A Jamaican, a Singaporean, and a Tanzanian walk into the Sri Lankan High Commission…

No, that isn’t the opening line of a world-class joke – though if you figure out a good punchline, credit me with the set-up. In fact, this is a typical scene from the world of London diplomacy, a snapshot of the intricate Commonwealth network which lies at the heart of the city’s many drinks receptions, roundtables, and high-level discussions.

As a Parliamentary Researcher with a little too much time on my hands and a long-standing fascination with the Commonwealth, I was struck by the lack of substantive Commonwealth policy work here in London. A lot of supportive words were – and still are – supported by precious few ideas on how to meaningfully advance closer Commonwealth ties. Given the great historical, linguistic, cultural, commercial, and legal links between that network of countries, this seemed to me a glaring omission – and one that I set about remedying. In January, I founded the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs, a dynamic policy centre hoping to remedy this unfortunate lacuna.

Of course, the first stop towards engaging with the Commonwealth was to speak with High Commissions here in London. After all, where better to hear the good (and not so good) news from across the Commonwealth than straight from the horse’s mouth?

Since launching the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs earlier this year, the warmth, hospitality, and enthusiasm of London’s Commonwealth diplomatic community has amazed and reassured me.

I have since spoken with High Commissioners and diplomatic representatives from as diverse a group of states as you can imagine - from tiny islands to global giants, and from the plains of Africa to the sunny shores of the South Pacific.

Over more cups of tea than I care to admit, I have come to know and admire many of the diplomatic world’s brightest minds. These conversations, and the people that I’ve met, have solidified my conviction that the Commonwealth should lie at the core of the UK’s future foreign policy direction. Whatever the historic relationship to the UK, and whatever the contemporary diplomatic challenges, I have found an affection for the Commonwealth, a desire to engage, and an understanding of the fact that a chequered history need not define the present.

But this is about more than just sentimentality and enthusiasm. The most enduring lesson of my whirlwind diplomatic education is that membership of the Commonwealth provides real, tangible value for High Commissions here in London.

Discussion of the Commonwealth is often dominated by navel-gazing debates about its purpose. What can hold together this disparate club of 56 members, spread all over the world, without a treaty, trade agreement, or defence pact to bind them?

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The answer is simple: the Commonwealth helps countries to solve problems. Not in the crude, official way that we might be used to, but in a subtler, modernised way – the diplomacy of back-channels, networks, and interest alignment.

What other excuse would a Caribbean Island, a Southeast Asian city state, and an East African Savannah republic have to break bread, share perspectives, and build relationships? In what other forum could the disparate island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific sit as equals with global giants like India, Canada, and Australia?

A forum like the Commonwealth is unique, facilitating people-to-people exchange in a way that meaningfully generates positive change, from a basis of commonality, however tangential.

I will never forget the time when, at a Commonwealth drinks reception, I stumbled into a heated discussion between a Ugandan and a Papuan. “What could these two possibly have to talk about?” I wondered to myself, trying to unpick an intense and technical discussion on tariffs. Coffee, it turns out, was the subject of the day – Uganda the eighth largest exporter in the world, Papua New Guinea the seventeenth, both lamenting the difficulty of accessing the prized British market post-Brexit. By the end of the night, the pair had set the world to rights – at least, as far as barriers to coffee exports were concerned.

These people-to-people connections embody what the Commonwealth does best. Through membership of a shared organisation, a familiarity with the English language, and comparable institutions – legal, political, and social – diverse and disparate nations are brought together. People talk, experiences are shared, grievances are aired, and working relationships are formed.

It is a strong foundation in commonalities – of history, language, and institutions – which sets the Commonwealth apart from larger groupings like the United Nations, and regional groupings, such as West Africa’s ECOWAS. States that truly have nothing in common simply don’t have any foundations on which to build trust – without trust, solutions are rarely forthcoming. In an increasingly globalised, digital world, cultural connections and affinities are just as important as simple geographic proximity.

London is a perfect venue for meetings like these. It is a great global city, playing host to all manner of organisations that bear the Commonwealth moniker, from the mighty Commonwealth Secretariat at Marlborough House to the little Commonwealth Beekeepers Association, hived away on Cornhill. Given the historic British relationship to many of the Commonwealth’s members, the city is uniquely blessed with some beautiful High Commission architecture, resplendent with the hallmarks of a bygone era, repurposed to serve the needs of independent, self-confident Commonwealth partners.

The answer is simple: the Commonwealth helps countries to solve problems. Not in the crude, official way that we might be used to, but in a subtler, modernised way – the diplomacy of back-channels, networks, and interest alignment.

That said, this idea is one that extends well beyond London. This principle, of the Commonwealth as a useful forum for diplomatic representatives, is replicated the world over. A Canadian friend of mine, formerly of Global Affairs Canada, loves to tell the story of how Quebecois diplomats in West Africa helped representatives from Ghana and Nigeria to communicate with their French-speaking neighbours. In the Middle East, Commonwealth High Commission lunches are so often a way to bring together states with very different views on the region’s hot-button issues, a space in which intel can be shared, contacts exchanged, and strategies coordinated.

That’s to say nothing of the Commonwealth Cricket Cup, hosted annually by Royal Commonwealth Society Hong Kong. Bringing together Hong Kong’s consular representation from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, and South Africa, a day of good-natured sport also provides the perfect opportunity for discussion on the side-lines about the unique challenges of operating in that city.

As any great diplomat understands, the best conversations often take place in the most atypical arenas.

So then, a message to those those searching for the Commonwealth’s purpose: you’d do well to start by looking to London’s diplomatic community. It represents the very best of the Commonwealth – through its vibrance, its cultural diversity, its shared values and institutions – and its engagement, time and again, with the Commonwealth’s unique ability to convene, to unite, and to tackle problems. It is a true exemplar of what the Commonwealth can be, and I am proud to have been able to engage so closely with it, even if only as a tourist.