History of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth has been described as an organism which could evolve, but could not have been constructed from a blueprint. This distinguishes it from the United Nations, built around its charter in the conscious endeavour to establish universally-recognised standards for international conduct.

Queen Elizabeth II with Commonwealth Heads of Government on board the Royal Yacht Britannia during the 1975 Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in Kingston, Jamaica.

Unlike other international official organisations, the character of the Commonwealth is less markedly that of an alliance or contractual arrangement then it is a family. Many Commonwealth presidents and prime ministers, and its Head, Queen Elizabeth II, have drawn attention to this feeling of family. Like a family, the Commonwealth exists because its members feel they have a natural connection of long standing. Its work for development has been possible because the Commonwealth connection was already there.

Members see the connection as natural because they have a shared past, a common language and, despite their differences, an enhanced capacity to trust one another. They have used this link to strengthen each other’s development, and to work in partnership to advance global agreement over crucial issues such as trade, debt, gender equality, the environment, the threat of terrorism and the international financial system.


A product of history and foresight

The Commonwealth of today was by no means an inevitable development. It came about through the powerful bonds which developed among leaders and people, notably during the decolonising process and in the early years of the Commonwealth’s evolution as an association of sovereign states. The consequences of changes led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah are best known, but there are several such turning points.


Dominion Status

In the early nineteenth century, British imperial policy began to soften under pressure for greater self-determination, initially mainly from the British-descended populations of the most advanced colonies. Canada was first to obtain self-government (in the 1840s) and also the first to become a dominion (1867). Dominion status, which allowed self-government and extensive independence in foreign affairs, fundamentally changed the relationship between colony and imperial power. It was perhaps in this spirit that British politician Lord Rosebery, visiting Adelaide in Australia in 1884, called the empire ‘a Commonwealth of nations’.

Australia achieved dominion status when its states united as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. New Zealand followed in 1907, South Africa in 1910, and the Irish Free State in 1921. The five dominions and India had their own representation in the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN.

Great Britain and the dominions were characterised in the Balfour Report of 1926 as ‘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’.

The Statute of Westminster, passed by the UK parliament in 1931, gave legal recognition to the de facto independence of the dominions. The parliaments of Canada, South Africa and the Irish Free State swiftly passed legislation enacting the statute. Australia adopted it in 1942 and New Zealand in 1947. Newfoundland relinquished its dominion status and was incorporated into Canada in 1949.


Republican Membership

At the same time, the struggle for self-government in India (then also including Bangladesh and Pakistan) was growing. India and Pakistan achieved independence – as dominions and members of the Commonwealth – in 1947, and Sri Lanka followed in 1948.

These events marked a change in direction for the Commonwealth, as these were the first countries where the pressure for independence came from the indigenous populations rather than communities descended mainly from British settlers. This laid the groundwork for the evolution of a multiracial Commonwealth.

Then the Commonwealth faced a constitutional crisis. It was assumed that the association’s principal bond would be that all members would have the monarch of the United Kingdom as head of state. India’s constituent assembly decided to adopt a republican form of government, yet wished to remain within the Commonwealth. At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting of 1949, it was agreed that India might remain a member as a republic but accepting the monarch ‘as the symbol of the free association of independent member nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth’.

This development opened the way for other countries which adopted republican constitutions (or had a national monarch) to become Commonwealth members. At the start of 2006, 37 of the 53 members did not have Queen Elizabeth II as titular head of state, but all accepted her as Head of the Commonwealth.

The Queen is also head of state in 16 Commonwealth countries, all of them fully independent. She is head of each of these states individually. Excluding the UK, the countries of which the Queen is sovereign are now formally known as realms (though the term is, in practice, virtually obsolete) and the Queen is represented by a governor-general who carries out the formal offices of head of state.


Wind of Change

The Gold Coast, in West Africa, became independent as the Republic of Ghana and joined the Commonwealth in 1957, the first majority-ruled African country to join. This marked the start of a new development, what UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called ‘the wind of change sweeping through Africa’. Over the next two decades, the UK’s rule ended in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Commonwealth membership expanded rapidly.

Malaya (later incorporated into Malaysia) also achieved independence in 1957, followed by Nigeria and Cyprus (1960), Sierra Leone and Tanzania (1961), Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda (1962), and so on. The vast majority of countries coming to independence chose to join the Commonwealth. With South Africa’s readmission after the elections of 1994, membership rose to 51 countries. Cameroon, independent since 1960, joined in October 1995 and Mozambique, which had long expressed a desire to join the association and had been connected with it throughout the long Southern African struggle for racial equality, was admitted to membership in November 1995.

