Marlborough House: What does it take to be a secretary-general?Marlborough House, the home of the Commonwealth secretariat. [photo: Alamy stock]

[This 1984 article is from the archives of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. It is being made available on a free-to-read basis as part of a ‘From the archives’ series from Taylor & Francis and the Round Table editorial board.]

Background note: Patricia Scotland was re-elected Commonwealth Secretary-General for another two years at the Kigali Commonwealth summit in June 2022. This early piece from now veteran Commonwealth-watcher Stephen Chan analysed her first three predecessors, using an avian analogy for each. What bird he would choose for the Secretaries-General who succeeded is an open question.

In early 1984 the Commonwealth comprised 49 member states, from rich and poor nations. It is an odd organization, spanning the North-South divide, conducting a range of meetings from technical seminars to major summits—with very few of the trenchant disagreements that characterize international life—and it administers a modest technical assistance programme. These activities are organized by the Commonwealth Secretariat, with its headquarters in London, currently headed by a remarkable Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal. The Commonwealth is undoubtedly an unusual international body; as is its Secretariat. Does the Secretariat perform worthwhile work, or is it merely a vehicle tied to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and incidental to his growing and separate international work? In his work, how far has the Secretary-General assumed a degree of executive function on behalf of Commonwealth nations?

Other archive articles currently freely available:
Editorial: Glasgow, the Referendum and the Commonwealth Games by Stuart Mole, 2014
The organization of African unity – A forum for African international relations by Yashpal Tandon, 2008

The Commonwealth may be loosely said to represent every region of the world—but some regions are very sketchily represented. Guyana is the only Commonwealth nation from mainland South America. The Commonwealth configuration on the world maps would look more impressive if various nations had not declined to join the Commonwealth or left it. For instance, the inclusion of Ireland would have doubled its European representation; Sudan and Egypt would have given it a North African and Middle Eastern perspective; the Middle Eastern perspective would have been enlarged by South Yemen (Aden); and Burma would have added to the South East Asian grouping which now starts as far south as Malaysia.

None the less, its 49 members, whether they cover the geographical world or not, is the most representative depiction of humanity’s condition outside of the United Nations. There are rich nations, such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which belong to the OECD; there are the African OAU members who, together with their colleagues in the Third World, negotiate as the Group of 77. It is worth repeating the point often made by the Commonwealth Secretariat that, excluding China from the reckoning, the Commonwealth contains the majority of the world’s poor and a very great deal of its poorest. What does it do for them? And how, in meetings of the very rich and the very poor, is the (still very British) sense of equanimity and cordiality sustained?

Summits and principles

Even before the foundation of the Secretariat, Commonwealth Prime Ministers met on a regular basis. Their meetings are now biennial, and called Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings or, in the Secretariat’s unlovely jargon, CHOGMs. It was at the 1971 CHOGM in Singapore that a Declaration of Commonwealth Principles was adopted; they are very general principles, but may be said to be liberal while leaving considerable room for manoeuvre and interpretation. The activities of conservative and even reactionary governments have usually fallen within the generality of these principles, while other governments and the Commonwealth Secretary-General have initiated activities in their name and spirit. The principles stand in place of a charter, and expressly state that the Commonwealth ‘association is based on consultation, discussion and co-operation’.

Successive CHOGMs have sought to maintain an air of consultation, discussion and cooperation. Votes are not taken. Consensus is the order of the day. There have been exceptions, as Harold Wilson found to his cost when he sought to persuade Commonwealth nations to follow his approach on Rhodesia. And, on the Rhodesian issue, there was intense behind-the-scenes activity to produce the agreement reached at the 1979 Lusaka CHOGM. Generally, however, consensus is secured without undue difficulty. The Final Communique of the 1981 Melbourne CHOGM was certainly uncontroversial, and definitely bland. If the consensus of the representatives of so many nations, including so many poor nations, is bland, what then is the worth of the Commonwealth? Margaret Doxey’s point of view is that the Commonwealth has always performed well what other bodies are only now learning:

There is little political will for integrated decision making or surrender of sovereignty on the part of governments. As a result, these bodies have perhaps become more like the Commonwealth. We no longer expect them to ‘solve’ political problems, but merely to assist in reducing strains and easing tensions; to provide a framework in which differences can begin to be reconciled.

Shridath Ramphal has often said that ‘the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, but it can help the world to negotiate’. By demonstrating that consensus, however bland, is possible, particularly on issues such as progress towards a new international economic order, with the concessions it requires of industrialized nations, the Commonwealth is attempting to set an example in other more tumultuous international negotiations, and to supply to those negotiations a form of words which might be used as a starting point.

This is, however, to see the issue in a peculiarly optimistic light. The richer Commonwealth nations are no doubt delighted to use CHOGM communiqués as evidence of their sincerity in North-South issues, while being committed to very little.

At the time of writing, Stephen Chan, a New Zealander by education and upbringing, was a lecturer in International Relations in the University of Zambia. From 1977 to 1983 he was a staff member of the Commonwealth Secretariat, stationed first in London and then in Lusaka. He was a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group’s secretariat during the independence election campaign in Zimbabwe.

You can read this article in full and with all references for free until the end of August 2022.

Other archive articles currently freely available:
Editorial: Glasgow, the Referendum and the Commonwealth Games by Stuart Mole, 2014
The organization of African unity – A forum for African international relations by Yashpal Tandon, 2008

Related articles:

Patricia Scotland Fights for Another Term as Commonwealth Secretary-General – 2020
Choosing a Secretary-General: How do the Commonwealth and the United Nations Compare? 2017
The Commonwealth through the eyes of its secretaries-general – 2020 interviews [videos]