"Brexit is an opportunity to reform the Commonwealth" - By Lord Popat (House Magazine)
Since the 23rd June our political class has become obsessed; the realities of the Brexit vote have for the past few months been debated and discussed endlessly.
But whilst seemingly never-ending attention has been paid to the questions of whether we will retain membership of the single-market, what form of immigration controls will be put in place and if we can negotiate free trade deals, we have neglected other key areas.
One important area has been identified by the Prime Minister. Since she assumed office, Theresa May has consistently said that her desire is for Britain to be an “even more outward-looking around the whole of the world” following our vote to leave the EU.
This is a tremendously important ambition. Whilst I was convinced by the arguments that said we needed to remain in the European Union, it was with the knowledge that our membership actually hurt Britain’s role in many other key areas.
We ‘Bremainers’ should be honest with ourselves and the public and admit the EU isn’t a perfect organisation. Our membership took up endless hours of diplomatic time; it threatened – and in some cases decimated – our leading industries; and the EU never seemed to share Britain’s love of free markets, competition and the importance of trade.
For those of us who supported ‘Remain’ the time has come to move on; to accept the will of the British people and to take this opportunity to forge a new role for Britain; championing free-trade, prosperity and entrepreneurship.
One institution where we can make real progress is the Commonwealth. This stupendous group of nations – that my colleague Lord Howell rightly calls ‘our family’ – have been, at best, a secondary thought in Britain’s foreign policy for decades.
The Commonwealth has a huge amount of potential; 53 nations united by a shared history, the English language and the magnificent leadership of Her Majesty The Queen. Yet the organisation has been drifting for too long; working on a ‘lowest common denominator’ principle and failing to set out a bold vision for what the Commonwealth can be in the 21st Century.
Britain has been as responsible for this drift as anyone. Successive Governments have given little thought to how we can make the Commonwealth an effective trading body; and many of our Ministers and Civil Servants fear Britain playing a leading role in the organisation, because of the ‘Colonial’ feel it might produce.
What nonsense. What cowardice. If you spend time with the leaders of our fellow Commonwealth nations, they’re desperate for Britain to take a leading and active role. The organisational drift the Commonwealth is experiencing isn’t helping anybody.
In early September I visited Rwanda, a nation that joined the Commonwealth in 2009, for the Global African Investment Summit. Currently the trade between Rwanda and the UK is around £10m a year; but if all of the deals discussed at the summit come to fruition, that figure will be multiplied many times over. The Commonwealth has markets brimming with potential, we just need to place the emphasis on trade.
And now is a perfect time for Britain to reinvigorate the Commonwealth. My hugely impressive colleague in the Lords Baroness Scotland recently assumed the role of Secretary General of the Commonwealth. Brexit leaves us with a need to show the world that we remain an outward-looking and influential country. And, with all the anti-Free Trade sentiments being expressed around the world, the Commonwealth can lead the way in collaborating and working together.
Here are three simple suggestions for what we can do. First, reform the Commonwealth Secretariat; almost everyone agrees that the Secretariat is ineffective and reactive. Let Baroness Scotland recruit some of the best minds to set out an ambitious programme to reshape and reform the organisation.
Secondly, make the Commonwealth a trade-focused organisation. In 2013, the total global exports of goods and services of the 53 Commonwealth members were valued at $3.4 trillion, which it 15% of the world’s total exports. Intra-Commonwealth trade of goods and services totalled $592b. Let’s commit to building open markets and collaboration between these nations.
Finally, and most importantly, let’s create a Commonwealth Bank. Modelled on the Asian Infrastructure Bank – which Britain is a Founding Member of – this bank could transform economic development across the Commonwealth; supporting major infrastructure projects and, in an ideal world, lending directly to businesses as well.
I recently returned from Kigali where, for the first time, Rwanda hosted the Global African Investment Summit. As the Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda, I’ve seen the huge appetite for new infrastructure investment; new roads, rail and energy projects are all essential to further economic development. Britain has the companies to carry out this work and they could start tomorrow, but financing these projects is always the difficult bit.
Similarly here in Britain our infrastructure is much poorer than it should be; our energy supply only just exceeds demand, and anyone who regularly travels by car will point to the need to invest in roads. Infrastructure is a problem for many – if not most – of our Commonwealth countries; why don’t we look to create a proper solution together?
A Commonwealth Bank would be a great way of demonstrating our commitment to this flagging institution and showing that Britain is still an outward-looking nation. It will help all of its members; from the poorest to the richest. It will bring the Commonwealth together in shared purpose, and it would also be a fitting tribute to Her Majesty’s magnificent leadership if we were to call it the Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Bank in her honour.