Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

When Americans ask what makes the British Commonwealth hang together, we may be simply asking for information. Or the question may reveal our surprise at a political fact that seems to us unnatural. Most of us have paid little attention, in school or later, to what has been happening since 1783 in the British Empire, as it used to be called, or the British Commonwealth of Nations, as it is being called nowadays.

Visitors from Australia and Canada have often been distressed to find how many of us, even in high places, believe that their countries pay taxes to Great Britain or have to do as the government in London says. “Don’t you Americans know,” said one such guest, “that if Churchill told us to do something, we’d be likely to do just the opposite?”

If there is a note of surprise in our voice as we ask why the Commonwealth has survived, perhaps it is because we are really saying, “This Empire fell apart once; why doesn’t, or hasn’t, or shouldn’t it go to pieces again?”

Such a reaction may be based on what we learned in school about British policies before the American Revolution and on the assumption that nothing has changed since then. Probably we have heard stories about wrongs committed against Irishmen, Indians, or Africans, and hence we may feel that on moral grounds the Commonwealth ought not to live any longer. Or we may even feel that empires are wrong in principle, that the control of one people by another is bad, and that imperialism—British, French, Dutch, Japanese, or American—should be ended once and for all.


Is there an Englishman in the house?

If you approach the question in this frame of mind, it might be useful to get a well-informed Briton (or a citizen of one of the dominions) to sit in on your discussion, provided one is around. Try the question on him, but don’t be surprised if he replies, “Why shouldn’t it hold together?”

If your mind runs to ideas of what British colonial policies were before 1776, don’t be afraid of mentioning the American Revolution. English historians are far rougher on George III and his policies than are most responsible American scholars. But your Britisher may suggest that there have been a lot of changes in London since 1783 in ideas about government, freedom, the rights of individuals and of peoples, about the treatment of colored races, and most other things.

You don’t have to keep silent about the Irish question, India, or Darkest Africa because you fear he may be overly touchy about them. Maybe he will be. But maybe he will have better information than you and, on the basis of it, be even more critical than you of what other Britishers have or have not done in those places.

You don’t need to refrain from voicing your dislike of imperialism either, and your belief that all peoples should be free. He may agree with you, for the British have always disputed among themselves over the desirability, worth-whileness, and methods of their own empire building, just as we did about taking the Philippines in 1898. But he may ask, as a practical question, how we should all have got on during the last five years if the people of Gibraltar, Malta, Alaska, Hawaii, and a few other places had been free—free to fall into the hands of Germany, Italy, or Japan.

He may remind you that mankind has been engaged in empire building for at least five thousand years. He may recall that after the United States became independent, we ourselves carried on in the time-honored and roughshod manner until we had expanded our domain from less than a million to nearly three million square miles. He may point out that we then began to push overseas, and that when necessary we used the same arguments, methods, and catchwords as did the British. Finally, your Briton may ask why, if we believe empire building is a sin, we don’t climb up beside the British on the penitents’ bench.

What is this thing we’re talking about?

The important matter, however, is not why we ask what makes the Commonwealth hold together but what the answer is. To reach it we must start off with another question: What is it that holds together? The map opposite page 1 will help us answer. Geographically the British Commonwealth is a rather large affair, for it includes the whole of one continent (Australia), half of North America, almost a third of Africa, an eighth of Asia, one-thirtieth of Europe, little bits of South and Central America, and islands in nearly every sea. It covers 13,000,000 square miles, or a quarter of the world’s land surface. And it houses about 550,000,000 people, or a quarter of the human race. Canada’s 3,700,000 square miles and Australia’s 3,000,000 account for half the area, but far less than 4 percent of the population. India contributes one-eighth of the size but holds 400,000,000 people, or more than 70 percent of the total. The native inhabitants of the other areas number 75,000,000. The whole white population of the Commonwealth amounts to about 75,000,000 or 14 percent.

When we turn from the quantity of the Commonwealth to its political character, here are some recent definitions. A Canadian scholar says it is “a free and voluntary partnership or association of nations.” An Australian expert describes it as “an association or organization for common action of a group of communities historically linked by settlement or conquest with Britain.” To Field Marshal Smuts, the South African soldier and statesman, it is “a group of sovereign states working together, living together in peace and war under a system that has stood the greatest strain to which any nation can be subjected.” An American observer says, “It is on the whole the most effective league of nations that the world has ever seen.” But a British writer, remembering something the others forgot, says, “It is an association of free states with a tail of dependent states.”

All these statements are alike on two points. They agree in the first place that it is an association, partnership, group, or league that is “free and voluntary,” and in the second place that this association is made up of nations, communities, sovereign states, free states.

The independent Commonwealth

The “nations” are six in all—Australia, Canada, Eire, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Each is an independent sovereign state, managing its own domestic and external affairs. Not one is subject to control by any of the other five. If any two or more of them act together it is because they have individually decided to do so.

The only surviving constitutional link which binds the six together is the fact that they all have the same person as king. But he must act or speak as he is “advised” by his ministers, who in turn are responsible to their legislature. As king of Canada he does what his parliament and cabinet in Ottawa tell him to do; as king of New Zealand he takes orders from the cabinet and parliament in Wellington, and so on.

His ministers in London told him to declare war on Germany in September 1939. In a few days’ time his parliaments in Ottawa and Cape Town gave him similar instructions. But his ministers in Dublin gave no such orders, for they had decided that Eire was to remain neutral. In May 1944 the prime ministers of his five fighting nations met in London to plan joint wartime steps. The prime minister of his neutral nation stayed at home.

The dependent Empire

The six sovereign states are all either European (the United Kingdom and Eire) or are nations built up by Europeans who have settled overseas. What then of the “tail of dependent states”? A list of them would include about sixty names. Some of them are vast areas like Nigeria, which is as large as Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana put together and has twice their population, or India, which is half the size of the United States and has three times its population. At the other end of the list are lonely or strategic little outposts like Gibraltar, Malta, and St. Helena.

All are controlled in greater or less degree from London—or from Ottawa, Cape Town, Canberra, or Wellington. For the younger nations in the Commonwealth now have dependent areas under their care. British control is limited, in the case of India. Indians exert a substantial measure of control over the eleven provincial governments of British India and help control the central government. During the war they were conditionally offered a ticket for the complete journey to full national sovereignty when peace returned.

The other crown colonies, protectorates, dependencies, mandates, and so on, range all the way from areas with a large measure of domestic self-government to the little defensive outposts which are run like a battleship or garrison. To put the matter in figures, 15 out of every 100 of King George’s subjects govern themselves, 70 are Indians only one step short of that goal, and 15 are a little or a long way along the road.

What’s in a name?

For this assembly of nations, near-nations, and dependent areas there is no official name set forth in a constitution, because there is no constitution. In the old days we used to call it the “British Empire”; yet the king was not called emperor of it all, but only Emperor of India. During World War I the word “empire” lost favor. It suggested a central power ruling a lot of colonies and did not fit the picture. A new term—the British Commonwealth of Nations—was suggested as more descriptive of the situation and won a place even in official documents. But this new label did not seem to cover the dependent parts of the Empire.

Some people, therefore, use the label “British Commonwealth of Nations and Empire,” but this is too large a mouthful for ordinary discussion. Others talk of the “British Commonwealth of Nations” and cover the dependent parts by attaching each of them to, the nation which looks after it. The former is the more accurate description, but the latter saves time and words and will be used in this pamphlet.

Next section: What Happened after America Pulled Out in 1776?