Lord Howell: CHOGM marks Britain’s return to the Commonwealth family
The Commonwealth has emerged as a hyper-connected trade network for the digital age – and is key to the UK’s reorientation in a post-Brexit world, writes Lord Howell
The timing of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting could hardly be better from the British point of view. It occurs at the moment when Britain is rethinking its international position and relationships, both in economic and security terms, and is obviously an important piece of the jigsaw as policymakers seek to give substance and fresh meaning to the concept of ‘Global Britain’ in the 21st century.
But it would be wrong to see the event, and the two-year chairing role which goes with it until the next CHOGM, purely – or even mainly – through the prism of British interests and concerns. A wider context is needed in order to assess the real and lasting value of the occasion – a context totally different from the one in which the modern Commonwealth was born out of the old British Commonwealth in 1949, and totally different even from the Commonwealth in the last century when Commonwealth nations united with great effect to overthrow apartheid.
Technology has now unravelled the familiar world order of a few decades ago with results that are at once highly disruptive and also highly connective, and with varying impacts on many Commonwealth member countries. The consequences, good and bad, can be seen all around, in revolutionised global production and trade patterns, in the vast power of markets, algorithms and the corporations which control them, in huge shifts in economic and political power to the developing world and in the amazing rise of the Chinese giant.
But they can be seen, too, in world disorder, assaults on established authority and a swirl of distrust, anger, fake news and alarmist fears weakening the rules-based order and the post-war institutions which saw us through the latter part of the 20th century.
The remarkable aspect is how the Commonwealth network has come through all this turmoil and may actually be acquiring a new kind of coherence and relevance in an extremely troubled wider world.
Maybe this is because of its essentially voluntary nature, maybe because of its commitment to common values (although sadly still nominal in too many cases, such as gender equality and full respect for human rights), maybe because the communications revolution has combined with common working language, common legal procedures and many other affinities to bring about a closeness of contact between all parts of, and every level of, the Commonwealth family on a daily scale which would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
And maybe, too, it is that a greater part of the Commonwealth system is non-governmental. Seeing heads of government gather in numbers may give the impression that this is yet another remote international institution where officialdom and high diplomacy prevail, with a few photo-ops added, and not much in it for the rest of us.
In reality it is a myriad web of connections between almost every profession and sector, as well as being increasingly favourable to entrepreneurs and business links, the more so as data, knowledge products and services dominate international commerce.
A concourse of Commonwealth bodies now brings together doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, teachers, scholars, university administrators, distance learning operators, sportspeople, designers, military and policing experts, parliamentarians, public administrators and development experts. The list is endless and expanding.
This is a self-regulating association of change and diversity which has small need of top heavy bureaucracy, let alone politically centralised direction. It fits increasingly well with the digital age. The one thing it certainly does need is a focal point and strong symbolic figurehead.
And here the Commonwealth, which might well have been swept away with other 20th-century institutions, has struck lucky. At its heart and its head, it has had the steadfast hand, and voice, of Her Majesty the Queen. Ministers may have come and gone, barely heeding her words and her foresight. But from the moment of her vow as she ascended the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has never wavered from her view that the Commonwealth belongs to the future – a literal truth given that 60% of its 2.4 billion people are under 30.
What is the Commonwealth’s good fortune is also Britain’s great – although largely unexploited – asset. The London CHOGM marks Britain’s return to the family and to the fold from which it largely departed in 1972. The potential for shaping a new role and transmitting Britain’s soft power across the planet is enormous. The London CHOGM is a first step on this return road. But very much more will be needed.
Lord Howell is president of the Royal Commonwealth Society and chair of the International Relations Committee