Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)

Britain accepted this new concept, though at first it found difficulty in realizing that its youngsters had grown up. Getting other countries, such as France or ourselves, to accept the idea was more difficult, but eventually everyone did. The dominions gained separate representation at the peace conference, signed the Treaty of Versailles in their own right, and became foundation members of the League of Nations. Three of them received mandates.

This emergence of the dominions as nations in the Commonwealth and as sovereign states in the world took place only twenty-five years ago. An imperial conference gathered in London in 1926 to see what it all meant and where it might lead. The delegates asked themselves “Where do we stand now?” and then framed the following answer: Britain and the dominions are “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

It might be worth while to read this quotation again, noting the key facts—autonomy, equality of status, unity under a common crown, and free association. What in practice have these words meant during the last generation?


Autonomy and equality of status

The younger nations have set up their own embassies and legations in Washington and several other capitals. They even exchange diplomatic agents called “high commissioners” among themselves. Some of them have negotiated treaties with other countries. The Canadian-American pacts on trade and fisheries are examples. They have signed treaties with each other and with Britain. They act on their own in foreign affairs, and none of them is bound by the actions of any other.

For instance, in 1925 Britain tried to strengthen the peace structure in Europe by agreeing that it would support France against an attack by Germany, but support Germany if France was the aggressor. This pact, signed at Locarno, was praised by the overseas dominions, but it bound none of them to take up arms in aid if Britain was called on to honor it. In the League of Nations each dominion pursued its own course; during the Manchurian and Abyssinian crises, New Zealand urged the League to take strong action and criticized the other members of the Commonwealth for not taking a firmer stand.

Even the British won a greater measure of autonomy when the Irish Free State was set up as a dominion in 1922. For over a hundred years Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom, as were Wales and Scotland. It had less than 10 percent of the kingdom’s population but occupied 15 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. Discussion of Irish problems took up a lot of time and created intense bitterness. The Home Rule for Ireland controversy wrecked cabinets, broke up the Liberal party, and nearly provoked a rebellion in 1914. At that time a Home Rule Act was passed under which the Protestant, Scots-Irish, industrial province of Ulster would have been dominated by the Catholic, agricultural, Celtic majority which lived in the rest of the country. The outbreak of war in 1914 shelved this act and thereby averted the fear of Ulster’s revolt. The extremist Home Rulers, however, resented the shelving. They staged a revolt in 1916, and for five years there was grim bloody tumult in the land.

During those five years, however, the concept of dominion status had taken shape, and it offered a way out of the Irish tragedy. In 1921 the Sinn Fein, or independence, movement reached an agreement with the British by which the twenty-six southern counties became the Irish Free State, with the same status in the Commonwealth as was enjoyed by Canada and the other dominions. Ulster remained apart, with its own legislature and cabinet and a few seats in the British Parliament. The departure from the House of Commons of the representatives of 3,000,000 Irish people and the transfer of their problems from London to Dublin allowed the British to devote more time to the affairs of their own 47,000,000 people.

Eire—the test case

Having gone to Ireland, let us stay there a moment, for that country has provided the acid test of the reality of dominion autonomy. Since 1932 the government has been in the hands of a party which stresses separateness from the big neighbor across the narrow Irish Sea. The name has been changed from Irish Free State to Eire. The oath of allegiance to the monarchy is no longer taken by legislators. The office of governor-general, occupied by the king’s representative, has been abolished. The state is called a republic, and its head is a president. The picture of the king has been removed from the coins and an Irish harp has taken its place. Practically the only remaining function exercised by the king is that of signing the “letters of credence” which Eire’s diplomats carry when they go to foreign capitals.

The British made no protest against these steps. If the Irish wanted to take them, dominion autonomy gave them the right to do so. In 1938, as part of its policy of appeasement, Britain handed over to Eire three naval bases in Ireland which it had retained in the 1921 settlement. The Irish insisted that their sovereignty was incomplete so long as British warships used these harbors. But Britain declined to force Ulster to join Eire. If the two parts of the island were to come together they must do so of their own will, by common consent.

When war came, Ulster was in it at once, but Eire remained neutral. Throughout the war a German minister continued to reside in Dublin, and there was never a blackout. Britain recognized Eire’s right to be neutral, even though the inability to use the three naval bases or any Irish airfields grievously impeded the British fleet and the RAF in waging battle against the submarine. Today the Irish people have really proved to themselves that they are free.

The other dominions

The other overseas members of the Commonwealth were equally free to decide whether they would enter the war or stay out. New Zealand and Australia were not bothered about nice points of status, so long as they could do as they wished. They felt that adult status isn’t much use without the adult stature needed to protect it. They knew that 9,000,000 people in a remote corner of the world needed the protection of the British navy. Their people are solely of British origin and often refer to Britain as “home.” Consequently their government said, in effect, “If Britain is at war, of course we are in it,” and made no formal declarations by legislative action.

