Imperial Conference

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Imperial Conference, assembly of representatives of the self-governing members of the British Empire, held about every four years until World War II. The meetings prior to 1911—in 1887, 1897, 1902, and 1907—were known as Colonial Conferences, and were chiefly concerned with defense problems and the possibility of imperial tariff preference. Relatively informal, they were held when colonial representatives came to Great Britain for royal celebrations. More formalized meetings were held in 1907, 1911, 1917–18, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1930, 1936, and 1937. The conferences were designed to strengthen imperial ties by exchange of ideas, but their decisions had no legal effect. The two main focal points of discussion remained defense and economic policy. In 1917–18 the Imperial War Conference acknowledged the importance of the whole empire in defense policy by admitting India, not yet self-governing, to the conference. There was an acknowledged need on the part of Britain for practical support from the dominions in military and naval resources, and a parallel desire for participation in the decision-making initiative on the part of the dominions. The dominions also wanted to be able to pursue independent foreign policies, within the bounds of imperial cooperation. The constitution of the conferences themselves and the status of the dominions were the chief problems discussed at meetings during the 1920s. The resolutions of the conferences were given legal effect by the Statute of Westminster (1931; see Westminster, Statute of), which declared the legislatures of the several dominions on an equal footing with that of Great Britain. A standing Imperial Economic Committee concerned itself with coordination of economic matters. After World War II, it was replaced by the biennial Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers and yearly meetings of finance ministers.

See M. Ollivier, ed., The Colonial and Imperial Conferences from 1887 to 1939 (1954).

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imperial conferences. The development of the white dominions from Canada onwards (1867) implied some structure for liaison and consultation within the empire. In 1884 the Imperial Federation League was set up to lobby for closer union, and the first conference met in 1887 when the leaders were in London for Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the main discussion being imperial defence. A second conference at Ottawa in 1894 discussed cable laying in the Pacific, and a third met in London in 1897 to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, when it was agreed to hold regular meetings. The autonomous character of the dominions was reaffirmed by the statute of Westminster in 1931. After the Second World War, the name was changed to Commonwealth conferences and the number of participants increased considerably. In 1949 the conference accepted that India could be a republic yet remain in the Commonwealth and in 1961 the conference insisted on a declaration against apartheid, which drove out South Africa. After 1969 it was agreed that London would not necessarily be the venue and that conferences should be held every other year. In 1996 there were 51 countries entitled to send their heads of government to the meetings.

J. A. Cannon