UK, Australia and the Commonwealth

Speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society in Sydney to commemorate the Queen's Birthday.

Mr Nick McInnes

I am very pleased to have been invited to speak today to The Royal Commonwealth Society: I feel very privileged to be addressing you at this lunch to mark The Queen’s Birthday.

I would like to start today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and elders past and present and then paying tribute to the remarkable person who has been our dear Queen for more than six decades. On September 9th this year, The Queen will become the longest reigning British monarch overtaking Queen Victoria (who reigned for 63 years, 216 days).

The Queen has had to work with twelve Prime Ministers during her reign. The first, Sir Winston Churchill, was born in 1874, served in the army of Queen Victoria and the governments of Edward VII and subsequent monarchs. Her current Prime Minister, David Cameron, was born in 1966 and she saw him for the first time playing a rabbit in a production of ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ at the exclusive Heatherdown School in Ascot.

The Queen has always had a very clear sense of her role and has shown such dedication to it over the past 60+ years. She is held in such high respect throughout the world and remains very much a working monarch with a very taxing schedule. She will be a very hard act to follow.

I have to say that it is a very good time to be the British Consul General in Sydney given the current strength of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Australia and the greater relevance of the Commonwealth. There was for a long time a degree of complacency on the UK’s part towards both but that has changed completely in recent years. I took over as Consul General at the beginning of 2013 just before William Hague’s third visit in two years – after a period of 17 years when no Foreign Secretary had visited – which reflected the importance the UK now attaches to the bilateral relationship. Hague also made very clear the Government’s commitment to strengthening the UK’s links with the Commonwealth when he pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the FCO when appointed Foreign Secretary. The Conservative Party manifesto prior to the UK’s recent election referred to the importance of strengthening links specifically with ‘Australia, Canada and New Zealand’ and more generally the Commonwealth.

It has also been a good time to be here on the sporting front. I arrived a few months after the very successful Olympics in London. We had the British Lions tour in the middle of 2016 and the Ashes Test series in both England and Australia that year with their very different outcomes. Last year there was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. And, of course, we can now look forward to a further Ashes series and the Rugby World Cup in England and Wales in less than a hundred days. I have a lot of foreboding about the first and more expectation about the second.

I want to talk to you today about the modern relationship that exists between the UK and Australia and the Commonwealth – particularly the economic links given my role as Director General of UK Trade & Investment for Australia and New Zealand – but I want to recognise first the deep historic links that bind us together. I think it is particularly important to do so this year given that we are marking significant anniversaries of many momentous events in 2015.

The year started off with the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death in January. We then commemorated, of course, the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in April. I had the privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the British people at the dawn service at the Cenotaph in Martin Place in front of 30,000 people and also presented this year’s Gallipoli Art Prize to local Sydney artist, Sally Robinson, for her very moving work, “Boy Soldiers”, which depicts gravestones in a cemetery at Gallipoli overlaid with the names and ages of the 100 youngest soldiers to die in the campaign.

We commemorated last week – 18th June – the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo when the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon. I thought I would pause here – given that this lunch is remembering the Battle with the inclusion of Beef Wellington on the menu – to mention one or two things you might not know about the Iron Duke. The first is that he was Irish being born in Dublin in 1769. However, he never thought of himself as Irish and claimed – with apologies to any Irish people who may be present – that “because a man is born in a stable it does not make him a horse”. He entered the Irish Parliament at the age of 20, serving there for 5 years before joining the British army. He fought in the 1794 Flanders Campaign during the French revolutionary war but was appalled by British strategy in this campaign which led him to study the art of war. He also did everything he could to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and would always retreat if that meant avoiding heavy casualties or defeat. As a consequence, he never lost a battle and retired from the battlefield – at the age of 46 – after his victory at the battle of Waterloo. He subsequently went back into politics and had two – not very successful – spells as Prime Minister in later life.

The Duke of Wellington has at least 90 English pubs named after him. If you are an Iron Duke enthusiast, you can drink in 53 pubs in England called “The Duke of Wellington”, as well as 37 that go simply by the name of “Wellington”. And that is just in England. The Duke of Wellington is the oldest licensed pub in Melbourne. And on top of this there are of course, countless pubs that go by the name of ‘The Duke’.

