Commonwealth flagsThe flags of the 53 Commonwealth member states flew outside Parliament and Westminster Abbey on 14 March as events took place in the area [credit: Debbie Ransome]

As the British sun put on one of its better performances in the Westminster area on 14 March, Commonwealth Day, officials and commentators started the work of shining a light on the definition of the theme year #AnInclusiveCommonwealth.

This theme for 2016 Commonwealth events started being questioned on the very day on which it was being celebrated and shared in 53 countries.

The question lying at the heart of the many speeches, articles and broadcasts on 14 March kept coming back to that underlying question: What exactly do you mean by inclusive?

For Commonwealth educators, some of the first to meet on 14 March, the morning was spent seeking to define what exactly an inclusive education should mean.

Participants gathering at the annual Commonwealth Day Westminster Seminar at a committee room in the Houses of Parliament sought to define how far such a theme could go to improving the world of education.

An inclusive education

Participants at the Council for Education in the Commonwealth-organised seminar looked at education in rural areas, IT support for the least-connected parts of the Commonwealth, education for the disabled and education for those outside the school system, including older people.

The discussion held by the Commonwealth’s top educators indicated how complicated #AnInclusiveCommonwealth year could be if the concept was to live up to its core offer.

One participant received applause when she pointed out that, while Pakistan Nobel Laureate Malala was a hero for her push for the education of young girls, such advocates had not also pushed for the education of older people such as, say, Malala’s mum. For that audience, an inclusive education went beyond the disabled and disadvantaged child to include all age groups.

Many advocated the teaching of inclusive lessons at the earliest age possible. Examples included the education of young girls in Nigeria in the shadow of Boko Haram and the challenge in many Commonwealth countries of convincing politicians and top educational institutions to truly sign up to the notion of inclusive education.

Commonwealth Secretariat officials outlined their plans for a Knowledge Hub to share good practice and set quality standards for education across the Commonwealth, with a legal, planning and financial framework to support such aims.

In her plenary address to the seminar, Commonwealth Secretary-General designate, Patricia Scotland, touched on her vision of the organisation she is about to lead as well as some of her own priorities.

She said that the young nature of the Commonwealth (60% are under the age of 30) meant that, if young people were not properly educated, there would be “the risk of building in hopelessness rather than hope”.

Citing her own background in the criminal justice system, she put the emphasis on looking at the needs of the young and of the people bringing them up – in other words, catching them while young.

She told her audience that women and girls’ empowerment would be a “big part” of her work as Secretary-General.

‘Pooled wisdom’

On a day when the influential Economist magazine had looked at the Commonwealth and analysed its need for a strong mechanism for enforcement and its challenges under a new Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland outlined what she saw as the strengths of the organisation she is about to run.

She spoke of the “eclectic mix of talents” across the Commonwealth’s regions and described the “pooled wisdom” of its 53 member nations as “more valuable than gold”.

Baroness Scotland stated that, by sharing best practice and brainstorming, the Commonwealth could create pathways to get difficult issues right.

“What can we not achieve?” she asked her audience.

Her comments were timely as many of the participants at the Westminster seminar had started the session earlier that Commonwealth Day morning, listening to the panellists while reading the Economist article (entitled ‘What’s the point of the Commonwealth?’) on their mobile phones.

Inclusive of faith

The question of inclusiveness continued to be raised by the afternoon’s main London event – officially entitled The Commonwealth Service, a celebration of the Commonwealth – which took place at Westminster Abbey.

I was personally asked during a BBC broadcast by veteran presenter Jonathan Dimbleby: “Inclusive, which can mean anything and nothing…what’s the core of it?”

It was a question which speech after speech sought to define during the course of the day.

