Future of the Commonwealth

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

Speaking during his visit to India on 30 August, Lord Howell said: "India matters to the Commonwealth, and it is evident that the Commonwealth matters to India."

I am delighted and honoured to be here at the Indian Council of World Affairs, an institution that for over the last 60 years, has held the conversations and debates on issues that matter to the world at large in international relations. I would like to talk to you about the Commonwealth in today’s world. A world that we see as being governed by networks between countries, people, businesses, in a way we’ve never seen before.

I have been an advocate and supporter of the Commonwealth network - perhaps one of the globe’s oldest networks - for the many years I have served in the British government. The diverse network, that spans across all the continents of the world, I see as an ever more relevant body, which can add its collective voice and collective action to the global challenges that all its members and the world face.

I would like to begin by setting out why the Commonwealth is so relevant today and how this readymade network can, with engagement and momentum from all its 54 members, help deliver security and prosperity for all its members. I would then like to touch on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, where we have exactly that opportunity to begin reforming the network following the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group.

India and the Commonwealth

The UK sees India, as do other members of the Commonwealth, as a leader, exemplifying the principles that bring the commonwealth together - freedom, democracy, good governance and the rule of law, free trade and human rights. You will be an important participant at CHOGM, engaging with all commonwealth members across the spectrum of topics. And especially supporting the important recommendations of the EPG. With the largest electorate in the world of 700 million, again India stands out as a beacon for democracy across the network and I know that you are doing excellent work on election training and monitoring

Indeed, perhaps India has more than most to gain from the Commonwealth. Not only is India the largest country in the organisation, it is the fourth largest contributor to programmes, My friend Shri Kamalesh Sharma is Secretary General of the Commonwealth - the first Indian to take the post. India is a member of the key Commonwealth bodies, including the Standing Committee on Terrorism. India’s hosted dozens of top level Commonwealth meetings, indluding CHOGM in 1983, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association four times and of course the Commonwealth Games - in which you just pipped us to second spot by winning 101 medals.

India matters to the Commonwealth, and it is evident that the Commonwealth matters to India.

Soft power network for the 21st century

As a British Foreign Office Minister, I care about helping the UK become a more secure, more prosperous, country existing in a world where cartain basic values are upheld. I know my counter-parts from across the Commonwealth, want to achieve the same for their own countries. The Commonwealth provides its members with a network that can help us all deliver our foreign policy priorities. We are stronger for this network, not least because the Commonwealth contains India.

The world order has shifted. Economic power and influence is moving east and south, with the rise of the emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The world has become more interconnected, through trade, technology and universal global challenges such as climate change, energy security and terrorism. Events that happen in one part of the world, no longer happen in isolation - more often than not the impacts can be felt across continents, often very quickly. The financial crisis that has engulfed the West, or the revolutions that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa, have fiscal or political ramifications for the wider world.

This greater interdependence on one another means that we must work together on the important global issues. And we must do this collectively. A part of our vision for the Commonwealth is that it is a muscular force on the world stage. Several members of the Commonwealth are also members of the UN Security Council, the G20 and other important global bodies. Where our interests overlap, we should make clear what our common position is.


The commonwealth network, with its shared principles, and similar legal systems and common language make it an ideal platform for doing business, trade, investment, development and in turn prosperity for all its members. I see an increased commitment to democratic values and increased trade as two sides of the same coin.

In fact, if I had one word to respond to the question ‘how is the Commonwealth relevant today’, it would be ‘trade’. The facts are staggering and they show that the relative importance of intra-Commonwealth trade has increased significantly over time. Over the last two decades the importance of Commonwealth members to each other as sources of imports has grown by a quarter and by a third as destinations for exports. More than half of Commonwealth countries now export over a quarter of their total exports to other Commonwealth members.

The Commonwealth Society recently wrote a fascinating report, which I would recommend to you, called: ‘Trading places: the Commonwealth effect revisited’. The paper made it clear that there is indeed a ‘Commonwealth factor’ when it comes to intra-Commonwealth trade. The research found that when both trading partners were Commonwealth members the value of trade was likely to be a third to a half more than when one or both of the trading partners was a non- Commonwealth country.

This ‘factor’ can be explained in part by the common history, culture and beliefs that tie Commonwealth member states together. Other factors that make trading between Commonwealth member states preferable and more economical include the common language - English, and the shared legal systems.

The fact that the Commonwealth is good for business can be clearly seen in the facts. Five of the top 10 countries in which to do business are Commonwealth countries, and 17 of the top 20 countries in which to do business in sub-Saharan Africa are Commonwealth. No wonder the Commonwealth brand is increasingly sought after, and the Commonwealth ‘badge’ increasingly valued.

