The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

30

Commonwealth Legacy

W. DAVID MCINTYRE

'Commonwealth', which began as a synonym for Empire, came to signify its antithesis. The 'British Commonwealth of Nations'—that unwritten alliance between Britain and the Old Dominions in two world wars—was quite different from the 'Commonwealth of Nations' which South Africa quit in 1961. By this time the original core had been joined by four Asian and two African members and Cyprus. Eire had left; Burma never joined. The fifty-four member 'Commonwealth', whose heads of government met in Edinburgh in 1997, was of yet another order. South Africa had been back in the fold for three years and Fiji had just returned; Cameroon, with only fractional links to the Empire, and Mozambique, with none, had been admitted; Nigeria was under suspension. The appellation 'Commonwealth', popularized by Imperial federalists eighty years earlier, now applied to an international grouping larger than the United Nations in 1945 (Maps 30.1 and 2).

Until 1965 the Commonwealth constituted a special 'club' (in the commonly used sobriquet) within the Empire. Becoming a 'member of the Commonwealth' was a badge of independence. But the club was still managed from Whitehall by the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Cabinet Office. The Secretary of the Cabinet was Secretary-General of the Prime Ministers' Meetings. After 1965, with the creation of the Secretariat (followed by the Foundation a year later), the Commonwealth was transformed into a multilateral association, which soon achieved a momentum of its own. Co-ordination shifted from Whitehall to Pall Mall, where, from the then-fading grandeur of Marlborough House, the Secretary‐ General acted as servant of the heads of government collectively.

Each of the landmarks in the dissolution of the Empire (Attlee and South Asia; Macmillan and the 'Wind of Change'; Wilson and 'Withdrawal from East-of‐ Suez') induced crises for the Commonwealth. Britain showed great reluctance, for a time, to widen the membership of the club, though at each stage she gave in, more or less graciously, and virtue was made of necessity. The club was a cosy one in the 'British Commonwealth of Nations' phase, satisfying to Britain and the Dominions. Almost sanctified by the Balfour Report in 1926 and the Statute of

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