Origins of the concept and establishment of the term
Queen Elizabeth II, in her address to Canada on Dominion Day in 1959, pointed out that the confederation of Canada on 1 July 1867 had been the birth of the "first independent country within the British Empire". She declared: "So, it also marks the beginning of that free association of independent states which is now known as the Commonwealth of Nations." As long ago as 1884 Lord Rosebery, while visiting Australia, had described the changing British Empire, as some of its colonies became more independent, as a "Commonwealth of Nations". Conferences of British and colonial prime ministers occurred periodically from the first one in 1887, leading to the creation of the Imperial Conferences in 1911.
The Commonwealth developed from the imperial conferences. A specific proposal was presented by Jan Smuts in 1917 when he coined the term "the British Commonwealth of Nations" and envisioned the "future constitutional relations and readjustments in essence" at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, attended by delegates from the Dominions as well as Britain. The term first received imperial statutory recognition in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, when the term British Commonwealth of Nations was substituted for British Empire in the wording of the oath taken by members of parliament of the Irish Free State.
Adoption and formalisation of the Commonwealth
In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions agreed they were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations". The term "Commonwealth" was officially adopted to describe the community.
These aspects to the relationship were formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which applied to Canada without the need for ratification, but Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland had to ratify the statute for it to take effect. Newfoundland never did, as on 16 February 1934, with the consent of its parliament, the government of Newfoundland voluntarily ended and governance reverted to direct control from London. Newfoundland later joined Canada as its 10th province in 1949. Australia and New Zealand ratified the Statute in 1942 and 1947 respectively.
Although the Union of South Africa was not among the Dominions that needed to adopt the Statute of Westminster for it to take effect, two laws—the Status of the Union Act, 1934, and the Royal Executive Functions and Seals Act of 1934—were passed to confirm South Africa's status as a sovereign state.
Decolonisation and self-governance
After the Second World War ended, the British Empire was gradually dismantled. Most of its components have become independent countries, whether Commonwealth realms or republics, and members of the Commonwealth. There remain the 14 mainly self-governing British overseas territories which retain some political association with the United Kingdom. In April 1949, following the London Declaration, the word "British" was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect its changing nature.
Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Aden (now part of the Republic of Yemen) are the only states that were British colonies at the time of the war not to have joined the Commonwealth upon independence. Former British protectorates and mandates that did not become members of the Commonwealth are Egypt (independent in 1922), Iraq (1932), Transjordan (1946), Palestine (part of which became the state of Israel in 1948), Sudan (1956), British Somaliland (which united with the former Italian Somaliland in 1960 to form the Somali Republic), Kuwait (1961), Bahrain (1971), Oman (1971), Qatar (1971), and the United Arab Emirates (1971).
The postwar Commonwealth was given a fresh mission by Queen Elizabeth in her Christmas Day 1953 broadcast, in which she envisioned the Commonwealth as "an entirely new conception – built on the highest qualities of the Spirit of Man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace". Hoped-for success was reinforced by such achievements as climbing Mount Everest in 1953, breaking the four-minute mile in 1954, and a solo circumnavigation of the globe in 1966. However, the humiliation of the Suez Crisis of 1956 badly hurt the morale of Britain and of the Commonwealth as a whole. More broadly, there was the loss of a central role of the British Empire: the defence of the Empire. That role was no longer militarily or financially feasible, as Britain's withdrawal from Greece in 1947 had painfully demonstrated. Britain itself was now just one part of the NATO military alliance in which the Commonwealth had no role apart from Canada. The ANZUS treaty of 1955 linked Australia, New Zealand, and the United States in a defensive alliance, with Britain and the Commonwealth left out. The second major function of the Empire made London the financial centre of the system. After the Second World War, the British treasury was so weak that it could not operate independently of the United States. The loss of defence and financial roles, furthermore, undermined Joseph Chamberlain's early 20th century vision of a world empire that could combine Imperial preference, mutual defence, and social growth. Furthermore, Britain's cosmopolitan role in world affairs became increasingly limited, especially with the losses of India and Singapore. While British elites at first hoped the Commonwealth would preserve and project British influence, they gradually lost their enthusiasm, argues Krishnan Srinivasan. Early enthusiasm waned as British policies came under fire at Commonwealth meetings. Public opinion became troubled as immigration from non-white member states became large-scale.
On 18 April 1949, Ireland formally became a republic in accordance with the Irish Republic of Ireland Act 1948; in doing so, it also formally left the Commonwealth. While Ireland had not actively participated in the Commonwealth since the early 1930s, other dominions wished to become republics without losing Commonwealth ties. The issue came to a head in April 1949 at a Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in London. Under the London Declaration, India agreed that, when it became a republic in January 1950, it would accept the British Sovereign as a "symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth". Upon hearing this, King George VI told the Indian politician Krishna Menon: "So, I've become 'as such'". The other Commonwealth countries recognised India's continuing membership of the association. At Pakistan's insistence, India was not regarded as an exceptional case and it was assumed that other states would be accorded the same treatment as India.
The London Declaration is often seen as marking the beginning of the modern Commonwealth. Following India's precedent, other nations became republics, or constitutional monarchies with their own monarchs, while some countries retained the same monarch as the United Kingdom, but their monarchies developed differently and soon became fully independent of the British monarchy. The monarch is regarded as a separate legal personality in each realm, even though the same person is monarch of each realm.
Planners in the interwar period, like Lord Davies, who had also taken "a prominent part in building up the League of Nations Union" in the United Kingdom, in 1932 founded the New Commonwealth Society, of whose British section Winston Churchill became the president. This new society was aimed at the creation of an international air force to be an arm of the League of Nations, to allow nations to disarm and safeguard the peace.
The term New Commonwealth has been used in the UK (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) to refer to recently decolonised countries, predominantly non-white and developing. It was often used in debates about immigration from these countries. Britain and the pre-1945 dominions became informally known as the Old Commonwealth, or more pointedly as the white Commonwealth.
Plan G and inviting Europe to join
At a time when Germany and France, together with Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, were planning what later became the European Union, and newly independent African countries were joining the Commonwealth, new ideas were floated to prevent Britain from becoming isolated in economic affairs. British trade with the Commonwealth was four times larger than its trade with Europe. In 1956 and 1957 the British government under Prime Minister Anthony Eden considered a "Plan G" to create a European free trade zone while also protecting the favoured status of the Commonwealth. Britain also considered inviting Scandinavian and other European countries to join the Commonwealth, so that it would become a major economic common market. At one point in October 1956 Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed having France join the Commonwealth. Nothing came of any of the proposals.