views updated Jun 27 2018



The British Commonwealth is the world's oldest political association of states. Composed of independent and self-governing nations formerly belonging to the British Empire, membership in the Commonwealth is voluntary, requiring only adherence to basic standards of good internal governance. From its origins as an association of dominions within the empire, to its rapid expansion during decolonization in the 1960s, the Commonwealth has never lived up to the aspirations of its more ambitious supporters, but it survives because of the modest benefits associated with membership, and as a symbol of connections and ideals associated with the empire and with British parliamentary democracy.


In its modern usage, the term Commonwealth is best understood as referring to the family of nations originating in the British Empire. It was first used before the American Revolution to refer to Britain's colonies, and British statesmen in the nineteenth century occasionally employed the phrase to refer to colonies within the empire. By the early twentieth century, the word colony was found to be demeaning to the status of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the group of states that would shortly form the Union of South Africa. All four had achieved internal self-government and were approaching practical if not formal independence. In 1907 the Canadian prime minister, Wilfred Laurier (1841–1919), led these nations and Britain in discussions, which concluded that henceforward they would be known as the Dominions.

The Dominions, in turn, became the core of the Commonwealth. The originators of this concept—notably, the British author Lionel Curtis (1872–1955) and the South African statesman Jan Smuts (1870–1950)—hoped their reconfiguration of the empire would offer a solution to the dangerous predicament that Britain faced in the early twentieth century. By this time, Britain had passed the peak of its relative power, and was facing potent European rivals, especially Germany. If Britain was to keep pace with these powers, it was essential that the Dominions share the cost of equipping the Royal Navy. But as the Dominions were self-governing, and in many cases far away from most of Britain's rivals, they could not be forced or easily frightened into contributing. Furthermore, if they chose to do so, they would naturally expect to have a voice in the making of British policy.

The solution, in the view of Curtis, was imperial federation. He argued, ultimately correctly, that the empire faced a choice between union and disintegration. Few were so ambitious. But Curtis's logic was widely shared, and had been the basis of earlier proposals, such as the efforts of Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) after 1903 to promote the unity of the empire through tariff reform. Where Curtis and those of similar mind differed from Chamberlain was in their emphasis, exalted and even utopian, on the concept of self-government and how it could be squared with a sharing of imperial burdens through the Commonwealth. Put cynically, the Commonwealth would bring federation on the sly; put idealistically, it would remake the identities of the nations within the empire so they would cooperate willingly with each other.

World War I both proved the loyalty of the Dominions and empire to Britain and put new strains on their ties. Britain declared war on behalf of the Dominions and the Indian Empire, all of which fought and sustained thousands of casualties for the Allied cause. This experience, added to the economic and political stresses of the war, produced restiveness in India and gave the Dominions powerful additional reasons to think of themselves as being the home not merely of Britons living abroad, but of different, albeit friendly, nationalities. At the Versailles Peace Conference, the Dominions were represented both by the British and in their own, separate delegations, a further sign that they were close to practical independence.


In recognition of this fact, the 1920s witnessed the formal emergence of the Commonwealth. When Ireland was partitioned in 1922, the Irish Free State was defined as having the same status as the other Dominions, in "the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations." This was the first formal use of this style. The year 1922 also brought the Chanak Crisis, which threatened war between Britain and Turkey. When the British seemed to presume publicly that the Dominions would naturally offer military support, they were met by private protests from Australia and a public nonresponse from Canada. The implication was that, unlike 1914, Britain could no longer make foreign policy for the Dominions.

By the time the Dominions gathered for an imperial conference in 1926, domestic politics in Canada, South Africa, and the Irish Free State had given these Dominions an even more vigorous desire to assert their status as separate and equal nations. The result was the famous definition of the Commonwealth produced by a committee chaired by Arthur, Lord Balfour (1848–1930) of Britain: "They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." When this definition was legalized by Britain in the Statute of Westminster of 1931, it made the Dominions as independent as they wished to be: the right of free association implied the right not to be associated at all.

