Exclusive: Crisis at the Commonwealth


Baroness Scotland of Astha (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Baroness Scotland of Astha (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Number 10 accused of ‘colonialism and furthering Empire 2.0 agenda’

By Sarwar Alam

Senior British parliamentarians have accused the UK prime minister of ‘colonialism and furthering an Empire 2.0 agenda’ by attempting to stop Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, from getting an automatic second term.

Eastern Eye has seen confidential documents which show that Boris Johnson’s government has been undermining the secretary-general and trying desperately to find someone to run against Scotland. However, so far no other candidate has entered the race.

A Commonwealth insider said: “Johnson set a date for candidates to come forward. No one has so the secretary-general is, in effect, running against herself. That’s ludicrous. So, he set up a spurious claim that there was no consensus among heads of government, and he is flouting past precedents. No other secretary-general in the 70-year history of the Commonwealth has ever been put in this position.”

A senior UK parliamentarian urged the government to look at the ‘optics’ behind the move.

“If this was a white man, there is no way they wouldn’t have got an immediate second term. Boris has shown again his colonial ambitions which hark back to what he wrote as a journalist 20 years ago – the Africans were lucky to have been colonised and Britain should never have left. He’s shown his true colours in trying to get rid of her.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) seen here with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif (R) (Photo Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The move will not go down well in Delhi. One Commonwealth expert in India has told Eastern Eye that prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration likes Scotland. India accounts for over half of the Commonwealth in population size and is considered an economic superpower which, post-Empire, wields great influence on the global stage. Eastern Eye has seen a confidential memo to the country’s foreign ministry which makes clear how it views itself in the Commonwealth:

“It is fair to say that without India there would be no Commonwealth. India has always enjoyed the support of 32 Small States. They represent a cohesive block and make a difference in international fora – for example, India’s election in ICJ (International Court of Justice) against UK and election of current WHO (World Health Organization) DG against UK nominee.”

However, a source close to Number 10 said Johnson was not promoting an Empire 2.0 or colonial agenda. They said: “This is all about trade. Think about it. Britain has left the EU and it needs the Commonwealth badly and it needs to be a big player in the Commonwealth.”

They continued: “Frankly, this is about personalities. Patricia didn’t play the game. For God’s sake, she’s a Brit, all said and done. She knows the UK’s in trouble. She knows she can help Boris, but she sticks up for the small countries and she’s Labour through and through, and that’s what Number 10 and the FCO don’t like. All they want is trade, especially with India, and especially now they’re facing crippling debts and borrowing.”

A former secretariat employee confirmed that the UK government has always disliked the current secretary-general because they cannot control her. Speaking to Eastern Eye, they said: “During one rather fractious meeting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a senior civil servant told me that the problem with the secretary-general was that she wouldn’t do the bidding of the UK government. They just didn’t get the fact she was the secretary-general of the whole of the Commonwealth, and that shows the colonial mentality of the Brits. Don’t forget who was in charge of the FCO at that time, and where they were getting their orders. It was Boris Johnson.”

The idea that the UK sees the Commonwealth as a way to generate trade chimed with an ex-secretariat insider.

They said: “During an away-day just before the last CHOGM, we did an exercise with teams from the FCO and the UK Cabinet Office about what success looked like. The UK team said their number one priority during the London 2018 CHOGM was to generate trading opportunities for the UK. Well, all hell broke loose, and they just didn’t get what the Commonwealth was about. It was very much old Empire stuff where the other Commonwealth member states were there to be plundered.”

If this manoeuvre is about trade, then Eastern Eye has learned that the UK government will shortly announce that it has succeeded in securing over 20 free trade deal with countries around the world.

However, Commonwealth observers in India are concerned the UK government is deliberately by-passing the secretariat.

In the leaked memo the official writes: “After opposing a leaders’ meeting on COVID19, UK then decided to hold a meeting on COVID19 for all Commonwealth High Commissioners based in London. In this meeting the Commonwealth secretariat was not even invited. The meeting was chaired by the minister of state for Commonwealth in FCO and organised by UK Envoy for Commonwealth. This was a deliberate attempt to sideline the secretariat and the Commonwealth secretary-general.”

It is not just India which is concerned by the deliberate campaign against Scotland. Letters seen by Eastern Eye from Caribbean leaders urge Johnson to let the secretary-general lead on COVID for the entire Commonwealth. The secretariat set up a ‘COVID hub’ several weeks ago, which lets member states access data and information to help their citizens. Eastern Eye understands that Scotland persuaded America’s privately held financial, software, data, and media company, Bloomberg, to work for free to analyse the data and what it means for member states. The data would fetch millions of pounds if Bloomberg were to charge for access, said one source.

