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Ancram: After Zimbabwe, has the Commonwealth still got a purpose?

Speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House

"About a year ago, in another lecture, I advanced the thesis that the post-cold-war world was no longer that of 20th Century great power blocs, but rather a return to the interlocking concentric circles of the 19th Century. The end of the Cold War radically changed international relations. Gone were the grim certainties of the known enemy and the quantifiable threat. Gone was the tense equilibrium created by the countervailing menace of East and West. The world was no longer bifocal but multi-focal. The age of the doctrine of Containment and Deterrence was giving way to the more untutored age of pre-emption.

"In this new world there were three crucial circles involving us. Europe, the Transatlantic Relationship and the Commonwealth. I have addressed first two in previous lectures. Today I want to concentrate on the Commonwealth.

"It is hard to approach this subject without treading on the eggshells of that post-colonialism which apparently causes the Foreign Secretary such guilt and grief. It should not be so. The age of British Empire and British colonialism is long past, and anyway there was much in it of which we can and should be proud. Indeed so much so that new countries have recently shown an interest in becoming members - Mozambique, never a British territory successfully became a member, and Yemen has also expressed an interest in membership. We must now be able openly and seriously to re-examine the role and purpose of the Commonwealth free from the bonds of 'mental imperialism'. If we cannot, we could well see the brave concept of the Commonwealth founder.

"I am not seeking today to announce policy. There is a lot more thinking and consultation to be done, not least with Commonwealth colleagues. I am however laying down some thoughts and ideas that I hope may generate discussion and lead the Commonwealth out of the dark shadows of the recent Zimbabwe debacle towards a new vitality and a renewed purpose.

"Since its inception, the Commonwealth has adapted to changing circumstances through its rolling declarations of principles. At the same time its international importance has declined. Today the Commonwealth generates more affection than awe. And that is not enough.

"Its roots for better or worse lie in our imperial past, and it is worth recalling them. The term Commonwealth in its more modern context, meaning a shared possession of richness and value, was in the 19th century first used in the imperial context. In 1926 at the Imperial Conference the principle of equality in status was established, albeit for the Dominions and within a common allegiance. The 1931 Statute of Westminster established the concept of a free association of self governing Dominions, still however bound by the imperial requirement of a common allegiance. It is that memory and the late 20th century historiography that seeks to damn much of our imperial history, which still casts a shadow over Commonwealth reform. It is misdirected. The myth that the British Empire was simply a tale of exploitation, oppression and neglect is wrong. There is much to be proud of - legacies of law, of administration and of standards which still serve many parts of the Commonwealth well.

"The Second World War precipitated many changes, some of which had been brewing for years. With the independence of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka a new Commonwealth emerged. In 1946 it was still the British Commonwealth. Three years later it was simply the Commonwealth.

"1949 saw a deal struck with India's Pandit Nehru whereby the King was now the Head of the Commonwealth in a formal sense, but without power over the former possessions which had attained their independence. So was born the "new" Commonwealth as a truly voluntary association of countries with shared history, language, culture and values.

"It is a unique concept, an association of states not relying on geographical propinquity or treaties and constitutions to hold it together. With twice the number of members of even the enlarged EU, it covers a quarter of the habitable surface of the earth and accounts for a quarter of its population. Its members come in all shapes and sizes, from India with over 1 billion people to Tuvalu with just over 11,000. It is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and includes most of the world's main religions. It has no natural ideological base.

"It has done good work, monitoring elections, promoting decent standards of public life, fighting drug-trafficking and abuse, seeking to promote fairer trade, and helping with refugees. In an age of deprivation and undue exploitation of resources and searing hatreds between cultures and religions this kaleidoscopic institution has surely much more good work that it can do?

"For the last fifty years it has bumped along as a gathering of disparate countries sharing the common values of democracy and the rule of law. There have been moments of great strain; the departure of South Africa (now happily returned); the waxing of the strength of the unaligned movement (now waned); the UK's accession to the EEC (as it then was). Loyalties were stretched and friendships tested. There were feelings of distancing and even abandonment. There can be no doubt that with our accession to the EEC some of the sense of cohesion and loyalty went out of the Commonwealth.

"The end of the Cold War changed the international stage. Gone the two great blocs of East and West. Instead, the US, in relative terms the greatest superpower the world has ever seen, conscious of its unipolar capability and ready to exercise it. Alongside it, a Europe caught in the fantasy of wanting to become a rival superpower. NATO expanding its membership and political dimension. And the Commonwealth, not power nor economic force nor defensive alliance.

"Ranged against them all the growing post 9/11 menace of international terrorism, of the invisible enemy and the unpredictable threat. And the rogue state, unreliable and unscrupulous and, as we have seen, increasingly dangerous.

