This article was originally published in the North Wales Weekly News on 25 April 2018.
Last week, London hosted the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It was by any standards a huge event. The streets around the Commonwealth headquarters at Marlborough House were sealed, causing traffic jams over a wide area. The flags of the constituent countries flew from the poles on Parliament Square and the Mall. Westminster was temporarily populated by national leaders from around the globe. It was an exhilarating few days.
I am a fan of the Commonwealth. Born out of what could have been the bathos of the dissolution of the British Empire, it has grown into one of the world’s preeminent international organisations, linking 53 countries with a combined population of 2.3 billion, or a third of humanity. Most of its members were formerly constituent parts of the Empire, though not all: Rwanda, for example, was governed by Belgium, and Mozambique by Portugal. For the most part, however, the Commonwealth countries are linked by a common language and have legal systems founded upon the Common Law. There is, therefore, a great deal of inherent common understanding.
Arguably, the UK did a disservice to its fellow Commonwealth members when it joined the European Community in 1973. Trading links with countries around the world were disrupted, as Britain withdrew behind the protectionist barrier of the Customs Union. The UK became more inward-looking, and our Commonwealth partners, unsurprisingly, looked elsewhere for new alliances and new trading arrangements.
Now, with the UK leaving the European Union, the already important institution of the Commonwealth will grow still further in importance. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have already made clear their keenness to strike free trade deals. Other markets, especially India, with its 1.3 billion population, offer exciting trade prospects. And smaller, poorer countries, excluded by the EU’s trade policies, can become more prosperous with access to the UK market.
I believe that Britain’s future after Brexit will be heavily bound up with the future of the Commonwealth itself. After almost half a century when we lost confidence and turned in on ourselves, we will again be an outward-facing, global nation. And that will be a very good thing.