I suspect that the Foreign Secretary William Hague might feel a bit miffed with Lord Howell, his former Ministerial colleague at the Foreign Office. David Howell has new book out, Old Links & New Ties, which suggests that the Government is still neglecting the Commonwealth.

Lord Howell is well informed on the subject – until last year he was Minister of State at the Foreign Office with responsibility for the Commonwealth. Peter Oborne, with a proper journalistic instinct to make mischief in any random direction that presents itself, seized on the damning verdict. Lord Howell feels the Foreign Office “kowtows” to the United States and is “craven” to the European Union, while neglecting our proper allies.

One symbolic criticism concerned the emphasis placed on the Commonwealth in the Foreign Office’s (or rather the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s) annual report. However in this respect Lord Howell irritation appears to have had an impact. The latest one includes in the list of nine priorities for the Department in the current year:

Strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values, human rights, climate resilient development, conflict prevention and trade.

Among the work has been agreement on a single document that all Commonwealth countries sign up to, The Charter of the Commonwealth, which gives explicit undertakings on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Mr Hague feels he has been making quite an effort so far as the Commonwealth is concerned. In his Party Conference speech this year he said:

Remember that in 13 years, no Labour Foreign Secretary made a bilateral visit to our cousin-countries Canada, Australia or New Zealand. I have visited over 70 countries on behalf of Britain, including some where no British Foreign Secretary had set foot for years or at all.

He added:

It is the policy of this government to work with other nations in shaping a more peaceful and prosperous common future, making full use of the ingenuity and inventiveness of the British people and our unique vantage point at the crossroads of Commonwealth, NATO, European alliances and our Special Relationship with the United States.

Lord Howell does not discount such progress. It is that he feels it must go further, that the cultural transformation has yet to be achieved. His criticism is of the Foreign Office as an institution more than a personal one towards Mr Hague. Lord Howell endorses Mr Hague’s comment that the transatlantic relationship should be “solid but not slavish.”

The growing importance of the Commonwealth may become an issue in any referendum on EU membership. If we were outside the EU we would have greater freedom to promote trade with the Commonwealth. However Lord Howell is not an outer. He recalls James Maxton’s comment:

If you can’t ride two horses at once then you have no right to be in the bloody circus.

Even as a Commonwealth enthusiast Lord Howell was surprised, as a Minister, by some of the new members who wished to join. Algeria, for instance, with no particular British association. However Mozambique and Rwanda, to which the same point applied, had already joined:

So had Cameroon, with only a tenuous British link. Then there had been South Sudan – a brand new (and struggling) nation. There had been Suriname, Burundi, Angola – a long list of ambassadors and visiting ministers calling to express interest. There had been the Kuwaitis, repeatedly asking about the Commonwealth. There had been little Somaliland, not even a fully hatched country, and Palestine, the same. A long list trailed from the understandable to the improbable – a word from Dublin about Ireland’s increasing interest…

Lord Howell sees the world increasingly being made up of networks rather than blocs. The Commonwealth is an increasingly important network as its membership grows. It already covers two billion people which is around a third of the human race. Also it is becoming richer, its economic growth rates higher than elsewhere on the planet. Many of its developing member states becoming developed. All Commonwealth members are equal but the United Kingdom has a special role. The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Secretary lives in Marlborough House in The Mall. English is the working language.

What about human rights? Declarations are all very well (there was the Harare Declaration of 1992 for example). But isn’t it just a cruel mockery on those who face oppression – such as the Tamils in Sri Lanka?

Lord Howell says that work “ensuring principles are upheld in member states” is “yielding growing results.” Transparency makes it harder to dictators to get away their brutality.

Cynics may compare the Commonwealth to the United Nations, which also talks about human rights. But the UN is a club that will have any old gangster state. Zimbabwe was kicked out of the Commonwealth – it remains a member of the UN.

Fiji refused to hold elections and was forced out of the Commonwealth. It remains a member of the UN.

National leaders of Commonwealth member states value being part of that club. They like the respectability and the schmoozing. They are pleased to have tea with The Queen. They also appreciate that membership is a sort of kitemark for international investors. It is a measure that country can be trusted to do business with.

Perhaps given the value placed on membership it could set it standards a bit higher. It could be a bit quicker to suspend or expel those who fail to apply the values they sign up for. But it is a force for good in the world and our country is at the heart of it.