However, I am sorry to say – and I hope I am not being discourteous as your guest – that there is nothing to connect Wellington with the Beef Wellington on today’s menu. Some people do think that the British dish emerged from Wellington’s fondness for a beef fillet covered in foie gras pâté and mushrooms cooked in pastry. However, I understand that there is no evidence of the dish being eaten during either the Duke’s lifetime or the rest of the nineteenth century. However, he can take more credit for Wellington Boots which were named after the multipurpose custom footwear worn during his campaigns.

The next anniversary – moving on but going back a further 400 years in time – was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 when the “English” army under Henry V faced a French army that vastly outnumbered them. Despite the odds, these men – immortalised by Shakespeare as the “band of brothers” – won another celebrated victory. This battle is notable for the use of the English longbow in very large numbers – which caused havoc amongst the French forces – and it is said the first use of the ‘V sign’ by the English longbowmen to mock the French as they relied on these two fingers to fire arrows to deadly effect.

And finally on to what is possibly the most significant of all the anniversaries this year and that is the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. I am conscious that much has been written and said about the Magna Carta in recent weeks. However, I think it is directly relevant to my speech today as it is in many ways the forerunner of the ideas and ideals that the Royal Commonwealth Society stands for and that were set out a couple of years ago in the Commonwealth Charter.

Eight hundred years ago, in the summer of 1215, civil society had been pushed to its limits by King John – certainly one of the worst Kings England has ever had – who used his arbitrary power to extort and appropriate their property to a large extent at his personal whim and will. The barons who opposed him came to Runnymede determined to circumscribe the power of the monarch. They were unlikely champions of the rights of the common man – in fact they couldn’t have cared less. They were solely interested in their own rights – which essentially boiled down to the right to exploit the people living on their lands without interference from the King.

The result of the negotiations that took place between the two sides was the Magna Carta: a substantial document with 63 clauses and more than 4,000 words. And – most will agree – it’s a bit of a hotchpotch. At first glance, it might seem hard to see what the Magna Carta has to do with our present day understanding of the principles of democracy and human rights. For example, it contains clauses covering the removal of all fish weirs from the Thames; and a provision preventing men from being arrested or imprisoned only on the testimony of a woman. However, enshrined in the document are the principles that no man is above the rule of law – not even the king – and that nobody shall be found guilty “except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land…”

The Magna Carta’s enduring significance lies in its main themes of the rule of law and justice for all. Themes that have been widely replicated in the centuries that followed. The Founding Fathers draw on them in writing the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Its principles have influenced – to a greater or lesser extent – the constitutions of Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand and many other Commonwealth countries. Its ideas are present in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – described it as “the international Magna Carta for all mankind”.

And – as I have said – more recently the ongoing influence of the Magna Carta can be seen in the Commonwealth Charter which sets out – for the first time in a single document – the Commonwealth’s core values and commits its leaders to:

  • Upholding democracy and human rights
  • Promoting tolerance and respect
  • Protecting the environment
  • Providing citizens with access to health, education and food; and
  • Recognising the positive role of young people in promoting these and other values

It is now that we work collectively to raise the Charter’s profile and ensure that its values – which are clearly not being lived up to at present by every member in every respect are upheld across the Commonwealth.

I had the privilege of giving the Commonwealth Day speech in NSW Parliament – alongside the former Governor, Dame Marie Bashir – shortly after I arrived in Australia in early 2013. I worked out then that I had lived in or visited about half of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states. I have spent a lot of time in South Africa – both working in Government and in the private sector – and have travelled extensively around the rest of Africa. I was responsible at one time for our trade relations with South Asia (visiting India 12 times in one nine month period). I have also spent a fair amount of time in Canada and the Caribbean. And I am, of course, now responsible in my current role, for our business relations with Australia and New Zealand. I can therefore vouch for the comment that has been made many times that the Commonwealth is an incredibly diverse group of countries. It ranges from some of the largest countries in the world like India, to some of the smallest in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have seen at first hand the sophistication of business in countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia and the fairly basic rural industries in countries like Bangladesh and many parts of Africa. It is this diversity – between different countries – which is one of the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths and which gives it a unique ability to contribute solutions to many of the challenges of today’s world.