“The Brits can’t stand that the secretary-general can get people to do things for her for nothing and bypass the UK. They think she should stick to things they want her to do, and COVID isn’t one of them, neither is climate change nor the other successful hubs she has set up, much to their chagrin.”

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland gives a speech at the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on April 19, 2018, in London. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This newspaper has seen evidence that the UK prime minister wants everything COVID-related in the Commonwealth to go through his government.

In a letter to Commonwealth heads on 23 April Johnson wrote: “If you wish, please write to me or ask your officials to share views with our Commonwealth Envoy, Philip Parham, copying any contributions to The Commonwealth Team (at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). We hope that this process will ensure that Commonwealth perspectives can shape the global response.”

A Commonwealth insider said: “This is outrageous. Even as chair in office there are protocols when it comes to Commonwealth business. You never, ever cut the secretariat or the secretary-general out of the loop. It’s more than bad form, it’s showing that we, the colonials know best.”

This newspaper has previously reported on the heated row between the secretary-general and the UK government. However, Eastern Eye has now seen letters from four heads of state in the Caribbean urging Johnson to reappoint Scotland immediately.

A diplomatic source said that while the tone of the letters is couched in polite language, the different heads of state make clear the displeasure of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Kiribati, a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (APC) group of the Commonwealth countries, toward Johnson.

They said: “Don’t be fooled by the niceties, they are livid. The countries see this as Boris’ Empire 2.0 agenda. It’s a putsch by Britain to take over the Commonwealth and be a big player. But the UK doesn’t understand that this is not the Commonwealth way.”

Each of the different country leaders point out that every Commonwealth country has the same powers, despite its size or what it contributes to the secretariat’s purse.

The president of Seychelles, Danny Faure, pointed out: “That parity of treatment, that true equality, is the essence of what makes our Commonwealth truly different from any other intergovernmental entity and why it is especially valued by the 32 small states happy to be part of this family of nations.”

That sentence, said the diplomat, underlined a serious threat and flexing of collective muscles aimed at the UK urging Johnson to stop playing politics with people’s lives.

The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, made clear her displeasure: “It would appear that this unavoidable decision will present some disruption in the way the Commonwealth runs its affairs. It is my view that it would be invidious to have an important organisation such as the Commonwealth present a picture of uncertainty, if not a vacuum, to the world at such a critical time.”

However, it is the country from which Scotland was put forward as secretary-general which is most emphatic. The Dominican prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, wrote: “In these uncertain times, it is important to ensure that our organisation is not infected by the uncertainties around us and that we as Heads act decisively to determine the leadership of the Secretariat.”

Dominica’s Prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP via Getty Images)

In a letter on 8 June to Commonwealth heads, prime minister Johnson defended his decision: “I must respectfully confirm that there is no consensus for the immediate reappointment of the Secretary-General until we meet in Kigali for our postponed CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting).”

UK sources claim Scotland has tainted the office of the secretary-general because of ‘extravagant spending’ and circumventing procurement rules ‘to give lucrative contracts to mates’.

Scotland has always rejected charges of extravagance, and sources close to the secretariat told Eastern Eye: “She is the last person who spends. Previous secretaries-general used to host lavish parties at their residence. SG (secretary-general) is frugal, I mean f-r-u-g-a-l. No parties and her favourite phrase is ‘pro bono’. She expects, and gets, experts to work for free for the good of the Commonwealth.”

Earlier this year, the UK put conditions on part of the secretariat’s funding, which carries out work on behalf of the 54-member states. However, in February external auditors gave the secretariat a clean bill of financial health and the next month the UK donated almost £5million after global consultants KMPG confirmed procurement procedures met “established industry practices”.

One Commonwealth insider said that the Department for International Development (DFID) has given the secretariat’s performance an A+. When Scotland took over four years ago DFID rated it a C.

A senior UK parliamentarian said: “How can you argue with her record? On one hand they’re saying she isn’t good enough, and on the other, they’re giving her an A-plus. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The secretary-general’s contract runs out on 27 June, however Eastern Eye understands that on Monday (22) leaders will extend it until government heads meet in Kigali.

A Number 10 spokesperson: “Decisions on appointing secretaries-general are a matter for all Commonwealth heads of government collectively. These decisions must be taken by consensus, and have typically been made at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

“As the current chair-in-office, the UK will work with other Commonwealth countries on the process of appointing a secretary-general for the next four-year term.”

Regarding plans to announce free trade deals with more than 20 other countries, they said: “The prime minister has made clear our ambition to secure free trade agreements covering 80 per cent of trade within the next three years, to become a truly Global Britain.”

It is understood that these countries include America, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and some in EU, as well as accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Canada.

However, it is the concerted attempts to remove Scotland from her post that has upset senior UK parliamentarians.

One said: “Boris said Black Lives Matter, but by metaphorically kneeling on the SG’s neck, he’s showing it’s all rhetoric.”