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Column 1088The Minister mentioned debt. The debts which many Commonwealth countries owe to developed countries run to billions of pounds, with a handful owing more than 100 per cent. of their gross national product. There was outrage at the European development fund discussions in Brussels when Baroness Chalker embarrassed our European counterparts, disgraced the United Kingdom and showed contempt for the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries present. She collapsed the talks when she proposed a cut of 30 per cent. from the European development fund. That shows the Government's lack of concern for many of our fellow Commonwealth countries.
Mr. Baldry: The hon. Gentleman says that we should do more to help countries such as Bangladesh, but does he not find it curious that, under the existing Lome system, more European development fund money goes to countries like Mauritius than to Bangladesh? We have many concerns about how the EDF operates, and it must be right for Britain to have a strong bilateral aid programme.
Mr. Foulkes: I have heard the arguments from the Minister and Baroness Chalker about why we should cut the European development fund to put more money, allegedly, into the bilateral programme, but that is not the answer; both programmes need to be maintained. The problem is that the whole fund for overseas aid has been continuously decreasing over the past 16 years, which is why the Government have to make that cut--they cannot maintain the bilateral aid programme on a reducing budget. The Minister must know that many excellent opportunities exist to use the Lome convention and European Community mechanisms to aid the developing world. The EC-ACP Lome relationship is separate from our direct relations with the Commonwealth, but equally valuable.
As the Minister said, the Commonwealth's future is to be examined by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. That is to be welcomed on both sides of the House. I certainly welcome the debate that will ensue as a result of that study, as it will show the advantages and benefits which exist for all members and it will analyse the Commonwealth's changing role and global importance. In all its activities, the Commonwealth benefits from shared practices and beliefs, and from the shared language of English which for most of us, though not all, is our native language. The modern association consists of three layers--Government; Commonwealth secretariat and other inter-governmental bodies; and the 77 Commonwealth non-governmental organisations.
The Minister mentioned the Commonwealth Foundation and I endorse what he said about it. I could say much more about the work that it does for young people and its range of activities. I had the privilege today of talking with a member of staff from the Commonwealth Foundation who, unlike the Prime Minister, was in Copenhagen at the social summit--
Column 1089the networking which took place there and the links that it provides between Governments and non-governmental organisations. It is a great pity that the British Government were not properly represented there.
The Minister mentioned another Commonwealth institution--the Commonwealth Institute--and tried to take credit for the fact that the Commonwealth Institute will, it is hoped, survive. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) should perhaps take some credit for that, as he argued against a cut of £2.7 million in Government funding, but the Government ignored him, so it is no thanks to the Minister or the Government if the Commonwealth Institute continues. The Labour party hopes that, despite the elimination of the grant to the Commonwealth Institute over the next few years, the institute will nevertheless survive. It is another example of the Commonwealth's commitment to the work of young people and education.
I make no apology for quoting for a third time the excellent Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Anyaoku. He described the Commonwealth's central attribute as
"its ability to bridge racial, ideological and economic divides and inequalities, assisted by its common language and common heritage."
Coupled with a commitment to democracy, the "Commonwealth way", as it has become known, is respected throughout the world. A commitment from the Minister to the Commonwealth's future role and a substantial aid budget to our partners in the Commonwealth would be welcomed by both sides of the House today.
We certainly look forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, to which the Minister referred when he listed the range of topics on the agenda. We would look forward to it even more if there were an election in October and a Labour Government representing this country in Auckland to look after the true interests of the people of the Commonwealth.
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). He and I have worked long on Commonwealth Parliamentary Association matters, as he is joint treasurer and I am the recently retired chairman of the United Kingdom branch. One of the charms of that organisation is that, because all its members are parliamentarians, they are all honourable friends, so it is sometimes difficult not to address hon. Members across the Chamber as "my hon. Friends". The fact that we work together is a characteristic of that organisation. I join other hon. Members in thanking the Leader of the House for providing time for this debate. Curiously enough, one of the benefits of the Jopling system is that it has made time available to get round to debates that we have wanted to have for many years but have been unable to have.
