The Times
March 21, 2007

An effective world force? That’ll be 20p to you

Michael Binyon on why Britain and other countries should embrace the Commonwealth more just as some members such as India and Pakistan already do

Looking for a way to sound out poorer countries on trade or deliver aid that goes to those who need it? Wondering how to enforce human rights and good government without raising hackles or being seen to preach? Desperate to cut across the boundaries of rich and poor, North and South, the EU, Nato, G8 and the Security Council without getting bogged down in bureaucracy? Ever thought of the Commonwealth?

The notion seems to have slipped Britain’s mind. The Empire came into being by accident; the Commonwealth is in danger of fading away by neglect. Of course, Conservative and Labour politicians loyally trumpet the importance of Commonwealth ties — language, history, legal systems, parliamentary traditions, kith and kin and so on — when in opposition. As soon as they come to power, the talk and the sentiment fly out of the window. What is the Commonwealth for? How does it fit into our priorities?

Successive secretary-generals look out from the lavish headquarters of Marlborough House and despair. Britain always blows hot and cold. For years it trumpets defiance over South Africa. Then it seizes on notions of good governance and urges the Commonwealth to lead the charge. Then it loses interest. But is this about to change again? Margaret Beckett recently said it was time to look afresh at the Commonwealth. Has the Foreign Secretary decided that in the 53 nations — a third of the world’s population — Britain has a unique forum for influence, cooperation and international comity that ought to be better used?

If so, there is plenty she could do. More money would help: every Briton pays £54 a year to the EU, £10 to Nato, £2 to the UN and 20p to the Commonwealth. She could send more senior ministers to meetings. She could attend in person sessions of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group — the world’s only standing human rights body that has the power to suspend members violating agreed standards. She could recognise that Don McKinnon, the current Secretary-General, has slimmed the bureaucracy, cleaned up the accounts, cut out the waffle from the biennial summits and focused the Commonwealth on what it does best: frank talk behind closed doors on the main issues, with no communiqués, little posturing and a refreshing realism about what can be done.

The quiet approach generates no headlines, but seems to work. Commonwealth Africa is in pretty good shape, compared with the rest of the continent. Envoys working behind the scenes have done a lot for Cameroon, Togo and Guyana. The Commonwealth is fighting for fairer trade for the Caribbean, for civilian rule in Fiji and is one of the few bodies still pressing General Musharraf on democracy. And Pakistan, like India, now takes the Commonwealth very seriously. Isn’t it time Britain did as well?

The Commonwealth comprises 53 nations (and, as more countries wish to join, will soon increase) and comprises a third of the world's population.


Common values, language, legal systems and culture would indeed seem to make closer economic and political ties much easier to implement than within Europe, particularly with modern communications technology. With our service-based economy, it's surely in our interests to reinforce and deepen our historical links with these nations, which share our free trade values and in many cases are the growth economies of tomorrow. A more compelling vision than allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the slow-growth protectionist European bloc, whose overriding aim seems to be to create a political counterweight to the US, whatever the cost.

It's interesting to note that the French are pushing the expansion of their own 'Francophonie' union - to the extent of adding nations whose first language is not French - while we gently allow a big economic competitive advantage drift away.

Roger Goodacre, London

Last edited by Blackleaf; Mar 21st, 2007 at 12:37 PM..