How the Commonwealth arose from a crumbling British Empire

Britain’s new king, Charles III, will take the reins of this organization composed of former colonies. But the royal family’s leadership of the Commonwealth is no longer a given—here’s why.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II set into motion a historic transition of power—not just in Great Britain but in 54 countries across the world that maintain ties to the royal family as members of the Commonwealth of Nations, an international organization composed mainly of former British colonies.

Change was felt most keenly among the 14 members known as Commonwealth realms, which still recognize the British monarch as their head of state. In the days after the queen’s death, the leaders of those nations—including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—issued proclamations declaring their loyalty to Elizabeth’s heir, Charles III, as their official head of state. (Here’s what happens now that Queen Elizabeth II has passed.)

One Commonwealth realm, however, also announced its intention to hold a referendum on whether to remove the British monarch as its head of state. “This is not an act of hostility, or any difference between Antigua and Barbuda and the monarchy,” Gaston Browne, prime minister of the Caribbean nation, told ITV News. “It is a final step to complete the circle of independence to become a truly sovereign nation.”

But the queen’s death marks a new era even for the 40 Commonwealth countries that don’t recognize the British monarch as their leader, such as India, Singapore, and Kenya. They will still recognize Charles III as the new head of the organization that works to protect the environment, boost trade, and support democracy throughout the world.

Confused about how members of the Commonwealth differ from Commonwealth realms—and the British monarch plays in their affairs? You’re not alone. Here’s a look at the evolution of the organization that historian W. David McIntyre once described as “a loose association of states whose relationship with Britain and each other often defied definition.”

How the Commonwealth was formed

The Commonwealth of Nations was born out of the slow disintegration of the British Empire, which covered a fifth of the world’s surface at its peak in the late 19th century. Its holdings spanned from Hong Kong to the Caribbean to a wide swath of southern and East Africa. Queen Victoria, whose reign was critical to consolidating the empire, became Empress of India in 1877.

But even as the empire expanded, some of its colonies grew frustrated with imperial oversight. In 1864 representatives from the three British colonies in modern-day Canada began to negotiate merging into one self-governing confederation. The territories—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada—feared possible aggression from the United States and wanted to establish their own defense forces. They also sought free trade with their southern neighbor.

Anxious not to stoke another revolution like the one it had lost nearly a century earlier, Britain agreed to its colonists’ terms in July 1867. But it didn’t give up control of the territory: Instead, a united Canada became a British dominion. The distinction meant Canada could rule itself but its laws would still be subject to British oversight—meaning they could be vetoed at the monarch’s discretion. In subsequent decades, other predominantly white British colonies became dominions too, including Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).

In the aftermath of World War I, however, rising nationalism in the dominions, which had fought alongside Britain, sparked a push for more than just self-governance. In 1926 Britain and the dominions agreed that they would all be equal in status, “united by a common allegiance to the Crown.” The declaration—formalized in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster—ushered in the official founding of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Toward a modern Commonwealth

It would take about two more decades for the Commonwealth to evolve into its modern-day form—with a push from the independence movement in India. Although India was party to the 1926 talks, it didn’t sign on to the agreement that would have ensured its continued recognition of the British monarchy. Instead, a movement led by Mahatma Gandhi fought for full independence from colonial rule.

India finally won its independence from Britain in 1947. But it wasn’t ready to split entirely. Two years later, the newly sovereign country asked to join the British Commonwealth of Nations—with a few conditions. While India would accept King George VI as head of the Commonwealth, it would be the first country to join that didn’t swear allegiance to the crown. (How the end of British colonial rule birthed two sovereign nations—India and Pakistan.)

Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a speech before India’s parliament that explained the decision: “In the world today where there are so many disruptive forces at work, where we are often on the verge of war, I think it is not a safe thing to encourage the breaking up of any association that one has.” 

The member nations agreed to those conditions, and in 1949 they issued the London Declaration, allowing India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to join “as free and equal members.” The declaration reformed the Commonwealth of Nations—one that would admit other independent nations without swearing allegiance to the crown.

