The Commonwealth of Nations - A selective chronology
By the end of the 19th century, Great Britain had extended its power to an unprecedented scale. The British Empire then comprised nearly one-quarter of the world’s land surface and more than one-quarter of its total population. It consisted of a decentralised system of colonies, protectorates and other territories which were brought under the sovereignty of the British Crown and the administration of the British government.
Britain’s policy of gradually granting significant degrees of self-government to its colonies of white settlement, which acknowledged an increasingly symbolic British sovereignty and were given a differential treatment from the non-white colonies, led to the development of the concept of a “Commonwealth of Nations”. The term “Commonwealth” was first used by British Liberal politician Lord Rosebery in Adelaide, Australia, in 1884 and the concept was revived in the 1910s by Imperial Federalist Lionel Curtis to denote a state based on self-government. It was to be understood as a community founded on freedom.
I) From Responsible Government to Dominion Status
1867: The British colonies in Canada (Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada) become a federation and are the first to be granted the status of Dominion. Other territories join the federation between 1870 and 1873.
1887: The first Colonial Conference is held. Colonial Conferences are informal and deliberative-only forums for periodic consultation over the non-constitutional issues of defence and trade.
1901: The Australian colonies become a federation (The Commonwealth of Australia) and are granted the status of Dominion. They had achieved responsible government in 1856.
1902: A resolution is passed at the Colonial Conference that conferences will be held on a four-yearly basis.
1907: New Zealand is granted the status of Dominion. It had achieved responsible government in 1852. Newfoundland, which had achieved self-government in 1855, also becomes a Dominion. However, it reverts to direct British rule in 1934 and integrates the federation of Canada in 1949.
Colonial Conferences become Imperial Conferences. The Dominions hold ten Imperial Conferences between 1907 and 1937, in 1907, 1911, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1930, 1932 and 1937.
1910: The Union of South Africa is formed out of four self-governing colonies (the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and is granted Dominion status.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, British colonies of white settlement have all been granted Dominion status, which means that they remain under the jurisdiction of the British Crown. However, this concept is quite a flexible one, as there is no codified constitutional framework that defines precisely what a Dominion is. Owing to its strong link with the British Crown, a Dominion is neither a separate kingdom nor an independent Republic, which is by definition impossible. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George declares in 1921, in a speech on Ireland’s accession to Dominion status, that “in practice it means complete control over their own internal affairs without any interference from any other part of the Empire”((Mioche, Antoine, Les Grandes dates de l’histoire britannique, 2ème éd., Paris, Hachette Supérieur, 2010, p. 200.)).
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa hold this status until 1953, when they become Commonwealth realms and members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Newfoundland is a Dominion from 1907 to 1934. The Irish Free State is a Dominion from 1922 to 1949. Other former British colonies such as India, Pakistan and Ceylon are granted Dominion status after the Second World War (see below, "A Crumbling Empire").
The Dominions have full control over all domestic matters. They have powers to amend their Constitution directly or indirectly and to make laws with little or no interference from either the British government or the British Parliament. They can establish their own tariffs, regulate immigration and control their own defence forces.
On the other hand, foreign affairs, defence and international trade remain the prerogative of the British government. Nevertheless, the Dominions have their say over negotiation and inclusion in commercial treaties and, although they ultimately rely on Great Britain on defence issues, they can decide over the degree and nature of their military contributions.
This unprecedented autonomy is all the more threatening to the cohesion of the British Empire as Britain has to deal with strong aspirations to self-government in South Africa, Ireland and India at the turn of the 20th century. A closer integration of the British Empire emerges for a time as the only solution to keep the British Empire together. However, this idea is definitely abandoned after 1911: the plan for an Imperial Parliament, composed of two chambers whose representatives are drawn from the white populations of the Dominions, and the plan for a quasi-federal reform of the United Kingdom, which was supported by New Zealand Premier Joseph Ward, are both dismissed by Britain and the other Dominions.
II) Towards Autonomy and Equality with Britain
August 4th, 1914: Britain declares war to Germany on behalf of the British Empire.
April 25th 1915 – January 9th, 1916: Australian and New Zealand troops, known as ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), take part in the Gallipoli Campaign. (See The 1915 Gallipoli Campaign: the significance of a disastrous military campaign in the forging of two nations)
1917 and 1918: Imperial War Conferences. The term “Commonwealth” is used officially for the first time.
