26 April 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration , when the modern Commonwealth was born. What was the Declaration? What is its significance and why are we celebrating?
Before the Declaration
The origins of the Commonwealth stretch back much further than 60 years but 1949 marks the pivotal point at which the Commonwealth’s colonial legacy was positively transformed into a partnership based on equality, choice and consensus.
Prior to this the Balfour Declaration of 1926 had established all member countries as ‘equal in status to one another, in no way subordinate one to another’, and this was in turn adopted into law with the 1931 Statute of Westminster. However it was India’s desire to adopt a republican form of constitution while simultaneously retaining its link with the Commonwealth that prompted a radical reconsideration of the terms of association.
No longer the British Commonwealth
In April 1949, Heads of Government from Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs met in London and deliberated over six days. The outcome was the Declaration of London.
Their final communiqué was both innovative and bold in a number of ways. It stated that King George VI would be recognised as ‘the symbol’ the Commonwealth association. Thus India could remove King George VI as head of their state but recognise him as Head of the Commonwealth. The Declaration also repeatedly emphasised the freedom and equality of its members not just in their relationship to the Head of the Commonwealth as a ‘free association of [..] independent nations’ but also in their cooperative ‘pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. It was also at this juncture that the prefix British was dropped from the title. When King George VI died, Queen Elizabeth II assumed the role of Head of the Commonwealth.
After the end of World War II the Commonwealth became the natural association of choice for many of the new nations emerging out of decolonisation. Starting with Ghana in 1957, the Commonwealth expanded rapidly with new members from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
Why are we celebrating?
In the Commonwealth’s 60th anniversary year, 2009, we list ‘60 ways the Commonwealth makes a difference’ - PDF 1.8 MB
The Commonwealth is now a unique association of 54 independent states consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding. It comprises countries from all major continents of the world, rich and poor, small and large.In the 60 years since the Declaration, the relevance and value of the relationship has repeatedly been reaffirmed and consolidated.
The creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965 and the ever expanding number of professional and advocacy Commonwealth organisations reflect this; but most significant is the expansion of membership from 8 in 1949 to 54* in 2009. A clear demonstration of how the scope of the Declaration ensured that the Commonwealth retained a relevance to other newly independent nations.
In many ways the ‘atmosphere of goodwill and mutual understanding’ in which the Declaration was formulated can be seen as the crucible in which the character governing the Commonwealth today was created. It balanced modern realities with the pragmatic and the positive, which is why 30% of the world’s population have cause for celebration in 2009.
Nearly two billion people now live in the Commonwealth, and half of these are under 25. The future of the Commonwealth belongs with young people, and this is why the Commonwealth theme for 2009 is ‘thecommonwealth@60 - serving a new generation’.
*The leaders agreed to admit Rwanda as the 54th member at their meeting in Trinidad & Tobago in November 2009.