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I was fortunate and honoured to have been invited to the Commonwealth Business Forum in London last week as part of the Isle of Man’s public and private sector delegation. The Business Forum along with the Youth Forum, the Digital Forum and the Women’s Forum collectively thrust London into the world media headlines for several days as members of all 53 Commonwealth nations met to engage and debate on the way forward for this long-standing union.

London and the UK certainly put on a show. As I sat in the Guildhall for the opening formalities, listening to the 690th Lord Mayor of London introduce UK Prime Minister Theresa May to speak, overlooked by statues of William Pitt the Elder, the Duke of Wellington and many others, a couple of Australian delegates to my right commented ‘Isn’t this something?’ To which his colleague replied, ‘Yeah, the Poms do this well!’

Over the next 3 days I heard from the likes of Bill Gates, Liam Fox, Amber Rudd, Australian Minister Julie Bishop, Baroness Scotland, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and many other inspiring speakers from the private, public and third sectors. In addition, a sparkle of celebrity was on show from some of the younger Royals such as William, Harry, Meghan and Beatrice.

I took away a huge amount from such an esteemed array of speakers, but was left wondering, perhaps cynically, if the UK would have gone to such lengths if it had voted to remain in the EU?

This huge show of goodwill, the pomp and ceremony, the fine words and fine wines, would it all have happened if the UK didn’t feel somewhat isolated and in need of old friends? It was notable that many of the speakers from smaller nations highlighted the notion of common wealth as being somewhat ironic and far from reality.

The Caribbean nations receive much needed and well-intentioned international aid when the inevitable cyclones hit, wiping out massive proportions of their GDP on a regular basis. But little is done by their allies and partners ahead of time, to better prepare them for the inevitable hurricane seasons. All the while, global warming is still challenged for legitimacy by some major nations, most notably America. Many of the smaller island nations that contribute least to the pollution, the rising temperatures and the rising tides are affected the most by them. So where is this common wealth?

In business, across many of the member states we have a common language, shared history, similar legal frameworks and common appetite to trade together. Yet post war Britain has built its identity primarily in Europe rather than the Commonwealth. This has created structural barriers to doing business if you’re not in the UK, EU or EEA. Many great business opportunities from the African or Indian continents struggle to access core banking because of the risk appetites of the banks in response to the guidance from national regulators and governments.

So is it worth all the effort?

Absolutely. We need to trade with Africa, Australasia, Singapore, India, the Caribbean islands, Canada and the many other Commonwealth members. We need to share insights into the use of new technology to ease the friction of cross border trade. We need to share intelligence in tackling cyber-crime, corruption, money laundering and the funding of threats to our shared values.

A 10/10 to the UK for this excellent gathering. If we truly are to create common wealth across this consortium of willing allies, we need to invest in this newly re-energised union as we did in Europe following the Second World War for the next few decades. We need to remove barriers to business and create an infrastructure and understanding to support our mutual objectives. We need to create binding commitments to reduce pollution, create access to quality education for all, fight disease and create opportunity for all Commonwealth members. The UK, with its historic place in the centre of the Commonwealth, needs to take the lead and in doing so regain its international relevance in the new, post EU, world order.

 

Greg Ellison

CEO Capital International Group