In the 1930s, the British sought to manage this implication. In the Indian Empire, the Government of India Act of 1935 brought provincial self-government; the measure was scorned by leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, but it brought the Congress Party to power in many areas. The British hoped the act would moderate, and so frustrate, the nationalists; it had the potential to do so, but only by giving them power and a platform to press for more changes. In Ireland, the 1936 External Relations Act, followed by a referendum in 1937, all but made it a republic by eliminating any substantial role for the Crown. The British found it better to accept these developments than risk the disintegration of the Commonwealth by opposing them. Most seriously of all, throughout the decade, Dominion reluctance to become involved in a second great European war gave the British government another reason to appease Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

It would be too simple to describe this as merely an era of imperial disintegration: the 1932 Ottawa Conference, for example, brought a partial fulfillment of Chamberlain's dream of imperial unity by instituting imperial tariff preferences. More broadly, many in Britain, and in the Commonwealth, viewed the institution with pride, finding in it a broadly applicable model for the development of peaceful cooperation between democratic states. But no matter how artfully described, the reality was that the Commonwealth had become a way to slow and accommodate the drift of the Dominions away from Britain, not a means by which self-government in the Dominions could be reconciled with wholehearted support for Britain's role as a great power.

Britain's cautious handling of the Commonwealth restricted its European diplomacy, but it did help to ensure that when Britain declared war in September 1939 all the Dominions except Ireland did likewise. But this was not 1914: only Australia merely assumed that Britain's declaration applied to it, and South Africa entered the war by the narrowest of margins. And, when Japan entered the war against Britain in 1941, Australia and New Zealand realized what Canada had long known: only the United States could protect them. This meant that the Commonwealth could not be a self-sufficient economic unit, nor unite politically, nor even defend itself. It was the end of any possibility that the Commonwealth would ever attain the unity to which a generation of Britons had aspired.

But though the entry of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada into the war initially widened the war almost beyond Britain's strength, their willingness to fight proved that these members of the Commonwealth, at least, retained their loyalty to Britain, both as the ancestral homeland of many of their citizens and as a great parliamentary democracy. These nations, with Britain itself, were the core on which the Commonwealth built in the twenty years following World War II, when the age of decolonization began with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, followed by Ceylon and Burma in 1948.

Burma never entered the Commonwealth, and in 1949 the Commonwealth for the first time lost a member when Ireland departed as a republic at midnight on 17–18 April. But this was more than balanced by the decision of the prime minister Motilal Nehru (1861–1931) of India, five days after Ireland's exit, that India, though a republic, would remain in the Commonwealth. In recognition of the end of the Indian Empire, the term Dominion had been abandoned in favor of Commonwealth Members in 1948. Nehru's declaration implied that the Commonwealth would continue to add new members, but on the basis of their right to conduct their internal affairs as they wished.

Over the following decades, the Commonwealth indeed grew rapidly. At the Commonwealth heads of government meetings, known by the inelegant neologism CHOGM, there were eight leaders in 1948, eleven in 1960, twenty-one in 1965, thirty-one in Singapore—at the first official CHOGM—in 1971, forty-two in 1981, and fifty-two in 1999. In the middle decades of the century, the British repeatedly rejected the possibility that many of the smaller territories within the empire could ever be viable, independent states, or that they could ever be full Commonwealth Members. But just as repeatedly, the British found no easy way to draw the line. Thus, as the empire contracted, the Commonwealth expanded apace.


The watershed year was 1960. Since 1945 the British Empire had clearly been moving toward its end, but even in the late 1950s the British believed their African Empire might last into the 1970s. In 1960 the context of imperialism was irrevocably changed by France's grant of independence to thirteen territories and by the passage of United Nations Resolution 1514 on ending colonialism. Like the French, Britain picked up the pace of decolonization. Ghana had become the first African member in 1957. In 1960 Nigeria, Africa's most populous state, became an independent Commonwealth Member, and in the same year, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke in the South African parliament of the "winds of change" that were blowing through the continent.

For the next thirty years the Commonwealth struggled with the dilemmas of decolonization. One problem, as the number of potential republics within the Commonwealth grew, was to describe the relationship between the British Crown and the Commonwealth. This was handled with surprising ease in 1949 at a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers, who agreed that the Crown would be "the symbol of the free association" of Commonwealth Members and, "as such, Head of the Commonwealth." Thus, if and when a Commonwealth Member decided to become a republic, it would not necessarily have to reconsider its status within the Commonwealth.

