Britain and the Commonwealth: Historic Friends, Future Partners

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire gave a speech about the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth at the Royal Commonwealth Society.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Hugo Swire

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said:

Secretary General; High Commissioners; Honourable Members of both Houses; representatives of businesses and NGOs; Welcome to this Commonwealth reception.

I must begin by extending my deepest condolences to the people of Samoa who were hit by Cyclone Evan last week. For all those affected – particularly those who lost loved ones – it was a devastating event. Our High Commissioner has conveyed our sympathy to the Samoan Prime Minister. The Cyclone has now also hit Fiji, and our thoughts are with the many Fijians affected.

It is an opportune moment for me to commend the work of the Commonwealth, having had the great privilege of meeting its Head, Her Majesty The Queen, this morning, who came to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on her final Diamond Jubilee year engagement. My short time speaking to her brought to mind the quite extraordinary role she has played for this country and for countries across the Commonwealth.

On 21 April 1947, her 21st birthday, Her Majesty was with her parents and younger sister, Princess Margaret, on a tour of South Africa. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, she said to the people of the Commonwealth: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

Ever since she said those words, her devotion to the Commonwealth has been unwavering. Her Majesty has travelled more than any other monarch in our history. During her reign she has undertaken well over 150 Commonwealth visits, and in 1998 became the first reigning British monarch to undertake State visits to Brunei and Malaysia.

I am sure you would all join me this evening, in this historic Diamond Jubilee year, in paying tribute to her work over the past 60 years.

So it is a real pleasure to be here this evening, in the run-up to Christmas and Parliamentary recess. I would like to thank Danny Sriskandarajah and Peter Kellner for inviting me to speak, and for their tireless work as Director and Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society respectively.

Danny has made a disproportionate contribution to the Society and to the Commonwealth more broadly. The vision he demonstrated in designing and delivering the Commonwealth Conversations project, for example – which was the seed that led to our Eminent Persons Group report – was outstanding. We shall miss his energy, vibrancy and innovation, but wish him well in his new life in South Africa.

I have long been an admirer of the RCS. It is an organisation with deep roots, but one which is constantly evolving. The Society’s role as a promoter of the Commonwealth brand – whether through engaging young people across the world, encouraging public debate on Commonwealth issues, or through spreading awareness of the cultural diversity of its members – is helping to ensure its continued relevance.

And it is on this relevance that I want to focus this evening. Because one can get the sense that for some – British or otherwise – the Commonwealth is an organisation of the past; one which puts on a good sports event every few years, but isn’t in tune with today’s world.

I want to challenge that assertion; to explain why this Government is placing a greater emphasis on the Commonwealth, and what we are trying to do to unlock its true potential.

The Commonwealth today

When the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, set out the Government’s vision for Britain’s foreign policy in July 2010, he spoke of our need to respond to an increasingly networked world. Influence today, he said, “increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections”.

If we are to make the most of the opportunities this creates, and respond to the challenges it represents, we need to make full use of our assets and connections. The Commonwealth, one of the world’s greatest – and oldest – networks, remains one of our most valuable.

I was therefore delighted when the Prime Minister appointed me as Minister responsible for the Commonwealth – an organisation I have respected for many years.

Both the Foreign Secretary and my much-admired predecessor, Lord Howell – who Frank Field described in a debate last week as a “jewel in the crown” of Commonwealth interest – have together put the “C” back into the “FCO”: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I am a firm believer in the value the Commonwealth adds on the international stage – politically, economically and culturally. So let me first outline what I think are its greatest strengths.

First and foremost is its sheer scale. Its members account for a third of the world’s population, more than a fifth of the Earth’s total land area and have a combined GDP of over £6 trillion. As a whole, it is an organisation with real clout.

Secondly, it is a hugely diverse grouping – bringing together different people, united by our shared language, legal systems and values. From the plains of southern Africa to the island nations of the Pacific, the Commonwealth gives all of its members an equal seat at the international table. It can amplify their voices and make sure the views of even the smallest nations are heard by others.

Thirdly, the Commonwealth provides tangible support very effectively. A few examples spring immediately to mind.

One is election observation. The Commonwealth has observed over 70 elections since 1990, including recent missions to Ghana and Sierra Leone. On each occasion they have provided a trusted, objective judgement on the credibility of the process, the environment in which the elections took place and the final result. But the observation missions don’t just observe: they also submit recommendations, drawing on collective expertise, on how to improve elections in the future.

I would also point to the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Programme, through which Commonwealth governments offer scholarships and fellowships to citizens from other member countries. Since it was established 53 years ago, 27,000 people have benefitted – including, as a topical example, Mark Carney, the next Governor of the Bank of England. In Britain, we have supported the scheme to the tune of £87 million for the four years from 2011 to 2015.

Another practical example is technical assistance to promote development in member states, which I know is a very important element of Commonwealth membership for some countries. The Secretariat’s assistance on good governance and the rule of law is helping to build the solid democratic foundations required for sustainable development.

And I would add to all of this a fourth – and significant – strength: that the Commonwealth is not just about government contacts. Looking around this hall, I can see representatives from a huge range of backgrounds – parliamentarians, businesses, NGOs, civil society, young people. It is these groups that make the Commonwealth so effective.

How the Commonwealth is changing

The Commonwealth of today is a dynamic, diverse grouping – one of the world’s leading soft power networks.

But it is not standing still. Like any organisation, the Commonwealth isn’t perfect. All of its members, the United Kingdom included, recognise that to maintain its relevance, the Commonwealth needs to respond to shifting global trends and the rising expectations of its citizens – particularly its younger ones.