As I have said, the current British Government has made very clear its commitment to strengthening the UK’s link with the Commonwealth. We see real advantages in being an active member of the Commonwealth family and see enormous potential in its future. The Commonwealth is made up of:

  • One quarter of the world’s sovereign states
  • 20% of the world’s landmass
  • One in three of the world’s population (including one billion under the age of 25)
  • One permanent member of the UN Security Council; two members of the G7; three members of the European Union; and five members of the G20

The UK Government has backed up its words of support for the Commonwealth with a number of very practical steps to strengthen our engagement with the Commonwealth. This includes strengthening our diplomatic network in Commonwealth countries and re-focusing British aid so that more than half the recipients are now Commonwealth countries. Last year, we worked with the Scottish Government to host the successful Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. We have spent considerable time on the less glamorous but nevertheless important work of ensuring that the Commonwealth institutions are fit for purpose, and have created a new role of Commonwealth Envoy within the FCO to ensure we are more closely engaged right across the huge agenda of Commonwealth business.

I said earlier that I wanted to focus on economic links – given my role as Director General of UK Trade & Investment’s operations in Australia and New Zealand – when talking about the modern relationship that exists between the UK and Australia and the Commonwealth. Trade and Investment are critical to our bilateral relationship with Australia and to increasing prosperity within the Commonwealth. I think it is sometimes easy – in this the Asian century – to lose sight of how strong the economic links are between our two countries. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in Australia after the US with nearly $600bn AUD worth of investment in this country. Australia is also a major investor in the UK with over $200bn AUD worth of investment. And investment flows remain strong in both directions. UK exports of goods and services to Australia have been affected by the fall in the value of the Australian dollar and the slowdown in the economy but they still amount to close to £10 billion.

And many of the reasons why the UK and Australia are natural business partners – common language, shared legal principles and a commitment to inherent values and rights – are also reasons why the Commonwealth is a natural place for doing business. Intra-Commonwealth trade in goods has been increasingly significant in recent years and is already worth around £300 billion. Some studies suggest that the ‘Commonwealth effect’ provides member states with a trade advantage of between 20 to 50 percent when trading with other Commonwealth countries. More than half of all Commonwealth countries now export over a quarter of their total exports to other Commonwealth countries.

And yet, despite these unique advantages – which provide solid foundations for doing business and trade – the Commonwealth combined only accounts for 14 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). So there is tremendous scope for generating more business. But in order to do so we need to create the right conditions for business by reducing barriers for trade, by investing in skills for local people, and by stamping out corruption and ensuring rules and regulations are clear and transparent.

The Commonwealth Games last year provided a platform for sharing expertise and best practice and for building connections between senior business people in different member states. Two separate business events – the Commonwealth Games Business Conference and the British Business House – highlighted the tremendous opportunities for Commonwealth states to improve their trade links and for Commonwealth business to work together to achieve common goals.

An exciting initiative in the last year has been the setting up of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council – under Lord Marland – to help facilitate the investment in infrastructure that is needed by business in many Commonwealth countries. Building infrastructure needs political will, capital and expertise. The political will is evident in the national infrastructure plans that have been developed by many Commonwealth States. The Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council will be a vehicle for identifying investment funding and bringing together the expertise that exists around the Commonwealth to make a reality of these national infrastructure plans.

But at the end of the day – if the Commonwealth businesses are to flourish – they need to operate in an environment where there is rule of law, freedom of speech and human rights. Economic growth and prosperity are dependent on values and good governance. Hence the importance of the Magna Carta in enshrining these principles for the first time 800 years ago.

I think it is very appropriate to be talking about the Commonwealth at this Queen’s Birthday Lunch as I am sure that what has been done to modernise the Commonwealth in recent years and make it more relevant to today’s world will be one of Her Majesty’s enduring legacies. I am very grateful to you for giving me this opportunity. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Commonwealth is as important now as it has ever been and that the UK Government is fully committed to playing a positive and proactive role in the Commonwealth. And its right that we should be marking the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the embodiment of its key principles of the role of law and natural justice in today’s Commonwealth Charter.

Published 9 July 2015