Other difficulties posed by decolonization were resolved less neatly. The most intractable of these centered around questions of citizenship and race. In 1961, foreshadowing later disputes, the apartheid state of South Africa left the Commonwealth because it refused to treat the newly independent African members, and their diplomatic representatives, as equal members of the Commonwealth. For many believers in the Commonwealth, the departure of South Africa was a shattering blow, confirming that the old Commonwealth was no more.

That Commonwealth had held it as a principle that the internal policies of a particular member were not a legitimate subject of concern for the rest of the Commonwealth. The new Commonwealth seemed to promise only angry, public disputes over domestic policies. Yet the departure of South Africa, and, more broadly, the rapid expansion of the Commonwealth into a multiracial grouping, also prompted the last outburst of enthusiasm for it. In previous decades, the Commonwealth supposedly exemplified peaceful cooperation between sovereign Anglophone democracies; now, in the era of decolonization, it promised to be a model of cooperation between races around the world.

In its fullest bloom, this idealism did not survive the 1960s. Among British conservatives, the Commonwealth was already losing its appeal. Some criticized the effective abolition of the Crown connection, believing that it had produced a Commonwealth that stood for nothing more than its own existence. Others realized that maintenance of the Commonwealth, or indeed the empire, as a genuine political unit implied that Africans and Asians would have the unrestricted right to emigrate to Britain. In a series of acts, starting with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, consecutive British governments sought to assert control of their borders while giving offense to neither Commonwealth Members nor liberal opinion and Commonwealth supporters at home.


The multiracial appeal of the Commonwealth meant that the Left was the home of much of the remaining Commonwealth idealism. But the British and the Commonwealth faced an unavoidable dilemma. If the Commonwealth were to stand for democratic values, for racial cooperation, and for friendly association and mutual aid between rich and poor nations, it had to concern itself with the internal policies of its members. Furthermore, at least for a time, most of the policies in question would inevitably be those of Britain, because it was the most visible and important nation in the Commonwealth, and of South Africa and Rhodesia (since 1980 Zimbabwe), which were led by minority white governments.

For a time, the struggle was bitter. In 1966 Kenneth Kaunda (b. 1924), of Zambia, spoke of "throwing Britain out of the Commonwealth" because of its handling of Rhodesia. Harold Wilson (1916–1995), the British Labour prime minister, complained that "We are being treated as if we were a bloody colony." In 1971 at the Singapore CHOGM, rhetorical unanimity was achieved with the adoption of a new definition of the Commonwealth, which stated that the Commonwealth supported peace, liberty, and international cooperation, and opposed racial discrimination, colonial domination, and wide disparities of wealth.

These platitudes about the role of the Commonwealth in international affairs disguised the fact the Commonwealth was now primarily concerned with its own internal affairs. In 1965 the Commonwealth Secretariat was established to administer economic and international affairs. Such a secretariat had long been a goal of British imperialists, but not until it became clear that the Commonwealth had little real power did its members allow it to develop central institutions of this sort. More such institutions were soon created: the Commonwealth Foundation, also in 1965; in 1971, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation. These organizations were well intentioned but they were a sign of the Commonwealth's impotence, not its importance.

Until 1980 the most important issue facing the Commonwealth was how to deal with Rhodesia, which had unilaterally declared its independence in 1965 under the leadership of Prime Minister Ian Smith (b. 1919). The initial British response was to impose sanctions, which were not successful. At a Commonwealth conference in 1966 Wilson managed to win a "last chance" for Smith, but most of the other heads of government did not support the British approach, which Smith then rejected. In the end, it took a civil war to bring down the white minority regime. At the 1979 Lancaster House Conference, the Commonwealth secretary-general Sonny Ramphal (b. 1928) and African leaders persuaded rival African politicians in Rhodesia to accept a British plan for elections. After an overwhelming victory, Robert Mugabe (b. 1924) took office, and the new nation of Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980.