I also thank the Minister for his positive approach to the debate. Some of us were worried about the Government's underlying commitment to and feel for the Commonwealth, especially in the light of the
Column 1090European debate. To have a positive approach demonstrated tonight is reassuring and I am certain that that reassurance will be felt beyond the Chamber.
I also thank him for his earlier reference to a remark that I made exactly a week ago when I raised the question of parliamentary workshops in southern Africa. Work is well advanced on preliminary budgets and, even now, feelers are being put out for an early meeting. I should like to be in a position to report to the half-yearly meeting of the international executive committee my thoughts on that matter, and the thoughts of my hon. Friends in the Government on it will be extremely helpful.
The benefits that those workshops can bring are enormous and it is well understood throughout the Commonwealth, although not yet, alas, throughout the world, that the CPA is unique in providing professional development of parliamentarians. We are just at the end of the 44th parliamentary seminar here in Westminster, which is aimed at that development of parliamentary expertise.
Mr. Shepherd: As my hon. and learned Friend, the current chairman of the association's UK branch, says, it finishes tomorrow. The debate is timely for us as we try to formulate thoughts in advance of the Auckland Heads of Government meeting in November. It is also timely in making it obligatory for us to go back and look at the Harare communique of 1991, which, as the Minister said, was a remarkable document as it was a reassurance and a restatement of Commonwealth principles. Paragraph 9 of the communique contains a declaration that is often quoted. I shall not quote it again as the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley already set it out, but it is every bit as valid today as it was then. It is a good foundation. In paragraph 12, there is an explicit invitation to the CPA to play a full part in promoting the objectives of the Harare declaration.
As was acknowledged--because that was very much part of the theme, the CPA as parliamentary wing of the Commonwealth--the CPA has responded with vigour to that invitation. Mention has been made of the election monitoring and observing missions that have been undertaken in conjunction with the Commonwealth secretariat. We have the ability to draw on a vast resource of members in all parts of the world, who are capable of understanding what they are witnessing in the different areas in which the elections that they are invited to observe take place.
The specific realm of excellence and expertise of the CPA is that of post- election seminars. Several places have benefited from them and several will benefit during the year, not necessarily on the basis that I spoke about earlier, but in ways specific to the countries concerned. I believe that we have been helpful, in many cases, in shortening the learning curve of new Houses, so that they have not gone off the rails.
There is further scope to explore the use of the reservoir of parliamentary talent, and indeed former ministerial talent, which exists throughout the Commonwealth and the world, in conflict prevention and also possibly exploration and resolution. I do not
Column 1091know that we have the ability to act as arbiters, but we have the ability to go in as disinterested neutrals, hear both sides and suggest ideas that might be explored. The parliamentary experience that we have available to us is important in that. I have always worried that, when parliamentarians retire, we discard them from our reservoir of talent. They are there to be drawn on while they are healthy and available, which is often the case. We should not ignore that.
In our plenary conferences and regional conferences, we have aimed to choose topics so as to draw out issues that are referred to specifically in the Harare declaration, and to enable Members of so many different Parliaments coming together to share their experiences and knowledge and to devise and derive tactics that they might deploy in their home states to solve various problems that we identify under those circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Minister headed the delegation to the parliamentary conference in Canada in October. He experienced at first hand the enthusiastic exchange of information. I am delighted that he is able to lead the delegation to the 1995 conference in Sri Lanka, when we shall take further the issue of the way in which we develop democracy in our Commonwealth.
The Minister told us some of the ideas for the Heads of Government meeting in Auckland in November, and I shall tell him about two specific aspects that I believe need to be discussed, among many. The first is what I call the profile of the Commonwealth. The profile of the Commonwealth has been low. From time to time, it has been raised as a result of the temperature in South Africa or, before that, Rhodesia, there has been a fight and the media have been interested in us because there has been a fight. However, for the most part, because we tend to work together and not to fight, we do not excite media interest. That is a disadvantage. It is an advantage for our work, but a disadvantage in terms of obtaining public understanding. In that context, I welcome the visit made to Brussels on 2 March 1995 by Chief Anyaoku, when he spoke to the European Parliament and met members of the European Commission. That was valuable, especially given the fact that the 35 Commonwealth countries make up slightly less than half of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in the Lome convention. It is terribly important that there is greater awareness in the European Union of the nature of the Commonwealth. We need to continue to increase the awareness of the Commonwealth in the world, of all that it stands for and of what it does. I mentioned the European Union. The United States of America is another part of the world that one might say is temporarily absent from the Commonwealth, or whatever one says, but in the USA there is not only an almost total lack of knowledge about the Commonwealth, but a lack of awareness that it even exists. Over the years in the House, I have had attached to me from time to time some of the young interns from universities. I always ask whether they have any awareness of the Commonwealth and, with one exception, the answer has been, "What is the Commonwealth?" It brings it home to me the fact that there is no knowledge.
