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them across most areas of social and economic policy. Only maverick Diane Abbott offered a markedly different prospectus. So what then are Catholics to make of

Miliband? On the face of it, his victory should be the least welcome. The Daily Mail wasted no time in pointing out that as well as not being married to his partner, Justine Thornton, the mother of his son, he is not even named on the child’s birth certificate. But there’s a need to look closer. What is more certain is that Ed Miliband, as a key backroom adviser to Gordon Brown for a decade before he became an MP, has enough intellectual curiosity and clout to rethink Labour’s approach across whole swathes of policy. He knows that there is no money left for statist social democracy. This will come as cold comfort to some of his strongest sup- porters in the public-sector unions, but as a former Minister for the Third Sector Miliband can be relied upon to understand and seek to develop the vital role played by faith groups and charities. He is neither a machine politi- cian like Gordon Brown nor a charismatic frontman like Blair. He is a thoughtful, self- deprecating intellectual. His instinctive consensus-building style provides hope that there will be no culture war on his watch. But the risk remains that he becomes the prisoner of the people who elected him: the social liberals within Labour who, in contrast to the Pope’s recent plea, instinctively see religion as a problem to be managed. They recoil in horror at the very concept of faith schools, and the Church’s teachings on social and moral issues. But many of Labour’s run-ins with Catholics over recent years came about because the party was in office at the time. Opposition’s do not set the agenda and we should see fewer friction points. David Cameron’s recent pitch in the pages of The Tablet (18 September) to align his vision of “The Big Society” with Catholic Social Teaching will also focus a few minds at Labour HQ. The Catholic vote that underpinned New Labour’s ascent is increasingly fluid. Labour chiefs now realise that.


d Miliband is no slouch when it comes to psephology. He will recog- nise that Catholics vote Labour in massive numbers compared with the

population as a whole. Nor will he need reminding that, of his 19 predecessors, just four went on to win a general election. The reality of politics is that hawks often end up as doves. Ed Miliband’s style could never be described

as hawkish – he is far too urbane to warrant that epithet – but because he is so plainly a metropolitan atheist he may overcompensate when it comes to his treatment of faith groups. If that means he treads more delicately around Catholic sensibilities than some of his pre- decessors, thenmany church members should consider his election a good result.

■Kevin Meagher was special adviser to the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Shaun Woodward MP.


‘The Commonwealth will survive because of its very unimportance’

When a spitting cobra was found inside the athletes’ village in Delhi, the South African high

commissioner pointed out that his unfortunate compatriots were due to share their (filthy) rooms with the reptile. India’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games 2010 have given visiting athletes a long list of novel hazards to worry about: dengue fever, typhoid, monsoon floods and uninhabitable accommodation all appear to be in store for hapless competitors. Perhaps India will pull off a minor

miracle and stage a spectacular opening ceremony tomorrow, followed by a highly successful and smoothly organised tournament. Even if this happens, however, the only lasting memory of the Games will be of an unseemly scramble to clear assorted snakes, cesspits, floodwaters and filth from the athletes’ squalid village, preceded by the spectacular collapse of a pedestrian bridge. Does the undignified prelude to this year’s Commonwealth Games tell us something about the organisation that lies behind them? Has this club of former British colonies finally reached its sell-by date? There is some truth in these statements, but the disastrous preparations probably tells us more about the failings of India’s Government than the future of the Commonwealth. A strange paradox helps explain why the Commonwealth will outlive these games. It will survive because of its very unimportance. The Commonwealth is not an alliance of nations — member states have no obligation to defend one another, nor do they ever vote as a block in the UN General Assembly. The Common wealth is not a free trade area or an economic grouping of any kind. The vast disparity in wealth between its members would render that impossible. Instead, the Commonwealth is a loose association of countries that share some important cultural traits: the English language and a common heritage of British rule. In general, it impinges very little on the lives of member states, especially

those that are large and rich. The Commonwealth secretary general is arguably the most obscure international civil servant in the world. Kamalesh Sharma, the present incumbent, has remained resolutely invisible since he was given the job in 2008. This is not his fault: global bureaucrats measure their standing by the size of their budgets – and Mr Sharma has hardly any money to spend. The Commonwealth Secretariat in London has a budget of less than £15 million this year. Even taking into account the greater sums set aside for the fund for technical co-operation and the youth programme, the Commonwealth has less than £50 million in its coffers. To small and poor member countries, however, it can still come in handy. If you happen to be the leader of Swaziland or Tonga, the expertise offered by the Commonwealth Secretariat on issues ranging from aid to international law can be useful. In general, the Commonwealth confers tangible benefits only on its smallest members. The club is not a forum for the assertion of national power, which is why every British Government starts out by saying how very seriously it takes the Commonwealth — before quietly letting it fall by the wayside. Only on rare occasions does the Commonwealth come into its own and prove its usefulness even to bigger members. This generally happens when one country’s leader misbehaves and Britain and her allies want to send a strong signal of displeasure. The best way is to remove the offender from the club, as happened to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in 2002 and apartheid South Africa in 1961. The fact that both countries bitterly resented their exclusion showed the Commonwealth’s quiet strength. Leaders enjoy attending its friendly summits, particularly when they get to have tea with the Queen. These convivial occasions confer a small but significant badge of respectability which leaders would, on balance, rather possess than do without. Hence Commonwealth countries value their membership and, perhaps surprisingly, there is a small queue of aspirant members: Rwanda was admitted last year, even though it has no history of British rule. A club that people hate to leave and others queue to join is probably not going to fall apart.

■David Blair is Middle East and Africa news editor of the Financial Times.

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 7

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