Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from David Dilks

The Committee asks “Does the Commonwealth retain a purpose and value?” So far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the answer should be an emphatic “yes”. Many millions of British citizens have direct family links with the Commonwealth (especially in the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, the old Dominions). Our trade with it is substantial, and we need to make sustained efforts to increase that. The Commonwealth provides us with an enviable range of contacts all over the world; and as the very word “Commonwealth” implies, its essential purpose is the promotion of practical cooperation, the sharing of something valuable, the strengthening of inter-racial friendships. It embodies an enormous investment of British talent and effort from past generations. Nonetheless, the Commonwealth has faded from our political discourse. It receives precious little attention in Parliamentary debates, and none in elections. We need to recognise that until its purposes, activities and potential are more persuasively explained, it cannot be what it ought to be. Above all, it needs the goodwill and support of younger people.

The Committee will no doubt receive lengthy submissions concerning the Commonwealth Secretariat. Even when I worked there, heads of government and ministers were apt to delegate large tasks to Marlborough House without providing the resources; and the tendency has not diminished over the years. The Secretariat’s activities need to be well-focused. There should be a special emphasis on help of a practical kind to small states, of which the Commonwealth has an abundance; on human rights; human resource development; women’s rights.

So far as the F.C.O. is concerned, the presence of a senior minister with a special responsibility for the Commonwealth is welcome and should become normal. The recent announcement by DfID that a substantially increased proportion of its very large budget will go to Commonwealth countries is as commendable as it is overdue.

It is natural for those in public life to conceive of the Commonwealth as being essentially a matter of governments and official structures. It is in reality far more than that. In this country, we need to bring into a much more fruitful collaboration the resources of governments; the expertise of non-governmental organisations; and the enthusiasm of individuals. That is easier said than done, but by no means impossible if we in Britain now show renewed determination and consistency.

It needs not saying that the Commonwealth should be committed to the rule of law, human rights, fair elections, proper treatment of minorities. All the same, to issue high-sounding declarations on subjects, when it is obvious that such conditions do not prevail in a good number of Commonwealth countries, invites scepticism or even scorn. In other words, the official Commonwealth should also point constantly, and in a style which will capture enthusiasm, to the useful work which it is doing and plans to extend. The active goodwill of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and of Prince Harry, would be invaluable in this context.

As examples of the collaboration between the official and unofficial worlds mentioned above, I suggest

Exchanges and short-term secondments of teachers; they are poorly provided for at present, but their informed good will would have a large multiplier effect.

Youth exchanges or one-way visits; by this means some of the most alert and intelligent of the Commonwealth’s younger citizens can be introduced to their contemporaries in another Commonwealth country, and the effect is often profound (as the work of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council has demonstrated over many years).

Medical collaboration; short-term secondment of doctors in training, partnerships between NHS Trusts in this country and medical schools and hospitals in the oversea Commonwealth.

A place for the Commonwealth in our school curricula and a far more vigorous attention to Commonwealth Day.

Bilateral connections, of the kind created by such programmes, are of the highest importance; those who take part in such programmes should also have the opportunity to learn something about the Commonwealth in the round.

The difficulties of creating informed friendship and practical collaboration between communities scattered all over the globe are so obvious as to need no emphasis. Nowadays we have, however, two weapons in our armoury not possessed even a generation ago: the astonishing efficiency of modern electronic communications; and cheap airfares.

The Committee draws attention to this year’s Jubilee. In the broadcast which she delivered from South Africa on her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth promised that she would devote her life’s effort to the Commonwealth; and it is generally acknowledged that the Queen has honoured that pledge more than amply. So far as Great Britain is concerned, we might well mark that lifetime of service, and our own renewed commitment to the Commonwealth, by creating new opportunities for some of its younger citizens to widen their horizons. We should announce

A substantial number of “Queen’s Jubilee Scholarships”. It is a mistake to suppose that all such scholarships need to be fully-funded by the taxpayer; in plenty of instances, no more than partial funding is required. There should be an opportunity for businesses (many of which have a substantial stake in the Commonwealth), and for individuals, to contribute. The official funding could properly come from DfID’s budget.

I should welcome an opportunity to give oral evidence to the Committee.

Biography of the Author:

Consultant to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, 1967–1975; Chairman, Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, 1968–73; member of the Central Council of the Royal Commonwealth Society, 1982–85, and of its Library Committee, 1982–1991; Chairman, Canadian Studies Centre, University of Leeds, 1979–1990; past Trustee of several charities involved in the Commonwealth, and of MASK (Mobile Art Schools in Kenya) at present; long involvement in scholarships for Commonwealth students and youth exchanges; Professor of International History, University of Leeds, 1970–1991; Vice-Chancellor, University of Hull, 1991–1999.

31 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012