It's all to do with the training: You can do a lot if you're properly trained.

-- Queen Elizabeth II


Commonwealth Module - Unit 1: The Development of the Modern Commonwealth


Learning Objectives:
What does the Commonwealth look like today?

After studying this unit you should be able to:

  • Understand what the Commonwealth is and how it has evolved into its current form;
  • Analyze the characteristics of this association and its core values;
  • Discuss its membership requirements and describe the present membership;
  • Understand the manner of governance of the Commonwealth and of the main agencies through which it operates, especially the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association;
  • Discuss the role of the Commonwealth in the modern world.


What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth has its origins in the early nineteenth century when British governments began allowing select British colonies to move towards self-government. In due course these colonies rose to dominion status, which allowed them not only internal self-government but also independence in foreign affairs. The use of the term Commonwealth in this relationship is usually traced to the Earl of Rosebery, who first used the term in Australia in 1884 to refer to the British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations.

A series of declarations and international commitments brought the Commonwealth to its current status. The first of these agreements is the Balfour Declaration of 1926, a document which first gave definition to dominions as autonomous communities within the British empire that were equal in status and in no way subordinate in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs. They were united by a common allegiance to the (British) Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The parliament of the United Kingdom then passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931 to give the necessary legal backing to dominion arrangements.  Canada, Australia, the Irish Free State, South Africa, New Zealand and Newfoundland were dominions under the Statute of Westminster. The Irish Free State left the Commonwealth in 1949 and Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation in that year.

Meanwhile other moves had taken place in the less Europeanized of the British colonies, leading to independence for India and its partitioning into the two countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. Sri Lanka, under its former name of Ceylon, followed a few months later in 1948. There were to be immediate constitutional repercussions for the British Commonwealth as the new India, while keen to remain a member of the association, had decided that its form of government should place the power with its citizens, or become republican, and not remain monarchical. Clearly this did not fit the model of the Balfour Declaration and at a Meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1949, the London Declaration came into being, allowing for countries with republican constitutions to remain members of the Commonwealth while accepting the British Monarch as a symbol for free association of independent member nations and as the head of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Nations had been created but no constitution was proposed either then or later for the governance of the association.

Membership of the Commonwealth expanded steadily as other countries attained independence. However, not all former colonies joined the Commonwealth. For instance Burma, then Myanmar, became independent in 1947 but like some Middle Eastern countries it did not join the association. Samoa (then Western Samoa) and the Maldives became independent in 1962 and 1965 but joined the Commonwealth only in 1970 and 1982 respectively. There were other comings and goings. For instance, South Africa decided not to make the necessary reapplication for membership upon changing its constitutional status when it became a republic in 1961. Pakistan left in 1972 after Commonwealth members recognized the new state of Bangladesh, which had been carved out of the original Pakistan, and Fiji, like South Africa allowed its membership to lapse after the declaration of a republic following a coup in 1987. All of these have returned to membership, though, in late 2003, Zimbabwe decided to quit the Commonwealth.

One country alone, Mozambique, joined the Commonwealth without having had previous constitutional links to Britain or any other Commonwealth nation. This was permitted as a special case in recognition of the contribution of Mozambique to the freedom struggles in southern Africa where it was closely allied, and consequently suffered alongside, its Commonwealth neighbors in that region.

Today the Commonwealth has a membership of 53 countries. Over two-thirds of these do not recognize the British Monarch as their head of state.  In terms of population, the Commonwealth now represents some 1.7 billion people of diverse cultures across the globe. As long as 40 years ago the head of the Commonwealth was able to say that the Commonwealth bore no resemblance to the empire of the past, but is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.  Today many claim it is a source of unity.

In 1965 a Commonwealth Secretariat was established, with a chief executive to be known as the Commonwealth Secretary-General. The purpose of this body was to implement Commonwealth decisions and to foster the many forms of relationships between the member countries.