Lord Howell Speaking

‘We live in a world of infinite complexity and yet one which demands simplicity. Everything is complicated yet everyone longs for a simple message.

‘Our own Commonwealth family is a case in point. We talk about shared values, and yet people say, “What do these values mean to us? Do they bring us food and water? Do they bring us proper education for our children? Do they bring us security and safety – and a better future?”

‘Well, the answer is that they do, but the connection has constantly to be illuminated and explained. There is indeed a sequential equation between values and respect for human rights; the trust and feeling of security that they engender; and the confidence which trust creates – confidence to invest, build up businesses, create wealth and employment and escape from poverty.

‘In other words, values equals trust equals investment and growth. But we all have to find the words and leadership to interpret what sound like high-flown aspirations with real everyday needs and life, and with successful commerce, entrepreneurship and fair and prospering societies.    

‘Take the word ‘democracy’. We all assert that democracy is a good thing. But the word is a meaningless envelope unless people understand and embody the attitudes which make a democratic society work. These are proper accountability, mutual respect, tolerance of other views (so long as those, too, are expressed with tolerance and respect), restraint in the use of power by those entrusted with it, just laws, and flourishing markets within those laws.

‘Without these qualities democracy can just become a slogan, even a cover for abuse of human and rights and minority rights. The visible procedures of democracy – voting, parties, and elections – can become a charade unless the right values exist within the hearts and minds of people at all levels of responsibility in a society.

‘So it is the people - empowered and connected as never before - that the message of the Commonwealth must reach, and of course does reach increasingly in this age of connectivity - this time of digital magic which instantly connects everybody and group in every country to their friends and fellow-thinkers across the world. Add in the glue of common working language, common traditions, common legal systems, common accounting practices, common educational aims, common sports, and you have a network of global trust, the like of which exists nowhere else and which in this dangerous and fragmenting age becomes more  influential and more necessary by the day. In effect, the information revolution has given the countless arteries of the Commonwealth a veritable blood transfusion where other more top-heavy, over-centralised institutions, are struggling and withering.

‘This is a point about the Commonwealth which the Head of the Commonwealth H.M. the Queen well understands, and keeps reminding us of – that we are an association of peoples – a family in the truest sense - not just a superficial layer of officialdom and formal inter-governmental relations.  But it is a point which some of the media find it difficult to grasp in this changed world – although thankfully not all. And it is a point that some of those who pronounce on, and shape, international affairs and foreign policy have yet to fully grasp.

‘So the onus for modern Commonwealth progress, and for spreading its  global benefits, falls as much on  the  non-governmental, the voluntary , the  civil society and the private endeavour sides as on governments - perhaps even more so. The added burden which falls on those who represent their countries today and practice diplomacy is to articulate these numerous citizen concerns and to connect with vastly wider audiences and  interests than ever before in history.

‘I refer especially to those ‘audiences’ which are in fact a giant half of the Commonwealth – its women – and that overlapping half of the Commonwealth which is its youth. These in their billions are the marching ranks of today’s and tomorrow’s Commonwealth - both the guardians and the embodiments of its values and purposes. The World Bank tells us that today women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of its food, earn 10% of its income and own 1% of its property. That is an appalling imbalance situation which the Commonwealth must never rest until it correct. And we are probably the world’s strongest pressure group for doing so, and for the central cause of gender equality.

‘This is also why we see the Royal Commonwealth Society - of which I have the privilege to be President - at the centre of this new pattern –more so perhaps than ever before.

‘The Society has undergone a positive and transformative twelve months. 2014 is a year in which we re-establish our position as champion of the value of the Commonwealth to the individual, the communities and the wide variety of the nations and states that give this family its enduring strength and to the values, as enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, that underpin the Association. This has been guided with great skill by our Chief Executive Michael Lake, as well as his tireless staff, to whom I pay tribute.

‘The focus of our work is very much on young people and on offering them the inspiration and confidence to fulfil their dreams. In addition, the Society has a key role to play as a leader on a broad range of human rights, environmental and commercial interests. Our aim in all such matters is to assemble information and to convene coalitions of peoples and interests across every Commonwealth country to bring clarity and profile to the subject and to achieve practical outcomes.

‘This work would not be possible without the close connections between the Society and the High Commission, and the many and varied institutions and bodies that make up the Commonwealth family, including our broader network of branches (some 77 around the planet), societies, regional coordinators and individual supporters.

‘The Society is proud to be developing a number of new and existing youth leadership initiatives which will generate a positive view of the Commonwealth by recruiting the voice of young people to promote its value and values in the contemporary world. The young ambassadors, who benefit from these initiatives, including our programme at the Glasgow Games in July, will be amongst the thought leaders and innovators who will bring benefit to the whole Commonwealth network – its members and its neighbours, in coming years.

‘We are proud, too, of our many other activities, including the very successful Commonwealth Essay Competition, and the harbour we provide for numerous other Commonwealth wide initiatives  and projects.

‘We are, in short, a pan-Commonwealth body, playing an increasing part in a people’s Commonwealth.

‘But  I would also add, as we sit here in this beautiful palace in the heart of London, and speaking as a former Minister of the Crown, that we are also determined to see Britain play a truly forward part in helping to knit the Commonwealth together and strengthen it at all levels of activity and cooperation. It happens to be directly in the interests of my country to do so.

‘Finally, may I take this opportunity to thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for allowing us to hold this year’s Banquet in these historic and splendid surroundings. He made a wise and invaluable contribution at Colombo, in not very easy circumstances, and we all admire the support he gives to our great cause. 

‘Thank you.’

Lord Howell