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  • Anna Hilbert

What is the Commonwealth?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

The Commonwealth (officially the Commonwealth of Nations) is “a voluntary association of 54 independent and equal states”. But what does this mean, and what exactly does the Commonwealth do?

This cheat sheet will give you a brief overview of the history of the Commonwealth and how it works, as well as some of the controversies that surround it.

What is the Commonwealth?

So, where did it come from?

The Commonwealth initially emerged in response to changes within the British Empire, specifically the increasing levels of independence given to some states.

The Commonwealth as it is today was formed in 1949, and allowed former British colonies to join the Commonwealth (or remain part of it) even if they became fully independent republics, and so no longer had the British Monarch as their Head of State. At this point, Queen Elizabeth became the symbolic Head of the Commonwealth, but no longer the head of state for all members; she remains, however, the head of state for 16 states known as the Commonwealth Realm. The Head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary title, and the next Head of the Commonwealth is chosen by all the member states (however it should be noted that they have already chosen Prince Charles as successor).

The main idea behind the Commonwealth was for members to retain both economic and cultural ties to one another. In practice, the economic ties ceased to be as relevant as globalisation took hold and trade with other nations (primarily the USA) began to increase in importance.

Where are we now?

Today, the Commonwealth is made up of 54 sovereign states, which are connected by the official use of English.

It is the second largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, with the United Nations being the first. As is expected given the history of the Commonwealth, most states have historical ties to the British Empire (hence their use of English). However, these ties are not a necessity for membership, with eligibility being judged on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, members of the Commonwealth have no legal or official obligations to one another and are held together simply by shared tradition and culture, as well as economic self-interest. The Commonwealth is dedicated to promoting prosperity, peace, and democracy, amplifying the voices of small nations, and protecting the environment.

A positive player...

As well as being important symbolically, the Commonwealth is also culturally significant, as demonstrated through the Commonwealth Games which take place every four years. The member states also tend to support each other in times of crisis and provide relief for natural disasters.

The Commonwealth is also viewed by some as an amplifier for the needs of smaller, often less developed states, who would otherwise be side-lined in the international arena. The Commonwealth is also a useful network for providing policy advice to these smaller states, as well as technical assistance.

It’s for these reasons that many view the Commonwealth as a force for good, as well as a way for former colonial powers (mainly the UK, but Australia and New Zealand also formerly ruled over some of the now independent states) to make up for some of their actions in the past. However, not everyone sees it in such a positive way…

...or a colonial relic?

Conversely, there are many people who view the Commonwealth as nothing more than a newer version of imperialism, a way for Britain to maintain its influence over its former colonies in a more subtle and acceptable way. Here people tend to draw attention to the fact that the Head of the Commonwealth, even though they are elected, has always been the British Monarch.

Another criticism is that the organisation doesn’t actually do anything or doesn’t do enough; the Commonwealth nations don’t act as a block in the international arena and the organisation holds little sway over non-members.

Ultimately, whether the Commonwealth is a force for good or an outdated symbol is a matter of how you personally view it. Hopefully, this cheat sheet will help you begin to form your own opinion.

For more resources on the legacy of the British Empire, head to our dedicated British History section.

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