Commonwealth Debate - 16 March 2017
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Commonwealth in your Lordships’ House. I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Uganda and Rwanda.
For those of us who have argued for many years that we have neglected the Commonwealth, leaving the European Union offers us an historic opportunity to reshape our foreign policy and rekindle relations with this amazing group of nations. I am very fond of quoting my noble friend Lord Howell, sitting just near me, who has said:
“Europe is our region, America our ally, and the Commonwealth our family”.
It is our family, and as in all families, we are all different yet united by strong foundations, none stronger than the amazing leadership of our sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen.
However, as a Member of the other House said in 2014:
“The Commonwealth has strong and deep foundations; but without constant renewal, these risk gradual decay”.
It is about such renewal that we have been talking today and we should continue to do so in future.
I want to ponder for a few moments where we have gone wrong. I think that there are four main causes. First, successive UK Governments gave little thought to how we could make the Commonwealth an effective trading body, and many of our Ministers and civil servants feared Britain playing a leading role in the organisation because of the “colonial” feel it might produce. This is both nonsense and cowardice.
Secondly, the signing of a new Commonwealth charter in 2012 was meant to give it a new direction. The members agreed to prioritise democracy and human rights. That has not worked, because we have prioritised over trade, where there is very little dispute, the areas where there is the most contention.
Thirdly, our membership of the European Union consumed a vast and disproportionate amount of diplomatic time and resources without delivering an equivalent amount of good outputs. Finally, our membership of the single market and customs union spread apathy among many of our businesses. British businesses which have created what should be world-leading products have limited themselves to our nearest trading partners, such as the European Union, and neglected emerging markets and the Commonwealth, where we really need to be.
If we are to give the Commonwealth purpose, let us focus first on trade. The Commonwealth comprises 52 largely English-speaking countries with a combined population of 2.6 billion; it covers a third of the globe; it has a combined GDP of more than $10 trillion and includes five G20 countries, with trade projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020. Given that Britain’s trade deficit of £40 billion is the greatest economic challenge facing our country, we should keep it in mind that a recent report on the Commonwealth highlighted that it is 19% cheaper on average for a business in the Commonwealth to trade because of commonalities such as our legal system and language. By reforming the Commonwealth around a trade agenda, we solve one of our biggest problems and help to spread prosperity. Trade is of mutual benefit—for not just one but both countries concerned.
We are all children of the Commonwealth. As with my noble friend Lord Gadhia, I was born in that great continent of Africa. I now turn to our relations with the 18 Commonwealth countries there. While there are many things we can do at a Commonwealth level to build trade links with all nations, there are also many things we should be doing at a bilateral government level as well. At the moment, seven of those 18 countries have trade envoys, including the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, for Kenya and Tanzania. We should as a matter of urgency appoint trade envoys and recruit a DIT staff member for the remaining 11 countries, including Zambia, Malawi and South Africa. Are there plans to do so? The trade envoy programme offers us a unique opportunity to build bridges with these nations and to spend time on issues that Ministers simply cannot always get to. I have been in the role for just over a year and we are on course to double trade with Uganda and increase it in Rwanda by up to 20 times the 2015 level.
There are other steps we can take. Our aviation links with African Commonwealth countries are woeful. The decision taken by British Airways to suspend flights with Dar es Salaam, Entebbe and others—flights that were almost always full—was shameful. Those were our bridge to these nations and I hope other providers will continue to step in and replace them. However, a replacement is difficult because there are no slots available at either Gatwick or Heathrow. We often talk about aviation policy in this House but in a post-Brexit world we need connectivity. We are 30 years behind where we should be. We need not just a third runway at Heathrow but a second at Gatwick, and others. When I see what other countries are doing in aviation, I am ashamed of our faint-heartedness.
Similarly, the decision taken by Barclays Bank to sell its African trading arm should be seen as a national scandal. It has been in Africa for 100 years, its brand is beyond compare and yet, because of legislation passed in this very House, it is selling away one of our great connections. That harms the great brand of UK plc.
I finish with an idea that I came up with when my noble friend Lord Howell was a Minister in the Foreign Office and I took up with the current Minister for the Commonwealth, my noble friend Lady Anelay. I proposed a Commonwealth bank that could unite the Commonwealth—or, more fittingly, the “Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Bank”. Collective institutions bind organisations together. We already have a World Bank and a European Bank so why not a Commonwealth bank? I have in mind something like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which Britain is a founding member, which could transform economic development across the Commonwealth, supporting major infrastructure projects and possibly lending directly to businesses. Across the Commonwealth there is a huge appetite for new infrastructure investment. New roads, rail and energy projects are all essential to economic development. A Commonwealth bank would be a great way of demonstrating our commitment to our family, showing that Britain is still an outward-looking nation. It would help all its members, particularly the poorest. Will the Minister commit to exploring the idea before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next year?
The recent Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting —a brilliant initiative driven by the Commonwealth Business Council and my noble friend Lord Marland—is a good start. Next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is another excellent opportunity. Let us be bold in our approach to the Commonwealth; let us unite around increasing trade, investment and cultural links; and let Britain lead the charge for a Commonwealth bank. It will bring the Commonwealth together in shared purpose, and would also be the most fitting tribute to Her Majesty’s magnificent leadership of this wonderful family of nations.
The full debate can be read through the following link: