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Scotland wins leadership battle despite Whitehall opposition

Battle for control of the organisation raises questions about its future and relevance in changing geopolitics

Baroness Patricia Scotland won re-election as the Secretary General of the Commonwealth in a tight contest and bad-tempered finale to its summit in Kigali between 20 and 26 June, the organisation's first in-person meeting for over two years.

The leadership contest, which pitched some of the Commonwealth's biggest member states against Scotland's supporters in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, could leave lasting scars on its standing in the international system.

Scotland won by a 27-23 margin in the leadership election on 24 June. That followed a spate of domestic election defeats for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Conservative party was trounced in two parliamentary by-elections on 23 June.

The vote at the end of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was unprecedented. It marked the failure of the organisation's 'informal diplomatic mechanisms' as the choice of the secretary general is traditionally agreed by consensus.

The election followed weeks of ugly media briefing and counter-briefing (Dispatches 21/6/22, Political intrigue and economic recession haunt Kigali summit).

Johnson's office had led the campaign to oust Scotland, a Labour member of the House of Lords and former UK Attorney General (AC Vol 61 No 6 Scotland under siege).

Whitehall initially backed Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Monica Juma, who pulled out of the contest for 'personal reasons'.

Then, Britain supported Jamaica's foreign affairs and trade minister Kamina Johnson Smith. Insiders said she appeared to be more enthusiastic about Whitehall's plans to use the Commonwealth to promote the government's 'Global Britain' agenda in the aftermath of its exit from the European Union (AC Vol 63 No 4, June for Juma).

But Britain's campaign, which had the support of India and Australia, divided the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states, most of whom are believed to have swung behind the Dominica-born Scotland. CARICOM's current head, Antigua and Barbuda's Prime Minister Gaston Browne, described the Johnson Smith candidacy as a 'monumental error.'

Most of the votes for Johnson Smith appear to have come from the 19 African members of the Commonwealth, while Scotland secured the bulk of the 13 Caribbean states and 11 Pacific states.

Scotland's term will only last two more years because of the two-year delay to the summit caused by the pandemic.

The row over Scotland's position dates back to an audit report in 2019 which stated that Scotland had circumvented tendering rules to award a £250,000 contract to a close friend and fellow Labour peer.

Before the vote on 24 June, a letter from Kevin Isaac, the chairman of the Commonwealth Board of Governors, accused Scotland's office of suppressing the findings of an independent review of the Commonwealth Secretariat's finances.

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