THE COMMONWEALTH TODAY

A Lecture by Sir Donald Hawley, KCMG, MBE, President of the Bath and District Branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society, on 20th February l998

After war service, Sir Donald was at the Bar, before he joined the Diplomatic Service. Between l956 and l981 he became variously Ambassador, Assistant Under-Secretary of State and High Commissioner. Since then he has undertaken business activities, served as President of Council of Reading University and Member of Council of the Royal Geographical Society. He is Vice-President of the Anglo-Omani Society and Chairman of the British Malaysian Society. He is also the author of several books on Middle Eastern affairs.

Sir Donald began by pointing out that mapped areas designating the “ Commonwealth” largely coincide with those formerly designating the “ British Empire”, although membership of the former is entirely voluntary. There is much misunderstanding of its nature and history. Lord Roseberry
once described the Empire as a “commonwealth of nations” and General Smuts called it a “community of states ”. In l931 the Statute of Westminster gave self-government to its members. The transition to “Commonwealth” was generally amicable and after India’s independence the republican trend has not destroyed allegiance to the British monarch as Head.
States want Commonwealth membership for many reasons. These include familiarity, personal ties and military tradition, the speaker believes, but also respect for British institutions, a sense of fair play, of order and impartial justice. While older people in Britain sometimes have outdated views, recent polls show that the young are largely ignorant, although critical. Public views have been described as “a jumble of sentiment about the past, sympathy for the less well-off, ideas about race, and spin-offs from thoughts about politics, Europe and the Monarchy”. Few know that three member states have a higher per capita income than Britain or that Bangladesh (once called by Kissinger a “basket case”) now has a GNP of over $1350 per head. The Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons l996/7 stressed the advantages for trade and investment across the Commonwealth, deplored political neglect and saw no contradiction between membership of the EU and of the Commonwealth. Thus, self-interest balances altruism and idealism in the Commonwealth arrangements.
The Commonwealth is global, has coherence, tradition and capacity for action, like the U.N. Its official language (English) is used for 80% of Internet messages and for many governments, multilateral institutions and non-governmental organisations. Its principles, embodied in historic declarations (Singapore l971, Harare l991) cover many fundamentals (such as women's rights, environmental protection and the market economy, etc). Its organisation ensures both annual meetings of heads and ministers of governments and ongoing secretariat activities promoting basic political values and socio-economic developments through myriads of agency and citizen contacts.
Sir Donald concluded by reviewing Commonwealth achievements (helping to end apartheid, monitor elections, write off debts, help least developed states etc), the status and role of our monarch, the l997 Edinburgh Conference and optimistic reflections of the Secretary-General. In discussion, he argued that EU and Commonwealth could amicably occupy “overlapping circles”. Overall, much unnoticed activity ensures Commonwealth significance in world affairs.
Geoff Catchpole