The Commonwealth is a unique alliance of countries, once ruled by Britain and now united by a common desire to work together as equals with their former ruler. The word ‘Commonwealth’ is something of a contradiction as the countries involved are in markedly different stages of economic development with huge disparities in wealth. Social conditions, and respect for religious freedom and human rights, also vary widely. Despite these very real differences, the Commonwealth still carries substantial hope and for peace and justice for its citizens and for the wider world.
To my mind there are two main reasons for this. The first lies in the uncanny and admirable ability of the UK to turn inhabitants of former colonies and dependencies who opposed their rule with varying degrees of hostility, into friends united by the English language and by shared values and aspirations on social justice and political freedoms. There is a common mood music of inclusivity and belonging in the Commonwealth that is not found in other national groupings.
A second reason to be optimistic about the future of the Commonwealth is the total commitment of HM The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth, to its success. Her dedication and service has helped give the Commonwealth cohesion and sense of common purpose and ethical direction.
This commitment is evident in the annual Commonwealth Day celebration at Westminster Abbey which I’ve had the privilege to attend for the last 30 years. The Commonwealth Service led by HM The Queen, is characterised by its atmosphere of warm welcome of all communities in its multi faith readings. This year’s theme: ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth’ aptly describes the bond of friendship and understanding which gives the Commonwealth both strength and hope.
Westminster Abbey is what is described as a ‘Royal Peculiar’ where worship does not have to be exclusively Anglican, and when, some years back, it was suggested that the service be moved to a less inclusive venue, The Queen is reputed to have said that she would not come unless the service was for all faiths. Her warm embrace of the Commonwealth in all its diversity is also evident in her uplifting Christmas day broadcasts. This reaching out to other communities, with warmth and friendship is also seen in the commitment of other Royals who regularly attend events and commemorations of other faiths.
As a Sikh, brought up in the belief that despite superficial differences of religion and culture, we are all members of the same human family, it is heartening to see this ethos becoming central to the working of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth reminds us that our multiple identities have an over-riding common human identity of aspiration seen in its gatherings, celebrations and the working of its institutions.
Today, the Commonwealth is well placed to address the many economic and social problems facing its members. It has successfully helped the Sri Lankan government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of the bitter war with the Tamil Tigers. My hope is that this initiative will also lead to similar reconciliation between Sikhs and Hindus in India, still fragile after the events of 1984 and the wider recognition of the rights of other minorities in Commonwealth countries.
Cooperation and achievement in one area can lead to progress on other areas of human rights, trade, climate change and much more. A common ethos of respect and unity of purpose can achieve much, and in this, the Commonwealth has much to offer.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
Lord Indarjit Singh of Wimbledon CBE will be representing the Sikh faith at the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey on Monday 14th March.