In the run up to CHOGM 2018, COO of The Royal Commonwealth Society Annette Prandzioch highlights the organisation’s past achievements and future work to promote the value and values of the modern Commonwealth
2018 will be a historic year for the Commonwealth and the UK, and for one of the leading organisations in the Commonwealth network, The Royal Commonwealth Society.
This month, London will play host to the Commonwealth Summit, a historic gathering of the 53 Heads of Commonwealth governments. The Summit launches the UK’s two-year Chair in Office of this voluntary association of countries, which spans the five regions of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific, and encompasses about one third of the world’s population.
There is a current upsurge of public, press and policy interest in the Commonwealth which has followed in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and has gathered momentum in the run up to the summit. The Commonwealth is not and never has been an alternative to the EU, however its historic links of language, common law, parliamentary structures and culture capture all imaginations, giving this unique network the capacity to bring some unifying focus to the UK’s foreign policy.
For the UK’s contribution to the shaping of this association of nations to be deemed a success, it will have to deliver beyond the inevitable glamour of the Summit, where HM The Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, will host some 53 Heads of Government at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Instead, the UK will have to ensure delivery of tangible outcomes over its full two years as Chair in Office, not just announcements at the Summit, until handing over the Commonwealth baton to Malaysiain 2020. The Summit theme of ‘Towards a Common Future’ will focus on enhancing the lives of Commonwealth citizens by looking at issues of central importance to all Commonwealth countries: trade, security, climate change, governance and democracy. There will be a particular emphasis on young people who represent a significant two thirds of the population of this network. The Summit is also an excellent opportunity for the small island developing states, representing nearly half of the Commonwealth membership, to engage with the G20 countries ofCanada, UK, Indiaand Australiaat the highest level.
As long as the UK is not held back by historical sensitivities and shows continued leadership then it is not an exaggeration to assert that both the Summit and the subsequent two years have the potential to be a historic turning point for the UK’s international relations as well as for the Commonwealth network itself.
Not only will there be a gathering of Commonwealth Heads of Government, but also a gathering of civil society, in the form of the People’s, Women’s, Youth and Business Forums, reflecting the fact that the Commonwealth is about a dynamic network of communities as well as governments. As the oldest civil society in the Commonwealth, The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) – which celebrates 150 years this year – plays a leading role not only at the time of the Summit but in the lead-up, in organising the Westminster Abbey Service for Commonwealth Day in March, the largest UK multi-faith service in the presence of HM The Queen. Following on immediately from the Summit, the RCS will take a lead role in hosting a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall for The Queen’s birthday celebrations which will be broadcast live by the BBC.
The history of The Royal Commonwealth Society is worth reciting as it reflects a historical transition from empire to the modern Commonwealth. On 26 June 1868, a group of individuals in London established a ‘literary and scientific body’ dedicated to the greater understanding of what were then the British colonies. In 1882, it was granted a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria, elevating it to the level of other royal Societies. The Society became increasingly progressive, admitting women as members from 1922. It was given its present name of The Royal Commonwealth Society in 1958. It became a centre for the exchange of ideas and provided a platform for significant African leaders such as Ghana’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1957, Nelson Mandela in 1990 and other notables such as Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Chief Buthelezi and Desmond Tutu. More recently in 2017 the RCS, together with the Britain Australia Society, hosted a joint reception marking the affiliation of the two societies at which the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, was the guest of honour.
One of its particular strengths has been in the convening of the diplomatic corps, in particular High Commissioners, with the past few years seeing a successful series on the consequences of Brexit for the individual countries in the Commonwealth as well as the Commonwealth at large, with speakers such as Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Under Secretary at the FCO, and the Cypriot Minister of Agriculture who, following the last Brexit Roundtable, reported the views of the assembled High Commissioners back to the EU in Brussels. A further series run for High Commissioners has focussed on the Rule of Law and has been held in conjunction with the key legal institutions, The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple – the most internationally facing of the four Inns of Court – and the Bar Council of England and Wales. Speakers have included Lord Mance of the Supreme Court and David Green QC, Director of the Serious Fraud Office.
In 2018 and beyond, The Royal Commonwealth Society looks forward to continuing its track record of promoting the value and values of the modern Commonwealth, including recognising and supporting young leaders, creating pan-Commonwealth youth, education and environmental programmes, and touching on issues of topical interest and concern to individual countries of the Commonwealth.