The Commonwealth of Nations is an association of independent sovereign states, most of which are former colonies once governed by the United Kingdom as part of the British Empire. It was once known as the British Commonwealth (or British Commonwealth of Nations), and many still call it by that name, either for historical reasons or to distinguish it from the many other commonwealths around the world. The Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, is the Head of the Commonwealth; this title, however, does not imply any political power over member nations.
The Commonwealth is primarily an organization in which countries with diverse economic backgrounds have an opportunity for close and equal interaction. The primary activities of the Commonwealth are designed to create an atmosphere of economic cooperation between member nations, as well as the promotion of democracy and good governance in them.
The Commonwealth is not a political union of any sort, and does not allow the United Kingdom to exercise any power over the affairs of the organization’s other members. While some nations of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth Realms, recognize the British Monarch as their head of state (and thus in theory still have some limited political ties to London), the majority do not.
The Commonwealth is the successor of the British Empire; in 1884, while visiting Adelaide, South Australia, Lord Rosebery had described the changing British Empire, as its former colonies became more independent, as a “Commonwealth of Nations”. The formal organisation of the Commonwealth has its origins in the Imperial Conferences of the late 1920s (conferences of British and colonial prime ministers had occurred periodically since 1887), where the independence of the self-governing colonies and especially of dominions was recognized, particularly in the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference in 1926, when the United Kingdom and its dominions agreed they were “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. This relationship was eventually formalized by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The Commonwealth has grown massively in the last few decades. Above, the 10 representatives in 1956, below, the over 50 members in 2000
After World War II, the Empire was gradually dismantled, partly owing to the rise of independence movements in the then-subject territories (most importantly in India under the influence of the pacifist Mohandas Gandhi), and partly owing to the British Government’s strained circumstances resulting from the cost of the war. The word “British” was dropped in 1946 from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect the changing position. Burma (1948) and South Yemen (1967) are among the few former colonies/protectorates that did not join the Commonwealth upon independence. Perhaps the world’s best-known group of former British colonies, the United States, is not a member of the Commonwealth, as US independence predates the institution by over a hundred years. The Republic of Ireland was a member but left the Commonwealth upon becoming a republic in 1949.
The issue of republican status within the Commonwealth was only resolved in 1950 when it was agreed according to a formula proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that India should remain a Commonwealth member despite adopting her present republican constitution. This decision, set out in the London Declaration, provided for members to accept the British monarch as Head of the Commonwealth regardless of their domestic constitutional arrangements, and is now considered by many to be the start of the modern Commonwealth.
As the Commonwealth grew, the United Kingdom and the former “white Dominions” became informally (and often derisively) known as the White Commonwealth, particularly when they differed with poorer, predominantly non-white Commonwealth members over various issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Accusations that the “White Commonwealth” has different interests than African Commonwealth nations in particular, as well as charges of racism and colonialism, were frequent during debates concerning Rhodesia in the 1970s, the imposition of sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s and, more recently, over the issue of whether to pressure for democratic reforms in Nigeria and then Zimbabwe.
The Commonwealth encompasses a population of approximately 1.8 billion people, making up about 30% of the world’s total. India is the most populous member, with a billion people at the 2001 census, while Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria each contain more than 100 million people. Tuvalu, by contrast, the smallest has only 11,000 inhabitants. The land area of the Commonwealth nations equals about a quarter of the world’s land area, with Australia, Canada—the world’s second-largest nation by area—and India each having more than 2.5 million square kilometres.
Membership is normally open to countries which accept the association’s basic aims. Members are required to have a present or past constitutional link to the United Kingdom or to another Commonwealth member. Consequently, not all members have had direct constitutional ties to the United Kingdom: some South Pacific countries were formerly under Australian or New Zealand administration, while Namibia was governed by South Africa from 1920 until independence in 1990. Cameroon joined in 1995 although only a fraction of its territory had formerly been under British administration through the League of Nations mandate of 1920–46 and United Nations Trusteeship arrangement of 1946–61.
Organisation and objectives
Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal Head of the Commonwealth. Some members of the Commonwealth recognize the Queen as head of state. These members are known as Commonwealth Realms; however, the majority of members are republics, and a handful of others are indigenous monarchies. The role of Head of the Commonwealth is best likened to that of a ceremonial president-for-life. In constitutional terms, this position is neither a hereditary monarchy nor an elective presidency. As a result it is not clear whether the current heir apparent to the British and many other Commonwealth thrones, Prince Charles, will automatically assume the position of Head of the Commonwealth or whether another head of state within the Commonwealth might be asked to assume that position.
