Tenth anniversary of the Commonwealth Association

Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell spoke about the UK's reinvigorated relationship with the Commonwealth, on the occasion of the Commonwealth Association's tenth anniversary.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guildford


I am very pleased to be here this evening to speak to such a prestigious group of Commonwealth supporters, and I would like to congratulate you on your tenth anniversary. It is wonderful to be in a room of people who share my enthusiasm for the Commonwealth and in particular, I would like to thank Sir Peter Marshall for inviting me to come and speak with you all. He is an excellent servant to and ambassador for this unique organisation.

I also know that you are marking the remarkable life of Zena Daysh. I would like to add my appreciation for the dedicated example she set in her service to the Commonwealth. A truly remarkable lady.

One year on

Some of you may recall the speech that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave to the Royal Commonwealth Society when in opposition in 2009. He put down a marker for upgrading our engagement with the Commonwealth once elected. And the Coalition Agreement does just that - it sets out our aim to strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development. And I have made it my goal as Minister for the Commonwealth, to deliver on this pledge.

And with the government having now been in office for a little over a year, where are we on these aims?

Firstly, we commissioned a new Commonwealth Strategy that is making good progress. The Foreign Secretary has spoken publicly a number of times about the importance of the Commonwealth in the UK’s current and future global interests, including in his keynote speech in Sydney in January. The FCO’s Business Plan sets out our priority for UK engagement with the Commonwealth - working with Commonwealth partners to reinvigorate it as a focus for promoting development, conflict prevention, human rights and trade. Our Ministerial team have already visited more than twenty Commonwealth countries, reinforcing these important and longstanding relationships. And we have doubled the size of the FCO’s Commonwealth Unit - quite an achievement given the trend to streamline Whitehall departments in the current financial climate.

And we have revitalised practical working relationships with key Commonwealth networks and organisations such as the CPA Secretariat, the Commonwealth Business Council and the Royal Commonwealth Society.

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. I would like to add in here how delighted I am that Sir Malcolm Rifkind was chosen to be a UK member of the Eminent Persons Group.

And it is not just the FCO that has begun to reinvigorate its relationship within the Commonwealth. The Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, announced recently that UK bilateral assistance will be focussed on 27 countries - over half of which are in the Commonwealth. This is in addition to the UK’s total contribution of £30m annually to Commonwealth development programmes and institutions. In addition to its continuing support to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Foundation, DfID is also supporting the Scholarships Commission, the Local Government Forum and the Commonwealth of Learning, which are all contributing to reducing poverty and building capacity across government sectors.

Other government departments are also engaged on Commonwealth issues. For example, my team in the FCO are working closely with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to prepare for the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in Sydney in July. I have also met with Nick Gibb, Minister at the Department for Education, to discuss giving the Commonwealth greater prominence in the national curriculum. And UK input into the upcoming CHOGM, including into the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group, will be a cross-government effort.

Ready-made network for the future

So why are we so interest in the Commonwealth now? Well for those that know me, you will know that I have always been interested in, supported and known that the commonwealth network has not been fully utilised. That is why I jumped at the chance to take this work forward in the Foreign Office. The commonwealth provides a network unlike any other in the world. Our badge and brand of democracy unites us all.

The UK Government sees the Commonwealth network as a vital strand of our British foreign policy. A network that needs to be fully utilised by all its members as we navigate the new international landscape and the rise of emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Alongside economic power and influence shifting east and south, we now find ourselves more interdependent on other countries than ever before as we tackle global problems such as climate change, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and international security. The Commonwealth continues to bring together such a diverse range of countries and people across the world which is what makes it so increasingly relevant and ideally suited for the 21st century - we want it to play a key role in the unfolding opportunities and challenges that our increasingly networked world brings.

We want to build on this. We want the Commonwealth to continue to make its voice heard on the climate issue, and the related issues of energy security and energy transition, particularly as 32 of the smallest and most vulnerable states belong to the Commonwealth.

And the Commonwealth network provides us links to other global networks which can benefit us. 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.

The Commonwealth network with its shared principles of democracy, good governance, similar legal systems and a shared language is ideally placed to provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for 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.

Growing Commonwealth Trade

There is a growing economic dimension to the Commonwealth’s Success as the Foreign Secretary noted in his Sydney speech. 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.

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 recent Royal Commonwealth Society paper that you will be familiar with, ‘Trading places: the Commonwealth effect revisited’, 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. Its membership includes many of the fastest growing, technologically advanced, economies in the world, great markets of today and tomorrow. No wonder the Commonwealth brand is increasingly sought after, and the Commonwealth ‘badge’ increasingly valued.

Commonwealth not just rhetoric

Although the Commonwealth includes some of the wealthiest countries in the world, it also includes some of the poorest. The Commonwealth network with its shared principles and language is ideal to provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for trade, investment, development and, in turn, prosperity- a fact recognised by the Department for International Development.

It is not just rhetoric, Commonwealth member states are investing in the Commonwealth family. Australia and India are increasing their commitment to Commonwealth countries in Africa. AusAid has pledged £210 million for 2011/12 for Africa, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, which is, as you all know, predominantly Commonwealth. India provides about £7 million a year to the 19 African members of the Commonwealth through its Special Commonwealth Assistance in Africa programme.

We want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. We want the Commonwealth to become a leading voice in the global economy, working to liberalise trade, break down barriers for international business, resist protectionism and contribute to the Doha Development Agenda.

CHOGM, Eminent Persons Group and the future

It is not just the UK that is waking up to the Commonwealth’s great potential. As you will know at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago all Commonwealth members recognised the need for the Commonwealth to look to the future and ensure we are an organisation that fully realises its potential on the global stage, plays to its strengths, upholds its values and works to increase the prosperity of all its members.
The next Heads of Government meeting in Perth in October, 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 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, as I mentioned earlier; and ensuring that Commonwealth institutions are fit for purpose, focussed and working to commonwealth strengths. We feel it is important that the Commonwealth returns to its brand strengths of democracy and development.

We want a 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 stakeholders in the future of the Commonwealth. So everyone, every member of the Commonwealth, everyone in this room, can play their part, by stimulating and taking part in debate about the future of the Commonwealth.

As I said, Perth could and should be a defining moment for the Commonwealth. In Port of Spain, Heads agreed on the need to look carefully at our future. In Perth, 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 have more impact in the future. None of us should shy away from accepting the EPG’s challenge.


I hope that what you have heard today has assured you of the commitment of this Government to the Commonwealth and that we are ready to use our position at the centre of this network, to facilitate change for the good of all.

Her Majesty the Queen captured wonderfully the essence of the Commonwealth when she said that the Commonwealth is “in lots of ways, the face of the future”. I agree with that sentiment entirely and look forward to a reinvigorated Commonwealth that will become a frequent voice to be heard and revered on the international stage, representing an enlightened and responsible association which plays an active role in shaping the direction our world is moving in.

Looking beyond Perth, next year all eyes will be back on London. Not just for the spectacle that will be the London Olympic and Paralympics games, but to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This will present us with the opportunity to honour collectively her enormous contribution to the Commonwealth and I look forward to celebrating that with you next year.

Updates to this page

Published 29 June 2011