Home >About us >Our history

Our history

The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain.

The early Commonwealth

Over time different countries of the British Empire gained different levels of freedom from Britain. Semi-independent countries were called Dominions. Leaders of the Dominions attended conferences with Britain from 1887.

The 1926 Imperial Conference was attended by the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.

At the 1926 conference Britain and the Dominions agreed that they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. They all owed allegiance to the British king or queen, but the United Kingdom did not rule over them. This community was called the British Commonwealth of Nations or just the Commonwealth.

Birth of the modern Commonwealth

The Dominions and other territories of the British Empire gradually became fully independent of the United Kingdom.

India became independent in 1947. India wanted to become a republic which didn't owe allegiance to the British king or queen, but it also wanted to stay a member of the Commonwealth.

At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1949, the London Declaration said that republics and other countries could be part of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth of Nations was born.

King George VI was the first Head of the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth II became Head when he died. But the British king or queen is not automatically Head of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth member countries choose who becomes Head of the Commonwealth.

The modern Commonwealth

Since 1949 independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined the Commonwealth. Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation.

The last 2 countries to join the Commonwealth - Rwanda and Mozambique - have no historical ties to the British Empire.

The Commonwealth Secretariat was created in 1965 as a central intergovermental organisation to manage the Commonwealth's work.

Commonwealth library and archive

The Commonwealth library and archives are available for historical research and study at Marlborough House in London.

Stories from the Commonwealth archive

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, London, United Kingdom. 8 –15 June 1977 Image of Commonwealth Heads of Government at CHOGM in London, UK, 1977

8 June 1977

Declarations and Statements

  • Communiqué
  • Gleneagles Agreement: Commonwealth Statement on Apartheid in Sport

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Ottawa, Canada. 2 – 10 August 1973 Image of Heads of Government at CHOGM in Ottawa, Canada, 1973

2 August 1973

Declarations and Statements

  • Ottawa Communique
  • Statement by the Commonwealth Heads of Government on the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water.

Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles 1971 written in white on a blue background

22 January 1971

Commonwealth Heads of Government issued the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles at their summit in Singapore in 1971

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Singapore, Singapore. 14 – 22 January 1971 Opening ceremony of the 1971 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Singapore

14 January 1971

First meeting of the Commonweatlh Heads of Government (CHOGM).

Declarations and Statements

Declaration on Strengthening Co-operation In International Humanitarian Law

2 February 2005

Declaration of the Nairobi Meeting of Commonwealth National Committees on International Humanitarian Law 21 July 2005

Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice Image of document

7 August 1979

Commonwealth Heads of Government issued the Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice on 7 August 1979 at their summit in Lusaka, Zambia.

Millbrook Commonwealth Action Plan on the Harare Declaration Image of document

12 November 1995

Heads of Government issued the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Plan on the Harare Declaration in New Zealand on 12 November 1995.

Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers Commonwealth Election Observers

1 February 2005

"Genuine democratic elections are an expression of sovereignty, which belongs to the people of a country, the free expression of whose will provides the basis for the authority and legitimacy of government. The rights of citizens to vote and to be elected at periodic, genuine democratic elections are internationally recognized human rights. Genuine democratic elections serve to resolve peacefully the competition for political power within a country and thus are central to the maintenance of peace and stability. Where governments are legitimized through genuine democratic elections, the scope for non-democratic challenges to power is reduced..."

Read the full text

Latimer House Principles Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon at the launch Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Three Branches of Government (May 2004)

2 March 2004

The Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles govern issues such as the harmonious balancing of power and the interaction between parliament, the executive and the judiciary in democratic societies. They set out in detail the consensus arrived at by representatives of the three branches of government in the Commonwealth on how each of their national institutions should interrelate in the exercise of their institutional responsibility. The Principles specify restraint in the exercise of power within their respective constitutional spheres so that the legitimate discharge of constitutional functions by other institutions are not encroached on.

Read the full text