The information and communication revolution, as it continues to unfold at breakneck speed, connects people and interests on a scale never before seen in world history. At the same time, it triggers powerful forces of devolution, separatism and rejection of central authority from which no country is immune, including ours and others in Europe. Within this unsettled and dangerous context, the Commonwealth, with its self-binding tendencies and common ties, reinforced by information technology, assumes a more central role not just for the United Kingdom but for the cause of global peace and security generally. For the UK in a post-Brexit world, the case for a decisive strategy of redirection, not only of trade and investment but of linkages of all kinds and both ways, towards the Commonwealth and developing country markets of interests, now assumes the highest priority.