Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1920’s, the self-governing former colonies of the British Empire, known as dominions, wanted to encode in law their growing political autonomy from Great Britain. The Balfour resolution, created at the Imperial Conference of 1926, asserted the dominions’ right to govern themselves independently.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of World War I, several British colonies settled by European immigrants—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, and the Irish Free State—had acquired a measure of self-government. The British North America Act of 1867 had given Canada the right to govern its internal affairs and had laid the foundation for its federal system. The six colonies of Australia had gained some measure of independence in the nineteenth century, and the 1901 Australia Act Australia Act (1901) combined these regions into the Commonwealth of Australia, which operated under a federal system similar to Canada’s. Likewise, the 1909 South Africa Act South Africa Act (1909) bound the four provinces of that country, which had been united after the Boer War (1899-1902). The Irish Free State had been formed in 1922 as a compromise between two sides: one that wanted to sever ties with Great Britain and one that wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. New Zealand and Newfoundland had also gained the right to internal self-government as unitary entities. In 1907, the British government recognized the former colonies’ status by forming a Dominions Section in its Colonial Office. [kw]Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations (Dec. 11, 1931) [kw]British Commonwealth of Nations, Formation of the (Dec. 11, 1931) [kw]Commonwealth of Nations, Formation of the British (Dec. 11, 1931) Balfour resolution Great Britain;dominions British Commonwealth of Nations, formation Statute of Westminster (1931) [g]Africa;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]Australia;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]Canada;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]Canada;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]England;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]Ireland;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]New Zealand;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [g]South Africa;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] [c]Independence movements;Dec. 11, 1931: Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations[07900] Balfour, Arthur King, William Lyon Mackenzie

The state opening of Parliament, 1931.

(NARA)

The dominions had raised and paid for forces to aid the Allies in World War I. As a result, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 Paris Peace Conference (1919) the dominions had been recognized as independent countries and were allowed to sit at the negotiating table. Each country signed the Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919);British dominions and became a founding member of the League of Nations. However, this de facto independence was not necessarily encoded in law. At first, some thought that the United Kingdom would develop a single foreign policy based on consultation, but this idea disintegrated in 1923, when Britain requested unilateral support from its dominion partners to help settle a dispute between Turkey and Greece. The resulting confusion made it obvious that constant consultation over foreign policy was neither practical nor desired. In the meantime, however, British officials in London were becoming increasingly conscious of the strength of the empire as a whole and of the individual countries within it. No longer were the dominions dismissed as simply places for emigration, exports, and cheap foodstuffs.

At the 1926 Imperial Conference of Prime Ministers, Imperial Conference of Prime Ministers (1926) the dominions, led by William Lyon Mackenzie King of Canada, pressed the British government to make a formal statement on dominion independence. Arthur Balfour, the British lord president of council, issued a statement that came to be called the Balfour resolution (not to be confused with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed British approval of the Zionist philosophy). The resolution had a number of significant clauses, the first of which stated that the dominions and the United Kingdom were to be seen as equal in status as well as independent from each other. The second clause assured that there would be a common acknowledgment of the British crown as head of state, although each dominion would be allowed to choose its own governor-general as its representative. The third clause stipulated that the laws of Great Britain would be applied only to each dominion by express agreement and that all laws passed by each dominion would receive the governor-general’s approval.

The Crown and the dominions officially agreed that the dominions and other colonies would be called the British Commonwealth of Nations. There were, however, two notable exceptions to the rule on including British colonies in the Commonwealth. India, the “jewel in the British Empire’s crown,” had not yet achieved complete internal independence, even though it retained a separate seat at the League of Nations and had sent troops to World War I. The 1935 Government of India Act Government of India Act (1935) gave the nation further freedoms, but it was not until 1947 that complete independence was achieved by three separate countries: India, Pakistan, and Burma. The second exception was Southern Rhodesia, whose white settlers—but not its large native African population—had become self-governing in 1923. When the colony tried to achieve independence unilaterally in the 1960’s, it was promptly expelled from the Commonwealth. Not until the white minority had ceded power to the African majority were sanctions against Southern Rhodesia dropped and it was allowed to rejoin the Commonwealth.

