Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Gadhia Lord Gadhia Non-affiliated 2:44 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, as a British citizen of Indian origin born in Uganda, I enjoy a triple connection with the Commonwealth. I was therefore drawn—almost like a magnetic field—towards speaking in today’s debate.

I would like to focus on two themes. The first is the relative roles of Britain and India as two linchpins among the Commonwealth’s 52 members. In doing so, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the various roles that I play in this bilateral relationship, including as a member of the UK-India CEO Forum. Secondly, I would like to suggest some bold steps which the Commonwealth should consider to secure its relevance well into the 21st century.

Britain’s interest in rejuvenating the Commonwealth is self-evident. It suits our post-Brexit narrative and objectives, particularly on trade. However, multilateral organisations are not fashionable at the moment, given the rise of nationalistic and protectionist tendencies, so we should legitimately ask: why would 51 countries want to play ball with us? Before turning to this fundamental question, I should like to address India’s role.

The modern Commonwealth effectively started in 1949 with the London Declaration, which allowed India to remain a member even though it was no longer a dominion, and thereby it became the first republic to do so. As part of this settlement, India agreed to accept the British sovereign as a symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and, as such, as Head of the Commonwealth.

This pragmatic solution secured the participation of India, which could easily have taken a more anti-imperialist stand. To its credit, India’s leadership was more far-sighted and adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of “forget and forgive”. Speaking on 17 May 1949 to the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Nehru—previously an arch opponent of continued Commonwealth membership—said that,

“I had a feeling when I was considering this matter in London … in a small measure perhaps, I had done something that would have met with the approval of Gandhiji”.

Today, India represents more than half the Commonwealth population of 2.4 billion and is the joint largest economy alongside the UK. For obvious reasons, Britain has historically been seen as primus inter pares among Commonwealth members but I believe it is a mantle that should now be shared with India. This might be seen as a sensitive subject but we should not be afraid to address it directly. This is not to dilute the equal value and status of every member but it recognises the geopolitical realities and choices open to an emerging superpower such as India, for which a seat on the UN Security Council is long overdue and only a matter of time.

The second area which we should assess candidly is the future ingredients of success. Yes, the Commonwealth enjoys some alluring features: scale, growth, youth and diversity. All these are certainly necessary but in my view not sufficient to take the organisation to the next level. I would like to offer three specific suggestions.

The first is to aggressively add new members. As statisticians will confirm, the power of any network is proportionate to the square of the number of nodes, so that each new member is of increasing value to the others. It is hugely positive that Mozambique and Rwanda have joined in recent years and that South Sudan and Gambia are in the queue. However, the Commonwealth needs to be much more ambitious. Why not attract Japan or the Gulf states, or even some European countries—perhaps those sitting outside the eurozone? Given the shifting plates of the world geopolitical order, this is an opportune moment to be brave and think big.

The second proposal is to create a sharper financial focus that provides some glue to bind us together. I mentioned the relative unpopularity of multilateral organisations but it is interesting to note that two new bodies have been created in recent years, both of them banks: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICSNew Development Bank. The idea of a Commonwealth bank has been doing the rounds for some time but there is little point in creating a copycat entity. However, the other two are focused on infrastructure and development respectively, so there does appear to be a gap in the market for an institution focused on global trade finance. This would provide a sharper and more practical focus for the Commonwealth and should be considered very carefully.

Thirdly, I believe that it is appropriate to review the leadership profile of the organisation. In doing so, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way criticising the current or previous secretariat of the Commonwealth and I fully echo the comments of my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Goodlad, in support of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. However, I feel strongly that the role of Secretary-General should be seen as one of the top global roles that public servants covet in the same way that there is fierce jockeying for position to become the UN Secretary-General, the head of the IMF or president of the European Council. We should absolutely aspire to entice a David Cameron or a Stephen Harper; a Kevin Rudd or a Manmohan Singh to become Secretary-General. This would be a worthy ambition and help to take the organisation to the next level.

We might apply the “visitor from Mars” test to the Commonwealth and ask whether we would create the organisation if it did not exist today. My heart, influenced by my triple Commonwealth identity, would, of course, say yes, but my head would hesitate a little more. However, given that the Commonwealth does exist, we should unequivocally build and strengthen it further so that it achieves its full potential.