The Commonwealth: A Global Network for the 21st Century

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

In his Peter Lyon Memorial Lecture, Rt Hon Lord Howell describes the Commonwealth as 'a quite extraordinary association of like-minded states.'

High Commissioners, Excellencies, Professors, Noble Members, Honoured Guests, Friends from the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Before I begin I would like to recognise our distinguished visitors from Zimbabwe. I am sorry that one of your delegates, another Commonwealth fellow, was prevented from being with us this evening. And I look forward to a time when Zimbabwe can rightfully take her place in the Commonwealth family again.

It really is a great honour for me to be invited here today to address so many Commonwealth Friends and deliver the inaugural speech in the honour and memory of Dr Peter Lyon OBE who, in an association with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies spanning over 50 years, was a true champion of modern Commonwealth studies, a key influencer in the field and a genuine friend to and member of the Commonwealth family.

I am delighted to be here as a guest of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, and I would also like to offer my congratulations to Daisy Cooper on her appointment as Director. She, along with Professor Philip Murphy, are also true friends to and members of the Commonwealth family. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies remains one of the preeminent places where new ideas for the Commonwealth can be explored in a variety of innovative ways.

This is an exciting and pivotal year for the future of the Commonwealth. And I believe that the vision I and the UK government, and all of you here today have for the future of the Commonwealth is mirrored and supported by Daisy’s ambition for the role of the CPSU.

The CPSU is building for the Commonwealth of the future, continuing to deliver first class policy research on Commonwealth issues, whilst also launching a new advisory service to Commonwealth members and their associates on how to get the most from their membership of the Commonwealth.

I, too, am here to talk about building a Commonwealth for the future, a global network for the 21st century. Although appointed just last year as the UK’s Minister for the Commonwealth, you will know that I have held a long standing interest in the Commonwealth and the enormous potential of this unparalleled international organisation.

With such a knowledgeable group before me, there is no need for this to be a history lesson. But rather I want to talk about how the Commonwealth should look forward collectively to the unique role it can fulfill in the 21st century.

Enduring historical links undoubtedly form the basis of the strong bonds that join Commonwealth countries together today, and we must always respectfully remember our historical roles in order to move forward. But move forward we must as the tide of technology and globalisation shape our future.

I want to focus today on why the Commonwealth is important and ideally placed as a ready-made network for the future. Why this government has rapidly upgraded its relationship with the Commonwealth, and pledged to do more still. And I will set out the upcoming challenges the Commonwealth itself must address to ensure we remain relevant, realise our potential and bring the benefits, developments and prosperity to all our citizens.

Why the Commonwealth is important, and why the UK has upgraded its relationship with the Commonwealth

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that we need to think in a completely different way not only about our society domestically, but also our external role and direction. And he is right. That is why in the Government’s Coalition agreement we set out our vision that Britain must always be an active member of the global community, promoting our national interests while standing up for the values of freedom, fairness and responsibility.

It was recognised that this means working as a constructive member of multilateral organisations including the UN, EU, NATO and the Commonwealth.

We see the Commonwealth as a key multilateral organisation, and it has been described as the world’s best soft power network and an ideal global platform for the 21st century. I wholeheartedly agree. So we see Britain’s active membership of the Commonwealth as a key component of our foreign policy.

The Commonwealth is a quite extraordinary association of like-minded states, spanning every continent, all the world’s major faiths, embracing developed and developing states, with a third of the world’s population and half of that population under 25, the generation of the future.

Its membership includes many of the fastest growing and technologically advanced economies in the world, great markets of today and tomorrow. It already contributes significantly to international affairs, brokering agreements between African neighbours, calming tensions in fragile states during contested elections. And it provides a forum for smaller nations who may feel their voices are lost in larger multilateral structures.

And it is not just made up of the governments of its member states, but also a myriad of non-governmental and civil society organisations and networks, such as the one hosting us now, working together on shared objectives.

Global challenges mean we are more interdependent on each other. Technologies, not least faster communications, social networking websites, and 24-hour media have changed the way we all interact, and have brought people around the world closer together, turning traditional patterns of power and influence on their heads.

The Commonwealth has, in my opinion, brought people together in this way for decades, if not as swiftly as the communications of today. Its enduring strength has been its resilience and adaptability. It has continued to bring together a diverse range of countries and people across the world, including through major changes and challenges over the last decades. This makes the Commonwealth increasingly relevant and ideally suited to play a key role in the new opportunities and challenges that our increasingly networked world brings.

This is why the Commonwealth is important to the UK, and this is why this government is actively upgrading our relationship and increasing our engagement with the Commonwealth.

In fact, I would go as far as to say, never before has the UK needed the Commonwealth so much.

So, what has the government done so far?

