Lord Ahmad: “I’m a living, working example of the Commonwealth”
Foreign Office minister Tariq Ahmad believes the Commonwealth provides huge opportunities to leverage as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. He talks to Sebastian Whale
It’s all right for some. Tariq Ahmad will be jetting off to the Caribbean soon after our interview comes to an end, as not one but two aides (and then the man himself) make me aware while we take our pews in his office. It’s one of the duties of the minister of state for the Commonwealth and United Nations, and one that restricts our allotted time to talk shop.
That’s not to say that Ahmad, the Conservative peer, is off on some jolly to the sun and sea. His job has coincided with the decimating of the Caribbean by the string of hurricanes that hit the region over the summer. The minister, who is also responsible for the overseas territories, is travelling around the time the paradise papers leak emerges. And with responsibility for the Commonwealth, Ahmad has been tasked with renewing relations with the 52 nation states, who, with Brexit, have become increasingly in focus.
As part of this, Ahmad is taking a lead on plans for next April’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London. The summit, titled under the umbrella of ‘Towards a common future’, will include a leaders’ retreat at Windsor Castle and a dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen. It will have four central themes; trade and prosperity, security, sustainability and tackling climate change, and fairness. The summit will also launch the UK’s two-year Chair in Office of the Commonwealth. Event organisers have been keen to convey that CHOGM will be the largest gathering of heads of government in the UK’s history.
So, how are preparations coming along? “We’re in a very good place,” Ahmad says, insisting it’s very much more than just a collection of political figures. Ahmad is keen to tap into the potential of the nearly 1.5 billion people under 30 within the Commonwealth. “We’re opening it up so there’s going to be a youth forum, a people’s forum, a women’s forum where we’re actually looking at what the Commonwealth means.
“What does it mean to you and I, what does it mean to any citizen? We’re talking about 2.4bn people around the world, who are members of over 52 member states from the Caribbean to the Americas, from Europe out to Asia and Australasia and Africa. What does it all mean for an incredible collection of people? We’ve got some incredible fundamentals which bring us together. Language, culture, history, those things are important.”
The significance of the event has been heightened by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, providing a platform to showcase the UK’s post-Brexit vision. Ahmad, a businessman with 20-years’ experience working in banking and finance, spies an opportunity.
“The short answer is of course it is [important], because it’s a huge opportunity to leverage this network of 52 nations in terms of the fundamentals that we already have which are common to us. If I take a step back, I spent 20 years in business. If there were some common fundamentals I found in the negotiation with A N Other – we share common practices, common legal systems, common education systems, common language – actually I’d say that’s a pretty sound foundation to build new relationships or strengthen relationships on.”
Ahmad joined the Foreign Office in June. He is also the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. His CV includes previous stints in DfT, the Home Office and DCLG from 2014 onwards. Before that, he served as a government whip in the Lords, having joined the Upper Chamber as a life peer in January 2011.
How is it working for Boris Johnson? “He’s a great strategic thinker. I’ve sat in ministerial meetings with him, where he takes the bigger picture, he listens, he takes opinion, but he also as a minister lets you get on with the job as well. I’ve enjoyed my close working with him over the last few months,” he says.
CHOGM will arrive just under a year before the UK formally quits the European Union. Getting key personnel from 52 nation states together represents a unique opportunity to discuss future ties in more detail. Though the UK cannot sign any trade deals until it has relieved itself of EU membership, is the summit an opportunity to begin negotiations, or exploratory talks?
“It is. This thing again, we keep on saying we can’t do anything... As you’re probably aware with the likes of India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – these are Commonwealth countries with whom we’ve already set up trade working groups.
“Let’s not forget, when Brexit happened who was first to call up? Australia, a commonwealth nation based on common values, common instincts and common foundations,” he says.
But is the renewed focus on the Commonwealth a means of hedging against diminished business with our largest trading partner in the shape of the European Union? “I’m very clear, I’m a pragmatist on the European Union, we will have a deal with the European Union because it’s of mutual interest,” he says. “I used to be the aviation minister. We’ve led the way in the European Union on issues of aviation safety, aviation security. To suggest that somehow planes will stop flying, we won’t have those kinds of reciprocal security intelligence shares, well frankly, it’s not just about pragmatism, it makes absolute sense for everyone and it makes international security sense, because those relationships count. So, I think you will see that happening.
“With the Commonwealth… we will have a greater opportunity to do those bilateral deals, more collective deals across the Commonwealth as well, seeing what opportunities arise”.
As opposed to the 52 nations moving in the same direction, Ahmad says a smaller number would take the lead on certain areas. He cites the example of security, where Britain has worked with Nigeria, Kenya and Pakistan to strengthen their national security apparatus.
He adds: “So, I don’t think it’s hedging in any sense. It’s about building what’s already there in terms of fundamentals which exist.”
But would he say that, in recent times, the UK has overlooked the Commonwealth in favour of our European allies? “I don’t think we’ve neglected the Commonwealth. You ask the Pakistanis, you ask the Australians, you ask the Indians, the Canadians, they would all come back and say not only do they value what they have with the UK, they actually are strengthened by what we have in the UK.”
Commonwealth countries earlier this year called for the government to give their citizens the same rights as those from the EU to come and live in Britain post-Brexit. Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, told the Times her country would be concerned if Britain imposed more restrictive conditions for Australian workers than EU workers.
Where does the government stand? “When it comes to immigration, that is something which will remain at the behest of national governments. That’s our view and on a personal front, I agree with that,” he argues. “But there are opportunities which exist when we look at trade, there are certain types of visas that can be issued which can help facilitate in terms of our trading relationship. There’s an opportunity to have those discussions further. What I don’t perceive though is a kind of carte blanche.”
In many ways, Ahmad, as he testifies himself, is an embodiment of the Commonwealth. The son of Indian parents, he becomes most animated when I ask him about reports that Whitehall officials refer to the Government’s focus on the Commonwealth, as ‘Empire 2.0’. Is that a fair description of the UK’s foreign policy, and is that kind of language useful? He blinks for a moment, and gives an impassioned response.
“It’s not useful and it’s nonsense, frankly speaking,” he begins. “You know, I’m a living, working example of the Commonwealth. I’m the son of parents who were born in India, who migrated to Pakistan, came to Scotland, settled here and made a life for themselves. My wife, her family originate from Pakistan. She moved to Australia, got bought up there, she married a Brit and we now live here. My children are living, working examples of what the strength of the Commonwealth is. That’s what the opportunity is.
“And this nonsense that people peddle – I’m yet to hear it – I sit with Caribbean high commissioners, I’ve been out to Africa, I’m going out to the Caribbean, I’ve been out to Asia, I’ve been out to Australasia, I’ve been out to the Pacific, not one person has raised that issue.
“I think those who are raising it are trying to peddle something which doesn’t exist. We believe in the Commonwealth, because there’s this huge network of 2.4 billion people, who share great diversity.
“But I go by the strength of one thing that I honestly believe in, which is true of our country and it’s true of the Commonwealth; that in diversity, lies our strength. And that’s why it’s going to be a partnership which has huge opportunities and provides huge opportunities for the youth of the Commonwealth.”