Future of the Commonwealth — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 21st March 2018.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 2:56 pm, 21st March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will do the best I can in the four minutes available.

I congratulate Richard Graham on securing the debate. In the last Parliament, I was a vice-chair of the all-party group on the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, I missed its annual general meeting this year, but it does good work, and he can be assured of my support for it. I also served on the executive of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is one example of the many organisations he spoke about that are brought together by the Commonwealth and help to facilitate its various aims.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the Commonwealth’s good work on tackling malaria and about sight and vision. We had the Commonwealth Development Corporation at the all-party group on Malawi not that long ago. The opportunity for co-operation there is very important.

At the same time, it is important not to get misty-eyed. CHOGM gives us the opportunity to look at whether the Commonwealth’s options for the future are challenges, opportunities or both. The concept of the Commonwealth is not unrelated to the old Scots concept of the common weal. Of course, it is the Scottish National party’s ambition for Scotland one day to become an independent member of the Commonwealth in its own right. The very definition of an independent country is how it relates to and co-operates with other independent states. I note that 31 members of the Commonwealth have a population of 1.5 million or less, and no one seems to argue that they are too small or poor to be independent, or that they need to come back to the bosom of mother Britannia.

Scotland already enjoys special status in the Commonwealth. We participate in the Commonwealth games, and we have hosted them—in Edinburgh in 1970 and 1986, and in Glasgow in 2014—and I am proudly wearing the demure and sober 2014 Commonwealth games tartan. The legacy of the Commonwealth games in host cities is another advantage of the organisation. It is notable that venues are refurbished and brought back to life, which contrasts with the grandiose venues that are sometimes constructed for Olympic games.

Scotland also has a relationship with Malawi, and today I welcomed the honourable Juliana Lunguzi, MP for Dedza East, to the House. I thoroughly agree with the idea of improved visas for India, but that should be extended across the Commonwealth. Far too often, people from Commonwealth countries, including politicians, do not have their visas granted in time. That happens time and again with Malawi.

CHOGM presents a number of questions and opportunities. If the Commonwealth is to continue to be a force for good, members must be willing to be frank with one another. That means there are opportunities to press for action on human rights—particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights—remembering that some of the oppressive laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of empire.

The question of the head of the Commonwealth is clearly under discussion, too. Even if the ceremonial head remains the monarch, perhaps there is a way of democratising the choice of the secretary-general and involving the Parliaments of member countries in that decision. On future membership—I was going to say that I joked about Scotland, but I did not; I am very serious about Scotland—there is a question about whether Ireland might come back in. We have welcomed Irish observers at recent CPA events—although, given Ireland’s record in the rugby, I am not sure whether we want its participation in the Commonwealth games.

Trade is vital. We must remember that 52 of 54 Commonwealth countries make up only 9% of our exports. As the hon. Member for Gloucester said, the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc per se, and Canada already has a deal with the EU, so we must be careful about how that is taken forward.

There is an opportunity not for misty-eyed, rose-tinted harking back to the past but for building a 21st-century organisation looking at human rights and democracy.