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Commonwealth Day


13th March 2014

Speaking in a debate to celebrate Commonwealth Day, Jonathan Djanogly highlights the role of the Commonwealth as a platform for upholding good governance, improving democratic institutions, respecting human rights and extending trade opportunities between members.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Bayley. I was pleased that this debate was selected and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on organising it, recognising his deep knowledge and participation in Commonwealth matters.

I was pleased just the other day to be asked by Huntingdonshire district council to speak to local residents at a flag-raising ceremony in my constituency on the meaning of the Commonwealth. Being in my constituency, my thoughts focused on what the Commonwealth might mean to my constituents. First, we need to appreciate that, as my right hon. Friend intimated, memories of the British empire are very distant for most people in the UK—if people have any knowledge of it at all. I would therefore contend that most young people—anyone under the age of 60 for this purpose—may have little idea of empire or its end. So why, I contended with my constituents, should the Commonwealth have any relevance to our lives today? With 54 independent countries and 2 billion people—a third of the world’s population—the scale of the Commonwealth is significant, but size in itself does not bring its relevance to life.

The principles of the Commonwealth, offering through its charter mutual support for more inclusive and equitable social progress for member states, are also to be applauded. In themselves, however, they sound somewhat abstract. The objectives of upholding democracy, human rights, peace and security, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, the rule of law, good governance and so on are ideals that we should all aim for. Again, however, that sounds like motherhood and apple pie when read out as a long list, such that some might consider the Commonwealth to be more of a talking shop than a body for action.

It must be said that the measures of successful membership are not being upheld consistently—or in some cases at all—by certain members. The royal family has done a magnificent job in unifying the institution, but their future leadership will be at the members’ discretion. Many member states would, until recently, have struggled to describe themselves as capitalist economies, but, with the fall of communism, that is no longer the case. An understanding of the need for vibrant, and let me also say uncorrupt, market economies generally exists.

Trade between member countries is increasing for the benefit of all. One may have thought that that would be a key area of engagement for the UK, but even here the situation is more complicated and there is little evidence in many Commonwealth member states that our membership gives us a significant trading advantage. Indeed, despite some 250 years of trading with India, I was surprised to hear that Switzerland, for instance, does more trade with India than the UK does. Having said that, I acknowledge the strenuous efforts being made to increase our trade with India and the significant investment by the Foreign Office and UK Trade & Investment to that end.

I wanted to learn more about the Commonwealth, so, about a year ago, I was pleased to be invited on my first visit with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch to India. I subsequently visited Sri Lanka. I went to India with an open mind, keen to play my very small part in encouraging good relations and trade between our two nations, but, for the reasons I have given, I was not wholly convinced at that time of the value of the Commonwealth per se. However, I can now say that I have changed my mind. I now believe that the Commonwealth is not a talking shop but a real and vibrant platform for upholding good governance, improving democratic institutions, respecting human rights and extending trade opportunities.

Mr Henry Bellingham: My hon. Friend and I both have a passion for the export of UK legal services. We agree that one of the stumbling blocks for the export drive has been the attitude of both the Indian Government and the regional governments in India. On his visit, did he detect any discernible movement away from that attitude, which was previously quite negative?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I did indeed bring that up on our visit to India. I am sorry to say that, when we were there, there was little movement in that direction. However, I recognise the significant efforts since made by the Foreign Secretary, and indeed the Lord Chancellor, with India. They are not giving up the ghost on this; they are working hard to reverse that position. India is currently undergoing a difficult time, thinking about elections rather than policy, but, hopefully after the elections they will look more carefully at this issue and change their mind. That would be, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, for the benefit of India and Britain.

Many Commonwealth countries have political institutions whose administrations and standing orders are not as efficient as they could be. We can—and do—do much to assist them. By engaging with member countries, we also create ties and good will in different areas that provide much greater depth to our international relationships than fleeting ministerial visits—as important as those are, I say with respect to the Minister.

I saw the value of engagement again when I joined a CPA UK delegation to Sri Lanka to review post-conflict reconciliation and human rights issues. Sitting in a very hot hut, which Tamil MPs used as a headquarters, we heard their grievances, which included alleged human rights complaints. They appreciated our making the effort to go to the north of the country, which still shows clear signs of the terrible war. We also met with army, police and other national representatives who explained their security concerns. Everyone seemed pleased to see us and keen to put forward their cases. That certainly gave me the impression that everyone wanted reconciliation even if, unfortunately, not at the same pace.

Importantly, we engaged with Sri Lankans from the north and south, and those of different religions and races, not as the old imperial power coming to dictate but as equals; as friends and colleagues with a shared history, and with a will to share the benefit of our experience and learn from each other. We also met with shared expectations of maintaining shared values—in effect, the values contained in the Commonwealth charter, which, at that point, came alive to me as a living and relevant document. More than that, being a member of the Commonwealth meant that I felt that I could be open and frank in setting out, for instance to the Sri Lankan human rights commission or Ministers, where we felt that improvements to conduct were required.

Let me add that the discussions were not one way. For instance, a number of our hosts raised complicated questions arising from the colonisation of their countries. The fact that they wished to discuss such issues on an open and friendly basis was, for me, proof of the worth of connecting through membership. I agree, therefore, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden about the importance of the CPA.

The further question, therefore, as I think my right hon. Friend said, is: how do we explain the benefits of our membership to the wider population? As well as feeding into the youth parliament concept, greater engagement by schools would be a good idea. Many areas of British engagement in environmental, social, empowerment of women and other civil projects across the Commonwealth would be fascinating for children to learn about. Given what I have seen and the value I now attach to the Commonwealth, I do see the benefit of having a Commonwealth day in order to provide a focus for the explanation of its relevance to our constituents and their children at school.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I passionately support the Commonwealth as I was born in Pakistan in 1978. On my hon. Friend’s point about focusing on the Commonwealth’s values and principles, does he agree that more work needs to be done on basic human rights across all members of the Commonwealth? I was in Pakistan in 2012, where I met members of the Christian community who, along with many other minority communities, felt persecuted by the blasphemy laws. We need to work here and in other Parliaments with Pakistan to get them to reform those laws so that people can aspire to the basic freedoms of faith and belief.

Mr Djanogly: I very much support my hon. Friend’s comments. The Commonwealth provides a platform for that to be done; the question is the extent to which we use that platform. He makes the important point that we should use that platform. I have said what I wanted to say. We should all support Commonwealth day and I am happy to support the motion.

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