Bernard Ingham: If Commonwealth took on apartheid, why not Assad?

Russian military police officers check a weapons factory left behind by members of the Army of Islam group, in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria.
Russian military police officers check a weapons factory left behind by members of the Army of Islam group, in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria.
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Kingdoms, courts and cats all perish, they say. So do empires. Indeed, General Glubb Pasha, commander of the Arab Legion, claimed that the past 3,000 years show that they last on average only 250 years.

This is what makes tomorrow’s ceremonial opening by the Queen of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Buckingham Palace an amazing event. As we began to disband the British Empire after the Second World War, who would have thought that it would turn into a commonwealth of nations embracing most races and religions?

Yet our old empire, colouring most of the world red in my schoolboy atlases, has become a model of international co-operation and an ever-present smack in the eye for academics with a colonial chip on their shoulders. Our colonial record cannot have been all that bad when people, irrespective of their skin colour, want to sit down together in mutual respect.

Why, even countries with different colonial overlords – Mozambique (Portuguese) and Rwanda (Germany/Belgium) – have joined its ranks.

It has not all been plain sailing since the first CHOGM in Ottawa in 1971. Two presidents – of the Seychelles and Uganda – found themselves deposed while attending its meetings. That arch-racist thug, Robert Mugabe, did the Commonwealth a service by withdrawing Zimbabwe’s membership in 2003 and Nigeria was drummed out for a time over political executions.

Africa has not been a Commonwealth adornment. But I think even Margaret Thatcher, in her repeated confrontations in CHOGM in the 1980s over sanctions against apartheid South Africa, came to accept it was better that they looked each in the eye than not.

I was the British spokesman at six of Thatcher’s seven CHOGMs – Melbourne, New Delhi, Nassau, London, Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur – and was once asked what it was like always to be in a minority of one among 50 member states. I replied that it was wonderful when you were in the right – as events proved that the UK was.

After all, the apartheid system fell thanks partly to Thatcher’s straight talking to white South African leaders. South Africa is now a member of the Commonwealth, though whether less racist is another matter.

At least 12 members of the Royal family will attend CHOGM events leading up to its final event – a “retreat”, as it is called, at Windsor Castle on Friday – before the Queen’s 92nd birthday on Saturday.

The pundits will no doubt be occupied by the Queen’s succession. Will Prince Charles follow her as head of the Commonwealth or not? The member states would be mad to take Jeremy Corbyn’s advice and exclude him, given his sympathy, international outlook and that the royal family serves as a cement holding the organisation together.

Two more immediate questions against a background of international crisis are how it will play Syria and the Middle East mess and how positively it sees Brexit as a chance to improve its economic condition.

Syria is the more difficult and urgent issue. In an ideal world, the Commonwealth would set its face against the wholesale slaughter and gassing of Syrians and the systematic wrecking of their country by their crazed dictator, President Assad. But will the Commonwealth back the US, the UK and France in taking out Syrian chemical plants?

If they could campaign against the suppression of apartheid they should surely back the upholding of international law against the use of chemical weapons. Here is the Commonwealth’s opportunity to raise its standing in international circles.

But we must recognise that Vladimir Putin’s destabilisation process is far-reaching. He is not merely using his oil and gas to divide the European Union with a “sweetheart” deal with Germany, but also seems to sign international “co-operation” agreements with the developing world at the drop of a hat. We may get some idea this week of the extent of his interference in the 
Commonwealth.

On the face of it, Brexit is a much easier issue. If the so-called White Commonwealth were petty-minded, it could play hard to get since we rather deserted it by embracing the EU just as CHOGMs were getting underway. But its own interests dictate early trade agreements and developing countries have much to gain from a major EU nation leaving what is, through the Common Agriculture Policy, a protectionist institution.

Let Commonwealth free trade begin as soon as possible. And may Putin, Assad and other enemies of freedom and humanity all perish like kingdoms, courts and cats – but not the Commonwealth. It is potentially a good thing to have around these days.