Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr Paul Flather

1. The Commonwealth has a real and valuable future. But to deliver this, the UK government must recognise, more explicitly, the many hidden, non-pecuniary, yet tangible benefits we receive from our historic, trading, cultural and migratory links to all our past domains. The Commonwealth is deeply unfashionable, and most politicians, even those who originate from other Commonwealth members, ignore, downplay, or seem even faintly embarrassed about its existence, and uninterested in its potential. The FCO title is, however, precisely retained. Yet, even allowing for David Miliband or Robin Cook, when did a Foreign Secretary, explicitly champion membership of the UK or seek to use the forum explicitly to help reach a goal.

2. As the world adopts “English” as its lingua franca , so the benefits of being actively and recognizably and proudly at the centre of the English-speaking world through the Commonwealth, surely are becoming clearly in terms of cultural, technological and diplomatic influence, development, and trade.

3. The arguments become far stronger, when one sees the full potential of the Commonwealth as a club that is – or should become more—unequivocal in its goals to promote democracy and democratic values and structures; to promote the rule of law and human rights. It remains one of the very few bodies that can – and does—even if this is done, perhaps a little too rarely, expel a member for failing these “tests”. That it does not do more on these fronts, is clearly a sign of some weakness. Such tests could be more explicitly developed, more openly monitored, and more clearly targeted.

4. In that sense the recent recommendations from the recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group are a breath of fresh air. But what is still needed—and here Perth must be seen as two steps forward but one step back—is an Ombudsman for Democracy; a more powerful and better resourced secretariat; and a more dynamic role for the Secretary-General. In world where the UN often fails to take the lead on such issues, the Commonwealth can strive to set a “gold” standard. The UK, without undermining its world-class diplomatic credentials, could and should be playing a bigger role on this front. As it searches for a world role in the 21st century, allowing too for its somewhat ambiguous standing within the EU, this surely can play enormously to our positive image and keep us on every top table. With the US no longer everyone’s favourite, the UK’s role as bridge, should surely become more significant.

5. Finally, the Commonwealth, de facto, enables us as a first world, developed, North, country to link directly to almost 50 other countries that we might, in the normal way, usually pass by. Many are small, relatively powerless, almost obscure, members of the global family. In such circumstances, we help to give voice to the less powerful, we can learn more about global concerns, not to mention, crucially, about the backgrounds and interests of our own citizen groups, and we can, with due humility and responsibility, lead and help to represent such smaller nations, in areas such as climate and environmental change, globalization,, fair trade, global equity and justice, and migratory movements and flows. All such bodies, however small, should therefore continue as full members of the Commonwealth, where their concerns can be properly expressed, heard, shared – and, one hopes and expect, mitigated.

6. There are a myriad of vital, lively, interesting, and productive, cross-Commonwealth bodies. Probably too many, if truth be told. It would be sensible to try to single out a lead body in each major field,, and build that body up, and also to review where such bodies can add real value within the scope of the Commonwealth, and where – perhaps in an area like health – the space is better yielded to another more established successful body, such as the WHO.

7. The Commonwealth exists. It would be negligent to waste its potential. It would be criminal to allow it to atrophy. It would be vandalism to kill it off. But nothing improves by standing still, Sensible, constant, reform is needed. It has to be led, gently and considerately by the UK so, while the next ceremonial patron might remain a member of the royal family, the next Chair in office for perhaps in five-year stints, should be a figure of outstanding merit and pre-eminence. .

7. There are good ideas on the table. It is time to move forward publicly and with commitment.

20 December 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012