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In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir

Don McKinnon, In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir (London, Elliot and Thompson, 2013), x+310pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-1-90-873926-1.

Review by Philip Murphy, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Posted by Pat Perkel

There are two obvious things to say about this memoir by former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon. The first is that it probably offers a stronger case for the enduring value of the Commonwealth than anything published in the past decade. The second is that it is unlikely to be warmly received in Marlborough House, the Secretariat’s headquarters. What makes this such a fascinating and refreshing addition to the literature on the Commonwealth is the sense that we are being granted a genuine glimpse behind the scenes. Yet there are bound to be those among the current staff of the Secretariat who feel that McKinnon has compromised the methods of quiet diplomacy in which they specialise by revealing too much about the contents of private conversations. After all, McKinnon’s period as Secretary-General is relatively recent (2000-2008), and some of the political crises he discusses in depth – such as those in Zimbabwe and Fiji– are still very much ‘live’ issues.

On balance, however, McKinnon’s memoir is likely to do the Commonwealth far more good than harm. In an age of rolling news, the era of Bush and Blair can (perhaps mercifully) seem almost as distant as that of Bismarck and Disraeli, and few of those currently engaging in talks with the Secretariat – or even with McKinnon himself in his recent guise as the Secretary-General’s special envoy to the Maldives – are likely to be inhibited by fears that their words might appear in the pages of In the Ring: Round Two, or whatever its equivalent might be. Furthermore, if an organisation like the Commonwealth needs to maintain a degree of confidentiality, it also requires public support; and in portraying it as a serious and versatile tool of international diplomacy, McKinnon may well help to inspire a greater degree of confidence in the organisation than it currently enjoys.

On taking up his post in Marlborough House, McKinnon was already a battle-hardened veteran of domestic and international politics. He had beenNew Zealand’s foreign minister for nine years, combining this between 1990 and 1996 with the post of deputy prime minister. He had begun his working life on a 3,500 acre farm, and proudly claims to have been able to ‘produce a respectable [sheep] carcass of near supermarket quality’. His account of his years at the Secretariat is correspondingly hard-headed and unsentimental. Unlike many in the Commonwealth community, McKinnon appears to be able to distinguish between mere process (convening meetings and issuing communiqués) and practical results. Typical of this is the following comment about the Secretariat’s efforts in the area of education:

I often wondered about the dollar value of the long hours spent on this issue by our professionals, of the seminars, the travel to international conferences, the trees cut down for the paper required – might it not have been better spent on just getting more kids into primary schools?

Those charged with communicating the Commonwealth’s message sometimes fail to appreciate how quickly the public tire of platitudes. What they really want to know is whether the organisation actually does anything useful. Here McKinnon delivers. Drawing on his personal and official papers, he gives a blow-by-blow account of protracted negotiations over Zimbabwe,Pakistan,Bangladesh andFiji, to mention just four of his more difficult cases. As those examples suggest, this is by no means a simple success story. Given the scale of the problems faced by these countries, this is almost inevitable; and where progress is achieved it can all too easily be thrown into reverse. But McKinnon makes a strong case for the value of keeping communications open and keeping talking. We tend to speak of Commonwealth values rather than virtues, but if the Commonwealth does have a cardinal virtue it is clearly that of patience. The book offers a series of remarkably even-handed and humane assessments of figures like General Musharraf who found themselves at the sharp end of the Commonwealth’s attempt to enforce its professed values. There are very few out-and-out villains here, with the possible exception of General Sani Abacha (whose sudden death – in circumstances more commonly associated with 1970s rock stars than heads of state – achieved what the Commonwealth could not in restoring Nigeria to democracy). It seems unlikely that Robert Mugabe will relish the portrait painted of him here. Yet McKinnon actually gives a remarkably even handed account of the crisis inZimbabwe from which neither the British government nor one particular British Foreign Secretary emerge with much credit.

At the same time, however, In the Ring is candid about the Commonwealth’s sources of weakness. Principal among these is a lack of buy-in by some of the organisation’s most powerful members. This was perhaps most obvious in the case of theUK. McKinnon suggests that British prime minister Tony Blair ‘put the Commonwealth in the same category as fox-hunting: it belonged to another age, it wasn’t really “New Labour”’. He found both Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown and Brown’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, poorly informed about the Commonwealth, and confesses he never had the feeling that Sir Michael Jay, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘was a committed Commonwealth man’. McKinnon complains of a similar lack of ministerial interest in the Commonwealth in Canada, although he is more positive about the situation inAustralia under the premiership of John Howard. This distinctly uneven pattern of engagement with the Commonwealth among its richer members was particularly troubling given that, as McKinnon notes, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together contributed around 61% of the organisation’s budget and 80% of its aid programme.

The situation was not much more encouraging in the Commonwealth’s most populous democracy. India’s preoccupation with Non-Aligned movement meant that ‘representation at the Commonwealth summits from the 1960s was not often at head-of-government level’. In McKinnon’s own experience, ‘many Indian officials still deemed the Commonwealth to be the B team, preferring the A team action on the East River in mid-town Manhattan’. Meanwhile, although South Africa’s re-entry in the 1990s had given the Commonwealth a much-needed boost, during McKinnon’s time in office he was clearly frustrated by Tharbo Mbeki’s feeble response to the crisis in Zimbabwe.

If the British government sometimes appeared lukewarm, the Commonwealth could at least count on the wholehearted support of the Palace; and McKinnon devotes a whole chapter to the Queen’s role as Head of the organisation. Yet even here, the future was uncertain. According to McKinnon, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, ‘seemed to keep his distance’ from the Commonwealth and ‘I decided we had to pull him closer into the fold’. In passages which may attract more popular attention than any other element of the book, McKinnon candidly addresses the great unspoken question surrounding the headship: what happens when the Queen dies? He describes his efforts to persuade the FCO to confront the implications of the fact that the headship neither is nor can be hereditary. He then sets out what is presumably still the working template for managing issue: on the Queen’s death the Secretary-General will investigate whether there is a consensus among Commonwealth members for her successor to be the organisation’s next Head. If there is, an announcement could be made before Queen’s funeral, enabling the Headship be included in monarch’s new titles. If not, issue will be held over to next CHOGM. This is clearly a sensitive subject, but again, McKinnon has probably done the Commonwealth a service by airing it.

While McKinnon is careful not to criticise his successor, one senses a certain frustration that the Commonwealth is not getting its message across. He comments pointedly that ‘I came to a view very early in my political life that if you are regularly in the news, you at least appear to be doing something useful.’ It is easy to complain about a lack of interest in the Commonwealth among some of its key players. Yet the organisation itself has a responsibility to cultivate that interest and prove its relevance. Instead, it sometimes appears to assume – rather complacently – that leading politicians will simply adapt to its own arcane rituals. I was struck by McKinnon’s remark that Blair’s estrangement from the Commonwealth dated from the time of the 1997 Edinburgh CHOGM: ‘I think he wasn’t impressed by what he saw’. It reminded me of seeing the current UK prime minister, David Cameron, sitting on the stage during the interminable opening ceremony of the Perth CHOGM in 2011. I wondered to myself whether I was watching a man who thought he was making good use of his precious time. I concluded that I was not. If McKinnon’s forthright and revealing memoir persuades just some of its readers that the Commonwealth can still make a practical difference in the world, it will have served a useful purpose.

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