Ministerial brief

Ekaterina Bystrova

Hugo Swire, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Minister, tells Global why membership of the Commonwealth is still important to the UK, despite the closer proximity of the EU 

As a British Conservative MP, Hugo Swire has served in a significant number of political roles, from Shadow Arts Minister to opposition whip and Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in David Cameron’s first Shadow Cabinet. Like Prince William would go on to do, he attended the exclusive private school Eton and then went on to study at St Andrews University in Scotland. 

But before he became an MP, Swire was an officer of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards and then worked in the arts, holding senior positions at Sotheby’s auction house and London’s National Gallery. What made him want to go into politics? 

“I wanted to become an MP because of a strong sense of the importance of public duty, and as I had always had an interest in current affairs. Being a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a huge privilege and gives me a valuable insight into international affairs which I find endlessly fascinating,” says Swire, adding: “I don’t think my time in the military necessarily prepared me for the Foreign Office other than I learnt how to grab some sleep whenever the opportunity arose, something which I still try and do!” 

Since September 2012 Swire, 53, has held the position of Minister of State at the Foreign Office, with the Far East and South-East Asia, India and Nepal, Latin America, the Falklands, Australasia, the Pacific and the Commonwealth falling under his jurisdiction. What does he consider to be the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths? 

“The Commonwealth is a force for good across the world. We believe one of the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths lies in its unique ‘network of networks’. This makes it a major ‘soft power’ player on the global stage, bringing together these diverse networks to address the many challenges and opportunities the world now faces. It also provides an important forum for smaller nations who may feel their voices are lost in larger multilateral organisations.” 

But the UK isn’t a small nation, and further still it is closer in proximity to the EU than to other Commonwealth countries. But Swire believes that Commonwealth membership remains “hugely important” to Britain. 

“We live in a multipolar world very different to the one of a decade or two ago, so it’s more vital than ever for us to make the most of the networks and relationships open to us to promote our prosperity, stability and security,” he says. “The Commonwealth lends itself perfectly to this ambition. Its members share principles of democracy, rule of law, good governance and similar legal systems, which provide solid foundations for doing business and provide a platform for trade, investment, development and prosperity.” 

The Commonwealth’s total GDP is estimated to stand at around £5.7 trillion and is expected to reach £8.2 trillion by 2017, with Commonwealth exports exceeding £1.9 trillion each year. “It’s a network with real clout,” says Swire. 

Recent debates over whether the UK should leave the EU have led to more people taking notice of the Commonwealth and what it has to offer. London Mayor Boris Johnson told The Telegraph: “We need to raise our eyes beyond Europe, forging and intensifying links with countries that are going to be growing in the decades ahead – countries that offer immense opportunities for British goods, people, services and capital.” But Swire doesn’t think that Commonwealth and EU membership should be a question of ‘either/or’. “We need to work with both the EU and the Commonwealth.” 

Nevertheless, he feels that the UK must re-emphasise its commitment to Commonwealth values – and November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) should provide the opportunity to do just that. When asked about whether he thinks that Sri Lanka is a suitable venue for CHOGM given recent human rights concerns about ‘disappearances’ and extra judicial killings in the country, Swire is evasive. “To reopen the decision for Sri Lanka to host CHOGM in 2013 would require the consensus of all Heads of Government,” says Swire. “There has been no widespread support for a change of location.” 

This year’s CHOGM will put the global spotlight firmly on Sri Lanka, leaving no room for slip-ups. 

“We will attend with a very clear message about the need to respect human rights – and other governments will too – and inevitably it will either highlight progress made since the end of the conflict or draw pressure and attention to a lack of it,” says Swire. 

Following the meeting, Sri Lanka will assume chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years. “We will also take a very tough message to the Sri Lankan government: that they need to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and political settlement. We have also made clear we expect unrestricted access for media and NGOs attending CHOGM. We have urged Sri Lanka to hold free and fair Northern Provincial Council elections on 21 September, and we are pleased that the Commonwealth has been invited to observe these elections.”


The 2011 Perth CHOGM saw Heads of Government strengthen the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, giving it more power to address human rights violations in member states, and assemble the Commonwealth Charter, a single document which sets out Commonwealth values. “It is now important that member states live up to the values outlined in the charter and that the Action Group lives up to its strengthened mandate in enforcing those values,” says Swire. 

Swire recently met with supporters of Professor Bhullar, a professor of engineering at Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College Ludhiana, India, who has been condemned to death for his involvement in a 1993 car bombing in which nine bystanders were killed. A lack of evidence as well as the severity of the sentence has made the case controversial. 

“I raised Professor Bhullar’s case with the Indian High Commissioner to the UK in April and the Indian Minister for Minorities in June. The British High Commission in Delhi has also raised this issue, and India’s use of the death penalty in general, with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.” 

Currently, 36 out of 54 Commonwealth countries retain the death penalty. “The Commonwealth is an important focus for our work on eradicating use of the death penalty,” says Swire. “We are funding related projects in a number of Commonwealth countries.” 

The UK is one of the wealthiest Commonwealth nations. Are there any actions that wealthier nations can undertake to alleviate poverty in their poorer counterparts? 

“Clearly there is always more that we could do, but we are already doing a lot. Our Department for International Development spent over £2.2 billion bilaterally in Commonwealth countries in 2012-13 and is providing a total of £87 million for Commonwealth scholarships for developing countries over a four-year period, supporting around 800 scholars each year from the Commonwealth. I have met some of them and seen for myself how the skills they return with can make a real difference in their home countries. 

“The UK remains the largest financial contributor to the Commonwealth Secretariat and associated organisations. In the last financial year, we contributed around £40 million to Commonwealth organisations.” 

Given its status as an inter-governmental organisation, the Commonwealth of Nations has retained a surprisingly low profile. What can be done to promote it? 

“Good question – this is something that I’m determined we collectively get better at. It’s important that people across the world know just how much it is doing, and how much more it could do. We need to make a stronger case for the merits of the Commonwealth as an organisation; to make clear why it’s relevant to people today. 

“I think we all have a role to play here,” says Swire. 

Next year’s Commonwealth Games, set to take place in Glasgow, will provide a timely opportunity to put the Commonwealth centre stage. “It is a hugely exciting prospect to welcome some of the world’s very best athletes to the UK once again,” says Swire. “But the games aren’t just about sport; they are also an opportunity to raise the profile of the Commonwealth, with a strong emphasis on engaging our youth.” 

The Queen’s Baton Relay, the traditional precursor to the Commonwealth Games, began its 190,000 km journey around all 71 participating nations and territories of the Commonwealth on 9 October, when it was launched from Buckingham Palace adorned with Queen Elizabeth II’s message to the Commonwealth. 

“The relay will put the Commonwealth back in the spotlight and, I hope, breathe a new energy and enthusiasm for the Commonwealth among the people it serves.”


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