The legal groundwork necessary to put the Balfour resolution into practice was drawn up during the period 1926-1931. In each country, Britain started to appoint high commissioners; the individuals in these positions were ambassadors required to represent the British view, and they were seen quite separately from the governors-general. In 1931, Australia was the first Commonwealth country to appoint its own governor-general, even though King George V of England disapproved. The adoption of the Balfour resolution meant that the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865 was declared irrelevant, and so each country gained the power to legislate the actions of its citizens regardless of whether they lived in that particular dominion.

An intervening Imperial Conference in 1930 dealt more with trade, and it was here that the possibility of “Commonwealth preference”—advantageous trading terms between the Commonwealth countries—was discussed. After some discussion and compromise, these terms were established in 1932 in Ottawa, Canada. In 1931, the Commonwealth nations pegged their currencies to the British pound and thus became known as the sterling area. Sterling area That same year saw the promulgation of the Statute of Westminster, which had to be passed by both the British parliament and by each Commonwealth country. Until the statute was approved by a dominion, the older acts of Parliament remained in effect there, and the dominion government remained based in London.

Significance

The Statute of Westminster was part of a much longer evolution from colony to independent country. It allowed the dominions to be more independent while retaining links with the United Kingdom, and it enabled the dominions to adopt fresh approaches to legislation. No other colonial empire had managed such a process in such a completely legislative manner.

A number of dominions, including Canada and New Zealand, chose not to act immediately. In Australia, the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act was not passed until 1942, during World War II, when Australia was threatened by invasion from Japan and realized it needed help from the United States as well as Great Britain. Up to that point, Australia had been content to have Great Britain determine its foreign policy. In dominions more hostile to Britain, such as the Irish Free State and South Africa, the Statute of Westminister was quickly approved. In fact, the Irish withdrew from the Commonwealth entirely in 1947, and South Africa’s apartheid policies forced it to withdraw (rather than be expelled) for a time in the 1970’s and 1980’s. During the years of the Great Depression, Newfoundland found that its economy was not strong enough to allow it independent existence, and it was reincorporated as a British colony and administered by the Colonial Office in London until 1949, when the residents of Newfoundland decided to make it Canada’s tenth province. Canada did not introduce its own citizenship requirements until 1947, and it did not take full control over its constitution until 1982.

After World War II, new Commonwealth members were allowed to move to a republican system of democracy: They could elect their own leaders and were no longer required to recognize the British crown as head of state. India and Pakistan were the first nations to take advantage of this freedom, and South Africa followed suit. Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) was the first nonwhite African country to become independent when it joined the Commonwealth in 1957. Other colonies had to fight fierce wars to achieve their independence, including Kenya, Malaya, and Cyprus. A few former colonies, such as Burma (present-day Myanmar), formerly part of India, chose not to become members of the Commonwealth, and others have left and returned, as Pakistan did in 1989.

The Statute of Westminster allowed the British Commonwealth of Nations to grow and develop. The Commonwealth lost some cohesion as countries exited and entered, but its members continued to share a commitment to democracy (through constitutional monarchy or republican forms of government) and many cultural ties (including language). The British monarch makes regular tours through Commonwealth nations, Commonwealth prime ministers still meet every four years, and there is still a considerable amount of immigration to Commonwealth countries from the United Kingdom. Balfour resolution Great Britain;dominions British Commonwealth of Nations, formation Statute of Westminster (1931)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darwin, John. “The Dominion Idea in Imperial Politics.” In The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown. Vol. 4 in The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by W. Roger Louis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Presents a solid account of the establishment of the British dominions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Judd, Dennis, and Peter Shinn. The Evolution of the Modern Commonwealth, 1902-1980. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982. A good account of the evolutionary processes involved in the change from dominions to Commonwealth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitchen, Martin. The British Empire and Commonwealth: A Short History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. Focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, explains how Britain came to have the only true empire in the Victorian era and how it emerged victorious in two world wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, T. O. “The Defeat of the Imperial Idea, 1922-1945.” In The British Empire, 1558-1995. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Discussion places the Statute of Westminster in a fuller context of British history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians, eds. The Cambridge History of the British Empire. 8 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1929-1963. The definitive history of the Commonwealth, although it has become somewhat dated.

Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed

Formation of the Union of South Africa

Ireland Is Granted Home Rule and Northern Ireland Is Created

King Era in Canada

Cyprus Becomes a British Crown Colony

Ottawa Agreements

Ogdensburg Agreement

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