The Right Honourable Patricia Scotland QC was welcomed to her new offices in a festive and colourful ceremony at Marlborough House on the morning of 4 April and set out her priorities in an impressive speech before a distinguished audience.
A steel band greeted invitees at the Marlborough House lobby and elegant, traditionally dressed Dominican quadrille dancers glided gracefully across the chequered marble floors of the Blenheim Saloon to welcome an array of distinguished invitees. They included a strong contingent from the House of Lords, Commonwealth High Commissioners, senior staff from the Commonwealth Secretariat and representatives from the family of Commonwealth organisations.
Not surprisingly, Master of Ceremonies Garth Crooks prefaced his remarks with a reference to the spectacular double victory of the West Indies women’s and men’s teams in the T-20 cricket championship in India the previous day, drawing huge applause. This morning’s function was very much projected as a continuation of Caribbean festivity and celebration.
It was standing room only as the High Commissioners of the Caribbean Commonwealth countries collectively ushered Baroness Scotland into the Main Conference Room to “hand over our own daughter of the soil”.
After the distinguished Bahamian tenor Franz Hepburn had provided a rendition of the unforgettable Louis Armstrong classic What a Wonderful World, the Acting High Commissioner of Dominica, Janet Charles, who played an important role in the campaign, introduced the new Secretary-General with another unmistakeable allusion to the West Indies’ feats on the cricket field – “We know how to play; and we know how to win!” She concluded her speech saying the new Secretary General was “Dominica’s gift to the Commonwealth – please look after her.”
Patricia Scotland, elegant in a sea-blue dress and pearls, made an excellent speech. She described herself as “a classic child of the Commonwealth”, born of a Dominican mother and Antiguan father and the tenth of twelve children. She was brought up to believe, she said, that that “every single one of us has a talent. Our job to find that talent, hone it and then use it for the benefit of other people.”
She elicited appreciative laughter when she said that she was not only the first black Queen’s Counsel but the first and so far only female Attorney-General in the UK since the post was established in 1315, in addition to now being the first female Commonwealth Secretary-General. She added the hope that she would not be the last in her new post and that generation after generation of women would have the opportunity to serve in that capacity.
She said her mission was to put the “wealth back in the Commonwealth and the common back into wealth.”
Baroness Scotland then articulated the four principal priorities of her stewardship of the Commonwealth: tackling violence against women and girls; the existential threat of climate change, especially for small island states; promoting trade and good governance and combating corruption in particular; and harnessing the energies of young people, who make up about 60% of the population of the Commonwealth.
In a moment of introspection, she said “for the Commonwealth to be a beacon of knowledge, and understanding in the world, if we are to really meet the aspirations and hopes of all the people we serve, then we need to get our own house in order… Acting as one people, one family, we can make a different future.”
She said she believed passionately in what the Commonwealth stands for. “Our real wealth is what we have in common – our shared humanity, our capacity to love one another and our common desire for a world in which everyone – no matter who they are – can expect to live their life to the full,” she added.
She added, “Alone, we are invisible. Together, we can be invincible”, ending her speech to massive applause with a very businesslike “Let’s get to work.”
The audience was then treated to a reading from the winning essay by Paraschos Cant, the sixteen-year old Cypriot winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Essay Competition. Entitled, Youth Versus Experience, the winning essay is a poignant and powerful letter to the leaders of the world, comparing countries and citizens to classrooms and classmates.
The grand finale was a performance by Heather Small, the soul singer from the band ‘M People’. She gave a delightful rendition of her hit number, Search for the Hero Inside Yourself, to thunderous appreciation.
Among those I was able to spot in the audience were Sir Trevor McDonald, Lord Mandelson, Hilary Benn and Cheri Blair Booth. There was a huge contingent from the House of Lords, cutting across party lines. Commonwealth High Commissioners were also present in numbers, conveying a message of collective solidarity with and confidence in the new Secretary-General, which should stand her in good stead.
As someone who has now witnessed three transitions at the helm at Marlborough House, this was undoubtedly the most colourful and spectacular. It was a fitting start to the term of the first ever female occupant of the post. The festive ceremonials over, she can now truly “get to work” and will clearly carry with her the warm good wishes of all.
Amitav Banerji is a member of the Round Table Board and is currently the Global Leadership Foundation Projects Director. He has previously served as Head of the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Office and as the organisation’s Political Director.