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History of the Commonwealth of Nations

History of the Commonwealth of Nations

Origins of the concept and establishment of the term

Queen Elizabeth II, in her address to Canada on Dominion Day in 1959, pointed out that the confederation of Canada on 1 July 1867 had been the birth of the “first independent country within the British Empire”. She declared: “So, it also marks the beginning of that free association of independent states which is now known as the Commonwealth of Nations.” As long ago as 1884 Lord Rosebery had described, while visiting Australia, the changing British Empire, as some of its colonies became more independent, as a “Commonwealth of Nations”. Conferences of British and colonial prime ministers occurred periodically from the first one in 1887, leading to the creation of the Imperial Conferences in 1911.

The Commonwealth developed from the imperial conferences. A specific proposal was presented by Jan Smuts in 1917 when he coined the term “the British Commonwealth of Nations” and envisioned the “future constitutional relations and readjustments in essence” at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 by delegates from the Dominions as well as Britain. The term first received imperial statutory recognition in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, when the term British Commonwealth of Nations was substituted for British Empire in the wording of the oath taken by members of parliament of the Irish Free State.

The prime ministers of five members at the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. (L-R) Mackenzie King (Canada), Jan Smuts (South Africa), Winston Churchill (United Kingdom), Peter Fraser (New Zealand) and John Curtin (Australia)

Adoption and formalisation of the Commonwealth

In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions agreed they were “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. The term “Commonwealth” was officially adopted to describe the community.

These aspects to the relationship were formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which applied to Canada without the need for ratification, but Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland had to ratify the statute for it to take effect. Newfoundland never did, as on 16 February 1934, with the consent of its parliament, the government of Newfoundland voluntarily ended and governance reverted to direct control from London. Newfoundland later joined Canada as its 10th province in 1949. Australia and New Zealand ratified the Statute in 1942 and 1947 respectively.

Although the Union of South Africa was not among the Dominions that needed to adopt the Statute of Westminster for it to take effect, two laws—the Status of the Union Act, 1934, and the Royal Executive Functions and Seals Act of 1934—were passed to confirm South Africa’s status as a sovereign state.

Decolonisation and self-governance

After the Second World War ended, the British Empire was gradually dismantled. Most of its components have become independent countries, whether Commonwealth realms or republics, and members of the Commonwealth. There remain the 14 mainly self-governing British overseas territories which retain some political association with the United Kingdom. In April 1949, following the London Declaration, the word “British” was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect its changing nature.

Burma (also known as Myanmar, 1948) and Aden (1967) are the only states that were British colonies at the time of the war not to have joined the Commonwealth upon independence. Former British protectorates and mandates that did not become members of the Commonwealth are Egypt (independent in 1922), Iraq (1932), Transjordan (1946), British Palestine (part of which became the state of Israel in 1948), Sudan (1956), British Somaliland (which united with the former Italian Somaliland in 1960 to form the Somali Republic), Kuwait (1961), Bahrain (1971), Oman (1971), Qatar (1971), and the United Arab Emirates (1971).

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