The Commonwealth will sink into insignificance without cold, hard cash

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The problems of "the Commonwealth" – the 54 nations that once made up the British empire – are not down to its Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland. They are, and will continue to be, the result of a portentous organisation without a significant budget or any power other than an appeal to nostalgia and which clings to a forelock-tugging relationship with the British Royal Family.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

An international body bound by common law and common democratic institutions could be a force for good in a world which is out of joint, but thanks to its most important countries, including Australia, the Commonwealth has no force at all.

This has not always been the case. Back in the days of apartheid, the Commonwealth under Sonny Ramphal raised an early and outspoken voice against racism and the denial of human rights in some of its member countries. It then declined – and for eight years before 2016 it was led by an Indian diplomat who would not have known a human right if he fell over it.

Patricia Scotland – a high-achieving black QC who had been solicitor-general in a British Labour government – was then appointed, with a mandate to effect urgent and radical reforms in this moribund organisation.

She did so, under a promise to "hit the ground running", by appointing a managing consultant in whom she had personal confidence but without going through the normal tendering procedures – a failure for which she has now been criticised by an audit report (which did not allege any corrupt intent). Some members of staff, discomforted by her shakeup, leaked maliciously to tabloids
which condemned her as "Baroness Brazen". They focused on money spent renovating the Secretary-General’s "grace and favour" residence in Mayfair, although this had for the most part been approved by her predecessor.

At this point, I was brought in to advise but had soon to relinquish the job after suffering the expatriate’s nightmare (the death of elderly parents in Sydney). I did, however, gain some insight into the secretariat and its ingrained reaction to necessary reform.

Member states must understand that the Commonwealth cannot be fixed merely by replacing its Secretary-General. I later saw the diplomats of member states at their fawning worst at a Buckingham Palace party where they had been invited by the Queen to replace her as head of the Commonwealth with her eldest son and heir.

They should not have consented because the position is not hereditary and Charles III (as he soon will be) would have a conflict of interest because he will be UK's head of state. Moreover, he is uninspiring – the role should have gone to Nelson Mandela’s widow, the impressive Dame Graça Machel, or might even have been offered to Barack Obama, who qualifies through his Kenyan father. But these diplomats were "duchessed" (as the British put it) and soon succumbed to the imperial fantasy. Even Australia, led at the time by soi-disant republican Malcolm Turnbull, voted in favour of Charles – the hereditary royal candidate.

Is there hope? A stronger union between 54 liberal democracies would be welcome in a world that needs rational consensus on how to react to common dangers, from climate change to coronavirus. American exceptionalism under Donald Trump has put in doubt the US claim to be "leader of the free world" while Brexit has weakened the EU and left Britain without any global backing for its values unless they could be channelled through a revived union of Commonwealth states.

This body could become a significant bloc at the UN and might set up a commission to investigate those of its members that backslide on democracy by rigging elections and infringing human rights. It might act as mediator over increasing demands for Britain to return the cultural property its armies looted in colonial times and broker trade deals for which, post Brexit, the mother country is increasingly desperate.

That will never be done by an organisation with a minuscule budget, especially when its main members precipitously withdraw their contribution – as Australia did last week. It was followed by Boris Johnson’s government, which then withdrew £4.7 million ($9.12 million), more displeased (many suspect) by Scotland’s Labour Party past than a corner-cutting management contract.

As for the "grace and favour" Mayfair mansion, it’s a gloomy and purposeless place in a prime location. It should be sold (it could reach £4.7 million), with the proceeds used to fund some of the worthwhile initiatives – especially for disadvantaged youth – that have been imperilled by these withdrawals.

What was once grandiloquently "the British Commonwealth of Nations" – older readers will remember all the red places on their school atlas – is now sinking into insignificance, hastened by the unedifying spat over its Secretary-General, who is backed by many states in the Caribbean and Africa.

No doubt Commonwealth conferences will continue, to allow political leaders their photo opportunities with the next king, but unless they act now to give the organisation a lot of money and a little power, it will not be much good for anything else.

Geoffrey Robertson QC’s latest book is Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure (Penguin/Randomhouse 2019).