The Commonwealth: No longer a club of the past

NB: this post is by Tim Hewish, my Parliamentary Researcher.

Both on the Left and the Right, there is a growing case for Britain to reassess her position in the world. One only needs to look at The Economist’s posters at tube stations and the recent Henry Jackson Society’s report: The Tipping Point: British National Strategy and the UK’s Future World Role. So the question needs to be asked: Where do we turn for investments, foreign policy objectives, and more importantly – growth?

The solution may lie in the restructuring of the Commonwealth.

At a recent meeting chaired by Lord Howell, Minister of State for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, we heard about this new vision. It was explained that we now live in networked world and that the international landscape has changed. Subsequently, Britain needs to be extremely agile to discover the new centres of power and finance.
A vehicle for achieving this is the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Perth later this year.

Perth will be a transformative moment in the Commonwealth’s history. Here are some quick reasons why:

  • The Commonwealth as a whole has tripled in population since 1945.
  • 54 nations of the Commonwealth speak English.
  • 51 have the same English Common Law backgrounds; therefore it is much easier to do business and proves that the Commonwealth Factor can bring a 30% discount when doing business.

In support of this, the Royal Commonwealth Society’s 2010 report Trading Places documents the economic potential in the Commonwealth and offers a template on how to improve trading relations between members.

In Education, we have The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. Although, under the previous Government, David Miliband, withdrew support for this Scholarship Programme for the more developed Commonwealth nations. He did this without consulting the Scholarship Commission. This needs to be overturned to restore a more harmonious relationship.

In a more supportive action, an example of successful Commonwealth inter-cooperation is Canada currently looking at policing reform in the West Indies. While in the sporting domain we have the thriving Commonwealth Games.

We must however, remain good Europeans and loyal Atlanticists, but beyond both is a new world to rediscover. The most powerful network to tap into this brave new world is the Commonwealth and it provides us with the tools to do so.

As documented by Professor Niall Ferguson in his book Colossus, the sad truth about so called globalisation is that it is not truly global at all. Direct capital investment in poor countries is at an all time low. Between 1865 and 1914 more than £4bn flowed from Britain to the rest of the world (only 6% of that went to Europe). And in 1915, 25% of the world’s stock of capital was invested into poor nations – up to recent times that figure is now 5%.

To quote Colossus:

Whereas today’s rich economies prefer to swap capital with one other, largely bypassing poorer countries, a century ago the rich had very large, positive net balances, with the less well-off countries of the world.

Therefore, we must upgrade our own position in the Commonwealth. It is no longer a club of the past. It now has seven of the new high tech emerging economies.

Furthermore, we are constantly reminded that the Chinese are everywhere. What is our answer to that? The US and the EU will not be a full counterpoint to China as they can no longer do the democratic job alone. The Commonwealth has potential to be this counterpoint.

However, there are small nuanced changes afoot. Note that the Gulf States, normally with Anglophone historical ties, are being signed up to Paris not London. More positively, South Sudan, a country not even a week old, wishes to be a member of the Commonwealth. Even in Rwanda, they have thrown off their Francophone ties. There is also a growing desire to bring Zimbabwe back into the fold. This shows that the Commonwealth is the Club of tomorrow.

Finally, there need not be the false divide between democracy and development. Through free and fair trade we can utilise the Commonwealth of Nations as a gateway to new opportunities. In an increasing multipolar world the case for a more muscular Commonwealth is there to be made. The 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference on the 25th July is one such springboard.

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Comments & Responses

One Response so far.

  1. David James says:

    This is something I have thought for a while. The desire of new countries wishing to join shows that association with The Commonwealth still gives value to countries.

    An issue we may need to overcome is that when we joined the EEC we severed many of the valuable economic ties we had with Commonwealth countries and this has left a sense of mis-trust that we need to overcome.