Baroness Berridge: We must spread knowledge of the importance of the Commonwealth

Posted On: 
20th February 2018

It is vital that we use April’s Commonwealth summit as a vehicle to spread knowledge about what the organisation offers, writes Baroness Berridge

Prince Charles at the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
PA Images

The Commonwealth is unique because it is an institution that thrives upon people-to-people connections. If the Commonwealth is to increase in importance, we must build upon this foundation.

More than 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30 years old, making up around 40% of the world’s young people. It is for this reason that the Prime Minister has committed to ‘putting young people at the heart of the Commonwealth.’ But it is unclear how well people within the Commonwealth actually know the institution. For example, when asked in 2013, a quarter of Jamaicans thought that Barack Obama was head of the Commonwealth. It is therefore welcome that the UK launched a new schools pack, in January 2018, to help teachers explain the importance of the Commonwealth to pupils, including the crucial nature of human rights and an open society.

In order to consolidate this spread of knowledge about the role and future importance of the Commonwealth, the Government should ensure as wide as possible an engagement from school children across the country, not just in London, in the Summit. If we are to build upon the true strength of the Commonwealth and increase these people-to-people links, we need to build connections between young citizens across the Commonwealth; this will involve creative use of social media and emerging technology.

Inter-personal relationships and diverse, prosperous societies cannot be promoted without an open, pluralistic governmental commitment to protecting the rights of their citizens. Civil societies, faith leaders and NGOs are vital in maintaining these values, which are highlighted in the Commonwealth Charter. As Project Director of the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, we work to empower parliamentarians to advance the vital, but often neglected, right for every individual to explore and practise their religious or non-religious beliefs.

For the Commonwealth to continue to be a unique organisation that strengthens itself through inter-personal relationships, not only civil society but faith communities must be valued. The Commonwealth Summit should be used as a chance for these organisations to share best practice in upholding the Commonwealth Charter. They should also have an opportunity to highlight on-going concerns within the Commonwealth, including the 70% of people in the Commonwealth whose right to freedom of religion and belief is inhibited, and the 88% of people who live in Commonwealth countries with high or very high levels of social hostility towards and between religious groups.

As the UK leaves the European Union the British government should also seize upon the trade opportunities presented by the Commonwealth. The shared legal structures and cultural connections already mean that bilateral costs for trading between Commonwealth countries are already on average 19% less than those between non-member countries. The Commonwealth had a combined GDP of $10.4trn in 2017 and is predicted to reach $13trn in 2020.

The Prime Minister stated on 19 September that one of the main goals of the Summit is to boost intra-Commonwealth trade. It is crucial that at the summit business leaders build new links with each other and heads of government to enhance trade within the Commonwealth.  But it is also crucial that businesses continue to advance their corporate social responsibility. It is heartening that companies like Unilever, Intel and Linklaters have all signed pledges to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains.

The Commonwealth Summit should be an occasion to continue to grow this uniquely diverse web of contacts. Business leaders could meet with young people and civil society leaders to understand their concerns and commit to materially advancing free and open societies that protect the human rights of all.

Given the regrettable perception that the Commonwealth is diminishing in influence, it is essential that all of us who support it - governments, Commonwealth institutions and individuals – use the vehicle of the April Summit to increase knowledge and understanding of the opportunities that the Commonwealth offers, especially for the UK as we realign our place in the world post-Brexit.


Baroness Berridge is a Conservative peer. On Tuesday she has an oral question on promoting CHOGM 2018.