The road to majority rule in South Africa was even more painful. After South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, the Commonwealth had to decide what connections its members would keep up with the apartheid regime, and what measures it would take to bring about majority rule. Sporting boycotts were the most visible means of expressing disapproval of South Africa. In 1977 the Gleneagles Agreement isolated the regime from Commonwealth sports, the Commonwealth Games having by this time become the organization's most important symbol and event.

In the 1980s, CHOGMs regularly endorsed sanctions against South Africa, and just as regularly recorded the dissent of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925), who believed that sanctions would be counterproductive. For this, she was vilified: more nations boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games, held in Edinburgh, than competed in them. But Commonwealth sanctions, combined with the more important pressure exerted by the African National Congress and other foreign powers and international organizations, finally led to a 1994 all-races election, the election of Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) as president, and the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth.

By the mid-1990s, it was obvious that the most persistent violators of the 1971 principles, now reinforced by the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration, were in Africa and Asia. In 1995 military-ruled Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. This suspension was lifted in 1999 but was followed by the suspension of Pakistan, where the democratically elected government had been overthrown by the military. In 2000 Fiji was suspended; its membership was restored the following year. In 2002 Zimbabwe was suspended, and in 2003 this suspension was extended, whereupon the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe left the Commonwealth. In 2004 Pakistan's suspension was lifted, though the commitment of its leaders to democracy was uncertain. As of mid-2005, the Commonwealth had fifty-three members.

The political record of the Commonwealth Members is uneven, and except in the cases of Rhodesia and South Africa, there is little reason to think that the Commonwealth itself has played a central role in advancing human rights. Its most successful institutions are not those charged with promoting economic development, or popular knowledge of the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And there is no likelihood that the Commonwealth will assume the leading role in international affairs that was projected for it in the 1920s and 1960s. Yet it retains its attractiveness as a modestly effective international organization, and a symbol—and occasionally more than a symbol—of the connections made by the British Empire, and of the values associated with parliamentary democracy.

See alsoBritish Empire; British Empire, End of; Decolonization; India; Pakistan; United Kingdom.


Brown, Judith, and William Roger Louis, eds. The Twentieth Century. Vol. 4 of The Oxford History of the British Empire, editor-in-chief William Roger Louis. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Darwin, John. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Hall, Hessel Duncan. Commonwealth: A History of the British Commonwealth of Nations. London, 1971.

Hancock, William Keith. Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs. Vol. 1: Problems of Nationality, 1918–1936. London, 1937. Vol. 2: Problems of Economic Policy, 1918–1939. Part 1, London, 1940; and part 2, London, 1942.

Mansergh, Nicholas. Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of External Policy, 1931–1932. vols. 1–2. London, 1952, 1958.

——. The Commonwealth Experience. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London, 1982.

McIntyre, William David. The Commonwealth of Nations: Origins and Impact, 1869–1971. Minneapolis, Minn., 1977.

——. A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth. Houndmills, U.K., 2001.

Miller, J. D. B. Survey of Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of Expansion and Attrition, 1953–1969. London, 1974.

Moore, Robin James. Making the New Commonwealth. Oxford, U.K., 1987.

Ted R. Bromund


views updated May 18 2018


The Irish Free State became a dominion in the Commonwealth under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Irish treaty negotiators neither desired nor were pleased with the new state's status. It was an improvement on Home Rule as enacted in the Government of Ireland Act (1920), but was hardly the independent Irish republic proclaimed in Dublin at Easter 1916. Although the Irish Free State would have the same status as the other dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand), it was different because whereas they had evolved from colonies to dominion status, the Free State was the first dominion created through a treaty. It did not see itself as a colony evolving toward statehood or as a new state created by a treaty. Ireland was an historic European nation and a mother country in its own right.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty redefined the entire Commonwealth by loosening the bonds of empire on the dominions. The use of the term treaty in the Irish settlement of 1921 (or more correctly, "Articles of Agreement for a Treaty") was a breakthrough as it implied an agreement between two sovereign independent states. Britain contended that the Commonwealth was a single international unit and that international treaties between its members were not possible. Relations between the members of the Commonwealth (inter se relations) were not therefore international relations. With its very title, the Anglo-Irish Treaty set a precedent for the international independence of the dominions. So too, much to Britain's annoyance, did its registration with the League of Nations as an international treaty in July 1924.

