The Commonwealth has its origins in the British Empire, though two member states were never part of the Empire (do you know which two? Answer at the end), and several countries that were part of the Empire chose not to join the Commonwealth upon independence. In 1884, a British politician, Lord Rosebury, visited Australia and suggested that the empire was becoming a “Commonwealth of Nations.” This is said to be where the name originated.
By then, Canada had already become a Dominion (in 1867), a status that implied equality with the United Kingdom. It was followed by several other countries: Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), South Africa (1910) and the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland, 1922). All countries participated separately in World War One (apart from Ireland, which was not yet a country), and signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
After World War One, the Dominions were looking to form a new constitutional structure to replace the old Empire. At the Imperial Conference in 1926, they adopted the Balfour Declaration, which reaffirmed the Dominions’ status as separate and equal nations who shared a common allegiance to the British Crown.
This was codified into law when the UK Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. It applied to Canada automatically, but it had to be ratified by Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland (then not part of Canada) for it to take effect. Newfoundland never adopted it because it dissolved its government in 1934 and became Canada’s tenth province in 1949. Australia ratified it in 1942, New Zealand in 1947. The British Commonwealth was born.
On April 28, 1949, the London Declaration dropped the word “British” from the name. This is considered to be the beginning of the modern Commonwealth. They also agreed that when India became an independent republic in 1950, it could remain in the Commonwealth even though the British Monarch would no longer be its Head of State. This was an issue because in 1948 the Republic of Ireland renounced the sovereignty of the British Crown and left the Commonwealth.
Today several republics are Commonwealth members, and even those that still have the same monarch as the UK (such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand), nevertheless have a separate legal identity for the monarch (the current monarch is Queen of Canada, Queen of New Zealand and Queen of Australia, in those respective countries, and not Queen of the United Kingdom). The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, a position symbolic of the free association of the member nations. When the Queen dies, her successor will not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth member countries don't consider each other foreign in many respects. This is why Commonwealth countries send a High Commissioner rather than an ambassador to other Commonwealth members. Similarly, Commonwealth countries have a High Commission and not an embassy in each other's countries.
The Commonwealth has shared beliefs and values:
The Commonwealth believes the best democracies are achieved through partnerships – of governments, business, and civil society.The Commonwealth currently has two main goals: Peace and Democracy, and Pro-Poor Growth and Sustainable Development. There are specific programmes to help achieve those goals.
Beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, members are united through the association’s values of: democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all.
These values were agreed and set down by all Commonwealth Heads of Government at two of their biennial meetings (known as CHOGMs) in Singapore in 1971 and reaffirmed in Harare in 1991.
One of the major events of the Commonwealth is the Commonwealth Games, also known as “The Friendly Games”, and the third-largest sporting event in the world (after the Olympics and the Asian Games). 71 teams participate because many dependencies participate under their own flags, as do the four “home nations” of the UK: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is held every four years, the next being in Glasgow in 2014. The last to be held in New Zealand were in Auckland in 1990. It’s probably unlikely that they’ll ever be held here again due to the cost and size of the event.
Commonwealth Day, the annual celebration of the Commonwealth, is observed on the second Monday in March with activities in London and around the world. Still, it’s not a public holiday in most Commonwealth countries and most people in them know little or nothing about it.
And finally, those two member countries that have no historic ties to Britain: Mozambique became the first country with no colonial links to Britain to join the Commonwealth in 1995. In 2009, Rwanda became the 54th member of the Commonwealth. Predominantly Francophone Cameroon also joined in 1995, however, it incorporated the former British Cameroon, so it does have colonial ties to Britain.
The illiustration at the top of this post is the Commonwealth flag; as a flag, it is in the public domain.
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