My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this timely and most worthy debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for introducing it.
I have been clear in this House previously about my admiration for the Commonwealth. For me, it is a network of countries that strikes the right balance between sharing a commitment to democracy and the rule of law and celebrating the diversity that exists within it.
It proudly knows no geographical, cultural or economic bounds; it is a club of equals. Its modern-day relevance is clear, serving as home to a third of the world’s population. Still, there are countries showing an interest in joining, with Rwanda becoming the newest member in 2009.
The Commonwealth is often described as a link between the first world and the third world. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated. It has the potential to play key roles in conflict resolution and the development of democracy in unstable nations through the use of soft power. Perhaps most notable was the group’s substantial contribution to the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, it should now become more involved in conflict resolution. It is also encouraging to see that the Commonwealth has pledged to give extra assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable members who are affected by climate change.
Your Lordships may be aware that the first ever multinational anti-corruption centre was launched in Botswana last month to tackle corruption right across the continent. The Commonwealth is providing £1 million to help fund this over the next few years, which visibly demonstrates the commitment of Commonwealth countries to helping each other.
As a businessman, it is highly encouraging for me to note that that this year’s Commonwealth theme is opportunity through enterprise. The talent and innovation of our young people must be unlocked and harnessed to ensure that Commonwealth countries remain at the forefront of technological and economic development.
I have also spoken in your Lordships’ House many times on the need to increase overseas trade from and between Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth itself must be more strongly appreciated as a potential trading network, with more emphasis placed on trade-which at the moment stands at about £1.7 trillion. It has £62 billion of foreign direct investment flowing out of it, constituting more than 20% of all international trade and investment. In fact, most member countries conduct between a third and half of their trade with other member countries. We should look very closely at the economic potential of using such an obvious grouping of countries to build business and trade relationships that could be mutually beneficial to all involved. Quite simply, it provides us with a ready-made relationship with some of the most promising emerging markets in India, Africa and Malaysia. I have visited a number of countries in these areas.
Business and trade aside, what makes the Commonwealth so unique is that its citizens have an exceptional sense of pride from being part of the club. Unlike other regional blocs or trading territories, the Commonwealth gains much of its strength from the sense of affinity that binds its countries together. This year is of course particularly special because we are establishing the Commonwealth charter: a set of core values that the nations of the Commonwealth believe in and are expected to uphold and protect on behalf of their people.
We currently face a multitude of global challenges that threaten the long-term health and stability of our planet, so we can again use the Commonwealth as a force for good by mapping out a consensus on major international issues such as terrorism, poverty and climate change. Although the charter does not set contractual obligations, it encourages a sense of shared responsibility and is set within the moral and ethical context from which the Commonwealth has always drawn its strength. National Governments are often more receptive and a lot less hostile to this type of approach, which frees them from the restraints of bureaucracy or quotas but holds them accountable for their principles by their allies.
Far from being an outdated institution, the Commonwealth is perhaps the greatest of all international associations. It has a unique reach across countries, continents and oceans that both celebrates our unity on liberty and democracy, and encourages national sovereignty and diversity. It is the ultimate network fit for the continued challenges of the 21st century. My noble friend Lord Howell deserves praise for greatly raising the profile of the Commonwealth on the world stage. It is vital that the Government continue upon the course he started in adopting a clearer strategy for their relations with the Commonwealth.