Commonwealth opportunities in a post-Brexit world, from trade to impact

Recent days have propelled more than one formerly glorious institution with members around the world back into the spotlight. First Liverpool FC, then the Commonwealth of Nations through the Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM, sounding like an icky cough) and the Commonwealth Games.

I remember the Commonwealth having quasi-iconic status in my youth as a remnant of the British Empire, being quintessentially “British” in a global way like Hong Kong and Concorde (technically also French, but you know what I mean).

Yet unlike Concorde and British Hong Kong, it’s still there. A bit like The Simpsons, it continues to tick rather than hum along in the background after so many years, while the global conversation has moved on, to the EU, ASEAN and Africa, eyed by China and Macron. This in itself is pretty remarkable. The USSR imploded and the EEC is no longer a thing as such, yet the Commonwealth is still with us.

And it’s still relevant. They say that size doesn’t matter, but it surely plays its part. Numbering 2.4 billion people, the Commonwealth is not only bigger than Facebook – its citizens get to keep their data.

It also has breadth, wrapping itself around a fifth of the Earth’s territory. Comprising 53 member states (53 is apt, being the year The Queen was coronated and Everest was scaled for the first time), the Commonwealth includes large influential countries like Canada, Australia and Pakistan, and small countries like Tuvalu – a South Pacific island state, rather than a tickly organ in the back of the throat.

It’s this global reach that is enabling countries from across the Commonwealth to eliminate avoidable single use plastic in a bid to clean up the world’s oceans, from plastic bags to avoidable plastic waste – an admirable initiative that came out of the CHOGM (excuse me). A similar initiative to help protect the world’s rainforests, the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, was launched in 2015, with 40 countries now taking part.

As Britain pulls out of Europe, there will (probably) be more opportunities with Commonwealth nations, including fast-moving countries like India, Malaysia and Singapore, from trade deals to free movement.

But more than anything, there are shared interests between Commonwealth nations, which simply make working, living and doing business that little bit easier – the “softer” things in life.

As the Commonwealth was mostly the British Empire, member states share interests that are British in origin, like use of English, driving on the left, sports like rugby and cricket, and picking a fight after last orders the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy (though it’s fair to say that “democracy” is loosely interpreted in at least one or two nations). In fact, Malaysia remains the most comfortable country I’ve lived and worked in, and I believe that familiar factors like the English language had much to do with it.

But these are still early days in the Brexit journey, and from my point of view there are institutional and brand challenges for the Commonwealth to overcome. The organisation still feels a bit…staid, and its not entirely clear what its purpose is.

Perhaps oceans, forests and young people point the way forward – an opportunity to use our links to positively impact lives and the world around us.

Brand Britain biggest in China and India

Living in Hong Kong, I’m always up for a hike. Last weekend I scrambled over a long course of boulders in pounding heat, later emerging at a striking waterfall. I was the only person there. Then someone else inconveniently turned up. The two of us spoke (a bit awkward otherwise). Within minutes, the tattooed airport worker informed me that he was a huge Top Gear fan.

Top Gear, of course, is a massive overseas hit. But it’s not the only British export success. Anyone travelling to China will probably know that brands like Burberry are popular, while Man Utd is all over Southeast Asia like a red rash.

Then, of course, there are things like beer, whisky, gin, cheese and what not – the good stuff in life. Greene King IPA sales famously soared after the leaders of China and the UK were seen enjoying a pint at a country pub in 2015.

So it’s of no real surprise that a February report confirms that “Brand Britain” is popular in less established markets.

The report by Barclays Bank highlights export opportunities for UK businesses, saying that products flying the British flag were more likely to be purchased in emerging markets and that consumers in India, China and the UAE responded most positively to “Britishness”. Beyond these there are fast-growing economies in Africa and the “Far East” (“Far East?” Really?).

British goods are popular for reasons that include integrity, trust and reliability, while the UK is also perceived as innovative – something that was emphasised recently at the GREAT Festival of Innovation.

Among other recommendations, the report suggests displaying the British flag on products and thinking about marketing messages.

The UK should stay in the Erasmus+ programme post-Brexit

Many years ago I was an excitable and energetic overseas student studying Politics in Spain’s capital for 10 months. It was an unforgettable fin-de-siecle experience. There were no mobiles, no social networks, and no swiping left and right. People drank and smoked, people turned up to lectures in a foreign language the next day, people spoke to one another.

There was also a sense of optimism about the city. Real Madrid had been crowned European champions for the first time in decades (while these days there’s no stopping them). Spain’s economy was boomingEspaña Va Bien.

I was there, like everyone else, because of Erasmus.

In short, Erasmus is an EU programme named after a philosopher (no surprises there) from the Middle Ages, Erasmus. Someone somewhere presumably thought it clever to lift the letters from  EuRopean community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, or maybe it was the other way round.  Good job it wasn’t Alexis de Tocqueville.

Established in 1987 and now named Erasmus+ (in that tiresome way beloved of branding consultants) to include education, training, sport and youth, the programme provides grants for a wide range of actions including the opportunity for students to undertake work placements abroad and for teachers and education staff to attend training courses.

Through Erasmus I’d made friends from Spain, the UK, Germany and other European countries (some of whom went on to successful careers – print journalism, government, and so on). I had an overseas bank account. I sat exams in a foreign language.

So as Britain pulls out of Europe, it would be a real pity to also leave the programme post-Brexit. PM Theresa May says the UK will remain part of Erasmus+ until at least 2020, but the long-term future remains unclear.

Erasmus brought people of different nations together and pushed me into living outside of my home country.  I have no doubt it was a subtle factor behind my decision to agree to an Asia move. I’d lived overseas before; what could go wrong? One thing led to another – Madrid to Malaysia, Malaysia to China, and on it went.

So it’s heartening to see a campaign to keep the UK in the Erasmus programme, led by the NUS, National Youth Agency, YouthLink Scotland and other third sector organisations in the UK. The campaign will lobby politicians to maintain participation in Erasmus+ after Brexit, emphasising the positive impact of the programme on individuals and communities.

If “Global Britain” is to be a real and meaningful initiative, we need to get students out of their comfort zone. Erasmus does precisely that.