At the 1917 Imperial War Conference, Jan Smut, South Africa's Defence Minister states: “I think that, although in practice there is great freedom, yet in actual theory the status of Dominions is of a subject character. Whatever we may say, and whatever we may think, we are subject Provinces of Great Britain”((Ibid., p. 194.)).
A resolution recognises the necessity of rearranging the constitutional relations of the component parts of the Empire once the war is over. This readjustment should be “based upon a full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth” and should give the Dominions and India “a right to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations”.
June 1919: Each Dominion is a separate signatory of the peace Treaty of Versailles. The Dominions join the newly formed League of Nations as independent states equal to Britain.
The First World War is undoubtedly a defining moment in the evolution of the Commonwealth as the Dominions’ involvement and their sacrifice question the status and the contribution of each Dominion in foreign/ imperial policy-making. The Dominions, where imperial issues have become a matter of domestic politics, especially when dealing with rising colonial nationalism, demand more cohesion as well as a say in the definition and management of imperial policy-making.
1922: Ireland is partitioned and the Irish Free State is granted Dominion status, thus remaining a component of the Empire until it becomes the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
1923: The existence of the Dominions’ separate foreign policies is acknowledged by the Imperial Conference.
1926: The Imperial Conference adopts the report of the Inter-Imperial Relation Committee or Balfour Report. The report brings forward a dramatically new imperial order by stating that “[e]quality of status, so far as Britain and the Dominions are concerned, is thus the root principle governing our Inter-Imperial Relations”. The overall objective of the Balfour Report is to maintain the colonial connections by granting the Dominions as much autonomy as it is compatible with the unity of the Empire.
- recognises the equal autonomy of Great Britain and the Dominions in the sphere of foreign affairs
- proposes that “it should be placed on record that, apart from provisions embodied in constitutions or in specific statutes expressly providing for reservation, it is recognised that it is the right of the Government of each Dominion to advise the Crown in all matters relating to its own affairs. Consequently, it would not be in accordance with constitutional practice for advice to be tendered to His Majesty by His Majesty’s Government in Great Britain in any matter appertaining to the affairs of a Dominion against the views of the Government of that Dominion”. In other words, legislation proposed by the British Parliament regarding a Dominion would only be passed with the consent of said Dominion.
- states that the Dominions “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”.
1930: The first British Empire Games are organised in Hamilton, Canada.
1931: The Statute of Westminster gives the force of law to the Balfour Report of 1926. The statute recognises the sovereign right of each Dominion to control its own domestic and foreign affairs, to have separate representation in international bodies, including the League of Nations, to appoint their own ambassadors and to conclude their own treaties, except Newfoundland. At the same time, the Dominions are not considered among themselves as foreign countries.
1932: The British government agrees to institute an Imperial Preference, a system of protectionist tariffs on imports from non-imperial countries based on inter-governmental negotiation which reinforces economic integration.
The Statute of Westminster marks the official birth of the British Commonwealth of Nations. It clarifies and cements the Dominions’ legislative independence. It formally establishes the Parliaments of the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland, which are independent of the British Parliament (see section 3 of the Statute of Westminster). It states that British legislation is to apply to the Dominions only at their request and with their approval (see section 4).
The Balfour report and the subsequent Statute of Westminster are the result of the emergence and rise of colonial nationalism before and during the First World War, exemplified by the dissolution of the union between Ireland and Great Britain and South Africa’s potential partition and secession from the Empire.
The Statute of Westminster is a way of maintaining national unity through the imperial connection. It enables the governments in South Africa and Ireland to strike a balance between deference to imperial unity and the assertion of national independence, while the other Dominions remain content with influencing imperial policy for their own advantage while staying in the imperial fold.
The Statute of Westminster is promptly adopted in the Union of South Africa but it is never formally adopted in the Irish Free State. It is only adopted in 1942 in Australia (which backdates the adoption to the start of the Second World War in September 1939) and in 1947 in New Zealand. It is never ratified in Newfoundland which reverts to direct British rule in 1934.
Meanwhile, between 1926 (the Balfour Report) and 1931 (the Statute of Westminster), British-Indian relations worsen. The strained Anglo-Indian relationship during this period leaves India out of the Statute of Westminster and without Dominion status.
III) A Crumbling Empire
September 3rd, 1939: Great Britain declares war to Germany. Most take the view that it does not commit the Dominions. Ireland remains neutral. The Australian government feels bound by the British declaration of war as Australia has not adopted the Statute of Westminster yet. New Zealand decides to follow Britain's lead. Canada and South Africa issue their own declarations of war (September 10th and 6th respectively). The Second World War further loosens the political ties between Britain and the Dominions.
