Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, head of Warwick Manufacturing Group and himself a child of the Commonwealth, celebrates the organisation’s 60th anniversary.
Today Birmingham and much of the West Midlands is a Commonwealth in its own right.
Birmingham is an ethnically diverse city which owes so much to citizens of the Commonwealth and their respect for the Mother Country.
So many can trace their origins to the likes of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Uganda, Jamaica – this Commonwealth of nations.
They have come to Birmingham seeking a better life and by and large have worked hard to achieve it.
I am no different.
I arrived in Britain nearly 50 years ago to further my education and learning, beginning as a young apprentice at the now long gone Lucas Industries.
And, like so many others, I stayed and made my home in Birmingham.
I was only nine years old in 1949 but I remember the controversy in India over the founding of the Commonwealth, a controversy due to the policies of South Africa and what was then “white” Australia.
However Prime Minister Pandit Nehru powerfully backed the new Commonwealth. He argued that the founding of a new Commonwealth could offer something unique to the world.
He said: “In this world which is today sick and which has not recovered from so many wounds ... it is necessary that we touch upon the world problems, not with passion and prejudice, but in a friendly way and with a touch of healing.”
Time has proved Nehru right. That “touch of healing” still defines the Commonwealth’s role today.
Over the years we’ve seen the need for the Commonwealth’s touch in apartheid South Africa, in the military rule of Nigeria, in the abuses of Zimbabwe and today, in Fiji.
Each of these cases has generated controversy, tension, even violent disagreement.
When faced with such crises, the Commonwealth has always sought common ground, even when it seemed impossible.
This is not a new trait. Professor W. K. Hancock once said that the Commonwealth’s existence could be traced to an “incorrigible disposition to escape from a logical dilemma”.
Under a succession of able Secretary-Generals, this skill has been a hallmark of the Commonwealth.
The current Secretary-General, Kamlesh Sharma, is an expert at bringing people with different perspectives together. I am certain that he has the required “incorrigible disposition”.
Of course, building consensus is only the first step in applying the values of the Commonwealth.
One cannot read the inspiring words of the Harare declaration on human rights without sorrow that Harare’s citizens have since been betrayed by their leader.
We all wish more could be done to protect them. Sadly, a touch of healing cannot be forced on the patient.
In supporting freedom, the Commonwealth cannot operate by diktat.
Yet even when we cannot do all we wish, our principles serve as a powerful reminder of what should be done.
The Commonwealth’s strength lies in the nations which have embraced its values – from India to South Africa to Singapore.
It is their success which shows the path for others.
In 1991, nine commonwealth nations were under military or one party rule. Today, only suspended Fiji holds that dubious distinction.
So it is right that the Commonwealth has decided to reconstitute the Ministerial Action Group so member nations themselves deal with violations of the values of the Commonwealth.
In cases like that of Gambia and Uganda (alleged government intimidation of political opponents), it is the moral force of fellow members that have the most weight.
It is also right that the Commonwealth considers whether the new Zimbabwe government is returning to the values of the Harare declaration.
The most fitting tribute to the Commonwealth will come when the Harare declaration proves to be more enduring than the regime that violated it.
Alongside supporting democracy, the Commonwealth now offers another healing touch – helping Commonwealth citizens secure their own economic future.
The Commonwealth Youth Credit initiative helps young people start businesses by offering them small loans and business training. This scheme has enabled thousands of businesses to get off the ground.
Let me quote one business starter, a young woman from Ahmedabad – “I didn’t know I could ever do something useful. My family is very proud of me. I have money over every week, after making the repayments. I put some of it back into my laundrette and most of the rest goes to support my children.”
It strikes me that some leading bankers would benefit from such a sound business strategy.
Another such programme is the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative which, only last month, launched the Aureos Africa fund, which aims to invest $400 million in small and medium sized African businesses.
From Nigerian drill makers to South African printers, this fund intends to provide both resources and management support for companies looking to expand and improve.
Both these programmes are practical steps to improving lives.
They highlight two Commonwealth values – faith in the ability of our citizens and belief that a helping hand succeeds where a command can fail.
The Commonwealth’s great diversity makes it inevitable that its members often see the world differently.
Yet by steadily guiding nations towards democracy and helping citizens to prosperity, the Commonwealth shows that diversity, democracy and development go hand in hand.
After sixty years, the Commonwealth still offers a much needed “healing touch” to the world.
And it remains an example that the citizens of Birmingham can also seek to emulate in making their own ‘commonwealth of nations’ an even greater and more prosperous place in which to live.
This article expands on a speech given by Lord Bhattacharyya in the House of Lords