The Irish Free State constitution of 1922 was also a defining document in the evolution of the Commonwealth. All powers of government in the Free State were derived from the people of Ireland and not from the Crown, as in, for example, Canada. The governor general, the king's representative, had fewer powers in the Free State than in Canada. The supremacy of the Irish national courts over the Privy Council in London was all but explicitly defined in the constitution.

For the Free State, the evolving nature of dominion status would vindicate Michael Collins's interpretation of the treaty as a stepping-stone to a republic. The government of W. T. Cosgrave intended to remove the restrictions imposed by dominion status and to ensure that the Free State had full and unrestricted domestic and international sovereignty. The Irish Free State sought to transform the Commonwealth into an association of independent states.

Coming straight from Ireland's admission to the League of Nations in Geneva, the Irish delegation to the 1923 imperial conference—a periodic meeting of the prime ministers and senior ministers of the various nations of the Commonwealth to discuss matters they had in common—followed a reformist agenda. The Free State had joined the League in September 1923 not as a dominion, but as Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State), an overt expression of the Free State's international independence. The Irish were the newcomers to the imperial conference, but they were immediate participants, seeking to break down notions of imperial unity and opposing any move toward a united-empire foreign policy. Free State delegates argued against the imperial conference gaining any executive or legislative function. To them the triennial conference was purely a consultative forum.

The appointment of Timothy Smiddy as Irish minister to the United States in October 1924 marked another precedent in the international evolution of the dominions. For the first time, a dominion was represented separately from Britain in a foreign capital. The breakthrough meant that dominions could now be seen as individual international actors, and notions of imperial unity were further weakened.

For the 1926 imperial conference the Irish fielded a strong delegation, with Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O'Higgins the leading figure. The issues most important to the Irish were tackled in the meeting of the Committee on Inter-Imperial Relations. The discussion resulted in the Balfour Declaration, which laid down that dominions were "autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations" (Harkness 1969, p. 96). This declaration ensured the international coequality of the dominions, an issue that had been at the heart of Irish Commonwealth policy since 1923. Having achieved co-equality (for all), the Free State was the most radical and forward-looking of the dominions.

In the late 1920s Irish diplomats insisted that individual dominions had the right to control their own foreign affairs and that the Free State could not be bound by British-negotiated treaties. The Free State argued the right to appoint plenipotentiaries and to negotiate, sign, and ratify treaties in its own right. These rights were first exercised by the Free State in 1928 over the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as means of pursuing international relations. From that point on, the king would sign treaties negotiated by Ireland not as the British monarch, but as the king of Ireland.

At the 1930 imperial conference the Free State achieved its greatest success in the Statute of Westminster (1931), which allowed dominions to repeal acts of the British Parliament that referred to them and that they found repugnant. For the Irish, it allowed the repeal of the 1921 Treaty, but W. T. Cosgrave gave his word to the British government that this would not occur.

Nineteen-thirty-one saw another important Irish Commonwealth precedent: Britain had clung desperately to the notion of a single-empire great seal. In January 1931 the executive council advised the king to sign a treaty of commerce and navigation with Portugal and for it to be authenticated with the new great seal of the Irish Free State. This was effected in March 1931, removing another area of British interference in the affairs of the Irish Free State.

As the 1930s began, the Commonwealth policy of the Free State's ruling party, Cumann na nGaedheal, was evolving along lines later followed by Fianna Fáil. After the 1930 imperial conference the Irish contemplated removing the right of appeal to the Privy Council, and also considered introducing a separate Irish nationality act that created a distinct Irish citizenship. Cumann na nGaedheal also considered repealing the much disliked oath of allegiance to the Crown, but preliminary negotiations with the British failed. (Removal of the oath became one of the issues on which Fianna Fáil successfully campaigned for election in 1932.) By the time that Fianna Fáil came to power the Free State's most activist years in the Commonwealth were over. Ireland attended the Ottawa Economic Conference in 1932, but her concerns were more with Anglo-Irish relations. Building on the achievements of Cumann na nGaedheal, Fianna Fáil removed the right of appeal to the Privy Council, abolished the oath of allegiance, introduced a separate Irish nationality act, and abolished the office of the governor general. Fianna Fáil's most important act relating to the Commonwealth was the 1936 External Relations Act. Introduced during the abdication of Edward VIII, the act made the Free State an internal republic within the Commonwealth for domestic matters and left the state associated with the Commonwealth through the Crown for external affairs. The British monarch would continue to sign the credentials of Irish diplomats and Ireland would remain in the Commonwealth.

