Commonwealth System

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Commonwealth System

The evolution of the Commonwealth paralleled the deconstruction of the British Empire through the twentieth century, and the changing meaning and purpose of the Commonwealth reflected British efforts to maintain some influence as formal empire declined. Originally a small group of self-governing white dominions within the empire, the Commonwealth is now a voluntary association of over fifty nations, independent of British control, but linked by the culture of a common colonial heritage.

By the early twentieth century, the settler colonies of the British Empire had achieved self-rule as dominions, although they were still largely dependent on Britain for defense and financial assistance. Following their participation in the First World War (1914–1918), these dominions, especially Canada, South Africa, and the new Irish Free State, moved for clarification of this status. The 1926 Imperial Conference declared the dominions to be autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The ambiguity of this definition led to pressure to translate Arthur James Balfour's (1848–1930) sentiments into constitutional law. The result was the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which formally declared the autonomy of dominion governments and their complete freedom from any dictates of the Westminster Parliament.

The rapid decolonization that followed 1945 brought significant change to the Commonwealth. Ireland declared itself a republic and left the body in 1948. Independent India wished to remain in the Commonwealth, but as a republic with no allegiance to the Crown. Determined to maintain the Commonwealth as a means of exercising informal influence, Britain moved to alter the association's nature to keep India within the fold. In 1948 the word "British" was dropped, creating a Commonwealth of Nations, and in 1949 the London Declaration stated that the monarch was only the symbolic head of a Commonwealth of freely associated states. India thus stayed in, and the precedent allowed later postcolonial states like Ghana and Nigeria to participate in the group as well.

In this incarnation, the Commonwealth since the 1960s has sought both meaning and relevance. The Singapore Declaration (1971) and the Harare Declaration (1991) reaffirmed the Commonwealth as committed to democracy, human rights, and economic development. Contradictions appeared though, as member states pursued their own economic interests (Britain in Europe, for example) and as states moved from democracy to dictatorship.

Relations between Britain and its former colonies were strained during the 1980s over issues like immigration, foreign policy, and sanctions on the apartheid-state of South Africa. However, there were also examples of successful cooperation. Various Commonwealth-sponsored trusts and organizations have provided funding and economic and technical advice to developing nations within the body. The Commonwealth has acted politically, too, providing a forum in the late 1970s for negotiations to end white rule in Rhodesia, and imposing sanctions on states like Nigeria and Zimbabwe for undemocratic and violent actions.

The 1990s saw a few notable events as well. In 1995 Bermuda voted against autonomy and to remain a Crown Colony. Moreover, a British desire to forge new economic relationships in Asia, after the loss of Hong Kong especially, led to a renewed interest in the association, and the proclamation that 1997 was "The Year of the Commonwealth."

see also Australia; Pacific, European Presence in.


Darwin, John. Britain and Decolonization: the Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Gallagher, John. The Decline, Revival, and Fall of the British Empire: the Ford Lectures and other essays. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

McIntyre, W. D. The Significance of the Commonwealth, 1965–90. Basingtoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991.

Moore, R. J. Making the New Commonwealth. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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Commonwealth System

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