"These challenges have required changes. The days of static groupings are gone, being replaced by what President Bush calls 'agile partnerships'. The partnerships are there. NATO is already displaying a new agility as it widens its theatre and its purposes. The Transatlantic partnership has taken on a new depth and cohesion. Europe regrettably rejects agility as it rushes headlong towards greater integration and harmonisation and full-blown political union. And the Commonwealth has hardly begun to consider how the changed world should be recognised in its role and purpose.

"In each of these partnerships Britain is, if in different ways, the common factor. Agile partnerships will by definition be of different depths of intensity. The European Union will always be a more structured and regulated partnership than the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth will always have more formal institutions than the Transatlantic relationship.

"Britain has a role to play in each of them; but in none of them a formal leadership role. Such formal leadership would give rise to friction and conflicts of interest. We should seek influence in each, genuine and full-hearted participation, but also the ability to move freely between them. By being party to each but leader of none we can help each of these great partnerships to work smoothly and constructively with each other. We can help to dispel the harmful misapprehension that to be pro-Europe is to be anti-Commonwealth or that supporting the Commonwealth is somehow to be disloyal to the European Union. We can help to create a synergy and constructive relationship not only between the Commonwealth and Europe but also the Commonwealth and the USA.

"To achieve this, however, the Commonwealth must now face the challenge of change. It must re-examine its purpose and outlook. The loyalty trading base which underpinned the original Commonwealth has over the years weakened, not least as a result of the blow dealt it by Britain's accession to the EEC, although trade and investment itself remains healthy.

"This base has been replaced by a clearer definition of mutual beliefs, shared principles and common values. These have been set out in a number of Declarations.

"In 1971 the Singapore Declaration built on the idea of the Commonwealth as a voluntary partnership of nations, peoples and cultures. Members were members because of shared benefits. More importantly they were members because of shared values such as the recognition of each nation's independent sovereign status, and the pursuit of peace, free trade and sustained growth. The liberty of the individual was also emphasised, the freedom from prejudice whether racial, colonial or gender based.

"The Lusaka Declaration of 1979 emphasised tolerance and the abhorrence of racism. The Harare Declaration of 1991 enlarged on the principles of consensus, the pursuit of peace, and liberty under the law. With reference to the need for economic and social development, it reaffirmed commitment to the promotion of democracy and democratic institutions and of human rights, as well as the principles of environmental cooperation.

"Then in 1995 a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (C-MAG) was established to consider serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration and to recommend responses. Its effectiveness has always been questionable. In the case of Zimbabwe the question has finally been answered. It is not.

"Zimbabwe has presented a defining moment for the Commonwealth, a moment when the rubber hit the road. Mugabe's vile regime is the antithesis of everything the Commonwealth is supposed to stand for. Liberty and freedom of the individual in the face of torture and murder is a joke in today's Zimbabwe. Liberty under the law is a fiction when the judges are Mugabe's placemen and the police his henchmen.

"The promotion of democracy and its institutions is mocked by Mugabe's systematic corruption of democracy, the rigging of the voters' register, and the use of violence, intimidation and the threat of starvation to secure votes. And the concept of human rights is mocked by the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of black farm-workers, the forcible and illegal eviction of people from their property, and the attempted genocide of the Matabele people.

"Yet all the Commonwealth could do - and this only after courageous leadership by Australia's John Howard - was to exclude Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth's councils. Mugabe must have been crowing. The Commonwealth had come up to the fence and refused.

"Zimbabwe has left the Commonwealth grievously wounded, unable to deliver the principles upon which it now rested. The truth is not so much that the Commonwealth has failed Zimbabwe, but that the Commonwealth itself has failed. If it cannot deliver its own principles, if it cannot impose its own values on a recalcitrant member, then its purpose must be questioned. It is not enough to claim that Zimbabwe is a one-off. It sets a precedent for others to follow. It destroys the basic credibility of the Commonwealth. A new credibility must now be established.

"This does not mean abandoning principles. These are still relevant to the modern world, to the spread of communications and ideas, to the challenges of poverty and disease, and to the threats to international security. The issue has never been their validity but whether they can be enforced. Zimbabwe has shown that in the present Commonwealth they cannot. We need therefore to seek a new dimension for the Commonwealth. Before that we need to explore answers to some questions.

"First, is the Commonwealth too big? I believe it is not, and that its greatest latent strength is its breadth and diversity.

"Second, are the Commonwealth structures relevant to today's challenges? I do not believe they are. The introduction of C-MAG was itself a recognition of previous deficiencies. Yet even with C-MAG the benchmark test of Zimbabwe was failed. This led to the setting up of the 'Troika' of Nigeria, Australia and South Africa which produced the mouse! The countries involved were significant but their number was small and their interests unfocused and divergent.

