Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 15:02 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 15:02 | SYDNEY

A gong for the Commonwealth gang


Graeme Dobell

20 January 2011 13:59

In talking up the Commonwealth, William Hague is banging a wonderful, even venerable, gong.

As always, the question is not about the antiquity of the gong; it is whether any of the notes sounded add up to modern music. Perhaps the gong merely means the members of the Commonwealth gang are being summoned to another sumptuous dinner.

Australia does not have to take the word of the British Foreign Secretary about the potential value of this 60 year-old instrument. Canberra is in the process of running two experiments which will give a good indication of whether the Commonwealth can actually deliver something for any member state that tries to operate its machinery.

Later this year, Australia will host a Commonwealth summit in Perth. Julia Gillard is quite open-minded about the Commonwealth (this is a specific version of a broader point, expressed in its politest form: the Prime Minister is open-minded about a lot of international issues because she hasn't thought about them much). In Perth, the Prime Minister can give the Commonwealth a rev at what is its Grand Prix event, and decide for herself if there are any results worth mentioning.

The second experiment is the Australian run for a seat on the UN Security Council. One core judgement about a club is how many of the other members are actually prepared to help you out. If the Commonwealth has any worth as a multilateral grouping, it must deliver something – anything – in the UN bid.

Before following William Hague's hopes for the Commonwealth, consider the memoirs of two leaders with deep experience of the group at the Grand Prix level: John Howard and Tony Blair.

As a royalist and cricket tragic, Howard is no slouch on British heritage issues. But his key judgement on the Commonwealth starts out relatively lukewarm and then delivers a kick in the tail:

Membership of the Commonwealth is a legacy phenomenon for Australia. Yet it does bring us an association with nations, especially in Africa, with whom we might otherwise have little relationship. The Commonwealth link can mean quite a good deal when certain bilateral issues arise...In my time as Prime Minister, the Commonwealth’s greatest challenge and one on which, I am sorry to say, it failed absolutely was that of Zimbabwe.

Dare Julia Gillard to open her Perth speech with a discussion of the Commonwealth as a 'legacy phenomenon'. And see whether she can work in any more modifiers than Howard in talking about Commonwealth links meaning 'quite a good deal'.

Tony Blair's judgement is more damning. In a 700-page book covering his decade in power, he doesn't mention the Commonwealth once. Not a word. His memoir touches on quite a bit of Commonwealth territory; on aid, especially, and the workings of the Africa Commission. But the soft power of the Commonwealth seems so limp it doesn't rate in the mind of Britain's longest-serving Labour Prime Minister.

One implied but not explicit mention of the Commonwealth comes in Blair's discussion of Robert Mugabe. The UK could mount military action to save Sierra Leone, he writes, but could not do anything about Mugabe. Blair says he would have 'loved' to have got rid of Mugabe, but it wasn't practical since, 'for reasons I never quite understood, the surrounding African nations maintained a lingering support for him and would have opposed any action strenuously.'

Blair doesn't bother to finger the Commonwealth in this. Howard does, laying out the way the Zimbabwe issue meandered through various CHOGMs (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings) and what he sees as the incredible lack of any Commonwealth pressure on Mugabe. Howard calls Zimbabwe 'the most demoralising foreign affairs issue that I touched in my time as Prime Minister'. Great wrap, that, for the Commonwealth.

There may be some domestic political sense in Hague talking up the Commonwealth. He is picking up a foreign policy instrument that wasn't accorded much importance by the previous Labour administration. But good luck to him in trying to get the instrument to do something. The same goes for Julia in Perth.