Questions & Answers

Derek Ingram

Derek Ingram has been reporting on the Commonwealth for almost five decades. He is the former Deputy Editor of the London Daily Mail (“which was a very different paper at the time”) and the founder of Gemini News Service. He shares with Global his insights on the association’s past glories and reveals a fragile side of Margaret Thatcher.

Global: When and where was the first Commonwealth summit you covered, and what do you remember most about it?

Derek Ingram: The first one was in Singa­pore in 1971. It lasted nine days – in those days, CHOGMs [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings] lasted a long time. It was a very contentious meeting because Edward Heath, the prime minister of the UK, had recently come into office and his govern­ment had decided to resume arms sales to South Africa. This caused great dismay, and the atmosphere was very difficult. Heath was in a great huff because, apart from everything else, he wasn’t very keen on the Common­wealth. Then, in the middle of the conference, he went off sailing for the weekend.

Which CHOGM do you think was the most successful in terms of the discussions and outcomes?

There were several but the one that was out­standing was Lusaka in 1979, and that was because the crisis in Rhodesia [now Zim­babwe] was boiling. And we had Margaret Thatcher entering the scene. She had just become prime minister. She’d only been to Africa once – to South Africa as minister of education – and she was frightened of it. Carrington [Lord Carrington, UK for­eign minister at the time] went on the plane with her and she was trembling – she really thought she was going to have acid thrown in her eyes when she arrived [because of her position on independence].

There was also a dramatic scene in the cathedral. Thatcher and Sonny Ramphal [the then Commonwealth Secretary-General] passed notes to each other and arranged an emergency meeting [on Rhodesia]. She gave ground, and… well, you know the outcome.

Yes, Lusaka paved the way for Zimba­bwe’s independence.

Yes it did. Three months later, in London, the conference in Lancaster House led to the independence.

When was the Commonwealth’s heyday?

I don’t like to look upon it as a heyday at all. I think the Commonwealth is only just beginning. It’s only 60 years old, roughly. It’s an experiment. There’s no treaty, nobody signs up to anything, countries can walk out – and do – and countries can join, although it’s much more difficult to join than to walk out. It’s the very beginning of an experiment which may or may not come to anything.

Do you think it’s got a future?

Oh yes, I’m very optimistic about it be­cause it’s such an interesting idea. It’s an exercise in international cooperation, the like of which we’ve never seen. When In­dia wanted to become a republic and stay in the Commonwealth, they just sat down for a few days in London and worked out a formula – it’s only four paragraphs, not a detailed document, but it did the trick and kept India in the Commonwealth.

And there’ve been other compromises. For example, the Commonwealth Minis­terial Action Group (CMAG) came about because member countries were becoming autocratic – at one stage, I think there were six military leaders at the table in CHOGM. They realised it couldn’t go on like that and CMAG was born. Countries can be expelled from the Commonwealth. This is where the strength of the Commonwealth is; it’s been made up as it’s gone along, as there has been a need for change.

What do you think is the Commonwealth’s single most important achievement?

Well, that’s a terribly difficult question. South Africa, I suppose. The Common­wealth did lead a great deal on South Africa – the sports boycott, and later the financial and economic boycott were very, very ef­fective. The Commonwealth was a very big player and has been underrated.

Do you think the Commonwealth lost its way after the struggle against apartheid ended?

I know that’s what quite a lot of people say. It was simply that there wasn’t a big issue in the same way as South Africa – which was such a big international issue. Climate change and those sorts of things are crucial­ly important but they don’t make the head­lines in the way that apartheid did.

What did you do yesterday?

Well, that is very easy because all I did was some work in the morning, writing some notes and things – just bits and pieces. I’m involved in various bodies – the Common­wealth Journalists Association and other things – so there are emails to be dealt with all the time. I didn’t do anything the rest of day.

How would you describe your home?

My home is an ideal town house, a mews house on three floors, only a few minutes’ walk from Marble Arch. It’s full of books and papers that I’m always fighting to control, and things that I’ve collected on my travels.

What do you do to relax?

Reading and walking, that’s all. And I can’t walk for long now, so… I’m reading two or three books: a memoir by Fergal Keane and this one, The Ferocious Summer, by Me­redith Hooper. She’s a New Zealander and has been a lot to the Antarctic. The book’s all about that.

Who would you most like to meet and why?

I’d love to meet the Queen and talk to her informally about all the heads of govern­ment. I should think she’s known more heads than anybody, and she has known them all personally. I’m not a great monar­chist, but I think she’s done a fantastic job, especially decolonisation. She would be most interesting to talk to. She would have more stories to tell than anybody else.

What’s your most treasured possession?

That drawing behind me there [points to a framed picture, the outline of a man’s face with a flower]. It’s a Jean Cocteau. A flowpen and ink – an original. It’s only a line, and he probably did it in about half a minute. I think it’s extraordinary how with a couple of lines you can get that sort of image – you look at it and wonder what’s in his mind.

About the author:

Derek Ingram has been reporting on the Commonwealth for almost five decades. He is the former Deputy Editor of the London Daily Mail and the founder of Gemini News Service.


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July 30, 2012 8:19 pm

Gemini News Service:

Jayantha Dhanapala’s submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC), August 2010: ‘’The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948 . Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens. we need to rectify this bad governance. We have already missed several opportunities in the past. We need to have State reform; we need to have rule of law established; we need to ensure non discrimination amongst our citizens; we need to have devolution of power and a tolerance of dissent and a strengthening of democratic institutions.’’ (Dhanapala is a Sinhalese and was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament)

No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011: ”The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues should be granted an invitation by the government to visit the country in order to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation of minorities in Sri Lanka.’’

”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, 28 January 2012 (*a Sinhalese and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University),

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