In his inaugural lecture just two weeks ago Professor Murphy highlighted the repetitive rhetoric of successive governments and opposition parties towards re-engaging with the Commonwealth.

The Foreign Secretary, when in opposition, in his speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2008, did put down a marker for our engagement with the Commonwealth once elected. But I assure you that, in my position as Minister for the Commonwealth, I intend to deliver. And I invite Professor Murphy to hold me accountable.

I think that the record shows that my view of the Commonwealth has remained consistent throughout. And given those views, I was delighted to be appointed as the UK’s Minister for the Commonwealth.

I’d like to take this opportunity to set out five concrete steps the Government has taken so far:

First we commissioned a new Commonwealth Strategy. I asked officials to think about what the Commonwealth could do for the UK, and what the UK should do for the Commonwealth. I asked them to throw off any traditional thinking about the Commonwealth being an organisation in genteel decline, and to abandon any residual colonial angst.

Secondly the Foreign Secretary submitted a Written Ministerial Statement to Parliament on 9 December setting out this strategy. It is ambitious and unashamedly brings the Commonwealth back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It aims to put the UK at the helm of reinvigorating our unique organisation, to ensure that it meets the needs and aspirations of all its members.

Thirdly, whilst the whole of Government, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is looking for efficiencies and savings and experiencing reductions in budgets, I am pleased to say that the Commonwealth Unit within the FCO has actually tripled in size. This I think speaks volumes of the commitment this Government has in making the most of the opportunities the Commonwealth holds in the future globalised landscape.

The fourth step has been to establish and reinvigorate practical working relationships with key Commonwealth networks and organisations. I am delighted to report that we now have closers links with organisations such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Business Council and the Royal Commonwealth Society. This is just the start, and we look forward to engaging with more of you.

And finally I was determined that the UK should be represented on the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group, which has been tasked to make recommendations to strengthen the efficiency of the Commonwealth as a whole.

I was delighted that Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma chose to appoint Sir Malcolm Rifkind to the group. The selection of the other members of the group, in my opinion, was equally inspiring.

I should recognise that it is not just the FCO that has upgraded its relationship; my colleagues in the Department for International Development have also been working on renewing and reassigning bilateral aid, which will now be better targeted.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, announced that bilateral resources will be focussed on 27 countries - over half of which are in the Commonwealth. And during his visit to Jamaica last month, he announced that DfID’s programme for the Caribbean will significantly increase to £75m over the next four years.

This is in addition to the UK’s total contribution of £33m annually to Commonwealth institutions and development programmes.

The Foreign Secretary and I have also encouraged Ministerial colleagues from across Government to make visits to Commonwealth countries, to reinforce these important and longstanding relationships. It was no coincidence that the Foreign Secretary delivered his keynote speech on the Commonwealth in Sydney this January.

The Future

But this vision for the Commonwealth of the future is not just about us. The other 53 members must help shape this organisation and ensure it is meeting everyone’s needs.

I am pleased to say that many are thinking on similar lines. At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago all governments 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 of its members.

The next Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia this October will be pivotal. We have a real opportunity to shape the Commonwealth network to react, engage and lead on the world stage.

Heads will have a chance to 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 current set of complex global challenges we all face.

I’d like to mention some of the UK’s hopes and aspirations for the EPG’s report.

We feel it is important that the Commonwealth returns to working on its brand strengths of democracy and development. We want a strengthened CMAG that protects our values, but also offers encouragement to those facing challenges to democratic development. Incidentally, building on the success of the authoritative publication on Democracy in the Commonwealth, we welcome and commend CPSU’s input into the CMAG review.

We want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. I see an increased commitment to democratic values and increased trade as two sides of the same coin.

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.
To mobilise pressure and support the Commonwealth must raise its voice. We would like to see the Commonwealth grow its own powerful thinktank with semi-official status that could float and circulate new ideas and initiatives for discussion, and inject them into public debate.

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.

We also believe small and vulnerable states should feel that the Commonwealth network offers them a platform to voice their opinions and to receive timely assistance and support on the issues of our time such as climate change.

As I said, Perth is pivotal. In Port of Spain Heads agreed on the need to look carefully at our future, and in Perth Heads will need to take vital decisions, in response to these recommendations, which will shape the role of the Commonwealth, help it to realise its potential, and have more impact in our networked world 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 the C is firmly back in the FCO. We are ready to take advantage of our position at the centre of this readymade network to facilitate change for the good of all.

We are certain that the Commonwealth will become a central platform of the international future and represent an enlightened and responsible people in shaping the direction our world is moving in. I can think of no better way of finishing than with a quote from the Head of this eminent organisation, Queen Elizabeth II who in her 2009 Christmas message said that the Commonwealth is “in lots of ways, the face of the future.”

Thank you.

Search the news archive