The Hidden Commonwealth
The Commonwealth of Nations is an association of over 86 nations which spans the globe. Wait a minute, did I say 86? I’ll count them again. Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Canada…India, Jamaica…New Zealand, Papua New Guinea…Tuvalu, United Kingdom. I counted 54 this time, so where did I find the others?
Tucked away in the world’s nooks and crannies are a collection of nations proud of their histories and unique systems of government. 32 individual nations made up of all different shapes and sizes. Some have populations as little as 50 people (Pitcairn Islands). Some have populations as big as 64,600 (Bermuda). They are the territories, dependencies and associated states of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
The overseas territories of these three great nations are viewed by many as relics of the once mighty British Empire. They are seen as objects that the three nations should now discard: reminders of the injustices of colonialism. But that is a very narrow view. The benefits of empire will continue to be debated for as long as mankind exists, but one thing the British Empire did do was to evolve, with a lot of persuasion, into the modern Commonwealth. And the territories, however tiny or eccentric, are all pieces of the jigsaw that make up the Commonwealth family. Each piece unique, with its own set of circumstances.
One of the objectives of the British Empire was to nurture and guide its colonies towards self-government. To use the building blocks of democracy, rule of law, education, and the English language to form independent nations that would join Great Britain in making the world a better place; albeit a more British place.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain and the dominions (including Australia and New Zealand) were persuaded to divide up the empire to begin the process of decolonisation. Many colonies jumped at the chance for freedom (often with sadly unrealistic expectations) and so began the mass exodus towards republicanism.
But in the wake of the hysteria of independence, some nations chose a different path. Nations such as Australia, Belize, Jamaica and New Zealand chose to remain as new, sovereign, Commonwealth Realms. Other nations such as Anguilla, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Niue, and Norfolk Island decided that they wanted to remain British, Australian or New Zealander. They decided that it was not in their interests to become fully sovereign nations.
Taken from Wikipedia, ‘[a] Nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government (for example the inhabitants of a sovereign state) irrespective of their ethnic make-up; that is, a nation state.’
The Commonwealth of Nations is defined as an association of “54 sovereign nations”, brought together through a common history, language, values, respect for the rule of law, respect for the bonds that bind the nations together, and a desire to improve the lives of all their people. So where do the overseas territories, dependencies and associated states fit into the grand scheme?
Why are they not recognised as members of this great institution?
Are they too small? When you consider that Bermuda has a population larger than Tuvalu, this cannot be the reason. Is it because they are isolated, thousands of miles away from their Commonwealth neighbours? Well, no. Nations such as Montserrat are in the Caribbean and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are within reach of the UK mainland. Is it because a rebellion is building in the territories, a people’s uprising against old colonialist attitudes and subservience to a queen? Opinion polls and dialogue with local governments would suggest the territories prefer to remain just as they are. The recent referendums in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are more concrete evidence of this.
The truth is that the British Commonwealth came into existence in 1931 as a way of distinguishing the colonies of the Empire from its independent dominions. The term ‘Empire and Commonwealth’ was subsequently used, until the 1960s, to refer to the resultant, reconfigured, British world. Membership of the Commonwealth implied membership of an elite club of countries, those that had achieved equality of status, and were represented at Imperial Conferences by their own Prime Ministers. Fast forward to the present, and the modern Commonwealth continues to recognise only sovereign nations as members but, since the Empire has ceased to exist, territories are still recognised as part of the Commonwealth family, through the membership of their sovereign parent. This makes sense, since the countries of the modern Commonwealth are fully responsible for their own foreign affairs, and so Australia, Britain and New Zealand each acts as representative for their territories within the organisation.
Over the coming months I will indulge you all with the fascinating histories of the territories, to give an insight into this hidden Commonwealth. Many will have seen the recent news stories of the tensions between the UK, Spain and Gibraltar, and the UK, Argentina and The Falkland Islands, their peoples clutching their British passports to their chests, proudly telling the world that they are British and always will be. But there is more to the territories than just governments bickering with each other.
The survival of the Commonwealth, the success of the Realm Union proposed by the United Commonwealth Society, and the prosperity of the territories depends on every one of the Commonwealth’s peoples learning more about the inclusiveness of the Commonwealth, but also its exclusivity.
The territories, dependencies and associated states have the same things in common as their larger, sovereign brethren: head of state, language, history, system of government, rule of law and a commitment to improving the lives of their people. And so to truly understand the Commonwealth you must understand that it is more than just a collection of nations agreeing action points and meeting up every once in a while. It’s a shared destiny in which all can take part, including the territories.
The Commonwealth is just as relevant to the success of the territories, as the territories are to the continued success of the Commonwealth.
Next time we’ll set sail for Anguilla, the northern most Caribbean nation.
United Commonwealth Society
UK, British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies Representative