OPINION: Clean up the image of the Commonwealth

As a British delegate to six CHOGMs, as Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings are described, I drew the short straw. The venues were wonderful - Melbourne, New Delhi, Nassau, London, Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur - but the content was not. The main aim was to spin the lady for not turning, usually in a minority of 49-1, into reverse, forcing her to impose all sorts of sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Commonwealth conferences became places where they lambasted the British, as the old colonial power, while holding out their begging bowls.

As a British delegate to six CHOGMs, as Commonwealth Heads of

Government meetings are described, I drew the short straw. The venues

were wonderful - Melbourne, New Delhi, Nassau, London, Vancouver and

Kuala Lumpur - but the content was not. The main aim was to spin the

lady for not turning, usually in a minority of 49-1, into reverse,

forcing her to impose all sorts of sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

Commonwealth conferences became places where they lambasted the British,

as the old colonial power, while holding out their begging bowls.



President Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been on splendid form during the latest

held in Durban. He accused Mr Blair’s Government of being ’morally

decadent’ and ’racist’ and ’a gangster regime of little men’ because it

didn’t meekly accept the confiscation of white farmers’ land, and Peter

Tatchell hi-jacked his car in a homo-sexual campaign stunt in London.

Normally Dr Mahathir, of Malaysia, comes up with a fine diatribe against

the old world.



They are colourful events in every sense of the word, as the world’s

largest and smallest democracies - India and Tuvalu - mingle with 52

other nations and the Queen every two years. Leaving aside the

histrionics, they do bring new perspectives - for example the security

problems of tiny defenceless islands around the globe. But I worry about

the Commonwealth’s future, especially if, unlike the Australians, it is

daft enough to ditch the Queen as its head. There is precious little

else other than history, sentiment and a bit of British aid cash to

cement it together.



But its most immediate problem is a PR one: cynicism. There has been a

lot of it about in the British press. Simon Heffer put it brutally in

the Mail: ’For many of the despots and criminals who will be attending,

the moral tone of the institution is far less important than the other,

traditional elements of their forthcoming jamboree: an orgy of

expense-account high living (for which the British taxpayer makes more

than his fair contribution), international publicity and rubbing

shoulders with the Queen and democrats from civilised Commonwealth

countries.’ Commentators are canvassing the suspension of up to ten

Commonwealth states because of unsatisfactory leaders. Tony Blair tore

them off a strip in Durban about the damage caused to the Commonwealth

by corruption. He was right to do so and not just because his foreign

secretary has an ’ethical’ foreign policy. The older the Commonwealth

gets, the less it can afford a sleazy image. All PROs should be advising

a Commonwealth spring clean - for the Commonwealth’s sake. It’s looking

rather shabby.



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