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Commonwealth trade must be truly mutual, Bishop of St Albans tells Lords

16 July 2021


Parliament Square,Westminster, with the flags of the Commonwealth

Parliament Square,Westminster, with the flags of the Commonwealth

THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has backed renewal of trade with the Commonwealth — but this must be “truly mutual”, not the “sort of extractive relations of the past”.

Dr Smith was speaking in a debate in the House of Lords last week on a motion concerning the UK’s trading relationship with Commonwealth countries. While the Government is pursuing free trade agreements with Commonwealth partners as part of its post-Brexit “Global Britain Policy”, Commonwealth heads of government have set a target to increase intra-Commonwealth trade to £1.45 trillion by 2030.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 countries, with a combined population of 2.4 billion — almost one third of the world’s population. It had an estimated gross domestic product of £9.4 trillion in 2020.

Responding to renewed criticism of the Commonwealth as an “imperialist” structure with connections to slavery, Lord Howell of Guildford, who tabled the motion, made a robust defence, quoting the Queen, who described the Commonwealth as “the face of the future”. He also addressed recent comments made by the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth History, Philip Murphy.

Lord Howell said: “The modern Commonwealth was recently called ‘an irrelevant institution afflicted by imperialist amnesia’, by someone who, frankly, should have known much better. However, in the age of networking and digital connectivity, the binding ties of a voluntary, non-treaty, global organisation such as the Commonwealth are sealed as much by enterprise and trade, civil-society concerns, and common everyday life and work interests as through government channels.”

While Dr Smith agreed that the UK should seek to strengthen ties with the Commonwealth, especially after Brexit, he said that the UK should also promote human rights. Market liberalisation alone did not “naturally deliver liberal and tolerant societies”.

He continued: “While any future agreements with Commonwealth countries have the potential to create prosperity, it is vital that this prosperity is truly mutual, delivers material improvements to the ordinary citizens of those countries, and does not constitute the sort of extractive relations of the past.

“However, as we know, the Commonwealth is primarily an organisation that affirms our commitment to shared values — democracy, human rights, and freedom of religion, to name a few — and it is important that future economic agreements promote these values.

“We cannot presume that free trade and market liberalisation alone will naturally deliver liberal and tolerant societies, and I hope that our continued engagement with the Commonwealth does not devolve into a quid pro quo economic relationship stemming from our need to sign trade agreements.”

The UK should not “shy away” from the fact that some Commonwealth countries did not have “the sort of record on our shared values that one might expect or hope”, he said.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington challenged the Government on this point. She asked: “Are we willing to give trade deals to countries that attack the human rights of their people, allow the exploitation of their workers, and deny their citizens essential democratic and personal freedoms?” These countries also relied on deforestation and allowed farming practices that were illegal in the UK, she said.

“The Government have yet to make clear where they stand in response to all these important questions.”

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