Column 1092Last summer, I was invited along with a CPA team to do a presentation at the National Conference of State Legislatures annual convention. That was a fascinating experience because the convention was very well attended. There is a ground swell of feeling in the United States at the moment that its system of checks and balances is so checked and balanced that nothing can be done; there is gridlock. All types of curious solutions are being suggested. My object, along with others, in being present was to demonstrate that there is another way.
Among the 200 state legislators who were present at that meeting, there was a total blankness and amazement that there was another way of running a Parliament or a legislature. They were fascinated, and want us to send another team to try to demonstrate at their next conference the way in which our system works.
I believe that that is good, in that those people can understand that there is a world outside; that there is another way of doing things. They find it mind-boggling that there should be no fewer than 120 legislatures around the world--almost three times as many as in the United States--working on that system, more or less, with variations and bits and bobs.
Further, I believe, given the spread of the Commonwealth to so many parts of the world, that that very large part of the world that I refer to as the Hispanic world should have a greater awareness of the nature of the Commonwealth. We just breathe on it through Belize and Guyana, but there should be far greater awareness, and we could avoid certain difficulties before they happen if there were that awareness. That is one big task that Heads of Government must tackle--to decide how to raise the profile of the Commonwealth without fighting to obtain reportage.
The second aspect that I wish Heads of Government to consider relates very much to fundamental political values that are referred to so often in various communique s. The key to that lies in remarks made by Chief Anyaoku in his speech to the CPA plenary conference in Canada, when he floated the concept of linking democratic governance with active membership of the Commonwealth. His remarks were as follows:
"I have had occasion to say in the past that military intervention in politics is a political aberration and a derogation from the democratic development of a country. I believe that as we progressively pursue the objectives of the Harare Declaration, the day will not be far away when representatives of military regimes will find no welcome in the councils of the Commonwealth." That was a brave and sensible statement. I believe that it should be acted on.
The CPA already practises that concept, because among the criteria for active membership of our association is full democratic governance based upon universal suffrage. A member who slips from grace democratically is placed in abeyance. In CPA terms, that is fairly draconian, but it is our only sanction. It is not terminal, because a country is allowed back in the CPA as soon as that state of grace is restored.
One must be sensitive about what one advocates. I do not want to expel countries from the Commonwealth. Countries want to join it and the more countries we embrace, the better the chance we have of influencing change. By "we", I mean not the United Kingdom, but
Column 1093Commonwealth members. There should be a penalty, however, against any group in a particular country that contemplates overthrowing or seeks to overthrow the democratically elected Government of that country. That group must consider the downsides to its action, and there should be some.
Each member country should know exactly where it stands and that the Commonwealth adopts a consistent approach. During the course of the year I passed through Fiji, to which my hon. Friend the Minister also referred. There is a distinct sense of injustice in that country, not because of the military coup and the subsequent peregrinations about how to restore a democratic Government, while recognising the various problems and interests, but because it is felt that Fiji was treated differently from other Commonwealth countries. People said to me, "Why were we expelled when Nigeria, the Gambia and Sierra Leone have not been expelled? Why were we treated differently?" They have a case.
There is a way of dealing with such a problem. It has been set out rather neatly in the communique from Islamabad, issued by senior officials, which addresses the question of non-payment of subscriptions to the Commonwealth secretariat. It made it clear that when a country had not paid for six years, it should be given special status. That special status would debar it from attending Heads of Government meetings. If that country had paid its subscriptions to the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation--CFTC --it would be able to continue to draw on that reservoir of aid.
