The Commonwealth formally came into existence at the 1926 Imperial Conference, as the Prime Ministers of Britain and the Dominions agreed to remove the old colonial constitutional shackles. The Dominions would henceforth become ‘equal in status’ with Britain and together ‘freely associated’ members of the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’. Britain was still the most militarily, economically, and culturally powerful member, but they would now have to meet as equals and work cooperatively.
The 1926 agreement contained in this ‘Balfour Report’, also sometimes the ‘Balfour Declaration’, recognised that over the past few decades, the Dominions, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, had boomed in population and prosperity. Through contributions to the First World War and in other areas, they had come to possess their own national identities and autonomy. The idea that they could be given orders from the Colonial Office had long since been outmoded.
A few years later in 1931 the Statute of Westminster further curtailed Britain’s legislative supremacy over its former settler colonies by affirming this new constitutional settlement in black-letter law. When tested, the new partnership stood together through the onslaught of the Second World War. In 1944 the assembled Commonwealth Prime Ministers declared that ‘Our system of free association has enabled us, each and all, to claim a full share of the common burden’.
There were limits to the 1926 reforms, which privileged Britain’s white settler colonies. India, though represented at the Imperial Conference, was excluded from this new arrangement, and the rest of the Crown colonies in Africa, Asia and the West Indies would still be directly ruled from London for decades to come. It would take longer still for the Dominions to dismantle their racially exclusive immigration policies. Anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance and the greatly changed conditions of the post-war era soon made the old status quo untenable.
The history of the Commonwealth is unavoidably connected to the end of the British Empire. It’s a messy history full of complex politics, violence and the countless changes which follow colossal shifts in political, military, cultural and economic power. The Commonwealth was designed to give a voice to former settler colonies and navigate the changes in their political and constitutional relationships. The birth of the Commonwealth represented a concession of British power and an acceptance that cooperation rather than rupture should define their ongoing relations. The idea of empire was slowly being replaced with the fresh ideal of a Commonwealth of Nations, as newly independent countries began sitting around the table.
Britain looms large in this story. Yet, the mistake made by British historians and commentators is thinking the Commonwealth is all about Britain. The Commonwealth was partly an attempt by the British to retain influence and soft power, but its creation was also driven by former colonies who wanted an institution through which to exert influence on Britain, facilitate conversations and drive cooperation with one another. If there was no political will to join, countries departed, such as in the case of Ireland. The Commonwealth was a mutual effort to move beyond the past to forge a new future of cooperation through trade, civil society ties, and the promotion of democracy, good governance, and the rule of law.
The modern Commonwealth of Nations came into existence at the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference, which via the ‘London Declaration’ accepted the membership of newly republican India and dropped ‘British’ from the name. The British monarch was no longer a constitutional link but a ‘symbol of their free association’. It further stated that ‘the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Ceylon hereby declare that they remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. Progressively, the Commonwealth adopted new criteria for membership and expanding those common aspirations into fields such as the protection of human rights.
By the close of the twentieth century, the Commonwealth had fifty-four members. It was a global organisation. While the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Meetings continued to assemble in London until 1969, in 1971 it met in Singapore as a ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Thereafter ‘CHOGMs’ met biennially, alternating between Commonwealth countries. For all the criticisms that might be lobbed at it, the Commonwealth represents a unique multilateral experiment in managing the changing political relationships between Britain and its former colonies.
For smaller countries without extensive diplomatic infrastructure, CHOGMs provide opportunities for networking, frank conversations, and a platform to raise their profiles and issues. Having such backchannels and informal forums is important for stimulating trust between leaders and countries. It complements rather than competes with other international forums like the United Nations. The foundational Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, Lee Kuan Yew, described CHOGM as a ‘seminar for statesmen’. As the Imperial Conferences had raised the importance of the small Dominions like Newfoundland and New Zealand, so the Commonwealth Conferences, later CHOGM, gave a platform to smaller new countries.
As new members of the Commonwealth have joined, its nature and mission have inevitably changed. Yet at the heart of the project, the Commonwealth retains its appeal to shared values like democracy and the rule of law. Even where its members fall short of these ideals, their repeated articulation helps apply pressure for reform whilst also providing a network for sharing experiences. Members like Fiji have been suspended and readmitted. At various CHOGM over the second half of the twentieth century, important issues of global interest have been discussed, such as the independence of Zimbabwe, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The principle of equality between nations was fundamental to the birth of the Commonwealth. As British colonies became independent countries, it became an experiment in balancing national autonomy with collective action. For all the institutional problems which come from requiring consensus for action, this remains the strength of the modern Commonwealth.
Kigali, Rwanda's bustling and youthful capital, played host to the most recent CHOGM meeting in June 2022 after delays caused by the pandemic. As ever it was a huge networking opportunity. In his account of the Rwanda meeting, New Zealand Historian W. David Macintyre writes ‘The full week’s events reminded us that CHOGMs are colossal enterprises. Senior political leaders, professionals, administrators, and businesspeople gather in their hundreds and are involved in a multitude of high-level dialogues and decision-making debates’. Especially after years of being isolated, meeting in the same room is still attractive for its facilitative power and potential.
In his opening speech, the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, emphasised that in holding the meeting in his country ‘a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire’ it expressed ‘our choice to continue reimagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world’ and that the ‘The Commonwealth does not replace other institutions; it adds to them’. In coming together, he said, they were all united by the shared language of English and a commitment to common values such as good governance, the rule of law, and the protection of rights. Togo and Gabon join Rwanda as new members of the Commonwealth. Neither has historic associations with the British Empire.
Reflecting on the modern strengths of the Commonwealth in the Round Table ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Summit hosted in London, Amitav Banerji, a former high-ranking member of the Commonwealth Secretariat, suggests the Commonwealth remains important to its many small state members precisely because it allows them to interact with larger members based on 'equality and informality’ which in so doing ‘magnifies their voice and reach on the global stage’. If we are to confront future challenges with global reach and consequences, then having global platforms like the Commonwealth is more important than ever.
Daniel McKay is completing a PhD in history at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, working on a history of the Colonial and Imperial Conferences and the changing political and constitutional relationship between Britain and the Dominions and India. He has been a Smuts Cambridge International Scholar and Ramsay Postgraduate Scholar. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society.