Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at opening of Vancouver Commonwealth Summit (Vancouver CHOGM)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Vancouver
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments:

Between 0930 and 1100 local time.

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1350
Themes: Commonwealth (general), Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (general discussions), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Education, Trade, Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Commonwealth (South Africa)

Prime Minister

Prime Minister Mulroney, Heads of State and Government, Sir Sonny RamphalSecretary General, Ladies and Gentlemen:

There is a sound military maxim which says that time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted, so I came to Vancouver just over a year ago for the EXPO 1986 Trade Fair, which has amongst other things bequeathed us this hall, and this enables me to testify to what a fine and flourishing city this is, and I am proud to say that Vancouver also has very longstanding links with Britain. It takes its name from Captain Robert Vancouver who came upon the site of the present city while searching for the elusive North-West Passage. As a matter of history, I suppose that unexpected landfalls made by Royal Navy captains are the reason for the presence of a good many of us in this hall!

Mr. Chairman, in thanking you for your words of welcome and in thanking the City of Vancouver and the Province of Columbia for their hospitality, I would also like to thank all those who have dedicated themselves for many months to preparing our meeting, none more so than our Secretary-General, Sonny Ramphal, who has travelled indefatigably across the world, visiting even London (laughter) and whose excellent bidding letter sets a clear agenda for our discussions, and may I also say a particular word of welcome to our friends who have come to Vancouver from Mozambique.

I was fortunate to work very closely with the late President Samora Machel, one of the most charismatic and clear-sighted leaders in Africa, who played such a vital and constructive part in bringing about Zimbabwe's independence. We have recently had a very successful visit to London by his successor, President Chissano and we welcome Mozambique's interest in our proceedings, which we hope will make a positive contribution to stability in Southern Africa (applause).

Mr. Chairman, you asked us to be brief, comparatively, (laughter) so I will set out what I see as three of the principal tasks of our meeting:

first, to weight up the important changes on the world scene since our last meeting in Nassau;

second, to consider the practical scope for constructive action by the Commonwealth; and

third, we should respond to the Secretary-General's invitation to take stock of the Commonwealth itself.

Mr. Chairman, I think that the Commonwealth can take encouragement from some of the changes on the world scene since our last meeting, three in particular: the stirrings of change within the Soviet Union; the prospect of an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union later this autumn to reduce the numbers of their nuclear weapons - the first time that has happened since the invention of nuclear weapons; and the way in which the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have come together, however precariously, to work for a cease-fire in the Gulf. They were good news.

Of course, there is no shortage of bad news to set against these glimmers of hope. Afghanistan and Cambodia are still occupied; the Berlin Wall still stands; South Africa is still tormented by apartheid; ethnic and religious divisions are a source of conflict in many countries in the world. Indeed, these divisions, whose basic causes are very similar even if their manifestation is [end p1] different, need handling with great wisdom and care as we all have reason to know when they occur in our own countries.

But for the first time for many years one senses movement in East-West relations, whereas previously the landscape was frozen, and this has not come about by chance. It has happened because the countries which believe in freedom and democracy have been stalwart in their resolve to defend their way of life and in their determination to stand up to intimidation and subversion, because it is a weakness of democracies that they tend to relax their guard at the first signs of success. It is crucial in the face of these more hopeful trends that we should preserve our tenacity of purpose, because the enemies of democracy possess it in abundance.

And secondly, under the heading “Opportunities for Positive Action by the Commonwealth”, there are successes which we can build upon: the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation and the follow-up to the Report which we discussed at Nassau on the vulnerability of small states. A new area where we could work together is what has been referred to as “distance learning”, an opaque bit of jargon which described the technique of learning by way of video and programmes on television.

Britain has experience with the Open University and last month we started the Open College, so we can draw on this to explain both the benefits and the pitfalls of this approach.

On a different level, the Commonwealth should declare its determination to see the new round of multilateral trade negotiations succeed. That really is extremely important. Indeed, nothing is more important for the future prosperity of all of us than that protectionism should be resisted.

I also believe that we can build on the work of our Finance Ministers and endorse the need to help the poorest and most indebted countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenneth Kaunda, a moment ago, was kind enough to refer to that - an initiative that was taken by Nigel Lawson.

Southern Africa is another area where there is certainly scope for constructive action.

We all know the aspects on which we disagree and there is nothing to be gained by parading our differences. What we do all agree is that apartheid is an utterly repulsive and detestable system and that it must go (applause), so it would be much better if the message which goes out from our meeting is one of agreement on positive action, action to help the black South Africans, in particular through education and training, action to help the frontline states to reduce their dependence on South Africa - and Britain is making a very substantial contribution on both these matters.

And the third point: we should take up the Secretary General's invitation to take stock of the Commonwealth. It is a theme on which I addressed the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association last year when we met in London.

I think our starting point should be the declaration which we agreed at Singapore in 1971. We said then that “We are a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and cooperating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.” In other words, Mr. Chairman, we are not drawn together by rules or by a constitution or by a particular regional or ideological interest. That means that we do not and cannot ask of each other that we all observe the same political philosophy or that we should all run our economies or societies on the same lines. It would be absurd to do so.

In practice, over many years, the Commonwealth has tolerated and accepted a very wide range of governments, and with good reason. It is wrong to abandon countries in their moment of greatest need.

If diversity has been one of our great strengths, tolerance - to which other speakers have referred - should be so too. We are free and independent sovereign states. We have a legitimate [end p2] right to our own views and the right, too, to hold those views without our motives being questioned. That is the essence of tolerance.

As a great British parliamentarian, Burke, said: “Tolerance is good for all or it is good for none.”

Mr. Chairman, let us recognise that we should all, every one of us, be losers if the Commonwealth were to become less of a force for reason, common sense and mutual help than it is now. Our peoples continue to have the common interests which we identified in the Singapore Declaration and I believe that we should use this meeting to promote them.

Under your chairmanship, and observing the principles which I have suggested, I am confident that our Commonwealth, which girdles the globe, will once again demonstrate a wise and constructive approach to the fundamental problems which concern us all.

Thank you for your hospitality. (applause)