Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Sir Peter Marshall, KCMG CVO

Will you permit me, as someone with many years of direct involvement in Commonwealth affairs, to express to you my delight that, in spite of your many other concerns, you have launched an inquiry into the Role and Future of the Commonwealth?

The present is a difficult context in which to form any long term judgment.

The Eminent Persons Group have produced the most far-reaching, comprehensive and detailed survey of Commonwealth activities ever submitted to Heads of Government. Thus it cannot be altogether a matter of surprise that there was caution in Perth. Time, moreover, is an essential ingredient. The question is whether there is sufficient momentum to carry forward the reshaping of the Commonwealth to meet the requirements of the 21st century. A longer perspective can help to provide the answer.

This is not to say that the Commonwealth should always proceed at the most cautious intergovernmental pace. Its evolution has been largely based on the talents, commitment and imagination on a handful of leaders, as witness the Imperial Conference of 1926, leading to the Statute of Westminster of 1931; the Commonwealth backing of The Smuts initiative for an inspirational Preamble to the United Nations Charter; and—above all—the adoption, at the Prime Ministers’ Meeting of 1949, of the formula whereby India remained in the Commonwealth on becoming a republic. The United Kingdom has shown itself capable of providing such leadership now.

Four Background Considerations:

1. It used to be said of the Commonwealth that it is a ruminant rather than a carnivore. This is an exaggeration. But it is useful to recognise that the Commonwealth lives by the consensus implicit in its organic quality. It is not therefore readily given to the acceptance of intergovernmental obligations more attuned to treaty-based organisations. Much has already been achieved in this regard which puts the Commonwealth ahead of other international organisations.

2. One of the great strengths of the Commonwealth is that much of the running is made by the non-governmental entities. Their liaison with the official Commonwealth is close and fruitful. But the sovereignty so closely cherished by governments means that it may take time for common perceptions and aspirations to find full official intergovernmental expression.

3. A great deal of international activity is now concerned with Human Rights on their broad definition, epitomised in the portmanteau term “Human Security”. It has long been the case internationally that the Promotion of Human Rights is more harmonious and more rewarding than the Protection of Human Rights. That there may be a gap between the two is no reason to diminish the pursuit of the former.

4. In as far as the Commonwealth seeks to give a world lead in this area, perhaps we should concentrate on some particular aspect of the question of Human Rights. The record suggests that the role of women would be particularly appropriate. The Commonwealth theme for 2011 was “Women as the Agents of Change”. The 2011 Commonwealth Lecture delivered by Sonia Gandhi was historic.

The “Internal” Commonwealth

Much of the discussion of the Commonwealth concentrates on the relations between member countries, rather than on its significance within them individually. The growing “internal” significance for the United Kingdom was well illustrated in the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee Year in 2002. This will surely prove to be the case again in the Diamond Jubilee, on which it is most encouraging that the Committee is so fully focussed.

Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General, 1983- 1988.
Chairman, Royal Commonwealth Society, 1988–1992.
Chairman, Joint Commonwealth Societies’ Council, 1993–2003.

16 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012