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Theresa May must use CHOGM to apologise for the UK’s historic wrongs

5 min read

The Commonwealth has never been more important than it is today – but it must be about far more than securing post-Brexit trade. If we are to address the great challenges facing each of our nations, Theresa May has to listen to our partners. She can begin by atoning for the UK’s historic mistakes, writes Emily Thornberry

In a world of turbulence and division, it is to be warmly welcomed that the Commonwealth Heads of Government will gather in London this week with the union between our nations in good health.

Not least because of the reminder we received at the end of last year that this has not always been the case.

It was reported then that – three decades ago – Her Majesty The Queen was so frustrated at the Thatcher government’s repeated refusal to accept the will of the Commonwealth and impose sanctions against South Africa’s Apartheid regime that she considered cancelling her weekly audience with the Prime Minister.

After all, by doing so, Margaret Thatcher was – in the words of Peregrine Worsthorne, then the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, threatening the very survival of the Commonwealth, and “it is the Queen’s Commonwealth that Mrs Thatcher would be destroying’’.

But the Commonwealth thankfully survived that crisis, and now has five more members than 30 years ago.

All of which is vital, because it is my own firm belief that the Commonwealth of Nations has never been more important than it is today.

First, because we live in a world facing a grave absence of global leadership, not least because of the wilful abdication of that role by Donald Trump, and the failure of any other nation so far to fill the gap.

Second, because we live in a world where the credibility and relevance of our great international institutions is under threat, whether it is the EU losing Britain as a member, or the authority of the United Nations being systematically undermined by Trump one week, and Putin the next.

And finally, because we live in a world where human rights and the rule of law are being openly disregarded by dozens of governments and deprioritised by dozens of others, including our own.

In that kind of world, we desperately need the global leadership and the strong, united action that the Commonwealth can provide.

We desperately need to demonstrate to the rest of the world through the success of the Commonwealth that international institutions remain relevant, and are the best means of tackling our shared global problems.

And we desperately need a Commonwealth that continues to remind the world of the importance of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, both by insisting that those of its members who fall short – particularly on LGBT rights – must do more, and that those who have been suspended, like Zimbabwe, must truly earn their return, as Gambia has recently done.

So, for a Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn whose foreign policy hinges on multilateralism, internationalism, and the centrality of human rights, the Commonwealth remains a vital force for good.

And if we form the next government here in Britain, we will ensure that promoting and engaging with the Commonwealth is one of our top foreign policy priorities.

Not because – like Theresa May – we see our Commonwealth cousins just as potential trading partners, but because we see them as full and equal partners in all of the challenges faced by the world and by each of our nations, from climate change and terrorism to the fight for gender equality.

That means we must also listen to our partners, including to those 33 Commonwealth countries – led by Mauritius – who voted in June last year to refer Britain to the International Court of Justice, and correct the historic wrong done by our country to the people of the Chagos Islands.

That is how I would urge the Prime Minister to approach this summit, and – in that same spirit – I would like her to start it by saying sorry to the other Heads of Government, not just for the wrong done to the Chagos Islanders, but for the actions of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Back then, it was nothing less than our duty to take part in collective action against South Africa, and heed the urgent calls from our Commonwealth partners for the unified imposition of sanctions. But instead, the Thatcher government dismissed them.

The last Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised directly to Nelson Mandela in 2006 for his party’s refusal to impose sanctions, but that did not go far enough.

I believe Theresa May and the Conservative government in Britain also owe an apology to the Commonwealth as a whole – and indeed Her Majesty The Queen – for ignoring the efforts of every other member 30 years ago to bring Apartheid to an end.

This week would be an appropriate moment to correct that historic mistake, and would send a wider signal to our Commonwealth cousins that we in the UK truly recognise that the days are gone when our union was described – in colonial terms – as the ‘British Commonwealth’.

This great institution does not exist for the benefit of Britain, and even less simply to make up for the post-Brexit hole in our trading balance sheet. It exists for the collective benefit of all its members, and the wider benefit of the world. And let us hope it will deliver on all those benefits in the days and years ahead. 


Emily Thornberry is Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury

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