By the end of the 1930s, Ireland's active participation with the Commonwealth was almost over. An Irish delegation did not attend the 1937 imperial conference. The 1921 treaty was replaced by a new constitution in 1937. A president replaced the monarch as head of state for internal matters. India, Pakistan, Burma, and Britain's former colonies in Africa closely examined Irish dominion and commonwealth policy in the 1920s and 1930s as they sought independence in the 1940s and 1950s. Ireland's final act in the Commonwealth was to leave it following the repeal of the 1936 External Relations Act in 1948 and the declaration of an Irish republic in 1949.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Constitution; Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act; Primary Documents: On the Republic of Ireland Bill (24 November 1948)


Fanning, Ronan, Michael Kennedy, Eunan O'Halpin, and Dermot Keogh, eds. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 1, 1919–1922. 1998.

Fanning, Ronan, Michael Kennedy, Eunan O'Halpin, and Dermot Keogh, eds. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 2, 1923–1926. 2000.

Harkness, David W. The Restless Dominion. 1969.

Kennedy, Michael. Ireland and the League of Nations, 1923–1946. 1996.

McMahon, Deirdre. "A Larger and Noisier Southern Ireland: Ireland and the Evolution of Dominion Status in India, Burma, and the Commonwealth, 1942–9." In Irish Foreign Policy, 1919–1966: From Independence to Internationalism, edited by Michael Kennedy and Joseph M. Skelly. 2000.

Michael Kennedy


views updated May 21 2018

1. A term originally meaning ‘the public good’ (cf. the archaic phrase the common weal), variously used as part of the full official name of a territory or state, as in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (a constituent state of the USA), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (a territory part-integrated into the USA), and the Commonwealth of Australia and Commonwealth of the Bahamas (autonomous nation-states).

2. (with the) also Commonwealth of Nations, formerly British Commonwealth of Nations (1931–46). An association of states and their dependencies, comprising Great Britain and a majority of the countries formerly in the British Empire, as constituted by the Declaration of London in 1949. The British monarch continues as symbolic head of the association. Its language is English and its aims are cooperation and understanding among nations. The organization has no constitution, no legal standing, and no legislative, executive, or judicial function. Every two years the heads of the Commonwealth meet for semi-formal discussions in a different venue. In 1965 a Commonwealth Secretariat headed by a Secretary-General was set up in London as a clearing-house for information and a source of advice on technical cooperation. The Commonwealth Institute, founded in 1959 and based in London and Edinburgh, promotes aspects of the culture and heritage of Commonwealth Nations. The Commonwealth Games are held every four years in different Commonwealth cities. The member states are: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Great Britain, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu, Zambia, Zimbabwe. See ENGLISH LITERATURE, EXAMINING IN ENGLISH.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Commonwealth. The Commonwealth took its origins from a vote by the Rump Parliament on 4 January 1649, four weeks after Pride's Purge, ‘That the people are, under God, the original of all just power’, and that they, the Commons, possessed supreme authority as the people's representatives. Two days later they set up the High Court of Justice which tried and sentenced Charles I. The abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords followed, and another brief Act on 19 May formally declared England to be a Commonwealth. From February, executive authority was vested in a Council of State, accountable to the Rump, elected annually by it, and drawn mainly from its own members. The army's general council of officers adopted and presented a written constitution called an Agreement of the People (the second such), after modifying parts of it; it provided for biennial single-chamber parliaments, elected on a broad franchise by radically reformed constituencies. But the Levellers, who were part-authors of the agreement and resented the officers' tampering with it, wrecked any chances of its acceptance by denouncing the Commonwealth as a new tyranny and raising a serious mutiny in the army. In face of this and other threats, including Scotland's proclamation of King Charles II, the Rump shelved the agreement and forgot its promises of early elections. Enlarged by many newly readmitted members who had held aloof from the act of regicide, it settled into a more prolonged and conservative regime than the army had ever envisaged. It fought shy of reforms that might add to the Commonwealth's already disturbing unpopularity and restricted religious toleration with a Blasphemy Act, though it repealed the laws which compelled attendance at parish worship.