To apply that arrangement sideways, when a country slips from democratic grace through a coup or whatever, it should not be accorded the privilege-- that is the right word--of attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. That country should be placed in a special relationship to the Commonwealth. Should it continue to pay its subscription to the CFTC and to the Commonwealth as a whole, it should be able to use that particular avenue to guarantee developmental aid and non-governmental organisation involvement. In that sense, the citizenry is not disadvantaged, but we should not give a platform to those who achieve their power by non- democratic means. I would like such an arrangement to be on the agenda at Auckland.
While I have been chairman of the international executive committee of the CPA, I have endeavoured to use my vacation time--I emphasise that, for obvious reasons--to visit as many CPA branches as possible. Whenever I have had an overseas commitment, I have been able to bolt on a number of rapid visits round the branches. I try to do a "Heineken" by getting to those branches, especially the smaller ones, which other chairmen and officers have been unable to reach. It is something of a rarity to travel to the smaller branches.
It is also nice to talk to people outside the Parliaments. It is a humbling experience, because their awareness of and regard for the Commonwealth is awe-inspiring. That is not only humbling, but unnerving, because in the United Kingdom I do not find that same awareness, respect, understanding, regard or even knowledge of the ideals of the Commonwealth.
That lack of knowledge brings me to the Commonwealth Institute. I should declare that, as a governor of it since 1989, I have a non-pecuniary interest in the institute. It took me a little time to
Column 1094understand what I was seeing. I acknowledge the downbeat nature of some of the remarks made last week and tonight about it. The lack of awareness, knowledge, understanding, respect or regard for the Commonwealth is a great reflection of the failure of the institute for many years. My hon. Friend the Minister has already referred to the falling numbers who attend the institute--800,000 people a year used to visit it; now that number is down to 250,000. That is a failure in itself, because the institute is failing to attract people.
I experienced trepidation when Lord Armstrong set out on a quinquennial review of the organisation. I was uplifted by his positive report. It was marvellous that the Commonwealth Institute was recognised for what it is. Along with the other governors, however, I was knocked down by the opinion of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and rather startled when funding was withdrawn. In fact, I was shattered. On reflection, and painful though it has been, I endorse what the Government have done to the Commonwealth Institute. I do not think that change could have been made without that kick. I do not believe that the Government have gone far enough yet.
One of Lord Armstrong's recommendations was that doing nothing was not an option. Throwing money at the institute had, palpably, achieved nothing. It was clear that there had to be a change in thought. I welcome the arrival of Lord Armstrong, as a vice-chairman, on the board of governors. That in itself is a powerful statement of confidence by him in the future of the institute.
I also pay tribute to the powerful chairmanship of David Thompson, who has guided the changes made during the past few months. I should like to reflect on the imaginative thinking of Stephen Cox, the director general of the institute. The fact that so many of our colleagues are aware of what is happening to the institute, when previously they were not even aware of it, is a reflection of his lobbying capabilities. There is nothing wrong with that.
The House must understand that feeling at the Commonwealth Institute is upbeat. It is excited by and committed to what it is trying to do. The developments are exciting. Now that the thought processes have been let loose, we are grateful to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its further support as the institute moves into a period of transition. The timetable must be very tight if we are not to lose momentum as new developments are made. The Government need to move fast when the business plan is submitted, which will be well within the deadline.
There is a narrow window of opportunity for construction work to take place while the conference season is in abeyance. If we run over that and lose the conference season, the cash flow outcome will be different and dangerous. Incidentally, anyone seeking an excellent conference venue in London should know that the Commonwealth Institute's conference centre is right up among the leaders. It is very good indeed and extremely competitive.
I should like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury to match the lateral thinking that has been let loose within the Commonwealth Institute. There must be a team effort to take that to completion and there is a great penalty for doing nothing. If we get it wrong, if the thinking does not emerge and if there is
Column 1095collapse, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be left with a mess. That would be a rotten message to the Commonwealth and the world, as well as there being a continuing bill of £590,000 a year, because that is the sum that is required to do nothing to the building. That cannot be avoided, at least not without primary legislation. The pitching of the Commonwealth Institute into a new orbit is welcome, and traumatic, and it is becoming a value-for-money operation as well.