Since 1965 there has been a London-based Secretariat. The organisation is celebrated each year on Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March.
The Commonwealth has long been distinctive as an international forum where highly developed economies (the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) and many of the world’s poorer countries seek to reach agreement by consensus. This aim has sometimes been difficult to achieve, as when disagreements over Rhodesia in the 1970s and over apartheid South Africa in the 1980s led to a cooling of relations between Britain and African members.
The main decision-making forum of the organisation is the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth presidents or prime ministers assemble for several days to discuss matters of mutual interest. CHOGM is the successor to the Prime Ministers’ Conferences and earlier Imperial Conferences and Colonial Conferences dating back to 1887. There are also regular meetings of finance ministers, law ministers, health ministers, etc.
The most important statement of the Commonwealth’s principles is the 1991 Harare Declaration, which dedicated the organisation to democracy and good government, and allowed for action to be taken against members who breached these principles. Before then the Commonwealth’s collective actions had been limited by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other members.
The Commonwealth is also useful as an international organisation that represents significant cultural and historical links between wealthy first-world countries and poorer developing nations with diverse social and religious backgrounds. The common inheritance of the English language and literature, the common law, and British systems of administration all underpin the club-like atmosphere of the Commonwealth.
Mostly as a result of their history of British rule, many Commonwealth nations share certain identifiable traditions and customs that are elements of a shared Commonwealth culture. Examples include common sports such as cricket and rugby, driving on the left, parliamentary and legal traditions, and the use of British rather than American spelling conventions (see Commonwealth English). None of these is universal within the Commonwealth countries, nor exclusive to them, but all of them are more common in the Commonwealth than elsewhere.
The Commonwealth countries share many links at non-governmental levels, with over a hundred non-governmental organisations that are organised on a Commonwealth wide basis, notably in the areas of sport, culture, education, and other charitable sectors. A multi-sports championship called the Commonwealth Games is held every four years, two years after each Olympic Games. As well as the usual athletic disciplines, the games include sports popular throughout the Commonwealth such as bowls. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is an important vehicle for academic links, particularly through offering scholarships, principally the Commonwealth Scholarship, for students to study in universities in other Commonwealth countries. There are also many non-official associations that bring together individuals who work within the spheres of law and government, such as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
CONTEMPORARY CONCERNS OF COMMONWEALTH
The Commonwealth has often been likened to an English gentlemen’s club, and the issue of membership – who is and who is not a member of the organisation – often seems to be more important, and certainly attracts much more attention, than what the organisation actually does. This is because the main benefit of membership is the opportunity for close and relatively frequent interaction, on an informal and equal basis, between members who share many ties of language, culture, and history.
In its early days, the Commonwealth also constituted a significant economic bloc. Commonwealth countries accorded each others’ goods privileged access to their markets (“Commonwealth Preference”), and there was a free or preferred right of migration from one Commonwealth country to another. These rights have been steadily eroded, but their consequences remain. Within most Commonwealth countries, there are substantial communities with family ties to other members of the Commonwealth, going beyond the effects of the original colonization of parts of the Commonwealth by settlers from Britain. Furthermore, consumers in Commonwealth countries retain many preferences for goods from other members of the Commonwealth, so that even in the absence of tariff privileges, there continues to be more trade within the Commonwealth than might be predicted. On the United Kingdom’s entry to the European Union, the Lomé Convention preserved some of the preferential access rights of Commonwealth goods to the UK market.
In more recent decades there has been a mutual decline of interest in each other, and the Commonwealth’s direct political and economic importance has declined. Britain has forged closer relationships with other European countries through the European Union; Britain’s entry was widely felt as a betrayal by citizens of the “Old Commonwealth” whose economies had been developed on the assumption of access to British markets. Similarly, former British colonies have forged closer relationships with non-Commonwealth trading partners and closer geographic neighbours. Reaction to immigration from the new Commonwealth countries into Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the restriction of the right of migration. The Commonwealth today mainly restricts itself to encouraging community between nations and to placing moral pressure on members who violate international laws, such as human rights laws, and abandon democratically-elected government. Key activities today include training experts in developing countries and assisting with and monitoring elections.
Some Commonwealth countries give Commonwealth citizens privileges that are not accorded to aliens: for example, in the United Kingdom, the right to vote is given to all Commonwealth citizens resident in that country. However, these privileges are not on a reciprocal basis, and it is up to each country to decide what privileges it accords to Commonwealth citizenship. These privileges have been largely eroded over the last few decades, although many countries continue to afford special treatment in the area of immigration and visas.