1997 was the last time the UK marked Commonwealth Day in the same year as becoming the Chair of the Commonwealth. A Round Table editorial described the period as 1997 – The UK’s Year of the Commonwealth. As the rotation of the chair is coming round once more to the UK in April 2018, we’ve pulled out some excerpts from the archives to get a snapshot of what was being said about the Commonwealth in the Round Table Journal on Commonwealth Day in 1997.
Round Table editorial: 1997 – The UK’s year of the Commonwealth:
Britain and the contemporary Commonwealth
In Britain today, there are many contrasting views about the Commonwealth. For some it is an irrelevance, for others an anachronism. For some, perhaps a growing number, it offers economic opportunities and for others it is a diplomatic concert—occasionally singing in unison, more often like a choir with some descant and some discordant falsettos. For a few, it is even a moral cause destined or at least capable of showing the rest of the world how to practise good governance, respect for human rights, promoting cooperation, equity and fair dealings between diverse peoples. These different voices coexist uneasily within the same body politic. Clearly they are not all reconcilable. Some are, some are not. In the lead-up to CHOGM 1997, and probably at the CHOGM itself, three issues may well predominate
(1) democratisation in the Commonwealth, its pace and scope and what it entails, (2) the Commonwealth in the world economy and, perhaps (3) how best to harness intergovernmental (IGOs) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
….It needs to be recognized also, however, that attention to Commonwealth matters seems to have come rather low in the FCO’s scale of priorities (the affairs of its Overseas Development Administration—the ODA— constitute something of an exception to this generalization), especially when reflected in terms of money allocated for pan-Commonwealth endeavours or for specifically British ventures in the Commonwealth. Given that both John Major and Tony Blair have said that they hope that the CHOGM will concentrate on economic themes, it will be interesting to see in the coming months if Tony Blair develops his proposal for a Harare-style declaration on economic matters to complement the 1991 document on basically political matters…..
……Already the good sense of deciding to designate 1997 the UK’s Year of the Commonwealth seems to be paying dividends, for the British are beginning to buzz about the Commonwealth. The extensive list (appended to this editorial) of activities already planned to take place in Britain in 1997 is testimony to the variety and enthusiasm engendered within the UK on Commonwealth matters for this coming year; and many more events are in the pipeline. The Royal Commonwealth Society, in particular (which is due to re-enter its splendidly refurbished headquarters’ building in Northumberland Avenue in October), has played a constructively proactive, lobbying, entrepreneurial and catalytic role in promoting the idea and reality of the UK Year of the Commonwealth. In general terms, however, three points are worth emphasizing. First, although the Commonwealth, and certainly Britain’s participation in it, is functionally London-centric and the CHOGM is to meet in Edinburgh, this year’s Commonwealth events are by no means confined to these two cities, active though they will be (and there is a rich menu of meetings and other events planned in and for many other Commonwealth countries). Second, the sheer variety of events attests to the multidimensionality of the Commonwealth and shows that the notion of ‘a people’s Commonwealth’ is not just an empty or merely pious phrase. Third, and perhaps most important of all, the Commonwealth will not shut up shop and close down at the end of CHOGM in Edinburgh in October. In January 1998 Britain will take on the chair of the European Union for six months. It will be important to maintain some forward propulsion in the Commonwealth and for Britain to demonstrate convincingly that its membership of the EU and of the Commonwealth are genuinely complementary.
Commonwealth Day Debate, 10 March 1997: Dr Liam Fox, MP (edited):
In the past nine months I have visited a good number of Commonwealth countries, especially in South Asia, which is my geographical responsibility in the Foreign Office. I come from the strand of the Conservative Party which has the greatest affinity for the Commonwealth, and I think that we are moving to a position in this country where we regard our foreign policy interests as being more balanced than perhaps they were at one point. I believe that the Commonwealth is a 20th century success story, and there cannot be very many which compare in stature to it. We have had a remarkable transformation from Empire to a free association of 53 independent states, and we are still growing. The testament to success, I suppose, is the fact that other countries are still trying to get into the Commonwealth. I think, therefore, that it is an organization with a very bright future. The question that we have to ask today is, what is the attraction, and why does the British government believe that Commonwealth membership is so important to us and to everyone else? Well, despite what you may understand if you listen to the debates in the House of Commons, British foreign policy does still have interests beyond the southern borders of Greece, and Britain’s foreign policy goals include working for a stable and peaceful international order which is characterized by prevention and peaceful settlement of disputes, the international rule of law, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, good government and respect for human rights. The Commonwealth has shown itself to be an excellent forum for advancing these objectives.
Read this debate in full in the Round Table Journal.