One message is not enough. Politics is also about perception and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to project a continuing interest in the Commonwealth Institute. I am not saying that it needs to continue with the grant, but a rose by any other name smells as sweet and a subscription showing commitment would be helpful in terms of outside attitudes and perceptions. As I said, we must bear it in mind that doing nothing and allowing collapse would mean a subscription of £590,000 a year, and we are not necessarily looking for that.
The Department for Education has to play its part as well, because the institute is an educational establishment. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) spoke about its educational purpose, which is to create and develop awareness among the young as well as the old in this country, whatever their ethnic background, about the nature of the Commonwealth. The institute is the United Kingdom's only provider of education about the Commonwealth; the national curriculum includes a study of commonwealth. The educational activities are closely linked to the whole operation.
There is a Department for Education representative on the executive committee. I have been on that committee since 1989 and have listened to the DFE saying, "Yes, we agree." But as soon as there is a question of any money or help it says, "No, that is not our department, that is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We could not possibly get involved in that." As the institute has a positive educational role, I should like to see a positive educational input in financial terms from the DFE.
I support the institute's bid for a one-off grant to help it in its transition. It is a modest grant for the funding of phase 1 of its new education centre and I am certain that it would be a good investment. I should also like to see the DFE making a continuing subscription to the institute because of its palpable education mission.
There is great excitement in the institute about the new vision, which I call the Commonwealth vision--it is the vision of the Commonwealth that the institute portrays. It will rapidly become one of Britain's major draws for visitors. I want to see that happen and the time scale cannot be allowed to slip. It must be sustained and all the help that the Government can give in that direction will be enormously appreciated.
Our Commonwealth could not be invented if we started from scratch. It is a remarkable institution that others have tried to replicate, but so far they have failed. We might be able to help them in another way. The Commonwealth is international and multiracial and it works on personal relationships. Those have to be the best relationships for people, whether they are part
Column 1096of the Government or the governed. All Commonwealth countries need friends around the globe, and countries from outside the Commonwealth are seeking to engage our Commonwealth friends in friendship. The United Kingdom needs to look towards its friends in the Commonwealth so as to maintain that friendship, because we never know when we might need it. The Commonwealth is a forward-looking and pragmatic group of friends who have demonstrated their ability to work well together. We contribute a tremendous amount to the peoples of the world and we must continue to do that.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): The House is better informed about the Commonwealth Institute and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as a result of the speeches by the hon. Members for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd).
I share the anxiety of the hon. Member for Hereford about the fact that American interns had not heard the word "Commonwealth". The word is part of their own constitutional tradition, because the state of Virginia is properly described as the Commonwealth of Virginia. Other states are described in the same way. It is a pity that the interns did not understand that, at least for people in this country, a Commonwealth embraces much more than a single state.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley made an enthusiastic speech, and revealed the answer to a mystery that has troubled me for some time. When, in February and November, many of us are pallid and sickly, I could never understand why the hon. Gentleman had such extraordinary reserves of energy and sported such a well-developed tan. All can now be revealed. As treasurer of the CPA, the hon. Gentleman, in an orgy of self- denial, has taken himself to places that are far from the bosom of his family and the mother of Parliaments, so as to advance the interests of the Commonwealth and the CPA.
It seems to have done him no harm, and that may encourage others among the 536 CPA members in the House to take a more active role. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman's humorous response to these shafts at his expense does him great credit.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley made a number of significant points, dwelling to some extent upon the issue of the readmission of South Africa. When one considers the extent to which South Africa dominated Commonwealth affairs from 31 May 1961, when Mr. Verwoerd took it out, until 1 June 1994, when Mr. Mandela brought it back in, it is right to look at the Commonwealth to some extent through the eyes of South Africa as a rejoined member. That is especially relevant when one considers that Her Majesty the Queen is about to embark on what is justifiably described as an historic visit to South Africa, although it is her second visit.
