THE BLOG

The Future of the Commonwealth

09/03/2014 22:16 GMT | Updated 09/05/2014 10:59 BST

65 years ago countries from across the world, united by shared values, a common language and a desire to build peaceful societies came together to form the modern Commonwealth. Its membership now stands at 53 countries, representing a third of the world's population.

This government has made no secret of its strong support for the Commonwealth. But no institution today can be complacent. People rightly want to know why institutions exist and what they achieve. The European Union is familiar with this sort of scrutiny - and in recent times, the UK and others across Europe have been asking how it can become more competitive, more flexible and more democratically accountable.

The Commonwealth's challenge is very different. It has to explain to all of us how it can be relevant to us in a 21st century world, a world of competing bodies and organisations covering every area of international activity.

It also has another, rather unique challenge: as such a large and disparate group, it constantly needs to remind itself of its very identity. The prime minister took the right decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in November, despite our very serious concerns about the human rights record of the host government. The foreign secretary and I accompanied him. This allowed us to shine a spotlight on the situation in Sri Lanka. But it also underscored the need for the Commonwealth to reaffirm those values which are supposed to be common to us all as members.

And so today, on Commonwealth Day, I want to set out a few principles by which we in the Commonwealth might approach the common challenges that we face and to suggest how, as 53 nations, we can tackle them together.

First of all, we must remember our history. 2014 marks the centenary of the First World War. Here in the UK, we will remember the extraordinary Commonwealth contribution at a special service at Glasgow Cathedral on 4 August. On my travels as a foreign and Commonwealth office minister, I have been deeply moved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorials, commemorating the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two World Wars. Standing in front of these graves in far flung corners of the world, I have felt that our shared sacrifices remain hugely significant today. The Commonwealth can and must take pride in its role to shape and protect the principles of the free world.

Second, though, we must not be constrained by our history. For the UK, of course, this means making very clear that we see ourselves as an equal member of the Commonwealth - no more, no less - and that we do not claim any hint of entitlement. I sometimes feel, in fact, that we need to work doubly hard to assure other members of this. For us all, collectively, we need to make sure the organisation shows as much activism looking forward as it does nostalgia looking back. The Commonwealth has strong and deep foundations; but without constant renewal, these risk gradual decay.

Third, then, we need to update our vision for what the Commonwealth means. We must stay true to the original purpose of the organisation, emphasising our shared values and beliefs. We have made a good start on this by agreeing a Commonwealth Charter in 2012, for the first time in our history. But we also have a collective responsibility to live up to these values. That is why the Foreign Secretary was swift to raise our disappointment at recent anti-LGBT legislation in some Commonwealth members with the Secretary-General.

Fourth, we must also increase the practical impact of membership - to convince the most sceptical that investment in the organisation is worth the effort. I would like to see even greater efforts made to stimulate intra-Commonwealth trade, for example. Studies have shown a 20% reduction in the costs of doing business between Commonwealth members, linked to similarities in our legal systems and common use of the English language. I am keen that we do more in this direction.

Finally, the Commonwealth must reach out and touch the lives of young people, our greatest asset. There are an extraordinary 1 billion people under the age of 25 living in the Commonwealth - this group can be a powerful and important advocate for positive change around the world. We have a great opportunity to speak to them, in particular, through this summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Already the traditional curtain raiser to the Games - the Queen's Baton Relay - has visited 44 nations, with the FCO working to help promote Scotland right across the world. Glasgow will draw in over 4,000 athletes, competing in 17 sports, with a global audience of approximately 1.5 billion - and it will no doubt produce sporting heroes who can inspire a new generation with the spirit that the Commonwealth represents.

I remain hugely inspired by what the Commonwealth is, and hugely optimistic for what it can achieve. This year's theme for the organisation is "Team Commonwealth". We are a unique, hugely diverse team - and therein lies our strength. From the plains of southern Africa to the island nations of the Pacific, the Commonwealth reaches all over the world, and creates friendships and partnerships that would otherwise not exist. I have learned from direct experience - in diplomatic negotiations, as well as in trade - that this can be a huge advantage to the UK, as it can to all other members. But we must work hard if we are to ensure that it remains as powerful and as effective organisation as it has always been.