LONDON – London has just spent a week acting as host to 52 other heads of state and prime ministers, with a series of lavish occasions, ceremonies and conferences. The occasion was the summit of all the leaders of the nations of the Commonwealth of Nations, ranging from giant members like India to tiny island states like Nauru.
No expense was spared, with Queen Elizabeth opening the doors of both Buckingham Palace and her home at Windsor Castle to the attendees.
Cynics and sceptics rushed into print to ask what was the point of it all. Some claimed it was all out of date and a mere relic of the old British Empire, with no relevance to the modern world. Others asserted that it was all cooked up by the so-called Brexiteers (the strongest enthusiasts for decoupling from the European Union) as they searched around for new markets. Others again dismissed the Commonwealth organization as full of good intentions but nothing more than a pale mini-version of the United Nations.
None of these views come near the reality. All of them demonstrate a complete inability to understand the nature of the modern Commonwealth or the way it has evolved.
The Commonwealth today is a network, or a whole collection of networks. It is comprised not just of governments but of a vast and growing web of civil society groups, professionals and experts in every field, traders, investors, innovators and entrepreneurs, educators, scientists, administrators, designers, developers, campaigners, authors, sports organizers, technicians — the list is endless.
These networks are growing all the time. They have their own agendas. They have been vastly boosted by hyper-connectivity, so that the 2.4 billion citizens now have the chance to be in almost constant and daily contact on scale never before matched in history. Distance has ceased to matter.
As Bill Gates observed at one of the many conferences during the week, this makes the Commonwealth, with its voluntary nature, its diversity but its common English working language, common aspirations, common legal systems and numerous other affinities, ideally suited to the new age.
It fits like a glove with the new wave of globalization, led this time not by trade and the Western world but by digital communications and the continents of Asia and Africa — where most Commonwealth citizens reside — two-thirds of them, incidentally, under 30 years old. And it becomes the ideal vehicle for pursuing the great causes of disease eradication, climate control and other global threats.
The critics look only at the official side of things, at ministers coming and going in their black cars and at governmental pronouncements. They cannot grasp that in the digital age power has shifted and power is shared. It is the unofficial side of the Commonwealth system which is far the most important, and it is evolving almost regardless of government. The forces pulling it all together are much stronger than the forces pulling it apart.
British media coverage of the whole summit event was dismal. Even the revered Economist magazine found it difficult to see what is really happening on the world stage. The grudging focus was on the question of who would succeed the queen as titular head of the Commonwealth when the time comes — happily now decided by consensus to be her heir, Prince Charles.
The news hounds also had another story to chase, namely the most unfortunate and painful impact of tightening immigration laws on some older Commonwealth citizens, some of the first arrivals to postwar Britain. This undoubted administrative blunder pushed the Commonwealth, with its huge potential and significance for the future, off the front pages.
Of course, the role of governments remains essential in providing a framework of good governance and the underpinning of the rule of law. And of course, as the nay-sayers are always eager to point out, there are many backsliders and laggards among Commonwealth states when it comes to meeting the high standards of human rights, gender equality and minority rights for which the Commonwealth stands and the great Charter of the Commonwealth proclaims. That is all work to be done, pressures to be collectively applied.
There is also some truth in the charge that the British government has only begun to throw its weight behind the Commonwealth since the Brexit decision two years ago.
But the reality is that the Commonwealth network was growing and integrating long before Brexit, driven by technology and the revolution in the patterns of world trade — now almost half in the form of services, of data transmissions and knowledge products. Looking backward, the statistics of intra-Commonwealth trade and investment seem weak compared with current trade flows between the advanced economies. But looking forward, at what is probably the largest expansion of middle income consumer markets in history now going on in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the advantages of the Commonwealth network to all its members, large and small, including Britain itself, are glaringly obvious.
It is not the only network in which trading nations need to compete to survive, but it is certainly the biggest, and the closest to being a family, cemented by trust.
To all this the denigrators remain blind. Their circle includes grumbling columnists, academics, media commentators and at least one deluded professor. They remain convinced that the Commonwealth belongs to yesterday. But it is they who belong in a world that has passed away completely.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He currently is serving as chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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