What will South Africa be looking for as she returns to the Commonwealth? There is an obvious answer, and Mr. Mandela has been totally frank about it. The South African Government will be looking for the advantages of trade, commercial opportunity and aid. Some telling points have already been made in the debate about
Column 1097the importance of aid and the extent to which, in the Commonwealth at large, there is, to put it as gently as I can, disappointment that some of the aspirations on aid have not been met by the Government to the extent that hon. Members in all parts of the House would have preferred.
South Africa will also be looking for the diplomatic influence that the Commonwealth can bring to bear on so much of world affairs, and for the opportunity of cultural exchange about which we have heard in the debate. South Africa is rightly described as sports-mad, and will be looking for the additional sporting opportunities that will now be available to it.
At Murrayfield stadium in November, as the South African rugby team was eviscerating my native and beloved Scotland, for a moment I disloyally wished that the Gleneagles agreement was still in force. A nation for which sport has always been extremely important is at last being allowed to take its rightful place in those sports in which it is truly world-class. So there we have it--the economic, diplomatic, cultural and sporting factors. Those are the benefits that South Africa undoubtedly looks for on its return to the Commonwealth. I want to consider the interests of the Commonwealth's African members. One remembers the extent to which Africa was a central battleground, sometimes in literal terms, during the cold war. That war has come to an end. As a consequence, the super-powers' interest in Africa has waned. The Commonwealth is extremely important for its African members, because it allows them the opportunity for a collective voice.
For obvious reasons, the United Kingdom has rediscovered emphasis on the European Union, although the extent to which that will be carried through is something on which, at this stage at least, no final conclusion has been reached. The opening up of eastern Europe has necessarily focused people's attention away from Africa. The possibility of peace in the middle east has had a similar diversionary effect. The emphasis on the Pacific rim and the enormous economic opportunities that are available have also diverted attention. One could even say that the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement has drawn Canada, for so long a prominent member of the Commonwealth, into a relationship with the United States of America and Mexico.
For its African members, therefore, the Commonwealth has become yet more important as the eyes of the world have been diverted in other directions because of those political developments.
That collective voice has an influence on the UK--and through the UK on, I hope, the European Union--and on Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which are developed countries. Therefore, that opportunity for a collective voice persuades some countries that have never been members of the Commonwealth to show an interest in joining. They include Mozambique, Cameroon, Angola and Eritrea. One can say, without being patronising, that new democracies in Africa have much to learn from the Commonwealth and from the traditions of parliamentary government, about which we heard in the eloquent speech that was made earlier.
Column 1098Some regimes are more in need than others of the lessons of parliamentary government. I thought that the hon. Member for Hereford embarked on an interesting debate when he said that the Commonwealth should not treat it as an entirely internal matter if a country that had conducted itself with proper parliamentary democratic traditions should change into a military rulership or something of that sort. The Commonwealth's strength and credibility will be maintained only if it robustly condemns the replacement of properly constituted civilian rule by military rule, and large-scale human rights violations. Exclusion, special status and other such measures may be difficult to achieve--one can imagine all sorts of efforts being made at self-protection against sanctions of that sort.
As the hon. Gentleman said, however, such measures could do nothing but enhance the credibility of the Commonwealth as an institution embodying certain principles. Membership of the Commonwealth should be continued and allowed only if those principles remained at the heart of the institutions of each member.
I shall slightly divert from the comments of the hon. Gentleman for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). One might say that I take a slightly less visionary view of the Commonwealth. There must be some realism about what we are capable of achieving. I believe, as to some extent my remarks have underlined, that the Commonwealth's greatest contribution probably lies in the promotion of democracy and in the protection of human rights. That involves the extent to which the Harare declaration can be turned from a set of principles into practical proposals that are fully implemented.
Leaving aside the question of special status, suspension and other such measures, in a sense the Commonwealth's only effective sanctions are moral pressure and the ability to communicate, which a common language and common traditions undoubtedly confer. It would be idealistic, but wholly unrealistic, to expect that the Commonwealth as presently constituted could resolve the difficulties that exist between India and Pakistan.
One can argue with some force, however, that, if those difficulties were to reach their most acute state, and if, for example, an outbreak of hostilities took place--there have been, and no doubt will be, occasions when that seems likely--the Commonwealth would at least be available at the beginning to offer the opportunity for mediation, and to endeavour to persuade the adversaries to find a way of resolving their difficulty.
