Sir Peter Marshall

The Commonwealth and Ultraprobosciology Address to the Cambridge Branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society on the occasion of their twenty-fifth anniversary, March 13, 2013 I am delighted to have the opportunity to join in the discussion on this lively and encouraging occasion. I have suggested as the title to these remarks “The Commonwealth and Ultraprobosciology”. You may not be familiar with the latter word. This should not worry you. I have only recently invented it, and have so far given it no currency: I am conscious that, philologically, it may manifest certain sub-optimal qualities. It is intended to describe the study of how to see beyond the need of your nose. It could possibly, I venture with the greatest possible diffidence to suggest, have some relevance in present circumstances. In his Chairman’s summary of conclusions on the Cambridge Round Table Conference 2014, held at Sidney Sussex College two months ago, Stuart Mole records that “there was a very widely held view among conference participants that the Commonwealth now faced a series of pressing and substantial challenges to its credibility, vitality and integrity. For many, this amounted to a serious crisis in the Commonwealth, requiring an urgent response.” When a group as well informed about, and as well disposed towards, the Commonwealth as the Round Table is of this general opinion, it is time to sit up and take notice. Rather more starkly, the title chosen for the Peter Lyon Memorial Lecture last week at the University of London Senate House was “Can the Commonwealth ever become relevant again?” , an illustration of the well-worn tactic which I would define as “Pre-emptive Denigration”, or of “getting your retaliation in first”. The distinguished lecturer, the Rt Hon Frank Field, MP, left the question aside. He offered a ringing endorsement of the Commonwealth, and outlined an “Action Plan” for its more effective utilisation. In the world of growing complexity and interdependence which we have experienced since the end of the Second World War, the relevance of the Commonwealth as an institutional feature, as a perception, as an idea even, has grown pari passu. As the Secretary-General observed, it is tailor made for the twenty-first century. Yet at the same time we have to recognise that it is an entity of such subtlety that giving it administrative and practical expression appropriate to its near-limitless possibilities is an enormous – and perhaps ultimately unwinnable - challenge. But that is a reflection of realities of the human condition. Robert Browning put his finger on it: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” My impression, however, is that what was of concern to the Round Table gathering, and to Frank Field in his lecture, was not the essence of the Commonwealth, but rather various inadequacies and weaknesses in both its collective operational and deliberative activities, and the support given to them by member governments.. What was no less clear on both occasions was the plethora of remedies more or less readily available to deal with the perceived shortcomings. It seems to be, to coin a phrase, a matter of political will. In that regard it is surely significant, for example, that at the Colombo CHOGM, which seems to have had so searing an effect on many of those who attended it, Heads of Government took some drastic steps on the spot to address the difficulties identified, not least changing the venue of the next CHOGM. I personally will be surprised and disappointed if the Malta meeting next year, with all the energies and synergies already being invested in it, does not go far to assuage current misgivings. The unique composition of the Commonwealth is familiar enough. The matchless service given to it by The Queen even more so. What is less often recognised is the uniqueness of its mode of functioning. First, the non-governmental elements make the running to a greater extent than in any other international organisation of consequence. Secondly, the contact between the governmental and non-governmental elements are closer, warmer and more informal than in any other case. Thirdly, the Heads of Government of the member states are similarly more getattable. There is a price to be paid in administrative terms for this important clutch of advantages. More is demanded of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth than of any comparable international boss. A natural corollary of this circumstance is that the incumbent could reasonably expect to receive correspondingly more support from those concerned. Yet one of the most striking aspects of the January Round Table gathering was the Secretary-General patiently listening to the indirect, and the not so indirect, criticisms of the Association’s activities. Well might he describe himself as a “dartboard”. Even if the 2013 CHOGM had taken place in a less fraught location than Colombo, human rights could have well have been a main subject of discussion. But I confess to some uneasiness about we should prudently expect from deep Commonwealth involvement. My experience of intergovernmental discussion on this very important topic and politically charged question (which, I shudder to realise, goes back nearly fifty years) convinces me that the promotion of human rights is a more rewarding exercise than their protection. Where governments are involved, there will always be a gap between the two. But that is no reason to abandon the former. On the contrary. it is a valuable means of dragging the latter along. It seems a bit hard, in these circumstances, to lambast the Commonwealth for failure to respect its own standards when they are in effect as high as, or higher than, anyone else’s. At an earlier Round Table meeting someone posed the intriguing question: “the Commonwealth - club, church or beehive?” The diplomat’s answer would of course be that it is an amalgam of all three, and keeping a judicious balance between them is the nub of the Commonwealth’s special quality. In general, terms we must cherish our “organic” character, which cannot but put us on our guard against being too judgmental of one another; we must uphold the values which we cherish; and we must accord the priority they deserve to the activities we undertake collectively to help better the lot and the prospects of ordinary people. More specifically, we need to think through comprehensively the text of the Commonwealth Charter. The first substantive test of its implementation will be the Malta CHOGM. Passing the test will establish definitively that the Commonwealth, to put it in long-distance running terms, has got its second wind. That’s enough from me. It remains only to congratulate you on the past twenty-five years, and to look forward to achievements no less great in your next twenty-five. Peter Marshall, March 13, 2014