A few countries did not join. Myanmar (then Burma, independent 1947) chose not to join, and Ireland withdrew in 1949. A number of mainly Middle Eastern countries – former UK dependencies, mandates, protectorates or protected states – elected not to join the Commonwealth on independence. Maldives became independent in 1965 but did not join the association until 1982. Samoa (formerly a UN Trust Territory administered by New Zealand) became independent in 1962, but did not join until 1970.

Three countries left the Commonwealth and then rejoined. Pakistan left in 1972, after other members recognised the new state of Bangladesh (previously part of Pakistan), but was welcomed back into the association in 1989 when the democratically-elected government applied to rejoin.

South Africa’s membership lapsed in 1961. Having become a republic it was required to make a formal reapplication for membership. The Commonwealth’s resistance to the apartheid policies of the government of the time made it clear that this would not be granted and so South Africa withdrew. Following the democratic elections of 1994, South Africa, too, was welcomed back into the association, and rejoined on 1 June 1994.

Fiji Islands ceased to be a member in 1987: following a military coup and the declaration of a republic, Fiji Islands allowed its membership to lapse when it too received little encouragement from other members to reapply. Ten years later and after embarking on a process of constitutional reform, the country once again became a member in October 1997.

Nigeria, a member of the Commonwealth since independence in 1960 and an active participant in many important initiatives, was suspended from membership in November 1995 when Heads of Government decided it had violated the principles of the 1991 Harare Declaration. The suspension was initially for two years. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group monitored developments in Nigeria (and The Gambia and Sierra Leone) from 1995. In mid-1998, with the accession of a new head of state, Nigeria embarked on a transition programme towards a civilian democracy. After completing its electoral timetable in early 1999, its suspension from the Commonwealth was lifted with the swearing in on 29 May 1999 of a democratically elected civilian president.

Three members, Fiji Islands, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, have each in recent years been suspended from the councils of the association, pending restoration of democracy in accordance with the constitution. Fiji Islands’ suspension was lifted in December 2001. Following the CHOGM Statement on Zimbabwe in December 2003, the Government of Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth. Pakistan’s suspension was lifted in May 2004.


Expanding Commonwealth Role

While the Commonwealth’s membership has evolved, its functions have evolved in parallel. In 1965, the Commonwealth Secretariat was set up in London, providing the association with its own administrative capacity to service consultation and other forms of co-operation. The Commonwealth Foundation was also established by Commonwealth leaders in 1965 and started operations the following year, initially to link members of the professions, and subsequently also to support non-governmental organisations and promote Commonwealth culture and arts, and latterly, civil society. Then in 1988 the Commonwealth of Learning was established to encourage development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technology.

In 1971, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation was launched, establishing the Commonwealth as a channel through which member countries could assist each other in their development. The CFTC was from the start envisaged not as a capital fund, but as a mutual scheme for the exchange of skills. Member countries contribute to it, on a voluntary basis, and may draw on its resources, according to need. The CFTC was an early pioneer of technical cooperation among developing countries, since its finance enables experienced specialists from developing countries to offer their skills to other countries, one or two steps behind them in that area of development. In part through its work in technical cooperation, the Commonwealth developed particular skills in assisting countries in such areas as the advancement of women, protection of the environment and participation of young people in development.

The Commonwealth role in international politics grew from the 1960s. The association became one of the major centres of global pressure against racism, particularly in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and Namibia – countries with a Commonwealth connection.

It has also made an important contribution to global debates on international economic issues, notably through its expert group reports on subjects such as the world financial and trading systems, and the debt of developing countries. These reports were prepared by groups of specialists from rich and poor countries in different parts of the world, and represented a consensus between North and South on the way to make progress in these global debates.

Especially since the adoption of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration by Heads of Government in October 1991, the Commonwealth has attached considerable importance to the promotion of democracy. The four main ways in which the Commonwealth Secretariat has helped has been by observing elections, providing democracy experts on request, organising workshops and producing publications. Since 1991, Commonwealth Secretaries-General have constituted some 47 observer groups and 11 expert teams to be present at elections and make recommendations for the future. In the 13-month period between June 2002 and June 2003 alone, the Secretariat sent 13 democracy experts to six countries; it has also organised a major series of workshops with attendant publications, for chief election officers, leaders of political parties and civil society. And since 1995, the Commonwealth has had a self-disciplinary mechanism, through the Millbrook Programme and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, to deal with ‘serious or persistent violations’ of the principles contained in the Harare Declaration.

The Commonwealth has also embarked on a programme of assisting member countries in economic development through, for example, reform of the public sector, encouragement of the growth of the private sector, and promotion of trade and investment – through the setting up of a Commonwealth Business Council, the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative, and the Trade and Investment Access Facility.