In relation in India and Pakistan, the Commonwealth would have a unique capability--no other institution would have that. I take a more realistic view than the hon. Gentleman--I believe that I am right to describe it like that--but I acknowledge that moral pressure, the capacity to communicate, and the existence of common traditions could be effective weapons in endeavouring to solve either hostilities or some substantial political disagreement that might arise between Commonwealth members.
One matter is a puzzle. I have frequently asked myself this question. What would have happened to the Commonwealth if apartheid had not been carried out in South Africa, and if that country had not left the
Column 1099Commonwealth? What would have happened to all that moral indignation that characterised the meetings of Commonwealth Heads of State for such a long time? As with all speculations, it is impossible to give a realistic answer, but we are entitled to say that those meetings will no longer be as acrimonious as they were--we hope--and that the important task is to ensure that they become more fruitful and that the Commonwealth is more effective, now that it has solved its most significant internal political problem.
Last year, I had occasion to visit a cemetery near one of the battlefields in Europe. One only has to do that to realise just how strong the tradition is to which I have referred. The number of people from Commonwealth countries who died in western Europe fighting against Nazism is staggering to behold. To hon. Members who have not taken that opportunity, I recommend it as an extraordinary indication of the fact that the battle in Europe was fought by the Commonwealth as much as by the UK.
That common history and tradition clearly informs our attitudes today. It gives me hope in two respects. First, there is a practical thing we can do. Many of our discussions in the United Nations are given over to effective peacekeeping or peacemaking. We need not get into that debate this evening, but if ever an opportunity existed for the Commonwealth to take an active role, it surely lies in peacekeeping. We share those common traditions and a common language. Many senior officers have had common training as well.
I hope that, in the development of the Commonwealth's role, some consideration will be given to the extent to which Commonwealth battalions, or battalions from Commonwealth countries, may be allowed to take part more in relation to the likely increased requirements and obligations of the UN to provide peacekeeping forces. I want to finish with the comment that has punctuated my speech, which is that it is in the promotion of democratic values and the recognition of human rights that the Commonwealth's relevance is to be found. A debate such as this gives us the opportunity to underline the possibility that a commitment of that sort would create. 7.50 pm
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): In this week in which 51 flags fly in Parliament square representing the Commonwealth, I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government for responding so promptly and with such enthusiasm to my request at business questions two weeks ago for a debate devoted entirely to the Commonwealth during the week following Commonwealth day, which was Monday 13 March. I wish the other representations that I make ceaselessly to the Government were taken up with such enthusiasm.
As the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) has reminded us, this is the first Commonwealth debate held in the House since 1987. It is a disgrace that an institution that is so important to us in Britain has somehow managed to slip the attentions of all of us as legislators, and has not been the subject of a special debate. It has been subsumed
Column 1100in every other debate on foreign affairs. Perhaps the fact that we are having this debate is a manifestation of the remarkable and exciting resurgence of interest and activity in this great international institution in which Britain plays such an essential part.
If Dean Acheson had still been with us, he would be saying today that Britain, having lost an empire, has now found several roles. After all, there is hardly any major international organisation today, whether it be the United Nations, NATO, the G7 countries or the European Union, in which Britain does not sit at the top table, influencing important future policy. Of all the great institutions, the one in which we experience the greatest warmth and feel so much a part is the Commonwealth.
It is a great voluntary, charterless union of nations. It is the inheritor of the days of empire. It now numbers 51 nations, ruling over 1.5 billion people. South Africa and Pakistan have at last come back to join, as has Namibia, which was never a part of the British empire. Mozambique, Cameroon, Angola and Eritrea have shown an interest in joining, despite having no direct cultural links with our union in the past. An article in The Independent on Sunday recently said that Ireland was considering coming closer to the Commonwealth, and someone told me that Japan was showing some interest, if only as part of a joint venture.
During my early political lifetime of a generation and more, the question was often asked, "What is the use of the Commonwealth? It is no more than a talking shop. It does nothing and stands for very little." That is said no longer. The Commonwealth is now expanding and showing a new vitality. Why? I think that it is because its existing members, its former members and its aspiring members see a relevance and importance for it in the new world order.