Members of the Commonwealth

Today there are 54 members of the Commonwealth of Nations, which tackles initiatives related to trade, environmental protections, education, and more. Members have no obligations to one another but are united through their common values—and, for most, their shared histories as former British colonies.

Commonwealth membership has seen significant churn in the more than 70 years since it was formed. Ireland withdrew from the organization in 1949 when it officially became a republic, while countries such as Fiji and Nigeria were suspended during periods of autocratic rule. Meanwhile, Mozambique and Rwanda became the only two countries without any historical ties to the British Empire to join the organization, in 1995 and 2009 respectively. Both countries sought to take advantage of the diplomatic and economic ties that membership would bring.

Many other countries joined the Commonwealth after winning independence from Britain in the mid-to-late 20th century—including Barbados, Cyprus, and Singapore. Papua New Guinea joined after gaining independence from Australia, a former British dominion. Following India’s lead, most chose not to swear fealty to the British monarchy.

However, 14 members still do recognize the monarch. Known as the Commonwealth realms, these countries include Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the United Kingdom, and—for now, at least—Antigua and Barbuda. (Here’s why Queen Elizabeth’s portrait is still on the money of some former British colonies.)

The British monarch’s role in the Commonwealth

The British monarch is not automatically the head of the Commonwealth. The position is technically not hereditary but selected by member nations. In 2018, the organization announced that Prince Charles would succeed his mother just as she had succeeded her father—but that may not hold true for future monarchs.

Either way, the role is symbolic. While a bureaucracy oversees the day-to-day work of the organization, Queen Elizabeth’s role was mainly to reinforce the bonds among member nations by embarking on regular royal tours. (Why Queen Elizabeth II was modern Britain’s most unlikely queen.)

The monarch’s role is slightly different in the Commonwealth realms. Although they are not part of Britain—and they elect their own governments—these countries do still swear fealty to the British monarch. The king is represented in the Commonwealth realms by governors-general, de facto heads of state who carry out ceremonial duties like approving legislation and appointing ministers, ambassadors, and judges.

Yet these roles too are largely ceremonial. Many countries select their own governor-general—who the king then approves and appoints—and advise them on how to carry out their duties. But the Council on Foreign Relations notes that the governor-general does have the authority to override local governments in exceptional circumstances. In 1975, for instance, Australia’s governor-general John Kerr unilaterally dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to break a parliamentary deadlock, setting off a constitutional crisis.

Modern relevance

In recent years, some of the Commonwealth realms have begun to consider making a change—particularly in the former colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific where younger people view the Commonwealth as a colonial relic.

In the 1970s, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica all dropped the British monarch as their head of state while remaining in the Commonwealth. Other countries followed—and in 2021, Barbados became the first country in nearly 30 years to remove the queen as its head of state. (The Caribbean’s ‘Little England’ has long wanted to free itself from British control.)

Some have speculated that Barbados’ decision could signal a new wave of republican sentiment. Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London, told the New York Times that Barbados’ decision “could be a tipping point” for other countries such as Jamaica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Meanwhile, even the former dominions have considered changing their relationship with the royal family. In a 1999 referendum, Australia very nearly did so with 45 percent of voters supporting removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state. A February 2021 survey found that 55 percent of Canadians believe the British royal family is no longer relevant to their lives—and half said that the queen should be removed as their head of state.

Yet even as countries debate these historic steps, their leaders echo the sentiments of Jawaharlal Nehru: In an increasingly globalized world, it’s critical to retain allies—even their former colonizer—through organizations like the Commonwealth of Nations.

“We look forward to continuing the relationship with the British monarch,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said in an October address to Barbados Parliament members.

Queen Elizabeth herself was a staunch supporter of this view of the Commonwealth. In 1953, she declared during her traditional Christmas Day broadcast that she viewed the United Kingdom as equal partners with the independent nations that made up the Commonwealth.

“Thus formed, the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past,” she said. “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.”

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