Commonwealth is like a Koh-i-Noor diamond
Lord Jonathan Marland is the Chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC), which is charged with promoting greater trade and investment between Commonwealth countries. In this interview with ‘India Global Business’, he sets the scene for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April and the scope for India to take the lead.
Has the Commonwealth failed to live up to its potential?
It is to the incredible credit to the Queen and the royal family that it still exists because without them it wouldn’t. People have danced around the edges of it for too long and I think several significant things have happened recently.
The Malta CHOGM was the starting point of something newish happening. I think the engagement of India has been an extraordinary turnaround, to which we owe great debt to Prime Minister Modi, the trade ministers and to CII and FICCI for their support and participation and recognition that there is potential out there.
As the former Prime Minister’s [David Cameron] trade envoy, travelling the world extensively with our trade initiative, it was clear to me that this was a jewel – a Koh-i-Noor diamond – that had been put in a cupboard somewhere and now at last it was being brought out.
Are characterisations such as Empire 2.0 damaging?
I don’t recognise that sort of statement at all. It isn’t what the UK government really believes. One of the reasons why the Commonwealth has been neglected is because the UK government have neglected it. They have been afraid of playing a key role within it. And, the truth is, other Commonwealth countries want the UK to show leadership. I hope that with their two years in office they do show leadership.
I have written to Prime Minister Theresa May encouraging her to do so and make sure that the Commonwealth organisations are better funded, have greater outreach and it is a priority on their agenda.
Does its colonial past hold the organisation back?
The great news at the moment is that India has realised that it is not a colonial thing, other countries have realised the same.
There comes a tipping point where people realise that this is a place of opportunity, rather than letting heritage get in the way of progress. I think we are at that point and I think a lot of that is down to India.
Other good things on the horizon are that Canada are now engaging more fully, the appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa – who was vice-chairman of our previous business organisation and really gets the Commonwealth – is really encouraging in terms of the engagement with South Africa. A lot of African countries look to South Africa for leadership.
And, of course, India’s engagement is absolutely brilliant. There is a real determination to try and make it work.
How can the Commonwealth make a real difference?
Our global competition now has moved from America to China. We have a huge advantage in these countries where China is now investing heavily – Pakistan, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, a lot of the African countries. I believe Commonwealth countries have a huge advantage in competing there if they can unite their separate skills to offer competition.
These countries are member-countries and, as is recognised, it is 19 per cent cheaper to do business within Commonwealth countries than without – we share the same language, rule of law, common values. From a business forum point of view, we would like to see a sort of definition of those values so that a framework can be established where businesses can cooperate together internationally.
How significant is Prime Minister Modi’s CHOGM attendance?
It is a significant recognition by India that Commonwealth has got value, that it’s a great opportunity for India and within that opportunity lies an opportunity for the rest of the Commonwealth. Prime Minister Modi is an absolute hero of mine.
There has been a complete sea change of attitude towards the Commonwealth, which is entirely to India’s credit and to the Commonwealth’s benefit. This has given the Commonwealth the boost it needs.
What are some of the sectors of importance for India?
There isn’t a single item on the agenda where India couldn’t either benefit or participate – cyber security, tech, medical, textiles, fashion, sport, energy – very much where India as one of the biggest global markets can and will participate. We have a very strong delegation coming over from India.
What are some hurdles to closer cooperation?
The hurdles to closer cooperation in the world as we see it are the hurdles which are imposed by governments. We have a world that is connecting people and businesses in a way that is unstoppable. The only people who try and frustrate that connectivity are governments. And, if governments wish to carry on frustrating connectivity, then it means hurdles. Alternatively, it will continue in a dynamic and successful way.
Where does the India-UK dynamic fit into this?
We are getting towards the perfect storm – India wants to become global and Britain is having to change its trading relationships.
The UK have got a phenomenal opportunity with the Commonwealth. It has not prioritised it as a trading partner. I am not yet convinced the UK have worked out its role with it because it is very focused on Brexit negotiations and I don’t think it has looked too far beyond that.
But it would be crazy not to, particularly as they are chairing office for two years. Most Commonwealth countries look to the UK for leadership on aid, defence, security, so many things. They need to recognise that responsibility and opportunity, otherwise others will take their place.
What is the trading potential of the Commonwealth?
There are a number of countries within the Commonwealth that recognise free trade, impose the rule of law and have established business practices. In the end, it is about those countries that support rule of law, business practices and a great benefit is the common language. There is no reason why you shouldn’t start a Commonwealth trade agreement where others can join, should they wish to participate in the criteria. And, it will be up to the UK to initiate that cooperation with other countries.
We all know a trade deal with India is always going to be difficult whatever country you are. But it will get less difficult in time as India outreach grows.
What are some exciting aspects of CHOGM agenda?
I am really excited about the sustainability agenda – it is pretty critical in relation to India because it is all about energy, the oceans, the seas etc. The supply of energy to the next generation is of great importance. All this has to be underpinned by common business practices.
There isn’t a single thing on that agenda that isn’t critical to a nation like India. And, that is one of the reasons why we are having great participation from Indian business people.