The simmering row over the re-appointment of Patricia Scotland as secretary-general of the Commonwealth boiled over in June when Boris Johnson was accused of having a ‘colonial mindset’ about leadership of the organisation as the British government’s apparent efforts to oust her prompted a backlash.
‘Dozens of Commonwealth countries are understood to have raised concerns’ over Johnson ‘using his role as chair of the organisation to hinder the reappointment’ of Scotland, the Guardian reported. Taneti Maamau, Kiribati’s president, told fellow leaders that he was disturbed at how his objections to Lady Scotland’s treatment had been ignored. The UK Black community newspaper The Voice quoted a Scotland supporter as saying: ‘We’ve done an informal straw poll of member states that’s shown more than 40 out of the 54 member states support [her] reappointment.’
The UK weekly Eastern Eye quoted a diplomatic source as saying four heads of state in the Caribbean Community (Caricom) were ‘livid’. Countries backing Scotland include Dominica (where she was born and lived as an infant), Antigua and Barbuda, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. All but one Caricom leader at the organisation’s February summit backed her, Barbados Today reported. Eastern Eye’s source said Scotland’s allies saw this as ‘Boris’s Empire 2.0 agenda. It’s a putsch by Britain to take over the Commonwealth and be a big player. But the UK doesn’t understand that this is not the Commonwealth way.’
Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, suggested in May that Scotland should be automatically re-appointed to a second four-year term, as had happened with all her predecessors. In response, Johnson’s leaked letter of 8 June said a ‘significant and diverse number of colleagues’ opposed such a move and there was ‘no consensus’ for her immediate re-appointment. Johnson, who holds the key role of Commonwealth chair-in-office because the UK hosted the 2018 Chogm, said fellow heads of government preferred to postpone the decision until the next summit, which was due to take place in Rwanda that month but had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was all nothing out of the ordinary, according to a Commonwealth Secretariat statement in the Daily Mail: ‘The chair-in-office has proposed that, as is customary, the reappointment process will now take place when Chogm is able to meet.’ But a UK parliamentarian told Eastern Eye: ‘If this was a white man, there is no way they wouldn’t have got an immediate second term. Boris has shown again his colonial ambitions, which hark back to what he wrote as a journalist 20 years ago – “the Africans were lucky to have been colonised and Britain should never have left.” He’s shown his true colours in trying to get rid of her.’
‘Whitehall sources said the decision to extend her term did not mean the “significant concerns” about the way she had been running the organisation had gone away,’ the Times reported. A difficult few years (including employment tribunals, controversies over appointments and tendering, and Scotland’s legal advice to the Maldives regime that overthrew President Mohamed Nasheed) culminated in the UK, Australia and New Zealand withdrawing funding this year. The Guardian said No 10 had long been unhappy with Scotland over ‘reports of cronyism and profligacy’. These allegations were strenuously denied by Scotland, who said she was fully cleared by the auditors KPMG . Her supporters suggested allegations around the contract award had been ‘to stop the Commonwealth’s first black woman chief from being re-elected’ (see Commonwealth Update, February 2020 and March 2019).
Scotland, the Labour Party’s attorney-general under Gordon Brown, is seen as going against the grain of the Conservative government; most recently, their positions diverged further after Johnson broke the decades-long consensus on the role of aid by folding the Department for International Development into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). It is part of Tory efforts to align UK aid with post-Brexit diplomatic, security and commercial interests. Or, as one charity director put it, using aid as a ‘weapon of foreign policy’. This is at one with seeing the Commonwealth largely as a trading bloc to fill the gap left by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Most of the other 53 members, however, view the organisation more as a source of mutual support, aid and expertise, giving a global voice to small nations (a minority also see it as a vehicle to promote democracy and human rights.) A source close to Downing Street told Eastern Eye: ‘She sticks up for the small countries and she’s Labour through and through, and that’s what No 10 and the FCO don’t like. All they want is trade.’ According to a Secretariat source: ‘The UK team said their No 1 priority during the London 2018 Chogm was to generate trading opportunities … they just didn’t get what the Commonwealth was about. It was very much old empire stuff where the other Commonwealth member states were there to be plundered.’
However, the Caribbean News Global site said it was ‘a Conservative Party prime minister who promoted her candidature … selling her to other “white” Commonwealth governments on the pretext that “she’s one of us”.’ Inside accounts of lobbying before she won the post certainly suggest Scotland was once closer to the Tory leadership. That seems a long time ago now – Downing Street had been ‘trying desperately to find someone to run against Scotland’, Eastern Eye claimed, quoting a Commonwealth source who claimed precedent had been flouted and Johnson used a ‘spurious claim’ of widespread opposition to Scotland to undermine her. A former Secretariat member quoted ‘a senior civil servant’ as saying: ‘The problem with the secretary-general was that she wouldn’t do the bidding of the UK government. They just didn’t get the fact she was the secretary-general of the whole of the Commonwealth, and that shows the colonial mentality of the Brits.’
John McTernan, who used to advise the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, saw attempts to block Scotland’s reappointment as part of a lengthy ‘low-level war’ to undermine her: ‘A traditional Foreign Office response to a strong woman with a smart agenda of her own.’ Writing in The Article, he called No 10’s bid to block another term a ‘trick worthy of Flashman-era imperialists’ and said it showed that it had not grasped that ‘the Mother Country is one of 54 [in the Commonwealth], an equal member, not primus inter pares’.
Scotland herself is maintaining a dignified silence in public as the storm rages around her. When it was put to her on the BBC’s Newsnight that Commonwealth countries had ‘largely voted against’ offering her an extension, Scotland insisted: ‘They voted to do what they always do: make the decision at Chogm.’ However, the ‘optics’ of how this saga appears to the public are the last thing the Commonwealth needs. As Prof Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, said in February about the Secretariat’s funding difficulties: ‘When confidence in an organisation goes, every internal problem of this kind is taken as further evidence of its terminal decline.’