The modern Commonwealth came into being 70 years ago with the London Declaration, signed on 26 April, 1949. Across the Commonwealth, organisations are celebrating the 70th Anniversary with a series of events, conferences, competitions and workshops throughout the next year.
But how was the Commonwealth formed? How has it changed over the last seven decades? And crucially, when was its colonial legacy transformed into a family based on equality, diversity and consensus decision-making?
The origins of our association stretch back much further than 70 years, but the signing of the London Declaration in 1949 marks the point at which the legacy of the British Empire was replaced with a partnership of equal member countries sharing a set of principles and values.
The Balfour Declaration of 1926 had established all members as ‘equal in status to one another, in no way subordinate one to another’, and this was in turn adopted into law with the 1931 Statue of Westminster. However, it was India’s desire to adopt a republican form of constitution while simultaneously retaining its link with the Commonwealth that prompted a radical reconsideration of the terms of that association.
The London Declaration (1949)
Addressing the issue over six days in London, were heads of government from Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa plus Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs.
The final communiqué was both innovative and bold. It stated that the Crown was to be recognised as ‘the symbol’ of the Commonwealth association. Thus India could remove King George VI as their head of state but recognise him as head of the Commonwealth. The Declaration also emphasised the freedom and equality of its members not just in their relationship to the Head of the Commonwealth as a ‘free association of [..] independent nations’ but also in their cooperative ‘pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. It was also at this juncture that the prefix British was dropped from the title.
Why are we celebrating?
In the 70 years since this reformulation, the relevance and value of the relationship has been reaffirmed and consolidated. The creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965 and the ever expanding number of professional and advocacy Commonwealth organisations reflect this relevance.
But most significant is the expansion of Commonwealth membership from eight countries in 1949 to 53 in 2019 – meaning 33 per cent of people on the planet belong to the Commonwealth and have cause for birthday celebrations!
The Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, will host a garden party at Marlborough House, the Commonwealth’s headquarters, on 14 June to celebrate the 70th anniversary. She said: “In celebrating 70 years of the Commonwealth we recall with pride and satisfaction the impressive record of impact and achievement which have brought sustainable development to the people of our diverse family of nations, with ever more inclusive progress and prosperity.
“Programmes such as the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda on Trade and Investment, and the Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance, are examples of recent agreement by our 53 member nations to collaborate in new ways in response to the current needs of our countries and communities.
“As rising generations respond afresh and build together in the renowned Commonwealth spirit of goodwill, we can be assured that through the next 70 years and beyond this great family will rise to even greater levels of mutual support, conscious as always that independence and interdependence go hand in hand for the people and nations of a connected Commonwealth.”