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Commonwealth of Nations

(Redirected from British Commonwealth)

The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, mostly formed by the United Kingdom and its former colonies. It was formerly known as the British Commonwealth (or British Commonwealth of Nations), and many still call it by that name, either for historical reasons or to distinguish it from the many other commonwealths around the world.

Not all members of the Commonwealth acknowledge the British monarch as head of state. Those that do are known as Commonwealth Realms; however, the majority of members are republics, and a handful of others are indigenous monarchies. However, all members recognise Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth, a role perhaps best likened to that of a ceremonial president.



The Commonwealth is the successor of the British Empire and has its origins in the Imperial Conferences of the late 1920s (conferences of British and colonial prime ministers had occurred periodically since 1887), where the independence of the self-governing colonies and dominions was recognised, and eventually formalised by the Statute of Westminster 1931. The Commonwealth was established as an association of free and equal states, and membership was based on common allegiance to the British Crown.

The Commonwealth has grown massively in the last few decades. Above, the 10 representatives in 1956, below, the over 50 members in 2000
The Commonwealth has grown massively in the last few decades. Above, the 10 representatives in 1956, below, the over 50 members in 2000

After World War II the Empire was gradually dismantled, partly owing to the rise of independence movements in the then subject territories (most importantly in India under the influence of the pacifist Mohandas Gandhi), and partly owing to the British Government's strained circumstances resulting from the cost of the war. Burma (1948) and South Yemen (1967) are among the few former colonies/protectorates that did not join the Commonwealth upon independence. Perhaps the world's best-known group of former British colonies, the United States, is not a member of the Commonwealth, as US independence predates the institution by over a hundred years. The Republic of Ireland was a member but left the Commonwealth upon becoming a republic in 1949.

The issue of republican status within the Commonwealth was only resolved in 1950 when it was agreed according to a formula proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that India should remain a Commonwealth member despite adopting her present republican constitution1. (Previously, Ireland and Burma had left the Commonwealth upon becoming republics.) This decision, set out in the London Declaration, provided for members to accept the British monarch as Head of the Commonwealth regardless of their domestic constitutional arrangements, and is now considered by many to be the start of the modern Commonwealth.

As the Commonwealth grew, Britain and the former "white Dominions" became informally (and often derisively) known as the White Commonwealth, particularly when they differed with poorer, predominantly non-white Commonwealth members over various issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Accusations that the "White Commonwealth" has different interests than African Commonwealth nations in particular as well as charges of racism and colonialism were frequent during debates concerning Rhodesia in the 1970s, the imposition of sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s and, more recently, over the issue of whether to pressure for democratic reforms in Nigeria and then Zimbabwe in recent years.

Current membership

The population of the Commonwealth is approximately 1.8 billion people, making up about 30% of the world's population: India is the most populous member, with a billion people at the 2001 census, while Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria each contain more than 100 million people. Tuvalu, by contrast, has only 11,000 inhabitants. The land area of the Commonwealth nations equals about a quarter of the world's land area, with Canada, Australia, and India each having more than 1 million square miles (2,600,000 km²).

Membership is normally open to countries which accept the association's basic aims. Members are required to have a present or past constitutional link to the UK or to another Commonwealth member. Consequently, not all members have had direct constitutional ties to the UK: some South Pacific countries were formerly under Australian administration, while Namibia was governed by South Africa from 1920 until independence in 1990. Cameroon joined in 1995 although only a fraction of its territory had formerly been under British administration (through the League of Nations mandate of 1920-46 and United Nations Trusteeship arrangement of 1946-61).

Only one member of the present Commonwealth was never attached to the British Empire or any Commonwealth member: Mozambique was admitted in 1995 on the back of the triumphal re-admission of South Africa, with support from Mozambique's neighbours, all of whom were members of the Commonwealth and who wished to offer assistance in overcoming the losses incurred as a result of the country's opposition to white minority regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In 1997, amid some discontent, Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed that Mozambique's admission should be seen as a special case and should not set any precedents.

Charles de Gaulle once suggested that France, though it was never a member of the British Empire (even if for centuries English/British monarchs claimed the title 'King of France') should apply for Commonwealth membership. This never happened. The United States, Egypt, Israel and Iraq have never shown an interest in joining the Commonwealth, despite their histories of British rule.


In recent years the Commonwealth has suspended several members "from the Councils of the Commonwealth" for failure to uphold democratic government. Suspended members are not represented at meetings of Commonwealth leaders and ministers, although they remain members of the organisation. Fiji was twice suspended, 1987-1997 and 2000-2001, for military coups, as was Pakistan from 1999 until 2004. Nigeria was suspended between 1995 and 1999. Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 over concerns with the electoral and land reform policies of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government, and left the Commonwealth in 2003.

Termination of membership

As membership is purely voluntary, member governments can choose at any time to leave the Commonwealth. Pakistan left the Commonwealth in 1972 in protest at Commonwealth recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined in 1989. Zimbabwe left in 2003 when Commonwealth Heads of Government refused to lift the country's suspension on human rights and governance grounds.

