Philip Murphy and Vince CableThe LibDem leader found that the Commonwealth had “great value” but warned of “inflated expectations” [photo: Debbie Ransome]

In the tradition of the man himself, the Peter Lyon Memorial Lecture is expected to deliver insights on the Commonwealth, the global political scene and the current twists and turns in UK politics.

The 2018 speaker, Sir Vince Cable, ticked all these boxes and more. Best known at present as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, with an inside political knowledge as a member of the coalition government which bolstered the pre-Brexit Tory party, Sir Vince, however, ticks many, many more boxes.

As chair of the session, Institute of Commonwealth Studies Director Philip Murphy, pointed out, Cable has served as a Treasury Finance Officer for the Kenyan government, on the Latin American desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as an advisor to Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal, as Chief Economist to Royal Dutch Shell, advisor to the World Trade Board and co-writer of publications on globalisation, free trade and economic integration.

So it was no surprise that there was a packed hall at Senate House on the evening of 8 October when Vince Cable delivered his presentation and took part in a lively Q&A session on the Commonwealth and Brexit.

Sir Vince was full of praise for the Commonwealth and outlined his own knowledge of what he called the Commonwealth “iceberg” –  the higher-profiled Commonwealth Secretariat with the quieter work of the “Commonwealth connection” and the networking between  Commonwealth associations continuing underneath.

“Old distinctions gone”

Having served under one of the Commonwealth’s most active Secretaries-General, whom he described as “something of a force of nature”, Sir Vince noted how governments had tried to “rein in”  subsequent Secretaries-General ever since. He did, however, praise the current postholder, Patricia Scotland, while pointing out that the Commonwealth Secretariat was operating in a very different world to that encountered by Sonny Ramphal’s team.

Vince Cable attributed the major changes in the world today to the shift to emerging markets and their initiatives and the fact that many people in the world today had now moved out of poverty.

As most people had moved from subsistence levels, Sir Vince said that “the old North and South distinctions had largely gone”. He outlined how many issues receiving global focus were now dominated by the “club” of small states and the issues faced by large emerging economies.

Brexit and the Commonwealth

In this new global scenario, Vince Cable said he thought that the Brexit controversy would dominate Commonwealth thinking today in the way apartheid had in the 1980s.

He saw advantages in the newly-awakened interest in the Commonwealth since Brexit. He said that it was a positive thing that those who saw the Commonwealth as an “opportunity” would remind “us of the importance of the Commonwealth”.

However, during his presentation and the Q&A session afterwards, many questioned the figures for the so-called “Commonwealth advantage” and whether it could live up to the expectations of those who saw it as a replacement for UK-EU trade after Brexit.

Sir Vince pointed out that, whether there was a “no-deal” Brexit or a Canadian-type deal, a “slow puncture or a blowout” would both lead to flat tyres.

He said that only a few, smaller Commonwealth countries send more than 10% of their exports to Britain, while many of the larger Commonwealth nations already had or were finalising trade deals with Europe. He also outlined how attempts to boost such trade would continue to be met by countries such as India with the same requests that they’d asked Europe for, such as visa access, which the UK had resisted within European-Indian negotiations.

Sir Vince also pointed out the potential impact an exchange rate fall in Britain would have on diaspora remittances to Commonwealth countries and the impact on the levels of British tourism to these nations.

On the plus side, he said that there were opportunities to be sought through commerce, trade agreements and, to a lesser extent, trade diplomacy.

He added that a post-Brexit UK could have the advantage of no more EU trade hurdles and restrictions but it was questionable whether this would be a great upside.

Post-Brexit issues

The Q&A session, with questions from an audience of former Commonwealth officials, experts and specialists from different regions, explored the post-Brexit advantages and problems on issues from aid to academia to diaspora.

Vince Cable agreed that the UK hadn’t made the best use of its diaspora in trade missions and other work with its Commonwealth partners. He also outlined how some diaspora communities had been misled during the Brexit referendum campaign, being told by Brexiteers that there would be more visas after Brexit. This was another expectation to manage after Brexit.

On an issue raised several times by the audience, Vince Cable said he shared a “great sense of alarm” for the academic community and its ability to recruit the best students and teachers, pursue global research and open doors for students. He urged academics to keep up the pressure in a way similar to the business community to make sure that its interests were heard in the pre-Brexit clamour.

On the so-called Commonwealth advantage, Sir Vince said that the network had “great value” but was in danger of “inflated expectations”. “It’s totally unrealistic to expect miracles to happen,” he told his audience, adding that the Commonwealth had been good at doing “valuable work” which was not “spectacular stuff but all very useful”.

The problem could be, he explained, that touting the Commonwealth as “something spectacular” could lead to a backlash “when this doesn’t happen”.

[ADDED IN NOVEMBER 2018: A transcript and podcast for this lecture are now available on the Institute of Commonwealth Studies website.]

Related articles:

The 2017 Peter Lyon Memorial Lecture – Patricia Scotland

Brexit: Challenges and Opportunities for Small Countries and Territories – June 2018

Australia and a Post-Brexit Britain – February 2018

Brexit and the British Media – January 2018

Op-Ed: British Universities after Brexit – May 2017

Empire 2.0? Brexit, the UK and Commonwealth trade – March 2017

The ACP, the Commonwealth and the challenge of Brexit – February 2017