Britain’s former colonies in the 21st Century – The Commonwealth in the modern world

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said that he wants to strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development and act as a recognised force for good on the issues of our times.

David, Lord Howell, is the FCO Minister of State with specific responsibilities for the Commonwealth

Today’s Commonwealth embraces at least six of the world’s fastest growing economies and markets, and provides the gateway to still more of the emerging powers where wealth is accumulating and purchasing power is soaring. It is the soft power network par excellence that Britain and all Commonwealth members need to serve our interests in, and give us access to, the new global landscape.

In addition, the Commonwealth is underpinned by a set of common values and principles which give it a unique kind of cohesion and relevance, and which are not just fine in themselves, when adhered to, but increasingly go hand in hand with investment attractiveness and trade expansion.

Britain can take clear advantage of this new milieu, although here, as elsewhere in the policy field, some fresh mindsets are required. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is right to say that we need to think in a completely different way not only about our domestic society but also our external role and direction. In fact the two aspects are closely related.

First we have to adjust to the fact that the new Commonwealth is no longer an Anglo-centric affair. Just as power and wealth have shifted globally away from the West, so also within the Commonwealth system the new centres of influence are going to lie in Asia and its enormous markets and in the emerging economies in Africa.

Second, several Commonwealth countries are amongst the sources of the swelling capital and investment funds which the UK and others will need to tap to finance infrastructure and energy transition needs. The Commonwealth of tomorrow could well become our bank as well as our band of friends.

George Osborne, who was the first British Chancellor for many years to attend the Commonwealth finance ministers meeting in New York, is clearly alert to this possibility.

Third, it is time to become a little less diffident about operating as a Commonwealth caucus and speaking up for Commonwealth interests in the many international institutions to which we belong. Common Commonwealth goals in reshaping the world trading system could add to the group’s diplomatic leverage in international forums.

Fourth, we should start valuing more confidently what we have got, thanks to the Commonwealth legacy – a world-wide pre-eminence in the legal and accountancy professions, an extraordinary web of Commonwealth-branded associations of experts in fields from architecture to zoology, and above all a pattern of educational linkages that not only makes British higher education one of our major ‘exports’ but also sends a stream of Brits out into Commonwealth countries.

Our competitors, including our quick-footed partners in the EU, have not been slow to grab the opportunities and embed themselves in this new and lucrative landscape. It is the Commonwealth connection which now gives us an obvious chance to catch up and even overtake others.

Are we there yet? To fulfil its potential the Commonwealth system needs brisk modernisation and at this very moment a group of distinguished Commonwealth leaders – the Eminent Persons Group – is hard at work on a plan for refurbishment. The Caribbean is represented on this group by Sir Ron Sanders and Patricia Francis from Jamaica. They have some key aims in focus. The policing of standards and the insistence on human rights and good governance throughout the Commonwealth must become much more systematic and rigorous; the championship of soft power must be much bolder; the administrative machinery of the Commonwealth must be upgraded; the potential value of the modern Commonwealth must be presented far more effectively to the younger generation who make up half its members. If the Commonwealth can raise its game on these lines every member will benefit.

It is time for a more distinctive British foreign policy which sustains our prosperity and promotes our values. The Commonwealth is the modern route through which we not only secure our interests but also offer our example, setting it before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

So this is why William Hague feels the Commonwealth should stand for democracy, development, and human rights, and act as a recognised force for good on the issues of our times. It is the face of the future and the platform of the future for all of us.

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