Canada and South Africa exercised their right of decision by submitting the question to parliament. Both are nations with a mixed population. The French Canadians have had their language, religion, and other freedoms guaranteed by the British ever since the country was conquered nearly two hundred years ago. Yet they have little interest in Britain, in France, in the Commonwealth, or in any part of the outside world.

In World War I the French Canadians bitterly opposed conscription, and there was some fear that they might oppose even participation in World War II. When the question was put to parliament, however, the verdict was an almost unanimous vote in favor of declaring war. But the French population was still opposed to conscription, and when a change from voluntary enlistment for overseas service to conscription became necessary in late 1944, there was some violent dissent.

In South Africa the years between the two wars had witnessed the growth among Afrikanders of a sentiment in favor of pulling out of the Commonwealth, while some prominent men openly showed that they liked Nazi ideas and were in favor of playing ball with Berlin. Even the prime minister, General Hertzog, proposed in 1939 that the Union remain neutral. The deputy prime minister, General Smuts, urged a break with Germany. The result was very close—Smuts won the day by only 80 votes to 67. Hertzog resigned, and Smuts became the head of the government. Four years later in a general election his policy was confirmed, for his party won 107 seats, while the opposition captured only 43.

Unity and free association

By their own choice, four of the sovereign nations in the Commonwealth “freely associated” themselves with Britain in the war, and one freely disassociated itself. This is the most extreme possible evidence of the reality of “autonomy” and of “equality of status.” What then of the other side of the Commonwealth’s currency? What of unity by common allegiance to the crown and what of free association? We have already seen that the use of the same man as monarch of each nation is the only constitutional link (very weak in the case of Eire) that binds the Commonwealth together. There is no emperor for the Commonwealth, no constitution, legislature, administration, judicature, defense force, currency, tariff, revenue system, or even membership dues.

At times enthusiasts in Britain and overseas have pleaded for some sort of imperial union or federation. This, they propose, would do for the Empire the larger jobs which are done in our Union by the federal government. It would leave the dominions to look after local affairs just as our state governments do. In after-dinner speeches this proposal may seem attractive, with its dream of an imperial parliament, navy, army, customs union, civil service, cabinet, and one foreign policy. But next morning it never has looked so attractive.

The younger nations fear that the mother country would run the show. Mother, meanwhile, is afraid that the youngsters would take charge of the house. The whole scheme seems to threaten a curtailment of that freedom which has been gained through the decades. The history of such federations as ours or that of Australia, moreover, shows that disputes involving the rights of the larger and the smaller governments are bound to occur.

Consultation, cooperation, coordination

“Free association” rather than federation has therefore remained the guiding rule. It has come to mean three things, described by the Canadian prime minister as “close consultation, close cooperation, and effective coordination of policies.” Close consultation became easier when the dominions established representatives—high commissioners—in each other’s capital cities. It became still more so when the radio telephone enabled the prime ministers to ring each other up. And transoceanic flying made it possible for them to hop about and see each other or meet in full conference as the did in London on the eve of D-Day in 1944.

Consultation has led to “close cooperation and effective coordination of policies” when circumstances called for joint action. When the world plunged into depression in 1929 and international trade almost vanished under the attacks of high tariffs and other burdens, the members of the Commonwealth got together in Ottawa in 1932. They wanted to see if they could help each other by making tariff agreements which would stimulate the flow of goods between their ports even if this damaged their trade with the rest of the world. A few years later, when rearmament became necessary, most of them met to work out a Commonwealth Air Training Plan which could—and did—teach men sent from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

During the war many problems were handled in this way, with each dominion doing the jobs for which it was best fitted. More than 10,000,000 men and women, of whom nearly half lived in the overseas countries, were mobilized for the armed forces. They wore the uniforms and badges of their own lands, fought under their own commanders, and were allocated to areas where they could do most good or where there was the greatest need.

Similarly in providing supplies, Britain made about 70 percent of the munitions needed by the whole Commonwealth forces, and the younger nations expanded or organized their industries to provide about 10 percent of them. Britain bought all Australia’s wool clip, and thus strengthened that continent’s financial position. When the Australian cruiser Canberra was sunk in the first battle of the Solomons, London gave a cruiser to fill the gap. Canada operated the air training scheme, swung its primary and industrial production into line with the general need, and when Britain ran short of funds for buying Canadian produce, Ottawa made the British a free gift of a billion dollars’ worth of goods in 1942. This was followed in 1943–45 by some 2 billions more of “mutual aid,” corresponding to our lend-lease. Thus, without sacrificing any of their sovereign independence, the five nations met crisis after crisis as a well-coordinated smaller United Nations.

Next section: Are the Colonies Moving toward Independence?