1944: The Imperial Conferences are replaced by Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conferences until 1969. The gatherings are renamed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings in 1971. They are held every two years with hosting duties rotating around the Commonwealth.
1947: India becomes independent and is partitioned between India and Pakistan. Both countries become Dominions and join the Commonwealth. India becomes a Republic in January 1950 and remains a member of the Commonwealth. Pakistan is a Commonwealth realm from 1953 to 1956, before becoming an Islamic Republic in 1956 (see below, "The Modern Commonwealth of Nations").
After 1947, the use of the expression “British Commonwealth of Nations” is abandoned because it is thought to imply a form of subordination. It is replaced by “Members of the Commonwealth”.
1948: Ceylon becomes a Dominion.
IV) The Modern Commonwealth of Nations
1949 marks the beginning of the modern Commonwealth. In order to accommodate India’s wish to remain in the association in spite of being a Republic, leaders agree in the the London Declaration of April, 26th, 1949 that membership does not have to be based on allegiance to the British Crown. The British monarch is nevertheless accepted as the symbol of the free association of the independent member nations and as such is the head of the Commonwealth. India is the first country to enter into such an arrangement, and is later joined by most of the other Commonwealth nations. In the London Declaration, leaders agree that Commonwealth members are “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”. The London Declaration of 1949 ends the “British Commonwealth of Nations” and gives birth to the “Commonwealth of Nations”.
1953: After Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2nd, the Dominions become Commonwealth realms. Today, a Commonwealth realm is one of the 16 sovereign states (including the United Kingdom) that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations and acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II as the reigning constitutional monarch. They have in common the same royal line of succession, meaning that they are in a voluntary connection with the British monarchy.
The phrases Commonwealth realm and Head of the Commonwealth become established, deriving from the words that declared the monarch as “of this Realm, and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth”. Previously, the term realm in its singular form was understood to refer to the entire British Empire, rather than a “separate kingdom” under a shared crown. From then on, the Queen belongs equally to all her realms and to the Commonwealth as a whole.
The principle of complete separation and equality is followed in all future declarations of independence. The London Declaration makes it possible for the Asian and African states of the former Empire that wished to become Republics to remain within the Commonwealth upon attaining independence. Some countries choose to become realms for some time before eventually becoming Republics within the Commonwealth, whether they do so by referendum or not.
The monarch holds the highest position in each Commonwealth realm and may perform such functions as issuing executive orders, commanding the military forces, and creating and administering laws. However, each country now operates under the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy and the concept of responsible government, meaning that the monarch exercises her powers based solely on the advice of her Crown ministers, who are usually drawn from, and thus responsible to, the elected chamber of the relevant Parliament.
1961: The Union of South Africa becomes a Republic and withdraws from the Commonwealth of Nations after member states lobby against its apartheid policies. It rejoins the Commonwealth in 1994, following the end of apartheid.
1971: The Commonwealth Heads of Government issue the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles at their first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore.
The Commonwealth of Nations is nowadays a free association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states, which are currently home to 2.2 billion citizens, 60% of whom are under 30. It includes the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and South Africa and former British dependencies (although not all of them) which have chosen to maintain ties of friendship and practical cooperation and which acknowledge the British monarch as symbolic head of their association.
Focus on two Commonwealth realms’ constitutional arrangements
Australia is a constitutional monarchy and a federation of states. Australia’s Constitution was adopted in 1900 and entered into force in 1901. In Australia, the British monarch is also the formal head of state and the reigning sovereign. She is represented by a Governor-general and the state governors. The sovereign’s functions are almost entirely formal and decorative. Although the governor-general and the governors are formally appointed by the monarch, they are invariably recommended by the Australian governments. The Prime Minister is the country’s head of government.
This selective timeline was established using a number of sources including the open-access encyclopaedia Wikipedia, the Britannica Encyclopædia Online, the Commonwealth’s website and the official website of the British Monarchy. To the above-mentioned list, the following reference must be added: Mioche, Antoine, Les Grandes dates de l’histoire britannique, 2ème éd., Paris, Hachette Supérieur, 2010. It was particularly helpful for the period 1914-1939.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Fabien Jeannier, "The Commonwealth of Nations - A selective chronology", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2016. Consulté le 09/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/commonwealth/the-commonwealth-of-nations-a-selective-chronology