Over the past couple of months we have heard the Commonwealth mentioned on numerous occasions, with reference to the Commonwealth Games, held in Birmingham in July 2022 and more recently with regard to the late Queen Elizabeth’s role as its head. But what exactly is it?
At its most basic the Commonwealth (originally called the Commonwealth of British Nations) is an association of 56 countries – and accounting for 2.5 billion citizens – all of which may or may not have a historical connection to the UK, and all of which voluntarily apply to be part of the organisation.
Whist it is essential to reflect on the inception of The Commonwealth’s roots in the colonial concept of the British Empire, and the originally dominant part that the UK has played, over the years this role has lessened substantially and a sense of respect and equity between the independent countries is stressed.
The history and inception of the Commonwealth began as the British Empire started to fracture from its dominance and sovereignty over multiple nations and as these nations took on semi autonomous or full independent status.
From 1887 the semi-independent countries which were in the process of transitioning out from British Empire rule were called Dominions, and the Leaders of these Dominions attended conferences with the British Ruling elite, from both monarchy and political realms. At the 1926 conference the Leaders of the assembled Dominions agreed to an allegiance to the British Empire, but with more equitable non-hierarchical relationships within this association. At this point any concept of these Dominions being ‘ruled’ by the British Empire had been firmly eradicated.
As time moved forward the modern Commonwealth was born out of this initial belief in equity and mutual support. The Dominions and other ‘territories’ have all become independent nations in their own right, and independent from the rules and structures of the British constitution. When India became independent in 1947 it expressed the desire to remain part of the Commonwealth, and in 1949 it was agreed that full independent nations and republics could be part of this associated group of allied countries, without the necessity for any British influence.
Speaking to the assembled nations in 1953 Her Majesty, the late Queen Elizabeth II, said: “Thus formed, the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
As the concept of the Commonwealth has continued to evolve these ideas of allegiance to the UK and to the British Monarch have been replaced by the the non-hereditary role of the head of the association, which was the late Queen Elizabeth II and is currently King Charles III, a situation which will no doubt be debated and voted upon by the assembled nations at the next sessional meeting.
A second article on the Commonwealth and its impact will follow later this week.