The European Union has once again taken centre stage in British politics.
Earlier this month, MPs overwhelmingly backed plans for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. With the Conservatives and Labour having supported the EU Referendum Bill and the SNP opposing it, the legislation now moves to the next stage of its progress through Parliament.
But while Westminster once again focuses on Brussels, another international organisation sits quietly in the wings, largely ignored, a sleeping giant that Scotland could help to reawaken.
The Commonwealth of Nations – or, more commonly, the Commonwealth – is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states.
Its roots go back to the British Empire of course. The first reference to the Commonwealth of Nations was made in 1884 by Lord Rosebery, the former prime minister, who now lies buried in the small church at Dalmeny, near Edinburgh.
But today the Commonwealth is far more than just a post-colonial club. A voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states, it is home to 2.2 billion citizens (around a third of the world’s population) of whom nearly 40 per cent are under the age of 35.
Membership is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation. Among its members are some of the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries, spanning five regions. Thirty-one are small states, many of them island nations. The last two countries to join the Commonwealth – Rwanda and Mozambique – have no historical ties to the British Empire at all.
Meanwhile, the combined labour force of these various Commonwealth states is expected to grow by an incredible 850 million by 2050 (compared to the EU’s which is set to fall by 54 million).
And according to a 2015 Bloomberg survey, four Commonwealth countries are now among the top ten fastest growing economies. These are Kenya, Nigeria, India and Malaysia – the latter two being of particular interest to the members of my organisation, the Asia Scotland Institute.
Furthermore, 46 of the 53 Commonwealth members are maritime nations. The seven that are not gain access to the sea via another Commonwealth member.
In total, the Commonwealth’s territorial waters adjoin more than half of the world’s oceanic seas. It is a family of nations, a coalition of the willing, that bridges each of the world’s oceans creating a truly global footprint.
And all this adds up to one thing for Scotland: opportunity.
The Commonwealth is an economic entity with huge potential to increase substantially the financial and social wealth of its member states.
Its middle class is set to soar. Its imports will rise as a result. And that means opportunities for Scottish exporters in areas in which we know we excel, such as tourism and leisure, oil and gas, finance, and education.
Meanwhile, it would seem likely that Europe is on course for economic decline as global wealth and power move east.
So how do we help the Commonwealth start punching to its weight – and in so doing help Scottish exporters and entrepreneurs?
That is the question we need to be addressing as the leaders of the Commonwealth member countries prepare to meet for their biennial discussions later this year in Malta. At present there is no ducking the fact that the Commonwealth is viewed by many, on both left and right, as an irrelevance. Commonwealth institutions are struggling to maintain their profile, let alone enhance it.
A new approach is needed. The Commonwealth needs to be recognised for what it is – a vast global market place offering countless opportunities for Scotland.
For the developing nations of the Commonwealth “trade not aid” is the way to alleviate poverty.
Scotland has a long tradition of effective trade and development activities right across the Commonwealth. As Scotland gains more autonomy and economic confidence, Commonwealth markets offer increasing opportunities for Scottish businesses to expand, and indeed to use as points of entry into other non-Commonwealth markets.
There is a sense of urgency, however. Germany, China and France have also recognised the Commonwealth’s potential, and this week 26 African countries have signed a regional trade agreement in Egypt.
As Alistair Wood, chairman of the Commonwealth Argosy, told me recently: “The Commonwealth is in effect the world’s network of networks of seaboard nations. That means it has a role to play in promoting global trade and stewardship of the maritime environment.
“Let us look to those ‘unique conditions’ collectively, and mutually benefit from them at a time when the developing Commonwealth countries are at the epicentre of the political and economic shift from west to east.”
• Roddy Gow is chairman of the www.asiascot.com