"I believe we should now consider the creation of an internal Powerhouse for the Commonwealth, composed of say eight members, in no way diminishing the value of the rest but able to focus strength and deliver clout both inside and outside the Commonwealth. The selection of members for this 'C8' should be based on one or more criteria. Representing a substantial grouping within the Commonwealth. Economic strength to underpin global credibility. The ability to contribute to the delivery of outcomes both financially and in terms of manpower. A member of the C8 could for instance be called upon to provide task forces for monitoring or peacekeeping or economic development purposes. It would be a position of responsibility rather than of status.

"Membership should be designed to minimise feelings of alienation or rivalry. It would be voluntary and the commitment required would be real. Certainly South Africa, India, Canada, Australia, and the UK should be part of the powerhouse, the C8. Others could apply - up to a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 10. Comprising, as it would, some of the most influential countries in the world, it could immediately form the basis of the powerful and effective agile partnership I spoke of earlier.

"Given its undoubted clout, it could more effectively deliver Commonwealth objectives. Its economic strength would give it focused influence on the world economic stage. Given the breadth of its representation it would be a political force to reckon with. It could become a genuine force for good in a way that the navel gazing EU is unlikely ever to be.

"This for the moment is an outline. I hope to refine the concept further in the future.

"We should for instance be prepared to look at where the various institutions of the Commonwealth might best be located to most enhance the effectiveness of the renewed organisation.

"Indeed as part of the creation of this Commonwealth 'powerhouse' there should be an enhanced role for the Secretary-General giving him, or her, more executive authority to initiate ideas and policies on the basis of direction of the C8. The moral authority of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and his personal credibility shows that a high profile person of calibre - for example a former Head of State - could become a growing focus for the Commonwealth and an articulate advocate of its ideals.

"But it is in the less visible areas, the areas about which the public are least aware, that some of the most effective work could be done to really impact on the lives of Commonwealth citizens; and it is here that the C8 could also come in to its own.

"Take education. Commonwealth connections offer unique and ready-made opportunities. Exchanges, educational and cultural, could play a far greater part in education in Commonwealth countries. With Gap-years playing an ever more important part in our children's education and with students wishing to add an international dimension to their education, the establishment of a Commonwealth organised educational exchange programme is a strong idea. The C8 could promote such a programme, providing the initial impetus and wherewithal to make it work.

"Nor should we ignore Commonwealth school linking with a consequent exchange of material and ideas. Using the Internet it would cost little and would generate enthusiasm and a sense of achievement. Once again with C8 encouragement and promotion it could fill the vacuum for those Commonwealth children who will never be able to travel or exchange.

"An extended commonwealth scholarship programme aiming to facilitate two-way educational opportunities should also be explored. Current scholarships are not as numerous or as well coordinated as they might be. The C8 again might help to develop and resource such a scheme in the first place. Wider sponsorship could be sought later.

"In fields such as medicine and engineering, professional and developmental opportunities offered to countries through a system of Commonwealth funds and organised exchanges could be dynamic. They could provide a serious weapon in the fight against poverty and in helping less developed member countries develop and improve their standards of living. At the moment teaching is one of the worst provided for in this context, and a higher level of scholarships for postgraduate and post-doctoral Fellows would bring tremendous benefits.

"There is a strong case for health authorities and hospitals in this country to open more links with other Commonwealth countries, allowing for expanded opportunities for medical students to spend an elective period of training abroad. For a modest cost a massive amount could be done to advance medical co-operation across international borders.

"In floating ideas we can be bolder still. The C8 could for instance examine the options for helping to provide tax incentives for employing labour intensive, rather than technology intensive, options when investing in developing Commonwealth countries as a means of assisting their economic transition. Tax incentives for the development of new business between Commonwealth countries has also been suggested. Or in order to improve agricultural output in areas of subsistence farming, supporting the paying of those who undertake local public works programmes, restoring roads and building bridges, in fertilizer rather than cash. These ideas may be on the edge, but if we are genuinely to explore how to make the Commonwealth more relevant to the problems of its citizens and how to make best use of the proposed powerhouse we should not shy away from discussing them.

"In this dramatically changing world we have an opportunity to reshape the Commonwealth to meet the realities of today's international jigsaw; an opportunity to demonstrate that the principles it stands for can still have practical application today. We need to start a great debate, and I hope that these remarks might help in some small way to stimulate one. I believe in the Commonwealth. My Party believes in the Commonwealth. Of all the agile partnerships of tomorrow I believe that it could have the most wide-ranging influence.

"But it needs a new spirit and sense of purpose, a new focus and a new strength. I have sought today to show one way in which I feel it can achieve these. It may be controversial. I hope that it is, if it stimulates that thinking and change without which the Commonwealth will wither and die.

"A Commonwealth with a more powerful focus and more central clout would be heard and respected in the councils of the world. It would give the Commonwealth a new lease of life at a time when it desperately needs one.

"Let debate begin."

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