This is the driving force behind the agenda to modernise the Commonwealth, which has been in train since last year’s Heads of Government meeting in Perth. We have all been working hard on this and have made good progress.

Just this week the Secretary-General confirmed that, following discussions in September by Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, the majority of the reform measures proposed by the Eminent Persons Group have been agreed by Heads of Government. That is good news.

Now that we have agreement on the way ahead, we need to make it a reality.

Key among the reform measures is the agreement to have a Commonwealth Charter to set out, in a single document, the Commonwealth’s core values. It is important that we now work collectively to raise the Charter’s profile, across the Commonwealth, to embed it within the architecture that ensures members uphold these values.

The Government will, with your help, work to raise the profile of the Charter here in Britain, with a focus on Parliament, civil society and youth organisations. I know the RCS has made its own contribution to this by hosting events on the Charter for civil society organisations.

Just as important is the strengthening of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which should enable the organisation to respond more quickly to infringements of Commonwealth values.

As the swift response of the Action Group to the situation in the Maldives has shown, we are already starting to see the benefits of these changes. Through this and other country engagements the Action Group works on, it must demonstrate that it is living up to its strengthened mandate and can make a real difference on the world stage. This will make a significant contribution to the credibility of the Commonwealth as an international organisation that adds value.

The soft power network of the future

An increased focus on the Commonwealth has been a key element of this Government’s re-alignment of Britain’s foreign policy.

In part, this has involved practical steps like the strengthening of our diplomatic network in Commonwealth countries. We opened a new Deputy High Commission in Hyderabad in India in May, with another in Chandigarh to follow soon. We are also strengthening our commercial capacity in Commonwealth countries like Canada, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and Guyana. And here in London we have increased the number of staff working on the Commonwealth.

But our renewed focus has also involved a change in approach; a change in the way we work, by seeking to make the most of our Commonwealth contacts. When William Hague visited Australia last year it was the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary for 17 years. In the past twelve months, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have visited around 20 Commonwealth countries – including my recent visit to Belize and, just last week, to Brunei.

All of this has left us in a strong position to build on the progress we have already made on our Commonwealth agenda. This is important, because there is much work to be done.

Trade and investment is a prime example: we should be pushing to increase the volume of trade among Commonwealth members, and – connected to this – working to increase prosperity across the network by creating the conditions that allow trade to flourish.

Intra-Commonwealth trade already amounts to around £250 billion each year. But we should be much more ambitious, as the potential is vast. The Commonwealth’s middle class has expanded by one billion people in the last 20 years. These new consumers represent a significant and rapidly growing market.

We can add to this the Commonwealth’s in-built advantages. Research conducted by this Society two years ago found that when two trading partners were Commonwealth members, their trade was likely to be a third to a half more than when one or both trade partners was non-Commonwealth.

This ‘Commonwealth effect’ – explained in terms of shared history, values, legal systems and language – should enable us to drive trade to even greater heights. Just look at sub-Saharan Africa, for example: the latest World Bank rankings show that all but four of the top 20 countries in which to do business there are Commonwealth members.

But this agenda certainly isn’t just about business.

We also need to ensure that the Commonwealth stands up for its values and beliefs; that it identifies where its values are not being adhered to; and that it speaks up to turn things around when this happens. The strengthened Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, for which the Secretary-General has committed to provide additional Secretariat resources, has a critical role here.

So too does the Commonwealth Games. The 2014 Games in Glasgow – the Commonwealth’s own Olympics – are as much about promoting Commonwealth values, a key element of its brand, as they are about building prosperity.

We also need to develop the Commonwealth’s advocacy role to ensure the voices of its members are heard in international negotiations.

And we need to increase the Commonwealth’s engagement with Britain’s Overseas Territories, which share many of the challenges facing small Commonwealth states.

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s new Strategic Plan for 2013 to 2016 should help us to address these issues. We are working with the Secretariat to ensure its focus is in areas where it has a comparative advantage, to avoid duplicating the work of other international organisations.

Next year will offer several opportunities to drive this work forward. This includes the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo. Ahead of the meeting, we will of course look to Sri Lanka – as we would to any Host – to demonstrate its commitment to upholding the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights.

And I look forward to the Commonwealth Week in March which will offer another opportunity to showcase the organisation’s work. Next year’s theme – ‘Opportunity Through Enterprise’ – is particularly relevant at this time of global economic challenge.


The Commonwealth today is as important as it has ever been. Its members represent some of the most fast-growing, dynamic economies in the world. They are political, social and cultural leaders on the international stage.

With such collective weight, we shouldn’t be surprised that some – including, recently, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee – think it is an organisation that should do better. They are right.

Each and every one of us in this room wants a strong Commonwealth; one which makes the most of its considerable assets. I hope I have made clear this afternoon that it already does a lot of things well.

If we continue to drive forward the reform process, I am confident that we can build an even more successful Commonwealth – one which does less so it can do it better, focusing on those areas in which it adds the most value.

These will include strengthening governance and democracy; increasing the resilience of small and vulnerable states; creating more effective frameworks for inclusive economic growth and sustainable development; ensuring members are able to participate in the global trading system; and improving climate financing frameworks for vulnerable states.

And for those that still need convincing of the Commonwealth’s relevance in today’s world, I would say this: if it was not important, if it did not play an influential role on the international stage, countries would not be queuing up to join.

That this is exactly what is happening at the moment is testament to the continued relevance of the Commonwealth today.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

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Published 18 December 2012