A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth

By W. David McIntyre | Go to book overview

9
Membership

At the time of writing there were 54 members of the Commonwealth. Of this total, over half had populations of less than one million at independence when they joined. Between the era of the five-nation ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ – an unwritten alliance in the Second World War when it was still a Great Power – to the time of Namibia’s accession as the fiftieth member in 1990, the association was totally transformed. The engine of change was the dissolution of the British Empire. This, in turn, was only part of the mighty tide of decolonisation – one of the grand themes of the twentieth century. The evolution of the ‘New Commonwealth’ was the peculiar contribution made by the British fellow-nations to this momentous process. Deryck Schreuder once wrote of imperial expansion in the nineteenth century: ‘The Empire … died as it grew.’ 1 Cynics contemplating decolonisation during the suspense-ridden 1960s liked to hint that ‘The Commonwealth grew as it died.’ But the putative morticians were to be confounded. The return of post-apartheid South Africa to the Commonwealth in 1994, after an absence of 33 years, made the total membership equal to the original United Nations in 1945. A year later this was followed by the admission of Cameroon, a largely Francophone country, whose accession surprised everyone. This perhaps tempered the surprise which also greeted the approval, in the same meetings, for the admission of Mozambique, a wholly Lusophone country, no part of which had ever been ruled by Britain. In 1997, there was considerable delight at the return of Fiji, after a ‘lapse’ in membership of ten years. Such was the apparent attraction of membership that a minor build-up of new applicants led to the appointment of the working group on criteria in 1995. There was talk of 70 by the end of the first decade of the new century.

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