Ralph Buckle is Co-founder and Director of Commonwealth Exchange.
Happy Commonwealth Day! Yes, for the 110th time, the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth is celebrating this day (originally as Empire Day) and yet I’m guessing the majority of readers weren’t even aware of it. Even if they happen to have walked past one of the 500+ Commonwealth flags being flown by local authorities and community groups or the flags of each member state currently fluttering in Parliament Square, the average member of the public has limited knowledge of the Commonwealth and this annual celebration of it.
Needless to say, this is a sad state of affairs. As the cloud that hung over last year’s leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka clears, 2014 has the potential to be a hugely important year for the Commonwealth. Most obviously, the 20th Commonwealth Games are taking place in Glasgow in summer and, in July, we will begin the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, in which millions of soldiers from across the Commonwealth made the ultimate sacrifice.
Alongside this, Prince George, who will almost certainly be King of the 16 Commonwealth Realms and the leader of the institution as a whole, will make his first trip abroad in April. Fittingly enough, he will be going with the Duke and Duchess to New Zealand and Australia.
All of this comes with the background of the ongoing debate about Britain’s place in the world. With the situations in Syria and Ukraine intensifying, the possibility of Brexit being discussed, the EU elections in May, and our final withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the year, where and for what Britain stands has not be more scrutinised for at least a decade.
So the intertwined questions of what role Britain and the Commonwealth can play in the 21st Century have never been more relevant. In fact, there is one final milestone this year to be considered: the Commonwealth is turning 65. Arguably there has not been a better time to evaluate the institutions relevance as it prepares to become a pensioner. Is it time to retire?
You will not be surprised to learn that my answer to this question is a resounding “no.” That is not to say that the Commonwealth is a perfect institution. It has many flaws but the answer should be reform not retirement.
The time has come to recognise what the Commonwealth can be most effective in promoting, and to me the obvious answer is trade. There are many competing priorities and options for the Commonwealth to pursue but for none of them does it find itself so uniquely positioned to help.
Consider for a moment the incredible network that we have been so lucky to inherit. What other institution can boast a presence in every inhabited continent and time zone? Which international grouping can also claim to have a link to almost every other? How many other networks can boast 1.75 billion potential customers who all speak the same language and over 2 billion who use a comparable or even identical legal system (two of the biggest barriers to SMEs exporting)? And finally, what other potential market is growing by around seven percent a year?
The government has a target to double exports by 2020 and the Commonwealth is a readymade group of countries to help do this. At Commonwealth Exchange we aim to help with this through practical assistance for SMEs, pushing government to do more to embrace this network par excellence, and finally to raise awareness and positive sentiment for the institution. We need your help, particularly for the last point. So start by joining us and raising a glass of Australian Shiraz, Canadian craft beer or British real ale and help us make the case for a refreshed, renewed and realigned Commonwealth, one that is still many, many years away from retirement.