This growing economic dimension to the Commonwealth’s Success. Trade worth over $3 trillion happens every year within the Commonwealth. Its combined GDP nearly doubled between 1990 and 2009. It contains several of the world’s fastest growing economies that will shape the global economy of the future, including India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore, and five members of the G20. The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by nearly one billion people in the last two decades. And the Commonwealth contains just under a third (31%) of the global population as a whole, representing a huge and growing consumer market.

And the Commonwealth network provides us all links to other global networks which can benefit us all. For example, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia link us to ASEAN and make up a quarter of its entire GDP. Canada is the third largest economy in the Commonwealth, and an important gateway to the USA for many countries, and Britain can provide a gateway into the European Union. 44 of the G77 countries are members of the Commonwealth, as are 19 of the 39 African Union countries, 12 of the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, 10 of the Pacific Island Forum, and seven of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. This equates to huge opportunities for our partnerships within the Commonwealth to help us all to compete in these peripheral markets.

We must press for the commonwealth to be utilised fully to help to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. We would like to see the commonwealth become a leading voice in the global economy, working to liberalise trade, break down barriers for international business and contribute to the Doha Development Agenda.

Commonwealth not just rhetoric

Although the commonwealth includes some of the wealthiest countries in the world, it also includes some of the poorest. But the commonwealth is about more than just rhetoric. Commonwealth member states are investing in the Commonwealth family where the wealthiest countries in the world, sit alongside some of the poorest. India has increased commitments to Commonwealth countries in Africa providing up to £7 million a year to the 19 African members of the Commonwealth through your Special Commonwealth Assistance in Africa programme. The UK has increased bilateral assistance funding to 27 countries, over half of which are in the Commonwealth. In addition to the UK’s total contribution of £30 million annually to Commonwealth development programmes and institutions. And the UK and India provide the most technical experts engaged by the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, extending assistance to developing countries.

CHOGM, EPG and the future

And as one of the major donor states, we are pushing hard, alongside our commonwealth partners to help this network adapt in order that it may achieve its full potential and therefore meet the needs and aspirations of all its members.

The next Heads of Government meeting in Perth in October, is less than two months away, has the potential to be a transformational one for the Commonwealth. We have a real opportunity to shape the Commonwealth network to react, engage and lead on the world stage, a stage on which the Indian Ocean, and all the states surrounding it are increasingly taking a central place.

At Perth Heads we will consider the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group; contemplate the findings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) review; and importantly, as a united body, discuss the complex global challenges that we all face.

The UK has strongly supported the Eminent Persons Group process and we welcome their emerging recommendations of championing commonwealth values; advocating for small and developing countries by taking collective interest in issues such as debt relief and climate change, and ensuring that Commonwealth institutions are fit for purpose, focussed and working to commonwealth strengths and most importantly are connecting with the commonwealth citizens. We feel it is important that the Commonwealth returns to its brand strengths of democracy and development.India has a very real interest in seeing Commonwealth countries maintaining democratic integrity and rule of law not least because of India’s large diaspora in these countries.

We want strengthened CMAG that protects our values, but is also able to work constructively and offer encouragement to those facing challenges to democratic development. We believe that small and vulnerable states should feel that the Commonwealth network offers them a solid platform from which to voice their opinions and to receive timely assistance and support on issues such as climate change. And we want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade.

Our challenge between now and October is to raise awareness of, and build support for, the EPG recommendations. We are working closely with like-minded partners and the EPG members themselves to do this, identifying opportunities for outreach events in all regions of the Commonwealth.

It is right that the EPG process is a public one, as we are all interested parties in the future of the Commonwealth. So everybody, every member of the Commonwealth, , must play their part, by stimulating and taking part in the debate and then putting these words into action to shape the future of the Commonwealth.

As I said, Perth could and should be a defining moment for the Commonwealth. Heads will need to take bold and vital decisions, in response to the EPG recommendations, which will shape the role of our unique organisation, help it to realise its potential and forge associations and its brand identity with the youth of the Commonwealth, so that it may have more impact in the future. None of us should shy away from accepting the Eminent Persons Group’s challenge.

It is apt that the official theme for CHOGM 2011 is, Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience. It captures one of the Commonwealth’s key strengths - its enduring resilience. We fully support Australia’s desire as hosts to strengthen the Commonwealth’s effectiveness in supporting democracy, including the essential work that women play across the Commonwealth network as Agents of Change, the protection and projection of human rights, supporting the rule of law and good governance. I look forward to seeing you all there.