Commonwealth - 28 March 2019
Moved by Baroness Goldie
To move that this House takes note of the continuing and evolving role of the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom’s relationship with it.
My Lords, when you are one of the last speakers in such a debate, there is very little to say because everything you want to say has been said. However, having heard so many speeches, I think we can agree that the case for closer relations with the Commonwealth has rarely been so compelling.
I have always said that the Commonwealth is more than a network. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, described it as a family; yes, it is a family of 53 nations. Like all families, we are much more than the sum of our parts. We have a duty of care to all our members; to people, to hearts and minds, and to the beautiful and diverse cultures and narratives, all of which are united by the shared bonds of history.
I am a child of the Commonwealth: born to Indian parents, raised in Uganda and educated in Britain. My story, and perhaps those of others here today, is not untypical of the journey that many Commonwealth subjects have taken. The different experiences and broad perspectives we have gained have shaped not only our values but our very identities.
It saddens me, however, that people look to the Commonwealth as a relic of a bygone era: as something that is, at best, sentimental, and, at worst, a little shameful—but mostly, as insignificant in the modern day. Such views fail to grasp the strategic importance of the Commonwealth; the incredible economic potential which can provide much comfort in uncertain times; the power of old partnerships to address new challenges; and the boundless opportunities for co-operation in some areas of life. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for their outstanding commitment to UK-Commonwealth relations. My noble friend Lord Haselhurst has been a great bridge between us and the Commonwealth for the past four decades.
As head of the Commonwealth, Britain remains an active world player, with our impressive soft power, historic relations and commitment to aid and trade. However, we have many friends within the Commonwealth who have felt let down by us. They have felt, and continue to feel, that we have turned our backs on them; that we—I am ashamed to say this—even look down on them. Try to arrange a visa for an African national to come to the UK and you will understand what I am talking about. Africans are being denied visas at a much higher rate than people from other parts of the Commonwealth. This is having a negative impact, not only on our trade relations, which we claim we want to build, and on tourism, which we claim we want to encourage, but on relations with aid agencies, the clergy, the arts and politics. The Ugandan Prime Minister was even denied a visa at one point. What sort of message are we sending out?
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned India. UK-India relations is another area that we need to promote. India is the Commonwealth’s biggest democracy, with 1.3 billion people, and an economic powerhouse. Britain and India could play a leading role in helping to realise the Commonwealth’s wonderful potential.
Many noble Lords know that I am a trade envoy to Uganda and Rwanda. Promoting UK exports is my major line of interest, but promoting bilateral trade with these two markets has opened my eyes to the resentment that the UK’s retreat from the Commonwealth platform has caused among our most natural allies. A few months ago, I hosted a business event with President Museveni of Uganda, here in the House of Lords. One of the audience members asked a question about the role of China as a dominant economic player in Africa. President Museveni’s response was very telling. He said: “I do not speak Chinese. I speak English. But the Chinese are the ones who offered to build our factories. The Chinese are the ones who came in with investment. Where was Britain?” This was a powerful point that struck at the heart of the issue: the Commonwealth’s shared history should be used to build shared prosperity. Britain’s great history should thus be our great advantage.
Uganda is a country that has been transformed under President Museveni. It has been through revolutions, dictatorships and civil wars. Today, it is stable and ambitious. In trading terms, there are £20 billion-worth of opportunities in oil, gas and infrastructure. The UK is finally breaking ground, and the Ugandans are happy to see us back there, but there is more work to do to restore good will. If we are serious about taking the Commonwealth to the next level, or even reforming it, we need to take more responsibility. I fear that what we lack is the political will.
I turn to Africa, because I am genuinely passionate about its potential. It has 1.2 billion people and a young, fast-growing and ambitious population. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are there. It has some of the most innovative and largest cities, 60 of which have a population of over 1 million, and is home to a third of the world’s natural resources. As I have said many times in this Chamber, Africa is the new frontier for trade and investment. If you want proof that Africa is the continent to watch, look no further than Rwanda. One of the smallest countries on the continent, with one of the fastest growing economies, Rwanda has achieved success against great odds, in defiance of all predictions and in the face of unspeakable national tragedy.
Next week, I will be travelling to Rwanda with a parliamentary delegation to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide. It will be a sombre and reflective occasion, but it will be a chance to see how, out of that very dark chapter, Rwanda has transformed itself in the most remarkable way. It has democracy, no corruption, a thriving business environment—it is rated 29th for ease of doing business—and modern infrastructure. It is no wonder that it has been selected to host next year’s CHOGM, and I guarantee that it will be a summit to remember. I say to the Minister and to all noble Lords that if Rwanda is a glimpse of what is possible, then Africa has a wonderfully bright future ahead. What is really interesting about Rwanda is that it chose to join the Commonwealth. It chose us—our family. Why? Because it likes us, trusts us and believes in us: Rwanda believes in Britain and in the Commonwealth, and it is time that we believed in ourselves.
For the past 46 years, we have been very insular and too continental. Brexit is an opportunity to transform the Commonwealth into a global trading body that reflects the vast opportunities on offer, but there is a lot of work to do. It is essential to have the right infrastructure in place so we can deliver UK goods to Commonwealth markets. It is on this that the UK needs to focus, and the first priority is aviation. We used to have a bridge between the UK and Africa; today, we can barely catch a direct flight to an African capital. This is problematic, because ease of access is a central consideration for exporters. In the simplest terms, if we want to encourage Britain to do business with Africa, we need to connect British businesses to Africa. British Airways used to fly to Lusaka, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam, Freetown and many other African cities. After 60 years, it will stop flying to all those places. This is problematic, because we need those flights to do more business in Africa. Since I helped RwandAir launch its London-Kigali route, I have struggled to help it secure the slots it needs at Gatwick. Capacity continues to be a major problem. There is no question that we need more runways, but, if we are genuinely outward looking, we need reinstate direct flights to Africa as a matter of urgency.
Further, we need the right financial infrastructure. We are the world’s number one financial centre. Banks, like air routes, are the bridges of which I speak. We should be building bridges, not dismantling them. Further down the line, as I have previously argued, we should consider establishing a Commonwealth bank. For now, I tell noble Lords that the exodus of iconic British brands, such as Barclays and BA, does not inspire confidence in African Commonwealth countries that the UK is fully open for business. Barclays Bank is leaving Africa after nearly 100 years. Such things do not help. It is being replaced by Chinese and Indian banks.
Finally, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, mentioned SMEs. We have 5 million SMEs in the UK, fewer than 1% of which export. There are 30 million SMEs in the Commonwealth; again, less than 1% of these export. I am glad that my noble friend the Minister for Trade is here. One thing we can do which will cost the Treasury no money is to double UK export finance to Commonwealth countries, to encourage more trade and investment. UK Export Finance is an outstanding organisation within government and, frankly speaking, it makes a profit. Two years ago it paid £1 billion in tax, so why not lend more money to Commonwealth countries to encourage more trade and help our SMEs to export more?
I finish as I started. The Commonwealth is our family. Like all good families, it is not without its complications, challenges, differences and disagreements. But also like all good families, we must stick together and work together through the good times and the bad. This is our next great task. The Commonwealth is our past and I believe it is our future.
The full debate can be read through the following link: