Commonwealth, Post-Brexit Trade Deal & Human Rights

This article from Nusrat Ghani, Member of Parliament for Wealden, forms part of our Influencers series. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by The Channel Group.

“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.” Wendell Berry was not referring to the union of 52 states linked predominantly by their common histories as territories of the former British Empire, but his words aptly describe the Commonwealth of Nations of which we are privileged to be a leading member.

When the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, they were not voting to close off from the rest of the world, to shut our doors and pull up the drawbridge. I say that as someone who campaigned for the leave side; I was firmly of the belief that Brexit meant a continuing relationship with EU member states, in addition to a strengthening of ties with countries all over the world. Not the UK minus the EU, but the UK plus the world.

On international trade, the opportunities are obvious, not least thanks to our membership of the Commonwealth. The Government has already shown its commitment to forging new trading relationships, the benefits of which will be felt up and down the country, by creating the Department for International Trade. That commitment has been followed through with fulsome discussions with our friends and partners around the world, and dozens of countries want trade deals.

In 2014, UK exports to Commonwealth countries valued £48 billion, 9% of the country’s total exports worldwide. This despite the fact that our EU membership has prevented us entering into bilateral trade agreements with our Commonwealth partners, three of whom – Australia, Canada and India – are members of the G20 group of major economies. Following the referendum vote, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, declared that the organisation would become “more pivotally important that it has ever been”. We in Britain must ensure both that this is true, and that it works to benefit businesses and families up and down the country by delivering greater prosperity.

Free trade within the Commonwealth is not a new concept. When the British Empire existed, preferential trade terms were in operation between its various contingent parts. It was the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, that largely brought the arrangement to an end.

In an academic article published in “The World Economy” in February 2001, Sarianna M. Lundan and Geoffrey Jones write of the “Commonwealth Effect”. They analysed patterns of trade between Commonwealth members, concluding that an additional factor was leading trade between members to be higher than it would have been were only regional proximity, and parity between resource rich or resource poor economies, in play as determinants.

The authors write that “it has been shown that the Commonwealth as a whole shows signs of a relatively robust and stable ‘Commonwealth effect’ in trade and investment. If it can be shown with further research, that the effect doesn’t just reflect past relationships, but implies an under-utilised resource, which Commonwealth multinationals can exploit in their process of internationalisation, the possibilities of realising the growth potential throughout the Commonwealth can be improved.”1

Over a decade and a half has passed since the article was written, but we now have a real opportunity to realise the growth potential throughout the Commonwealth, delivering prosperity to all corners of the membership. And the existence of the “Commonwealth effect” should not be surprising.

Members of this group share common values, language, similar political and economic institutions, and the mutual bond of a shared history. As a country ourselves, we were always more Atlanticist than we were continental European. We have a naval history, one of exploration and discovery. Our horizons and ambitions were always set far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean or the Baltic.

So as we approach Brexit, I want to see a refocused attempt to build on those ties economically, for our prosperity and for the development of the poorer members of the Commonwealth who could benefit so much from stronger trading cooperation between all members, large and small, resource rich and resource poor  

But, as Berry said, the benefits of a commonwealth are not merely practical, but “social and spiritual” too. A commonwealth of nations facilitates the spread of democracy, human rights and the pursuit of justice.

While we would benefit from enhanced trading arrangements with our Commonwealth partners, our partners will benefit in equal measure. And so we should use the opportunity of Brexit, and the negotiations on trade that will follow, to seek reforms which provide those “social and spiritual” benefits to our own citizens here at home, and the citizens of our partners overseas.

We have an unrivalled advantage in being able to do this. India is one of our closest Commonwealth partners, for example. In economic and trade terms, it offers huge opportunities for us and we are a tantalising partner in return. Following her accession to the premiership, India was the first non-EU country Theresa May went to for a bilateral visit. And during his visit to the UK in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Modi said of our two countries that “we are both smart enough to use the strengths of our connected histories to power the future of our relationship.”

We have exported a language, a legal system, and we welcome students from countries across the Commonwealth to learn in our universities. When these students return home following their studies, they go back with a passion for Britain and British culture. Through our status as a financial centre, through our military expertise and intelligence partnerships, and through our music, film and other creative industries, the British brand is strong and the English language is key.

We must be brave enough to power the future of our relationship in a way that not only delivers prosperity from trade, but in a way that creates a Commonwealth that works for every citizen. A Commonwealth that stands up for justice, fairness and opportunity, and we can use our status as a leading member of the group to build it.

Trade is about more than money, goods and economics. It is also about trust and values. The Prime Minister has said more often than not that, as we embark on the Brexit process, we must be ambitious for a truly global Britain. We must also be ambitious for a Commonwealth that can benefit us economically and diplomatically, while also benefiting citizens throughout the world through the extension of those values we are so proud of, and which act as the foundation of this union of nations.

The Channel Group comment pages host a variety of opinions from all sides of the debate on trade. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by The Channel Group.

Nusrat Ghani

Nusrat Ghani

Nusrat is Member of Parliament for Wealden and a member of the Home Affairs Committee.
Nusrat Ghani

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  1. Lundan, Sarianna M. and Jones, Geoffrey (2001), “The ‘Commonwealth Effect’ and the Process of Internationalisation”, World Economy, 24(1), 116