In the past few years, the old order of the super-powers facing each other off in a cold war has disintegrated. Africa, once a focus of super-power interest, has become potentially weaker without strong allies. The old imperatives of communist power and compulsion have dissolved, and its vassal states are in danger of losing the guidance and control which for so long masqueraded as stability.
There is now a new freedom in the world. There are the beacons of democracy, free enterprise and the rule of law, but there is also a need for a new community which will foster and develop those beacons. There is a need for the newly independent nation states in the new order all over the world to attain new goals.
First, they need to maintain their independence by achieving economic self- reliance. That means joining a community with a common economic interest and opportunities for trade and industrial development. The Commonwealth could help to provide that with the investment of the major parties in countries such as South Africa and with the links that Britain has with the European Union.
Secondly, those countries need to be a part of a community with common security interests, in which their concerns can be expressed and their voices listened to in a way that has been no longer possible now that the old orders have dissolved.
Column 1101Thirdly, there is a need to be closer to the beacons of democracy, free enterprise and the rule of law that are guiding those nations away from the rocks of totalitarianism in which those countries have engaged hitherto.
Fourthly, at a time of resurgent nationalism and racial conflict, the community that they join must be genuinely multiracial and concerned for human rights and civil liberties. The 1991 Harare declaration states that the Commonwealth would work, inter alia, for fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of race, colour, creed and political belief.
Fifthly, such nations will inevitably feel more comfortable in a community where there is a common language and a common history and culture. Although not all the aspirants to membership meet that requirement, broadly, the Commonwealth provides all that, and, in addition, the head of the Commonwealth--the Queen--embodies in her office and her person some of the best of the traditional features of our communal history.
Because of our shared history and traditions, particularly our regard for other races, there is a warmth of feeling among Commonwealth members that one does not feel so strongly in the other institutions in which Britain plays a part. The Commonwealth is and feels like a family--a family of nations.
As we have heard, over the past two weeks the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which I currently have the privilege to be chairman, has been hosting one of its regular seminars for Commonwealth parliamentarians. As Briton eats, drinks and discusses with Kenyan, as Canadian discusses with Indian, New Zealander with Pakistani and Australian with South African and Falkland Islander, we all feel as if we are talking to our cousins--members of our family. It is quite extraordinary. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) for his kind remarks about the sort of work that the CPA does in that family environment.
Many organisations actively promote the Commonwealth ideal--they have been mentioned in several of the excellent speeches this evening. Since Parliaments are so central to the Commonwealth, it is not surprising that the CPA, with its international office as well as its United Kingdom branch here in Westminster, plays a such a prominent role. We represent the interests of over 10,000 Commonwealth parliamentarians in 123 legislatures in 47 Commonwealth countries.
The United Kingdom branch has 962 members, which includes 565 Members of Parliament--nearly all of us. I have approached some of our friends the Liberal Democrats, but they are committed to so many activities in the House, having to keep pace with the various Departments of State, that I accept that it may be a little difficult. However, I should be grateful if the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) would encourage one or two of his hon. Friends to consider joining. I do not accuse them for one moment of not being interested in the Commonwealth, but they are so few in number that they have to spread themselves thinly to cover all their commitments.
Column 1102Three hundred and fifty members of our branch are former Members of Parliament. It is one of the largest branches of the CPA worldwide. Because of the high reputation enjoyed by our organisation, we had no fewer than 235 full applications from men of great distinction in the military and public services in answer to our advertisement for a new branch secretary to follow the redoubtable Captain Peter Cobb RN, who has served us for 15 years and, sadly, is having to retire. Our model of parliamentary democracy--the Westminster model--has been exported worldwide. With the aid of workshops, seminars, visits and conferences, we continue to maintain that model and influence countries that seek to embrace it. In this context, I need not repeat many of the points made today, but we maintain that model in close liaison with the international CPA, which is chaired with great distinction by my predecessor at the United Kingdom branch of the CPA, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd). My hon. Friend's team of officials is led by the distinguished former Speaker of the Ontario Parliament, Mr. Arthur Donahoe QC.