The Commonwealth of Nations, often called just the Commonwealth, is an association of 53 independent nations, all but one of which are former British colonies or related dependencies, aiming to promote peace, democracy and development. There are substantial economic ties and a shared history.
Origins of the Commonwealth
Towards the end of the nineteenth century changes began occurring in the old British Empire, as the colonies grew in independence. In 1867 Canada became a ‘dominion’, a self-governing nation considered equal with Britain rather than simply ruled by her. The phrase ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ was used to describe the new relationships between Britain and colonies by Lord Rosebury during a speech in Australia in 1884. More dominions followed: Australia in 1900, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1921.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the dominions sought a new definition of the relationship between themselves and Britain. At first the old ‘Conferences of Dominions’ and ‘Imperial Conferences’, begun in 1887 for discussion between the leaders of Britain and the dominions, were resurrected. Then, at the 1926 Conference, the Balfour Report was discussed, accepted and the following agreed of dominions:
"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."
This declaration was made law by the 1931 Statute of Westminster and the British Commonwealth of Nations was created.
Development of the Commonwealth of Nations
The Commonwealth evolved in 1949 after the dependence of India, which was partitioned into two wholly independent nations: Pakistan and India. The latter wished to remain in the Commonwealth despite owing no “allegiance to the Crown”. The problem was solved by a conference of Commonwealth ministers that same year, which concluded that sovereign nations could still be a part of the Commonwealth with no implied allegiance to Britain as long as they saw the Crown as “the symbol of the free association” of the Commonwealth. The name ‘British’ was also dropped from the title to better reflect the new arrangement. Many other colonies soon developed into their own republics, joining the Commonwealth as they did so, especially during the second half of the twentieth century as African and Asian nations became independent. New ground was broken in 1995, when Mozambique joined, despite never having been a British colony.
Not every former British colony joined the Commonwealth, nor did every nation who joined stay in it. For instance Ireland withdrew in 1949, as did South Africa (under Commonwealth pressure to curb apartheid) and Pakistan (in 1961 and 1972 respectively) although they later rejoined. Zimbabwe left in 2003, again under political pressure to reform.
The Setting of Objectives
The Commonwealth has a secretariat to oversee its business, but no formal constitution or international laws. It does, however, have an ethical and moral code, first expressed in the ‘Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles’, issued in 1971, by which members agree to operate, including aims of peace, democracy, liberty, equality and an end to racism and poverty. This was refined and expanded in the Harare Declaration of 1991 which is often considered to have “set the Commonwealth on a new course: that of promoting democracy and good governance, human rights and the rule of law, gender equality and sustainable economic and social development.” (cited from the Commonwealth website) An action plan has since been produced to actively follow these declarations. Failure to adhere to these aims can, and has, resulted in a member being suspended, such as Pakistan from 1999 to 2004 and Fiji in 2006 after military coups.
Some early British supporters of the Commonwealth hoped for different results: that Britain would grow in political power by influencing the members, regaining the global position it had lost, that economic ties would strengthen the British economy and that the Commonwealth would promote British interests in world affairs. In reality, member states have proved reluctant to compromise their new found voice, instead working out how the Commonwealth could benefit them all.
Perhaps the best known aspect of the Commonwealth is the Games, a sort of mini Olympics held every four years which only accepts entrants from Commonwealth countries. It has been derided, but is often recognised as a solid way to prepare young talent for international competition.