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Why the Commonwealth has moved up the Government’s priority ladder

4 min read

The Commonwealth is emerging as a massive transmission engine for British soft power and influence, writes Lord Howell

For the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in mid-April London is pulling out all the stops. 

This is a sharp change from past decades, certainly insofar as Britain is concerned. Commonwealth Summits, which come up every two years or so, have for years been a fairly low priority for both government and British media. One photo-shot of HM the Queen looking dazzling and receiving the heads of state and prime ministers for dinner was usually as far as it got, with the British PMs cutting their attendance as short as possible.

So why has it all changed, because changed it certainly has? A Commonwealth Summit Unit in the Cabinet Office, said to be around 80-person strong, has taken over not just the intensive preparations for the Summit itself but also the development and invigoration of Britain’s relations with its fellow member states in the months and years ahead. Three days of forums on major Commonwealth issues are planned, plus events all-round the country. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are throwing their doors open. A full attendance from the 52 members – now 53 with Gambia re-joining and more queuing up – is expected. The senior Cabinet official in charge of preparations, Tim Hitchens (our former Ambassador to Japan) told the Lords International Relations Committee the UK intends “to run the best Summit that London and the Commonwealth has ever seen”.

The immediate reason for this remarkable change of gear is obvious. Brexit has swung government attention onto the search for the consumer markets and fast-growing economies of the future and the Commonwealth network, among others, offers both these and the gateways to even bigger ones.  

But there is a much deeper reason why the Commonwealth connection has moved up the priority ladder, and one that well pre-dates the Brexit issue. Connectivity on an unprecedented scale has transformed the Commonwealth. With 60% of its 2.4 billion people under 30, it is, in a literal sense, ‘the face of the future’ – as The Queen described it several years ago – though few at the time took much notice.

The more visible part may be intergovernmental, but like the bigger part of an iceberg beneath the water, the far greater mass of connections grows steadily beneath official levels, linking up professions, interests, civil society, in all its manifestations; old and young, entrepreneurs and innovation, public and private sectors. No blueprint or strategy is required because network power has taken over.

With its common working language, common law systems, common commercial practices, and now increasingly, common security concerns, the Commonwealth is shaping itself round these new forces. It begins to emerge not only as a zone of friendly reassurance in a dangerous world, but also as a massive transmission engine for British soft power and influence.

This should have been spotted decades ago, quite regardless of European relations. The late Robin Cook understood what was happening, and so did Gordon Brown, when he had time off from handling the world financial crisis. David Cameron, too, just before the referendum saw the potential and talked of injecting new resources and support into Commonwealth invigoration – which would have been a mere drop out of DFID’s billions.

We are not quite there yet, and of course the Commonwealth has its share of quarrels, its awkward members, its exceptions and its laggards. The push for gender equality, for better human rights safeguards, for stricter upholding of the rule of law, for wider freedoms (in line with the Commonwealth Charter) has to continue relentlessly.

But by the chance of history, and by nobody’s plan in particular, the Commonwealth association comes out of the 20th century into the 21st as the champion of small states and the alliance of big ones – in the case of India, now the fifth largest industrial power in the world, very big indeed.

We are not quite there yet, but participation in the Commonwealth network does offer that vision and purpose in a changed world that so many people here at home are looking for. It is worth making the effort, and the UK’s great government/Whitehall/ policy establishment apparatus seems at last to be reaching that conclusion as well.


Lord David Howell is president of the Royal Commonwealth Society and chair of the House of Lords International Relations Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Howell - Lords Diary: Lord Howell


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