Old friends we ought to keep in touch with: The Commonwealth is run for less than the EC spends on translation costs

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The Independent Online
SHOULD we bother with the Commonwealth? One of the oddities of the relationship between Britain and the other members of the Commonwealth is that it is clearly an association which is more important for them than for us. Very few countries leave except under duress, as did South Africa; the number of members, now 50, continues to grow. Australia may well become a republic, but there is no suggestion that it will leave the Commonwealth.

Yet to many people in Britain the Commonwealth is an irrelevance, and an irritating one at that. Its meetings seem little more than an opportunity for former colonies to hurl abuse at us for some perceived failure of policy past or present - witness the Malaysian Prime Minister's attack on our policy in the former Yugoslavia a few weeks ago, or the riots against the Queen in Cyprus this week. Even Australia's Paul Keating was pretty offensive about our performance during the Second World War. We appear to have better relations with Germany and Japan, our former enemies, than with our supposed friends.

The sense of irrelevance is supported by the economic realities. Whereas in 1969 nearly 19 per cent of our exports went to the Commonwealth, by 1990 that had fallen to less than 9 per cent. Exports to EC countries rose from 32 to 56 per cent over the same period. We still have substantial investments in the Commonwealth countries, but the proportion is falling fast. At the beginning of the Eighties more than a third of our earnings from direct foreign investment (British-owned plants and companies abroad) came from the Commonwealth; it is now less than a quarter.

British politics reflect this. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, may go on about her visits to its outposts in her Christmas message, but hands up anyone who can remember a single reference to it by any politician during last year's election campaign. As a little experiment, we counted the references to Jacques Delors, president of the EC, in this newspaper since the beginning of last year; there were 493. For Emeka Anyaoku, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, there were 32.

Yet, despite its evident irrelevance to Britain today, there is a powerful argument that the Commonwealth is not just useful and worthwhile, but that it may be a better model for a relationship between independent sovereign states than more fashionable contenders such as the UN or the European Community. There are at least three reasons for supporting its continuation.

The first is that it is cheap. The Commonwealth is run for less than the EC spends on translation costs. The secretariat costs less than pounds 9m, of which we pay pounds 2.7m. Other funds, of which the largest is the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, cost less than pounds 25m, of which we pay less than pounds 8m. There is a Commonwealth Development Corporation, which lends to the less developed members (and now some other countries, too), but this is profitable and at the moment requires no new funding at all. The CDC is also lean and efficient, employing fewer than 500 people around the world to administer 98 projects last year worth pounds 175m. Its total annual costs are less than one- quarter the amount the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development spent on fitting out its new offices in the City of London.

There are some other expense implications: the monarchy costs more than it otherwise would. When the Queen goes to Canada as head of state, the Canadian taxpayer will pay all the expenses, but when she is going to small Commonwealth countries we pick up the tab. Arguably, if there were no Commonwealth to visit there would be no excuse for keeping the royal yacht.

To some extent our development aid programme is skewed towards the Commonwealth, but since that is not particularly large as a percentage of GDP, it is hard to argue that the Commonwealth as such is an excessive drain on development aid. The cost of running the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington is currently the subject of a funding row with the Foreign Office, but whatever the rights and wrongs here, the amount involved, at pounds 2.7m, is tiny in public finance terms.

The second reason for keeping the Commonwealth is that the cultural identities it represents and reinforces may become rather more important over the next generation than they have been during the past one. The growth in world trade over the past 30 years has been largely in manufactured goods, but there are signs that 'cultural' products are becoming relatively more important: the French, for instance, are so upset that their young prefer American films and British pop music that they want trade in such products to be excluded from the Gatt agreement.

For most of the post-war period the Commonwealth has been the 'wrong' market for British exports: there are too many poor countries and the few rich ones are too far away. But hitherto poor countries can become rich, witness Singapore, Malaysia and (a slightly different case) Hong Kong; and as trade shifts from goods to ideas, distance matters less. A generation from now, it is perfectly possible that the relationships between Commonwealth countries could become an economic asset.

The third point leads on from this. If the world does start to split up into three principal economic areas - North America, Europe and East Asia - there is a real danger that these regions might become antagonistic. You do not need to believe that there will be a global trade war to see the need for associations that cut across these boundaries.

Uniquely, the Commonwealth does. This is not just a question of having members from all three blocs. It has absolute diversity, ranging from one of the two giants of humankind, India, to tiny island states with the population of a London borough, such as the Maldives. It has economic triumphs, such as Singapore, and economic catastrophes, such as Uganda. Leave aside British interests: there is no other forum in which these very diverse countries, comprising more than one-fifth of humankind, can talk to each other with common ground and even comradeship.

Anyone who has been to Commonwealth gatherings (I have reported on a dozen finance ministers' meetings) will testify to their unimportance. It is hardly politically correct to admit it, but absolutely nothing of any significance will happen at the official talks in Cyprus this week. At this stage of world history, the Commonwealth does not matter. But for the reasons I have given, it is worth keeping the organisation ticking over. The world may, a generation from now, be rather glad that we did.