Bernard Ingham: Commonwealth bound by vanity and pretence

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IT was, of course, no contest. Even if Nicolas Sarkozy has told him to “shut up”, David Cameron had no option but to go to Brussels today to help sort out the Eurozone crisis instead of gallivanting off to the Far East eventually to join the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in Australia’s fair city of Perth.

In my day these Commonwealth conferences came around all too quickly once every two years. I doubt whether much has changed, especially as the juxtaposition – timing-wise – of Prime Minister’s Questions following Monday’s backbench revolt over the referendum, the EU summit and Commonwealth gathering, which also begins today, leaves David Cameron trying to be in three places at once.

I attended six Commonwealth summits, in Melbourne, New Delhi, Nassau, London, Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur. As the Prime Minister’s spokesman, I invariably found myself in a minority of one among 50 – there are now 54 members – as pressure was applied to Margaret Thatcher over sanctions against South Africa.

Instead of caving in, she eventually handbagged its president, PW Botha, at Chequers. Nearly 30 years later the only result so far as I – and it seems Archbishop Tutu – can see is that we have swapped black for white racialism.

In short, I find it almost impossible to sing the praises of Commonwealth conferences. Of course, they can be seen – or presented – as marvellous international therapy, bringing together in a sort of amity the former colonial power and its dominions under the aegis of Her Majesty. This is not to mention the world’s largest democracy – India – rubbing shoulders with such miniscule states as Tuvalu (pop. 10,472).

In those terms, it sounds good. In practice, I found it an institution for the ritual excoriation of the former imperialists by their former subjects holding out their hands for more money. Worse still, the so-called White Commonwealth – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – generally – and hypocritically – played to the African gallery by demanding Britain bow the knee on sanctions.

We once called their bluff in Vancouver when we revealed that, while UK exports to South Africa had gone down, Canada’s had gone up, admittedly from a very low level. You would have thought we had detonated a nuclear device.

Now somebody else has dropped a bomb on the Commonwealth. An internal report from a group of eminent persons has said it has “failed to stand up for democracy and human rights”. It has taken them a long time to reach that conclusion when one man has made it obvious for years – Robert Mugabe.

Not surprisingly, they have caused a tremendous row because, among other things, they say member states should repeal laws against homosexuality. Since 42 Commonwealth members still outlaw homosexuality, it is inevitably a sore point.

So it is with Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory MP and danseuse extraordinaire, who does not think much of campaigners who rail against discrimination against homoxsexuals but don’t utter a word when Christians are persecuted.

This takes us back to Mugabe. Latterly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been bearding the old rascal in his den over tea and scones about Zimbabwe’s treatment of Anglicans.

At the same time the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has just issued a report castigating the Department for International Development over its administration of aid. It is going to be spending more money we don’t have on this at increased risk of fraud and corruption.

An exasperated Margaret Hodge, Labour chairman of the committee, complained that the Department could not even inform her committee of the expected levels of fraud and corruption or the action it was taking to mitigate them.

It is immensely encouraging to see the rats – as they will be described – getting at the pretence and piety that drives the Commonwealth and the aid lobbies. Their sickening virtue was honed to perfection in Kuala Lumpur in 1989 when they refused to include Thatcher’s case against South African sanctions in their communiqué and behaved as if violated when she published her own.

You would never have thought the Commonwealth is supposed to proceed by consensus.

Against the background of the eminent persons’ report and Margaret Hodge’s handiwork, I am beginning to regret for the first time since I retired 21 years ago that I shall not be briefing the press in Perth.

Oh what a joy it would be to prick the Commonwealth’s vanity. The only trouble is that our Prime Minister is an unlikely detonator of bombs in overrated institutions. Hang it all, he’s even against a referendum on Europe.