Although Heads of Government have the power to suspend member states, the Commonwealth has no provision for the expulsion of members. However, Commonwealth realms who become republics automatically cease to be members unless, like India in 1950, they obtain the permission of other members to remain in the organisation as a republic. The Republic of Ireland did not apply for re-admittance after becoming a republic, as the Commonwealth at the time did not allow republican membership. However the leader of its Opposition at the time, Eamon de Valera, believed the Republic of Ireland's decision not to apply to stay was a mistake. He and his successor as Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, both considered re-applying. Eamon Ó Cuiv , a minister in the present Irish Government (and himself de Valera's grandson), raised the issue of the Republic's possible reapplication a number of times in the 1990s. However, the issue arouses hostility in Ireland, where some people still associate the Commonwealth with British imperialism, even though the majority of member states are now republics.

South Africa was effectively prevented from continuing as a member after it became a republic in 1961 as a result of hostility from many members, particularly those in Asia and Africa as well as Canada to its policy of apartheid. The South African government chose not to apply to remain in the organisation as a republic since it was clear any such application would have been rejected. South Africa was re-admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995, after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Organisation and objectives

Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal head of the organisation (see Queen Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth of Nations). Since 1965 there has been a London-based Secretariat. The current (2004) Commonwealth Secretary-General is Don McKinnon, a former Foreign Minister of New Zealand. The organisation is celebrated each year on Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March.

The Commonwealth has long been distinctive as an international forum where highly developed economies (the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and many of the world's poorer countries seek to reach agreement by consensus. This aim has sometimes been difficult to achieve, as when disagreements over Rhodesia in the 1970s and over apartheid South Africa in the 1980s led to a cooling of relations between Britain and African members.

The main decision-making forum of the organisation is the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth presidents or prime ministers assemble for several days to discuss matters of mutual interest. CHOGM is the successor to the Prime Ministers' Conferences and earlier Imperial Conferences and Colonial Conferences dating back to 1887. There are also regular meetings of finance ministers, law ministers, health ministers, etc.

The most important statement of the Commonwealth's principles is the 1991 Harare Declaration, which dedicated the organisation to democracy and good government, and allowed for action to be taken against members who breached these principles. Before then the Commonwealth's collective actions had been limited by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other members.

Benefits of membership and Contemporary Concerns

The Commonwealth has often been likened to an English gentlemen's club, and it is sometimes noted that the issue of membership—who is and who is not a member of the organisation—often seems to be more important, and certainly attracts much more attention, than what the organisation actually does. This is because the main benefit of membership is arguably the opportunity for close and relatively frequent interaction, on an informal and equal basis, between members who share many ties of language, culture and history.

In its early days, the Commonwealth also constituted a significant economic bloc. Commonwealth countries accorded each others' goods privileged access to their markets ("Commonwealth Preference"), and there was a free or preferred right of migration from one Commonwealth country to another. These rights have been steadily eroded, but their consequences remain. Within most Commonwealth countries, there are substantial communities with family ties to other members of the Commonwealth, going beyond the effects of the original colonisation of parts of the Commonwealth by settlers from Britain. Furthermore, consumers in Commonwealth countries retain many preferences for goods from other members of the Commonwealth, so that even in the absence of tariff privileges, there continues to be more trade within the Commonwealth than might be predicted. On Britain's entry to the European Union, the Lomé Convention preserved some of the preferential access rights of Commonwealth goods to the UK market.

In more recent decades there has been a mutual decline of interest in each other, and the Commonwealth's direct political and economic importance has declined. Britain has forged closer relationships with other European countries through the European Union; Britain's entry was widely felt as a betrayal by citizens of the "Old Commonwealth" whose economies had been developed on the assumption of access to British markets. Similarly, former British colonies have forged closer relationships with non-Commonwealth trading partners and closer geographic neighbours. Reaction to immigration from the new Commonwealth countries into Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the restriction of the right of migration. The Commonwealth today mainly restricts itself to encouraging community between nations and to placing moral pressure on members who violate international laws, such as human rights laws, and abandon democratically elected government. Key activities today include training experts in developing countries and assisting with and monitoring elections.

It is also useful as an international organisation that represents significant cultural and historical links between wealthy first-world countries and poorer developing nations with diverse social and religious backgrounds. The common inheritance of the English language and literature, the common law and British systems of administration underpin the club-like atmosphere of the Commonwealth. Citizens of Commonwealth countries have some distinctive (though usually not unique) rights in each other's countries: for example, Commonwealth citizens are entitled to register to vote in United Kingdom elections if they are resident in the UK.

Non-governmental links

The Commonwealth countries share many links at non-governmental level, notably sporting and cultural links. A multi-sports championship called the Commonwealth Games is held every four years: as well as the usual athletic disciplines the Games include sports popular throughout the Commonwealth such as bowls. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is an important vehicle for academic links, particularly through offering scholarships for students to study in universities in other Commonwealth countries.

In recent years the Commonwealth model has inspired similar initiatives on the part of France and Portugal and their respective ex-colonies, and in the former case, other sympathetic governments: the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie and the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (Community of Portuguese-speaking countries).


Mostly as a result of their history of British rule, many Commonwealth nations share certain identifiable traditions and customs that are often cited as being elements of a shared Commonwealth culture. Examples include a love of cricket, as well as rugby, driving on the left, celebrating Boxing Day, wigged court judges, and use of British rather than US spelling conventions. None of these is universal within the Commonwealth countries, nor exclusive to them, but all of them are more common in the Commonwealth than elsewhere.


The Commonwealth holds the Commonwealth Games every four years, inbetween Olympics.

List of Commonwealth Members by continent

Date of membership in (parentheses).

Currently suspended members:

Former Members:

See also

External links

Last updated: 11-06-2004 20:59:12