21st March 2018

Sir Nicholas Soames’s speech on the future of the Commonwealth, Wednesday 21st March 2018.

Debate on the Future of the Commonwealth

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21st March, 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate and making an excellent speech. This is a timely debate at a moment of importance in the affairs of our country, as we face a crossroads following our decision to leave the European Union. Britain is in a state of flux as we work out how we are to play effectively our global role in a new world. This is therefore an extraordinarily good moment to have this debate and to look forward to CHOGM and all that it will mean for the future of the Commonwealth and for its presence in this country.

We maintain a truly excellent but rather reduced diplomatic service, which, incidentally, must be properly resourced for its new duties, and a still highly effective military—I endorse entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester—on whom we will need to spend more money in the years to come to cope with the myriad threats. But one of our most important positions is to be at the very heart of the Commonwealth with our Queen at its head. The organisation has tremendous possibilities for its members and as an institution in the years to come. It comprises 53 nations and there are more than 100 Commonwealth institutions in London alone.

The bonds of history, language and political and other institutions shared by Commonwealth members are matters of celebration and could indeed represent great opportunities for Britain in a post-Brexit world, but they should never be taken for granted. Britain should be aware that in the 45 years since we joined the European Union, the world and the Commonwealth have both changed markedly in their perception and action towards the others. Finding areas of common interest in free trade across highly sophisticated and developed economies such as the UK, Canada and Australia will be a serious challenge.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) and others who have driven forward the visionary work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. I very much look forward to working with them over CHOGM.

Above all, in respect of the Commonwealth or any other trading organisation, we need to put flesh on the bones of global Britain, which at the moment is a slogan in pursuit of a strategy. It remains the case that there is a Commonwealth advantage. With its shared values, regulatory systems and language, there is no doubt that it has the potential to greatly increase intra-Commonwealth trade by possibly up to 20%, and could substantially cut the cost of doing business between member states. However, we need to keep a proper sense of proportion.

In 2015, 44% of our total UK exports of goods and services went to the European Union, while 9.5% went to the Commonwealth. This is a very big ask and a very important one. The biggest trade challenge for post-Brexit UK is not to get better trade deals with the rest of the world, although that would be good, but to get deals that are as good as those that now exist, most of which are multilateral and regional. We must remember that geography trumps history. This will be fiendishly difficult. Trade agreements are not something that happen at the drop of a hat; they take a lot of time and are complicated and deeply transactional.

I endorse very strongly the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about India, which is interested in doing more trade with the United Kingdom. We have a long-standing and important relationship, but India will have its own demands on how many migrants are able to come here and the ease of getting visas to work. Surely to God we can work that out.

I wish to conclude and not take up my full time, but I wish to endorse again what my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said in an outstanding speech about the great debt that the Commonwealth and this country owe the Sovereign for her work in keeping together the Commonwealth through thick and thin and some very difficult times indeed. I hope that the gathering of the Commonwealth family will recognise that astonishing work and will see to it that, as my hon. Friend said, the succession is passed in good order. Finally, I hope—may all of us hope—that at a correct and goodly time Zimbabwe will return to the family of the Commonwealth.

Vol 638   
No 115 
Cols 175 – 176 



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