Hugo Swire is a Foreign Office Minister and MP for East Devon.
With a hundred days to go until this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, it is a good time to reflect on the great network that these Games celebrate – a network whose membership now stands at 53 countries, representing a third of the world’s population.
First of all, the challenge. The Commonwealth is rightly held in great affection by the British people. We see many of its members as close natural friends of the UK, with a common language, similar institutions, and a shared history. But we are less clear about what it should mean in practice, about what role it should play in a globalised world of competing international bodies and organisations. Its wonderful diversity – from the islands of the Pacific to the rugged mountains of Canada – can bring its own limitations. And the geography can hinder, as much as the history helps: we currently export around five times more to the Netherlands than we do to India.
So the Commonwealth must adapt to remain relevant. The challenge is to become bolder, and better tailored to the 21st century. I am very ambitious for this – as is the Foreign Secretary, as he puts the “C” back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
What is our starting point? Every organisation is born out of a particular era, and reflects where it came from. The Commonwealth does that more than most. This year is the centenary of World War I. Here in the UK, we will remember the extraordinary Commonwealth contribution at Glasgow Cathedral in August, following the closing ceremony of the Games the previous evening. I have been deeply moved by the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorials I have visited on my travels, commemorating the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two World Wars. Our shared sacrifices remain hugely significant today. The Commonwealth should be proud of its role in shaping and protecting the principles of the free world.
But it should not be constrained by its history. For us in the UK, that means making very clear that we see ourselves as an equal member – and that while we want to show leadership in encouraging reform, we do not claim any hint of entitlement. And for us all, collectively, we need to make sure the organisation shows as much activism looking forward as it does nostalgia looking back.
How? Some have written of a false and very unhelpful distinction between “old” Commonwealth countries, who supposedly think it is all about shared values, and “new” ones, who supposedly want it to be about economics. This does not stand up to scrutiny. Development and values are interlinked. The countries with the strongest institutions, the greatest accountability, the least corruption – these are ones which then have the greatest chance of growing in a sustainable way. This is what the Prime Minister has called the “golden thread” of development. The Commonwealth can in fact be a springboard for this idea – but, clearly, it needs to lead by example.
Let us take values first. The Commonwealth Charter, agreed in 2012, is historic: the first ever declaration of our common values in a single document. But, frankly, implementation is patchy. We have real concerns in Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth’s Chair in Office, where there has been very little progress in investigating the terrible atrocities in the civil war that ended five years ago. The Prime Minister has shown great leadership in securing an international inquiry into this through the UN Human Rights Council. To take another example, the Commonwealth has a shocking collective record on LGBT rights, with over 40 out of 53 members having discriminatory legislation in place. The Commonwealth cannot pick and choose the values that it upholds. We in the UK will continue to advocate unapologetically for this.
And this ties in to trade. The more we can do to make our institutions and rules familiar to one another – by working together to tackle issues like corruption, for example – the easier it will become for our companies to operate in each others’ markets. Studies have already shown a 20 percent reduction in the costs of doing business between Commonwealth members, thanks to similarities in our legal systems and the common use of the English language. There is also more we can do to help businesses to develop networks, whether through links between Chambers of Commerce or stand-alone events like the major Commonwealth Games Business Conference we are hosting this summer. I hope that a newly reinvigorated Commonwealth Business Council, under Lord Marland, can play a key role in this.
Trade can in turn help to spur the development that many Commonwealth members are looking for. We are already doing our bit to catalyse this. Last year, close to 40 percent of the UK’s development spending went to our old friends in the Commonwealth, helping them to meet crucial needs in areas such as health and education, and to address humanitarian crises. It is right that we prioritise support for our traditional partners, where there is a genuine need.
Above all, though, the Commonwealth must reach out and speak to its young people. There are an extraordinary one billion people under the age of 25 living across its 53 countries. They may be the organisation’s greatest asset – but they are also of course the people on whom its future depends. This brings me back to the Commonwealth Games this summer. It will draw in over 4,000 athletes, with a global audience of near 1.5 billion. We are working hard together with the Scottish Government to deliver a Games that inspires the new generation with the spirit that the Commonwealth represents.
The Commonwealth remains an extraordinary organisation. It creates friendships and partnerships in places that would otherwise not exist. I have learned from direct experience – in diplomatic negotiations, as well as in trade – that this can be a huge advantage to the UK, as it can to all other members. But the Commonwealth cannot be complacent, which is why we will continue to encourage reform. And we want to hear from others as we do this. As always, government does not have all the answers.