The Queen’s own 2016 Commonwealth Day message stated: ‘Being inclusive and accepting diversity goes far deeper than accepting differences at face value and being tolerant. True celebration of the dignity of each person, and the value of their uniqueness and contribution, involves reaching out, recognising and embracing their individual identity’.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, who steps down from office on 31 March, told the Westminster Abbey Service that “Taking strength from its diversity, the Commonwealth succeeds in creating common ground on which to stand together in answering the challenges of our times”.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who is Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, told the Abbey service that he hoped the Commonwealth would continue to act as “an inclusive network for mutual support, development and growth of opportunity and rights for all”.

As the Commonwealth Day messages poured in from around the world, that word ‘inclusive’ kept coming back.

Some attendees questioned the inclusive nature of the multi-faith service, this year called ‘The Commonwealth Service’ rather than a Multi-faith Observance for Commonwealth Day. Round Table Chairman Stuart Mole, who has helped to organise a few of these ceremonies himself over the years, pointed out in an article about Commonwealth Day that: ‘What has made the ceremony special has been the search for common ground in the values and principles of all faiths (and revealed in their sacred texts) and how these also find expression in the core values underpinning the Commonwealth and embodied in its Charter’.

For the record, prayers were offered during the Westminster Abbey Service by faith leaders representing the Buddhist community, the Liberal Judaism, the Hindu community, for Shia Muslims, the Coptic Orthodox Church with large doses of Church of England.

Defining inclusiveness

In the Economist article, which had spread in Commonwealth circles early on 14 March, the magazine had given grudging credit to the organisation stating that “despite its weaknesses, the Commonwealth is still a club that countries want to join”, citing the possible waiting list of applicants including South Sudan, Algeria, Burma, Ireland, Kuwait and Palestine.

That word ‘inclusive’ promises not to go away soon in 2016.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, known as CMAG, meeting in London in February 2016, called on the Maldives, the site of one of the current Commonwealth political headaches, to show progress towards ‘inclusive, free and fair elections’ in 2018.

It’s become quite clear that ‘free and fair’ are not going to be enough in a 2016 full of ‘inclusiveness’. As the Commonwealth pins down what the word ‘inclusive’ means, it also became quite clear that the ‘inclusive’ went beyond the use of the word on social media and in Commonwealth Day parades, photo competitions and awards during Commonwealth Week but to the very core of harnessing the Commonwealth’s diversity in a constructive way.

In its article on Commonwealth Day, Britain’s Independent newspaper ran a headline on ‘Seven Commonwealth countries with dubious records of ‘inclusivity’ and protecting human rights’. The article started from the premise that ‘The Queen has made ‘inclusivity’ the theme of this year’s Commonwealth Day – but not all member nations are living up to that ideal’. The article proceeded to focus on seven states which it said had failed to live up to these ideals, namely Uganda, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Trinidad & Tobago, The Maldives and Malaysia for a list of failures ranging from LGBT rights and the criminalisation of homosexuality to harassment of journalists and extra-judicial killings. England is included in the Independent’s list of seven for what the paper called its ‘effort to “influence” the world in the past two hundred years’ and how that role had created so many issues regarding inclusivity.

The Independent and Economist articles were clearly the starting pistols in a year-long debate on the role of that word ‘inclusive’ in good governance, democracy, education and the law across the Commonwealth and whether the Commonwealth’s Charter sets the points needed to pass the test to remain in the club or whether it sets the aspiration.

Many in Commonwealth circles speak fondly of the golden days of Guyana-born Secretary-General Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal (1975-1990) and his Nigerian-born successor, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (1990-2000). They steered through times of high-profile member country exclusions and suspensions during heightened political times and the growth of enforcement structures such as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).  Given today’s thorny challenges of good governance, women’s rights, radicalisation and climate change, the word ‘inclusive’ could be a double-edged sword for the incoming Secretary-General, another Caribbean-born leader, as she seeks to tackle the Commonwealth landscape… an inclusive way, of course.

To mark Commonwealth Week, Taylor & Francis will continue to offer free online access to articles from the Round Table Journal. Click here for your token.

Related articles:

Does Commonwealth Day still matter?

The Commonwealth after Malta

New Secretary-General, new direction?

Towards a Commonwealth built on all our talents by Patricia Scotland.