Development of the Commonwealth was spurred by both nationalism and the continued decline of Britain as a world power. The Commonwealth began with the recognition of sovereign independence and equality among all British Dominions in 1931. By the end of World War II, Britain, while still nominally a major power, was virtually bankrupt and could no longer defend its empire in the Cold War era of massive military spending. And its colonies wanted independence.
Membership in the British Commonwealth at the end of World War II included Australia (1931, ratified 1942), the United Kingdom (1931), the Republic of Ireland (1931–1949, when it became a republic), Newfoundland (1931, and part of Canada since 1949), New Zealand (1931, ratified 1947), and South Africa (1931). The Commonwealth was originally to be an economic bloc wherein members accorded each other's goods privileged access to their markets (Commonwealth Preference) and had fewer or no restrictions on migration among member countries. In 1950 more than 40 percent of British exports went to Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth did not come together for the specific purpose of military alliance, although member states were often involved in other international defensive alliances. During the Cold War, however, the Commonwealth nearly broke apart because of seemingly irreconcilable political differences among certain member states.
The simultaneous Cold War era and worldwide decolonization movement led to the independence of many former colonies and their admission into the Commonwealth, although this also contributed to some tensions. The first occurred in 1950 when newly independent colonies that were republics wanted to join the Commonwealth, whereas other member states were Dominions. The impasse was resolved when Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent proposed a formula whereby India and other countries could remain members if they accepted the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth, regardless of their domestic constitutional arrangements. This compromise is considered by many to be the start of what is called the Modern Commonwealth. Not all issues were so easily resolved, however.
The debate concerning Southern Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe after 1980) was particularly heated. Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) was granted independence and membership into the Commonwealth in 1964, but Southern Rhodesia remained a British colony because it did not have adequate representation for the nonwhite population. On 11 November 1965, Ian Smith, the leader of the white minority government, declared independence. This move was internationally condemned and, upon Britain's insistence, Rhodesia was placed under sanctions authorized by the United Nations (UN) Security Council from 1965 until its independence in 1980. Throughout the period, Southern Rhodesia was wracked by a bloody civil war. Britain gained control of the country for a short time in 1979. The new nation of Zimbabwe joined the Commonwealth in 1980, was suspended in 2002, and left in 2003 because of charges of electoral fraud.
The most contentious and well-known conundrum involving the Commonwealth during the Cold War era was South Africa's apartheid government. During 1948–1990, successive white-minority governments enacted policies and laws that legally sanctioned strict racial segregation. A Commonwealth member, South Africa left in 1961 because of widespread international condemnation. During this time there was widespread violence against the black population as state police tried to repress protest movements. In response, both the Commonwealth and the UN passed resolutions condemning South Africa. The 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles denounced racial prejudice, colonial domination, and great disparities of wealth. Yet Britain, among others, desired a moderate and gradual approach to combating apartheid, whereas African states would not accept any compromise regarding racial oppression. This created a rift between white Commonwealth members and the poorer African members.
International economic pressure was applied whereby nations refused to invest in South African businesses or any business that had dealings in South Africa. South African sports teams were barred from international events, and South African tourism was boycotted. These bans, however, were not very effective, and many states did little to enforce them. In 1984 limited reforms in South Africa were introduced, but violence immediately followed when P. W. Botha's government tried to eliminate political opposition and then attempted to conceal its actions by censoring the media. Not until 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, did apartheid end, whereupon South Africa was allowed to rejoin the Commonwealth.
At the end of the Cold War, member states other than Britain had more influence than they did in 1945. The formation of regional groups (usually motivated by economic imperatives) such as the African Caribbean Pacific Group or the Caribbean Community allowed states to support one another in binding agreements. Yet poor countries were still often unable to redistribute wealth among their populations or make international political demands because of their lack of negotiating power when dealing with international financial institutions. The end of the Cold War also meant that the Soviet Union could no longer provide an alternative to capitalism. There was also the realization that many ethnic, political, regional, and religious divisions within former colonies had been overlooked when they were first granted independence. This was especially true in many African states, where the number of human rights abuses was appalling. Nonetheless, in such instances the Commonwealth continued to provide a forum for discussion that, by allowing a place for dialogue, will perhaps result in solutions to the problems that continue to plague Commonwealth nations.
Jonathan A. Clapperton
Kitchen, Martin. Empire and After: A Short History of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Vancouver, BC: Simon Fraser University, 1994.; Low, D. A. Eclipse of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.