In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir by Don McKinnon

‘It’s the best club in the world!’ Dr Hastings Banda

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In the RingThe Commonwealth often seems like the invisible man of international organisations, especially when you compare it to the likes of the UN or the G20. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it serves as anything more than an excuse for leaders of small countries to get to schmooz with the Queen every now and again. So to this memoir by Don McKinnon, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth from 2000-2008 to see what the Commonwealth does and more importantly what, if anything, it achieves. My interest in the aftermath of Empire had also been provoked by my recent reading of John Darwin’s excellent Unfinished Empire.

McKinnon came to the job from a long career in New Zealand politics culminating in a period of 9 years as Foreign Secretary. As he says himself, this was the ideal preparation since he already knew many of the major players in world politics and generally speaking could expect them to take his phone calls. However, he makes clear there’s a tension within the Commonwealth between the developed nations (the ABCs – Australia, Britain, Canada and NZ) and the developing nations; and it was important for him to win the trust and support of both. His previous work in NZ gave him an advantage in that he had strong relationships already with some of the Pacific countries.

cw flags

McKinnon starts with a look at the history of the Commonwealth, formed initially in the main by nations that had once been part of the British Empire. Now made up of 54 nations, ranging from major countries like Australia to tiny states like Samoa, the Commonwealth is an odd grouping based largely on a historical quirk, and McKinnon clearly saw it as part of his role to ensure that the smaller countries weren’t constantly railroaded by the larger ones. Not an easy task since the HQ is in London and the Queen is its titular Head – McKinnon tells the story of Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, referring to it as the ‘British’ Commonwealth, a title it dropped in 1949, which gives some indication of the British attitude, at least, to it. (I’m pretty sure I thought it was called the British Commonwealth, too, to be honest.)

The next few chapters deal with some of the problems McKinnon was faced with during his time in office – Musharraf’s coup in Pakistan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Fiji, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia. It’s clear that the bigger and more powerful the country, the less effective the Commonwealth can be in putting on pressure. McKinnon honestly admits that, on several occasions, despite their best efforts the Commonwealth achieved little or nothing. But then that’s true of the UN too as came across clearly in Kofi Annan’s recent memoirs Interventions. However, McKinnon did show how Commonwealth support for the principles of human rights, good governance and democracy was effective in some of the smaller states.

Don McKinnon
Don McKinnon
Overall, McKinnon convinced me of the usefulness of the Commonwealth for those small countries trying to get a fair deal in an increasingly globalised world. He also made a case for the big countries’ membership in that, handled well, the combined states in the Commonwealth can form a powerful voting block in bigger international fora such as the UN or World Trade rounds. On a personal level, McKinnon comes over as a no-nonsense, doesn’t suffer fools gladly man and I’m not at all sure I would have enjoyed working for him – but I guess if I was a small country facing serious problems, that’s the type of man I’d want in my corner. And he certainly convinced me of his willingness to go to bat for the underdog whenever required. An interesting and informative read – recommended.

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3 thoughts on “In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir by Don McKinnon

  1. What a superpatient man, superdiplomatic too; the book very absorbing and easy to read. I did not know Mr McKinnon before reading the book. He is a wonderful man.
    Sir Don should now comment on the present situation in Zimbabwe. For up to-date information he should get in touch with Kathy Buckle who has been writing letters from Zimbabwe for many years.

    • Thanks for commenting, Rosella. McKinnon is no longer the head of the Commonwealth as you know, but I’m sure the current head will be getting up-to-date information, not just from white farmers, but from all aspects of Zimbabwean society.

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