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