The British Monarchists Society

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth and the Crown. The Commonwealth of Nations is an organisation of 53 independent states made up mostly of former colonies that were part of the British Empire. The Commonwealth is headed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, however this position is not a hereditary one. 16 nations in The Commonwealth share Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State, although each of these nations are governed separately – United Kingdom, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. These are known as the ‘Commonwealth Realms’.

Its Purpose

The origins of the Commonwealth lie in Britain’s former colonial empire. Until 1949, the member states of today’s Commonwealth were united through common allegiance to the British Crown. After the Second World War, many countries sought their independence. Soon after attaining independence in 1947, India declared that it wished to adopt a republican constitution, but also wanted to remain within the Commonwealth. This was accepted in the London Declaration agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1949, provided that India accepted King George VI as “the symbol of the free association of the independent Member Nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth”.Over the next two decades, British rule ended in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. With a few exceptions (such as Myanmar, formerly known as Burma), the newly independent countries joined the Commonwealth and recognised King George VI and, following his death, Queen Elizabeth II, as Head of the Commonwealth.

The London Declaration made it possible for the Asian and African states of the former Empire, most of which wished to become republics, to remain within the Commonwealth upon attaining independence. This has led to the development of the contemporary Commonwealth. Member countries of the Commonwealth can therefore have different constitutions: a republic with a president as Head of State (such as India and South Africa), an indigenous monarchy (for example, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga), a sultanate (Brunei), an elected Paramount Chieftaincy (Western Samoa), or a realm recognising The Queen as Sovereign (for example the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Barbados). Whichever form their constitution takes, member countries all recognise The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. Today the Commonwealth continues to play an important social and political role in the world, as a major association of countries. As The Queen declared in a Silver Jubilee speech in 1977, it symbolises “the transformation of the Crown from an emblem of dominion into a symbol of free and voluntary association. In all history this has no precedent.” The term ‘Commonwealth’ was first used by British Liberal politician Lord Rosebery in Adelaide, Australia, in 1884. During a famous speech, he referred to the British Empire as ‘a Commonwealth of Nations’.

The Queen And The Commonwealth

This is an important symbolic and unifying role. As Head,The Queen personally reinforces the links by which the Commonwealth joins people together from around the world. One of the ways of strengthening these connections is through regular Commonwealth visits. During her reign, The Queen has visited every country in the Commonwealth (with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995) and made many repeat visits. One third of The Queen’s total overseas visits are to Commonwealth countries. The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family are also regular visitors to the Commonwealth.

The Queen keeps in touch with Commonwealth developments through regular contact with the Commonwealth Secretary General and his Secretariat. This is the Commonwealth’s central organisation. Based in London, it co-ordinates many Commonwealth activities. Her Majesty also has regular meetings with Heads of Government from Commonwealth countries.Each year, The Queen attends the Commonwealth Day celebrations in London. Since 1977, Commonwealth Day has been celebrated throughout the Commonwealth on the second Monday in March. The Queen attends an inter-denominational service held in Westminster Abbey, followed by a reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary General.

Modern communications technology allows The Queen to speak to every part of the Commonwealth through her annual Christmas and Commonwealth Day messages. Both messages are delivered by The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth to the peoples of the Commonwealth as a whole. They are unique in that they are delivered on The Queen’s own responsibility, drafted without ministerial advice. Every two years a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) is held, at locations throughout the Commonwealth. The Queen is normally present in the host country, during which she has a series of private meetings with the Commonwealth countries’ leaders. The Commonwealth Games are a major sporting occasion which brings together young people from all over the world in friendly competition. The Queen often attends the Commonwealth Games to open or close them – most recently, the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia.

In all these different ways The Queen, though not part of the machinery of government in the Commonwealth, acts as a personal link and human symbol of the Commonwealth as an international organisation. Instead of the Royal standard, The Queen uses special flags when she visits the Commonwealth. She has a personal flag – an initial E and crown within a chaplet of roses – for use at Commonwealth meetings. In realms such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, The Queen uses a different standard for each individual country.

Commonwealth Members

There are currently 53 members of the commonwealth: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, Vanuatu, Zambia.