Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Richmond Lord Watson of Richmond Liberal Democrat 3:11 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I declare two interests; first, as the former chairman of the Council of Commonwealth Societies, a post in which I have been so admirably succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. I should also declare an interest as vice-president of the English Speaking Union, the role of the language in the Commonwealth and its future being of seminal importance.

By CHOGM next year, we should know a lot more about the direction and balance of Brexit. Brexit will be a key dimension to CHOGM, because it can reshape in many ways our relationship with the Commonwealth and its relationship with us and the European Union. Let us not forget that 32 countries of the Commonwealth are covered by specific EU agreements and it is calculated that our departure will end up making them pay well over £800 million per annum in additional duties to access the UK market and through the UK as a member of the European single market.

There are significant sums in sterling remitted to Commonwealth countries by individuals from the Commonwealth living here, and thus sterling’s effective devaluation is already having a harsh effect. That was made clear to me at a conference I attended yesterday and the day before, the youth Commonwealth Africa summit. In many ways, it was a most encouraging conference, but strong feelings were expressed on that issue. Brexit cannot be ignored as blandly at CHOGM as it clearly was by the Chancellor in his Budget a week ago.

Many factors will affect our future relationship with the Commonwealth. In assessing them, we must recognise the huge contribution that Her Majesty the Queen has made to the coherence, the cohesion and the recognition of the Commonwealth. Just to share a personal recollection, I was born in South Africa of British parents. My father was in the church and an anti-apartheid activist in early days, close to Father Huddleston. I remember vividly as a boy the visit to South Africa in April 1947 of the then Princess Elizabeth and her broadcast—which incidentally was reprinted and distributed, even in apartheid days when the nationalists had come to power, to schools throughout what was then the Cape Province. I will remind your Lordships of the key words of that statement. She said:

“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”.

I think that we all recognise, and the Commonwealth recognises, the extraordinary extent to which she has fulfilled that declaration. Let me express the view—of course, it is only a personal view—that the Crown’s future relationship with the Commonwealth will matter much, both to the Crown and to the Commonwealth, and I hope that it will continue.

Turning more specifically to the economic landscape before CHOGM, let me warn against a temptation which is becoming evident in London to see our course as “a return to the future”. Rhetoric around what has been dubbed “Empire 2.0” is not only misleading but in the Commonwealth will certainly be resented. There is a danger that we seek to rewrite history in reverse. After all, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the logic of European integration became clearer, British politicians sought to reconstruct Europe in some ways as a copy of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth as a copy of the European Union. For example, Harold Macmillan’s well-remembered note to Anthony Eden in the early 1950s read:

“The answer is not for Britain to join such a Europe but to propose the unification of Europe along Commonwealth lines”.

A few years later, Harold Wilson, as he approached what would be the great Commonwealth Trade Ministers conference, argued in a sense for the potential of the Commonwealth to emulate the European Union as a trading bloc. He was bitterly disappointed.

The truth is that the Commonwealth cannot replace the European Union by seeking to emulate it—I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, had to say around that subject. The Commonwealth Secretariat, wonderful organisation though it is, will never become, nor should it try to become, a kind of emulation of the European Commission: a driving, organising, administrative force for greater integration.

The way forward is to think afresh. I want to put forward five factors which are worth us considering and to seek a government reaction on them. First, what are the real focus points of potential in the Commonwealth for us now? The first, which is quite remarkable, is the growth of intra-Commonwealth trade, of which we are a part. The growth of that trade was largely unremarked on until Brexit and the discussion thereafter, but it is of great importance.

The second is the entrepreneurial opportunity presented by the youth of the Commonwealth—the vigour, the creativity and the entrepreneurial instinct of many young people within the Commonwealth today—and the fact that the great cities of the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa, are becoming markets of great importance to us and to them.

The third—here again I refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howell—is the information technology, the mobile telephony and the new connectivity which characterise a global economy but which are particularly important in the developing countries of the Commonwealth. The impact of mobile telephony, for example, on agriculture in Africa is an extraordinary achievement and we must make the best of that.

Fourthly, there is the shared English language, to which I briefly referred. The important thing here about English, which is not the official language of the Commonwealth but is its working language, is that it is also the working language of globalisation so that the future trade patterns that emerge will be substantially dependent on the English language.

Finally, we hear a great deal about shared values in the Commonwealth and we have also heard during this debate sad examples of where values, particularly on human rights, have not been respected. Again, at this conference yesterday and the day before, where there were many young people, I was very struck by shared aspirations—if not shared values. For example, there were aspirations about the primacy of law and the fight against corruption. I chaired a session in which there were two parliamentary representatives from the Commonwealth. It focused on corruption and how you deal with it. I was astonished by how frank and practical that discussion was. Then of course there is the aspiration about the advance of parliamentary democracy inside the Commonwealth.

On balance, I am very hopeful about the future relationship with the Commonwealth and urge the Government to commit, with vigour, to the furtherance of these five dimensions—of course, there are others—which have such rich potential for the Commonwealth.