Some Brexiteers seem to want to resurrect the old British ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ as a free-trading area to replace the EU. Here, for some perspective, is an essay on it I contributed many years ago to an online (Oxford) Encyclopaedia of British History. I think it still holds up. (Embedded links are to other entries in the same Encyclopaedia.)
Commonwealth of Nations. The husk of the old British empire, an accidental by-product of history. The only thing its member states apart from Britain have in common is that they were once her colonies, though Mozambique, not a former colony, was admitted in 1995 as a special case. Not all her ex-colonies are members: the future USA for example liberated themselves before the idea was thought of; some colonies, like Burma and British Somaliland, declined to join from the beginning; and the Irish Free State, South Africa, and Pakistan were once members but later (in 1949, 1961, and 1972 respectively) left. Nevertheless the present Commonwealth comprises Britain and most of her old empire: around 54 states, scattered over all the inhabited continents, with a population estimated (in 1994) at 1.4 billion.
The term ‘commonwealth’, in this context, dates from the turn of the century, and grew out of the realization that already several of Britain’s older-established colonies were self-governing in all essential respects. To call them ‘colonies’, or collectively an ‘empire’, appeared to undervalue their real independence, and the new word was felt by some to express better the form the empire would take: a union or federation of equal nation states, united for the common good of the whole. An important catalyst for this transformation was the First World War. This had the dual effect of reminding the dominions of their continued subjugation to Britain in some ways—when George V committed the whole empire to the war it was without formal consultation with them—while at the same time emphasizing their importance and sense of individual national identity. By the time the next world war came around, each dominion was allowed to decide for itself whether it would join in. (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were generous with their contributions; South Africa, many of whose whites felt more affinity with the Nazis, less so.) This development was not to everyone’s liking, however. Enthusiasts for the ‘commonwealth ideal’ had generally envisaged the dominions taking an equal share in the formulation of policies that would then be common to them all. Instead it took an entirely different turn, and came to mean that they would have equal rights to separate policies of their own.
This privilege was established in the early 1920s, after disputes within the Commonwealth over the Washington naval conference of 1921–2 and the Chanak affair in 1922. In 1923 Canada became the first dominion to conclude a treaty with a foreign power (the Halibut Fish treaty) without reference to Britain; and the pattern for the future—of independent partnership—was set. It was formalized by an important pronouncement of the 1926 imperial conference, defining dominion status; and by the 1931 statute of Westminster, which confirmed the dominions’ legislative autonomy. For the moment this only applied to colonies of European settlement (the full list at that time was Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, Eire, and South Africa), and not to the ‘non-white’ colonies. That changed in 1947, when the newly independent nation of India was admitted to the Commonwealth. That established the character of the ‘multiracial’ Commonwealth as it exists today.
As decolonization progressed, the other ex-colonies followed. Most old imperialists regarded this process with pride. Some of them indeed saw the new Commonwealth as the culmination of the empire, the goal to which its evolution had been directed for a hundred years or more. In a way it was, for there had always been a strong tradition of what was called ‘trusteeship’ in British imperial thought. It was also widely hoped that the Commonwealth might prove to be a powerful political and economic force in the world, all the more powerful for being free, and so revive Britain’s flagging ‘great power’ status and role. Labour ministers were prone to this as well as Conservatives. For this reason the Commonwealth has been criticized for seducing Britain away from her continental neighbours, during the years when western Europe was evolving an alternative supranational structure of its own.
The idea that the Commonwealth could be a kind of empire-substitute, however, was soon shattered. The newest members regarded their hard-won national independence jealously, and were unwilling to co-operate together merely to give Britain a further lease of international life. There were sharp clashes between members, arising from past memories that were hard to eradicate, conflicting economic interests, and differences of principle, especially over the issue of apartheid, which forced South Africa to leave in 1961. (It rejoined in 1994.) Widely dispersed as they were, and differentiated in almost every possible way, it would have been remarkable if the member states had easily and naturally cohered. So the Commonwealth became much less than the united ‘third force’ in the world that the imperial optimists had envisaged; something quite different, though still worthy of respect.
As it stands now, it is totally unlike any other international organization of states that has existed before. It has a secretariat, and a secretary-general (set up in 1965), but little else in common. It has no power, no united policy, no common principles, and no shared institutions. There used to be a common citizenship, with Britain allowing unrestricted entry to all Commonwealth citizens, but her Immigration Act of 1962 put an end to that. Most member states are parliamentary democracies, but not all. Most have retained English legal forms, but not all. Most play cricket, but not all. The single constitutional feature common to all member states is that they acknowledge the British monarch as symbolic head of the Commonwealth, but fewer than half recognize her or him as the head of their own states. It was once thought of as an economic unit, a potential free (or preferential) trade area, but that was never convincing, and collapsed when Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Another blow was the raising of British college fees for overseas students in 1979. The interchange of bright young people had been a valuable way of fostering Commonwealth solidarity. That was no longer felt to be a priority, however, in the narrowly utilitarian climate which prevailed at that time.
Nevertheless the Commonwealth still serves a purpose, as a forum for informal discussion and co-operation between nations of widely disparate cultures and material conditions. That function is served by a host of specialist Commonwealth institutions (the Commonwealth Institute in London, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth of Learning, and so on); and by biennial conferences of Commonwealth heads of government. The ideal it represents still flickers, albeit fitfully. Only time will tell whether the Commonwealth is a mere footnote to history, or the beginning of a new chapter.