Sir Peter Marshall was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General 1983-88 and UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 1979-83.
The first Commonwealth Summit to be held in London for 40 years, which opened a week ago today, was marvellously organised, and held in brilliant sunshine. It did a lot of useful things. But in its essential role of seeking to make life better and more fulfilling for ordinary people, especially the young, throughout the Commonwealth, it could not be said to have made a great public hit. Kicks rather than ha’pence has long been the usual portion of the Commonwealth, as far as this country is concerned. And those whose mission it is to rubbish the Commonwealth went about their business on this occasion with particular gusto.
I have been closely involved with the Commonwealth for the past 35 years. During that time I have been witness to its ceaseless denunciation, denigration, disparagement and belittlement, predominantly in this country, and not least in Whitehall and Westminster, and in the Groves of Academe. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard its demise confidently predicted or stridently recommended.
Houdini-like, the Commonwealth has so far escaped this awaited fate. The ranks of Tuscany have what they think is the answer to that awkward fact. It has only survived, they allege, because of The Queen, and will not long outlive her. The decision of the Commonwealth Heads of Government to appoint Prince Charles as her successor was the fruit of their courtesy, rather than of their conviction. The appointment of Prince Harry as the Commonwealth Youth Ambassador was mere family jobbery.
The mind is like an umbrella: it works better when it is open. Let us be willing to explore other possible explanations of the phenomenon of the Commonwealth’s survival. Its origins go back a long way, specifically to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. The colonists had tried in vain to get George III and his bone-headed advisers to see sense. After independence was gained, moderation and good sense prevailed on both sides of the 49th parallel.
In London, they learned their lesson. The element of trusteeship found expression for the first time in Pitt’s India Act of 1784. Nothing henceforth was for ever. Kipling, the bard of Empire, reduced the triumphalism of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 to appropriate proportions in his reminder that “all our pomps of yesterday are one with Nineveh and Tyre”.
Service, suffering and sacrifice in common in two World Wars have played a poignant and vital part in the evolution of the Commonwealth, as we shall be reminded starkly on the occasion of the Centenary of the Armistice next November. And the Commonwealth rendered its most spectacular service to the twentieth century world by proposing and securing, under the leadership of Jan Christian Smuts, the Prime Minister of South Africa, the addition of the iconic Preamble to the United Nations Charter when it was adopted at the 1945 San Francisco Conference.
The Preamble was an inspiration within the Commonwealth, as well as around it. Four years later Jahawarlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, and assuredly one of the greatest world statesmen of the twentieth century, sought the agreement of his colleagues to India’s retaining its membership of the Commonwealth when becoming a republic. This was based not on nostalgia but because membership was good for India, good for the Commonwealth and because it could bring “a touch of healing to a troubled world”.
Nehru was right on all three counts. His was a message of magnanimity, reconciliation and hope. An ingenious formula was devised to accommodate India’s desire. It emphasised that nothing else had changed. In fact, just about everything changed.
Overnight, the British Empire, of which the focus was allegiance to the Crown, became a free association of peoples and governments (in that order), drawn together by history, a common language, common values, common legal and administrative systems and multiple affinities. Its focus, and, with it, its exemplar, is the matchless record of service willingly rendered by its symbolic dead. And no-one gave this unique transformation a fairer wind at the start than the King Emperor himself, already seriously ill, having spent himself in the service of his peoples in the perils and ardours of World War II and its aftermath.
The experts debate whether the Commonwealth is a church, a club or a beehive. The only possible diplomatic answer is that it is all three, simultaneously and interactively. To understand what the Commonwealth is, we need to look at what it does. And vice versa.
The theme of the Summit was “Toward a Common Future.” The main topics were a more prosperous and fairer future; a more secure future; a more sustainable future; and a particular concern for the smaller and more vulnerable members. It began with three packed days of meetings, notably with sessions of four non–governmental Forums: business, people’s, women and youth. These fed into a joint session, attended by a number of heads of government. Then it was time for the heads of government, for CHOGM proper.
The outcome, as measured by the detailed documentation issued at the conclusion of the meeting, reflects the global nature of so many of the major challenges of today, and the distinctive perspective which the Commonwealth, spanning in its unparalleled diversity the six continents, can bring to the task of tackling them. Perhaps the most interesting of the decisions was the adoption of the highly innovative Commonwealth Blue Charter on the protection of the oceans.
The British media accorded all this scant attention, concentrating instead on the Prince of Wales and the succession. The latter issue, however was accorded a lower priority in BBC bulletins than the prospect of a change of manager at the Arsenal Football Club.
The Windrush debacle naturally gained overriding attention. The suggestion from a former Head of the Civil Service that there should be an inquiry into who authorised the destruction of landing cards failed to see the wood for the trees. Decades of official and public neglect have served to ensure that there is now in Whitehall no institutional awareness worthy of the name of Commonwealth considerations which could have warned and helped an accident-prone department.
The British are a great people. But they are not always at their best when they are dealing with the Commonwealth. We must raise our game.