Commonwealth Summit 2018 - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 7:02 pm, 2nd November 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate and introducing it with such charm and erudition. Anything that is done to improve the role and functioning of the Commonwealth is to be greatly welcomed, especially if it brings it closer to the people who live within it. We have learned this lesson particularly painfully in the case of the European Union, which has become increasingly detached from the people and therefore no longer commands—as it should—the loyalties, sentiments and affections of its people. The Commonwealth, however, is increasingly setting up people’s forums and parliamentary forums, which are intended to draw people into its own working and give them a certain stake in and emotional commitment to it. I greatly welcome this and I very much hope—as the Question set out—that the final programme of the summit will include a people’s forum and parliamentary forum.

These forums do two things. First, they provide networks across countries and, therefore, make the Commonwealth a genuine reality. Secondly, they bring people into direct contact with policymakers and the people in power, so that the people in power are able to listen to those who would suffer from the consequences of their actions.

I welcome all this, but I want to say something briefly about why the Commonwealth is so important. It has to be dusted and taken off the shelf where it has been lying ever since we joined the European Union, and I want to say something about the consequences of having neglected it for so long and now having to dust it down. It is a most valuable organisation with 52 members and 2.4 billion people, half of whom are under 25, so the future belongs to them. Rwanda and Mozambique are already members, although they were not part of the British Empire. There will be trade within the Commonwealth worth £1 trillion by 2020. The UK exports £60 billion-worth of goods to various Commonwealth countries and the combined GDP of the Commonwealth is no less than $10 trillion. That is the organisation we are talking about. This organisation somehow fits in with the British character and is naturally close to Britain: first, because it is an association of nation states and has no intention of seeking ever-increasing union; secondly, because it is an association left behind by Britain as part of its legacy, and therefore Britain can take a kind of parental pride in it without hammering that home too often; and, thirdly, because Britain has the largest economy of the Commonwealth and therefore is able not only to command respect but to feel a certain sense of pride and superiority. Therefore, there is no doubt that the Commonwealth remains an organisation close to Britain’s history and traditions.

I want to explore why many of the opportunities that the Commonwealth offers have not been fully tapped and mention three or four in passing. It would be a wonderful idea to have a Commonwealth university. Just as there is in India, for example, Nalanda University, which includes people who were part of the Buddhist empire, a Commonwealth university would include students and faculties drawn from within the Commonwealth. Those students would be able to study together and get to know each other. Likewise, just as the European Union has its own newspaper, I cannot see why there cannot be a Commonwealth newspaper and TV channel, whose job it would be to get each country interested in the affairs of the other.

As Britain is short of doctors, there is no reason why a delegation from here could not go to India, advertise, recruit, say, 100 doctors and bring them here for two years. That would meet Britain’s need and that of the Indian doctors as they would be given two years of training before they have to go back to India. There is no reason why in our times of need we cannot draw upon Commonwealth countries in this way.

Likewise, I think exporting democracy is a silly idea but we could export concepts such as the rule of law or human rights, which can easily be grasped. That kind of concept can easily be cultivated, and Britain has an important role to play in that regard.

While saying all this, I want to alert us to the dangers that we face if we are not careful about how we conduct our relations with the Commonwealth. There is a fear in Commonwealth countries of being used after Brexit. Some of our Ministers have talked about using the Commonwealth for this or that purpose, as if it is an instrument to be used. I do not think that is a particularly good idea or particularly useful rhetoric.

I share a thought that I picked up when I was talking to an Indian diplomat. There is a certain degree of unease at Britain’s claim to be the sole spokesman of the Commonwealth at the European Union or other places, as if Britain is saying, “Look, if you want to know the Commonwealth, we are the conduit through which it speaks”. I do not think that is a good idea, certainly not as regards countries such as India, Canada and Australia, which have their independence and pride.

Likewise, I think that readjusting trade will not be easy because trade, like any kind of business, requires decades to settle in. Therefore, if Britain expects to pick up trade in India or elsewhere, it should not expect that to be easy. Britain’s obsession with reducing immigration at any cost will also stand in the way. It will not be easy to rejuvenate the Commonwealth when people start coming in and we say, “No, there are too many of you. You can’t come in”. So some difficulties arise from Britain’s attitude as well as the context in which we are likely to rejuvenate the Commonwealth. It is dangerous to expect a smooth sailing.