Today we welcomed local school children in Lewisham to mark Commonwealth Day. Councils across the UK and Commonwealth will no doubt have held similar events. It’s always special to welcome our young people to the Town Hall, but we should be acutely aware that the celebration of tolerance, love and diversity that our young people in Lewisham took part in today is far from the reality of most of the Commonwealth countries.
Lewisham has a proud history of welcoming people from across the world, including citizens from the 53 Commonwealth countries. Our borough is one of the most diverse places on the planet. We know that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Throughout history, our borough has stood up to intolerance and oppression, from welcoming the Windrush generation to challenging the National Front in the Battle of Lewisham 40 years ago.
Today, we are committed to making Lewisham a sanctuary borough, welcoming those fleeing persecution and violence, and protecting the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants – from the Commonwealth and beyond. We’re expanding our refugee resettlement programme, with a target of welcoming a further 100 refugee families from Syria, Iraq and other areas of conflict. This will make us the leading London borough in refugee resettlement.
It is important to remember that, beyond the Commonwealth Day celebrations today and rhetoric around common values, there are still many human rights abuses taking place across the Commonwealth. Same-sex acts between consenting adults is still criminalised in 36 Commonwealth countries. There are growing concerns that some countries, such as Uganda and Sri Lanka, are on the path to dictatorship. Religious intolerance is on the rise in Malaysia.
The Commonwealth’s enshrining principles are admirable: democracy, freedom of expression and tolerance, respect and understanding. However, there’s a difference between praising these principles and defending them. Raising a flag and warm words will not help Commonwealth countries shake off the outdated legacies of British colonialism.
With a no deal Brexit an increasing possibility as Theresa May continues to dig her heels in, some Brexiteer MPs and commentators argue that the UK must ‘look beyond’ Europe and strengthen its links, particularly its trading relationships, with Commonwealth countries. For some, this unnervingly sounds like a call back to the outdated “Britannia Rule the Waves” mentality that we must move away from if we are to win the fight for equality and human rights in Commonwealth countries.
This can only be achieved through a strong Foreign and Commonwealth Office that is not afraid to be a critical and constructive friend. Arguably, the UK is in a difficult position, having invaded many of these countries and imposed their own views and laws in the process. However, we have to acknowledge the mistakes of our past if we are to correct them and ensure the Commonwealth countries truly embrace the values we champion today.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Commonwealth, and we are still a long way from where we should be in achieving real equality in all countries. So while we celebrate our diversity and shared values on Commonwealth Day, we must also renew our campaign to change the hearts and minds of our neighbours.