LEADING ARTICLE : Commonwealth: a revival of hope?

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The Independent Online
The Queen's visit to South Africa is more than a nostalgic snapshot in a wicked world. Her presentation of the Order of Merit to Nelson Mandela in Cape Town yesterday was like a prize-giving of the most exhilarating but solemn significance. The historical resonances made this more than another royal tour and gave us all another chance to give thanks for the South African miracle and its chief magician, President Mandela. Of all the post Cold War transformations, South Africa is one that has neither been squandered nor turned sour.

It also set the seal on the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth. Caught in the South African sunlight that strange institution suddenly looks glamorous, perhaps even useful.

For 30 years the row over sanctions against Apartheid and Britain's isolation in the club where it paid most of the bills seemed the only thing that made the Commonwealth interesting. Then, the irritant removed, some began to ask what the Commonwealth was for. As bigger and more powerful clubs beckoned, the Foreign Office attempted to shuffle off what it saw as no more than a memorial to Britain's past. The image, fostered by many in Whitehall and Westminster, was of a gang of African beggars beloved by a Queen looking for a role. Britain, they said, had no need of such imperial baggage.

South Africa is helping to show Britain that the Commonwealth may even be useful and profitable at a time when Europe is proving divisive and disillusioning, Eastern Europe is not the new land of commercial and diplomatic opportunity it once seemed, the United Nations looks like a broken promise and the special relationship with the United States is foundering.

Britain is apparently already starting to take the Commonwealth more seriously. Ministers perceive that this strange mixture of 51 countries spread out across the globe, which were once ruled by Britain, might be a respectable forum for the projection of British influence in the world.

Last week Tony Baldry, a foreign office minister, spoke warmly in the Commons about the potential of the Commonwealth, pointing out that five of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world were Commonwealth members. There are markets out there - and they speak English.

The Foreign Office is also beginning to see that the Commonwealth is not just a collection of impoverished former colonies that clutch at Britain's wallet. It has political uses. Its membership allows Britain to exert influence from within the crowd without being accused of neo-imperialism. Led by the Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who has been over-cautious in the past, the Commonwealth has recently become more strident on the subject of good governance and democracy. He has recently suggested that military dictators should not be welcomed at Commonwealth meetings.

South Africa is one of several countries that can exert influence on bad governments and military regimes. President Mandela can conduct preventative diplomacy between and within member countries from a neutral position denied to Britain by political or historical ties. On Mandela's lips, human rights could never be interpreted as Western imperialism.

Next week Chatham House and the Foreign Office are holding an unprecedented one day meeting to look at Britain's position in the world. Mr Major is chief speaker. He would do well to set aside the usual sentimental platitudes about the Commonwealth and ask not how much Britain does for the Commonwealth but what the Commonwealth can do for Britain.