The Commonwealth expanded to include Scotland and Ireland after the army's conquest of those countries. Its foreign policy became expansive too, and the Navigation Act of 1651, which challenged Dutch domination of the carrying trade, was one factor that led it into war with the United Provinces in 1652. This dismayed Cromwell, whose ideal was a united protestant interest in Europe. The Rump's materialist outlook and evident aversion to ‘a godly reformation’ brought it under increasing pressure from the army during 1652 to make way for a successor. Eventually it did introduce a bill for a new parliament to meet in November 1653, but its contents (which do not survive) left the army unsatisfied, and Cromwell in a rage expelled the Rump on 20 April. The brief experiment of a nominated assembly (‘Barebone's Parliament’, July–December 1653) ended in its own abdication, and on 16 December the Commonwealth gave way to the Cromwellian Protectorate.

It was briefly restored in May 1659, after a coup by the army against Richard Cromwell, but renewed quarrels between the officers and the Rumpers soon exposed the political bankruptcy of both. Republicanism had struck few roots in England, and General Monck was enthusiastically acclaimed when he opened the way to the Restoration by readmitting the members ‘secluded’ in Pride's Purge on 21 February 1660.

Austin Woolrych


views updated Jun 27 2018

com·mon·wealth / ˈkämənˌwel[unvoicedth]/ • n. 1. an independent country or community, esp. a democratic republic. ∎  an aggregate or grouping of countries or other bodies. ∎  a community or organization of shared interests in a nonpolitical field: the Christian commonwealth. ∎  a self-governing unit voluntarily grouped with the U.S., such as Puerto Rico. ∎  a formal title of some of the states of the U.S., esp. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. ∎  the title of the federated Australian states. ∎  (the Commonwealth) the republican period of government in Britain between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.2. (the Commonwealth) (in full the Commonwealth of Nations) an international association consisting of the UK together with states that were previously part of the British Empire, and dependencies.3. (the commonwealth) archaic the general good.


views updated May 29 2018

commonwealth the body politic; a nation, viewed as a community in which everyone has an interest. The term is recorded from late Middle English, originally as two words, denoting public welfare.
The Commonwealth is the name given to the republican period of government in Britain between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Commonwealth (also called Commonwealth of Nations) is also now used for an international association consisting of the UK together with states that were previously part of the British Empire, and dependencies. The British monarch is the symbolic head of the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth Day the second Monday in March, celebrating the British Commonwealth. It was instituted (as Empire Day) to commemorate assistance given to Britain by the colonies during the Boer War (1899–1902).
commonwealth of learning learned people collectively; the phrase is recorded from the mid 17th century.


views updated May 14 2018

Commonwealth (1649–60) Official name of the republic established in England after the execution of Charles I in 1649. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable constitution, the Protectorate was set up in 1653, in which Oliver Cromwell was given almost regal powers. The Commonwealth ended with the Restoration of Charles II.


views updated May 14 2018

commonwealth †public welfare XV; the body politic, state, community XVI; republic, or democratic state; spec. (hist.) the republican government established under Oliver Cromwell XVII. See WEALTH Both common weal and common wealth were at first used indiscriminately in the senses ‘public welfare’ and ‘body politic’, but in XVI commonwealth became the ordinary Eng. term for the latter sense, whence the later sense ‘republic’ was developed.


views updated May 29 2018


the body of the public constituting a state or community; a body united for some special interest and common benefit.

Examples: commonwealth of all Christendom, 1551; of angels, 1608; of learning; The British Commonwealth of Nations; The Commonwealth [English history 16491660].

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