The Commonwealth of Nations (The Commonwealth)

The Commonwealth of Nations, often called just the Commonwealth, is an association of 53 independent nations, all but one of which are former British colonies or related dependencies. Although the British empire is mostly no more, these nations grouped together to use their history to promote peace, democracy and development. There are substantial economic ties and a shared history.

List of Member Nations

Origins of the Commonwealth

Towards the end of the nineteenth century changes began occurring in the old British Empire, as the colonies grew in independence. In 1867 Canada became a ‘dominion’, a self-governing nation considered equal with Britain rather than simply ruled by her. The phrase ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ was used to describe the new relationships between Britain and colonies by Lord Rosebury during a speech in Australia in 1884. More dominions followed: Australia in 1900, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1921.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the dominions sought a new definition of the relationship between themselves and Britain. At first the old ‘Conferences of Dominions’ and ‘Imperial Conferences’, begun in 1887 for discussion between the leaders of Britain and the dominions, were resurrected. Then, at the 1926 Conference, the Balfour Report was discussed, accepted and the following agreed of dominions:

"They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

This declaration was made law by the 1931 Statute of Westminster and the British Commonwealth of Nations was created.

Development of the Commonwealth of Nations

The Commonwealth evolved in 1949 after the dependence of India, which was partitioned into two wholly independent nations: Pakistan and India. The latter wished to remain in the Commonwealth despite owing no “allegiance to the Crown”. The problem was solved by a conference of Commonwealth ministers that same year, which concluded that sovereign nations could still be a part of the Commonwealth with no implied allegiance to Britain as long as they saw the Crown as “the symbol of the free association” of the Commonwealth. The name ‘British’ was also dropped from the title to better reflect the new arrangement. Many other colonies soon developed into their own republics, joining the Commonwealth as they did so, especially during the second half of the twentieth century as African and Asian nations became independent. New ground was broken in 1995, when Mozambique joined, despite never having been a British colony.

Not every former British colony joined the Commonwealth, nor did every nation who joined stay in it. For instance Ireland withdrew in 1949, as did South Africa (under Commonwealth pressure to curb apartheid) and Pakistan (in 1961 and 1972 respectively) although they later rejoined. Zimbabwe left in 2003, again under political pressure to reform.

The Setting of Objectives

The Commonwealth has a secretariat to oversee its business, but no formal constitution or international laws. It does, however, have an ethical and moral code, first expressed in the ‘Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles’, issued in 1971, by which members agree to operate, including aims of peace, democracy, liberty, equality and an end to racism and poverty. This was refined and expanded in the Harare Declaration of 1991 which is often considered to have “set the Commonwealth on a new course: that of promoting democracy and good governance, human rights and the rule of law, gender equality and sustainable economic and social development.” (cited from the Commonwealth website, page has since moved.) An action plan has since been produced to actively follow these declarations. Failure to adhere to these aims can, and has, resulted in a member being suspended, such as Pakistan from 1999 to 2004 and Fiji in 2006 after military coups.

Alternative Aims

Some early British supporters of the Commonwealth hoped for different results: that Britain would grow in political power by influencing the members, regaining the global position it had lost, that economic ties would strengthen the British economy and that the Commonwealth would promote British interests in world affairs. In reality, member states have proved reluctant to compromise their new found voice, instead working out how the Commonwealth could benefit them all.

Commonwealth Games

Perhaps the best known aspect of the Commonwealth is the Games, a sort of mini Olympics held every four years which only accepts entrants from Commonwealth countries. It has been derided, but is often recognised as a solid way to prepare young talent for international competition.

Member Nations (with date of membership)

Antigua and Barbuda 1981
Australia 1931
Bahamas 1973
Bangladesh 1972
Barbados 1966
Belize 1981
Botswana 1966
Brunei 1984
Cameroon 1995
Canada 1931
Cyprus 1961
Dominica 1978
Fiji 1971 (left in 1987; rejoined 1997)
Gambia 1965
Ghana 1957
Grenada 1974
Guyana 1966
India 1947
Jamaica 1962
Kenya 1963
Kiribati 1979
Lesotho 1966
Malawi 1964
Maldives 1982
Malaysia (formerly Malaya) 1957
Malta 1964
Mauritius 1968
Mozambique 1995
Namibia 1990
Nauru 1968
New Zealand 1931
Nigeria 1960
Pakistan 1947
Papua New Guinea 1975
Saint Kitts and Nevis 1983
Saint Lucia 1979
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 1979
Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) 1970
Seychelles 1976
Sierra Leone 1961
Singapore 1965
Solomon Islands 1978
South Africa 1931 (left in 1961; rejoined 1994)
Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) 1948
Swaziland 1968
Tanzania 1961(As Tanganyika; became Tanzania in 1964 after union with Zanzibar)
Tonga 1970
Trinidad and Tobago 1962
Tuvalu 1978
Uganda 1962
United Kingdom 1931
Vanuatu 1980
Zambia 1964
Zanzibar 1963 (United with Tanganyika to form Tanzania)
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Wilde, Robert. "The Commonwealth of Nations (The Commonwealth)." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, January 29). The Commonwealth of Nations (The Commonwealth). Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Commonwealth of Nations (The Commonwealth)." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).