Thirty years of the Commonwealth Day observance by Donald Simpson, the Librarian of the RCS:
A formal Observance of Commonwealth Day has become a strong tradition since the first service of affirmation and faith was held in the Church of St. Martin in the Fields in 1966. But from the outset there has been controversy about the multi-faith nature of the event. Later multi-faith ceremonies have been held at the London Guildhall and, since 1972, at Westminster Abbey. The order includes forms of words which were initially strongly theistic but were steadily modified in deference to faiths with a different tradition. The search for a formula which offends no faith and represents all strands of Commonwealth culture has left the Observance a memorable and impressive occasion marred by woolly details and the creeping influence of political correctness. The year 1996 was the 30th in which a Commonwealth Day Observance involving the participation of representatives of many faiths took place, and this seems a suitable opportunity to look back on the 30 Observances so far held and analyse their contents and changes. This is an expansion and updating of the section ‘The pattern changes’ in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library Note, No 259, ‘Commonwealth Day: Its Origins and Development’, February 1984, and is based both on a careful scrutiny of all the printed details of the Observance held in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library in the University of Cambridge Library (this increasingly elaborate source is referred to as ‘programmes’), material in the Royal Commonwealth Society Archives there, and personal recollections of 29 of the 30….
….On looking over the full range of programmes, one feels somewhat melancholy; the Observance remains a memorable and impressive occasion, but its details are often woolly, ‘politically correct’, and poorly phrased. The wording of the Affirmations, once clear and concise, has become like a long-pondered and amended committee resolution. When one considers the riches of British hymnody, the fact that, even with omissions, only 27 different hymns have been used in 30 Observances, is disappointing. However, at least the omission of God from the Affirmations does not seem to have affected the hymns.
Peter Marshall writing for the Round Table Journal in 1997on Recessional and the Commonwealth:
The Rudyards have ceased from Kipling and the Haggards Ride no more. Kipling’s ashes lie in Westminster Abbey. If ‘Recessional’ has a spiritual descendant, perhaps it is the multi-faith Observance which takes place in the Abbey on Commonwealth Day, in the presence of the Queen. It is attended by official representatives of this country and of the Commonwealth High Commissions. It is led by the Dean. It brings together representatives of the principal religions of the Commonwealth. But most of those in the Abbey are young people, and the Observance is organized, not by the British Government, but by the Joint Commonwealth Societies’ Council (JCSC), in consultation with the Dean. The JCSC is a group linking unofficial and official organizations, which seeks to share information about the modern Commonwealth, through their individual work, especially educational projects. The core of the Observance is the Queen’s Commonwealth Day Message, read by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and the five Affirmations, which all present say together. Those Affirmations are simple and to the point: respect for the whole of the natural world; faith in the dignity and unique worth of the human person; justice for every individual and peace and reconciliation between nations; the supremacy of love in relationships; and expression of our membership of one human family in service and sacrifice for the common good. The Affirmations represent the same moral idea of which Lord Strang spoke. They are the bedrock of sensible co-existence in an interdependent world. As long as it respects them, the Commonwealth will endure as a boon to the world as well as to its members.
You can read this article in full and with citations in the Round Table Journal.
Sir Ronald Sanders wrote in 1998 following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting about The Commonwealth after Edinburgh:
After the Commonwealth Summit in Edinburgh the Commonwealth is stronger in many respects. Among the contributing factors to its strength is the re‐commitment to it by the government of the United Kingdom. Edinburgh also set down a marker that the Commonwealth will become increasingly more concerned with economic problems that confront the international community. But, the jury is still out on the Commonwealth’s political credibility. If Nigeria continues to flout Commonwealth principles, the association must act by 1 October 1998 to expel it and to impose sanctions against it. The Commonwealth remains a broad‐based coalition of countries that can help the world to negotiate global issues, but the association must become more tightly focused and the Secretariat must be provided with resources. And, as Her Majesty the Queen’s successor as Head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles should now show a heightened interest in Commonwealth countries and Commonwealth matters.
To set a perspective on the Commonwealth after Edinburgh, some reflection on the Commonwealth before Edinburgh is necessary. In the two years before the Heads of Government meeting, there was a refreshing change in the mood and attitude of the government of the United Kingdom towards the Commonwealth. In 1988, Professor Dennis Austin summed up Britain’s attitude to the Commonwealth in the following way: ‘No longer part of that world of high national concern, the Commonwealth has to be seen as operating on the margin of British interests.’ After some years, particularly under the Thatcher administration, when the British Government seemed to regard the Commonwealth as a nuisance specifically over apartheid South Africa, a positive attitude began to develop. In the wake of the end of the Cold War and its international effects in 1991 and the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1993, Britain became more comfortable with the Commonwealth’s political discourse.
Read this article in full in the Round Table Journal.
Does Commonwealth Day matter? Stuart Mole writes for the website (2016)