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History of the UCS

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Victorian Beginnings

The idea of uniting or federating the Commonwealth Realms is older than the Commonwealth itself.

By the late 19th century, technology had rendered global communications ever more practical, while fast growing federations like Germany and the United States challenged Britain’s industrial and naval hegemony. However, the traditional problems of long-distance government, fear of American-style revolution, and the laissez-faire attitude of successive London administrations, meant Britain’s self-governing settler colonies were moving rapidly towards de facto independence.

In this environment, the discussion of the Empire’s future saw two schools of thought: those who believed that colonial self-government was the first step towards inevitable imperial dissolution, and those who favoured greater centralisation. In the middle of the debate, however, rose a compromise. The Imperial Federation League, founded in London in 1884, proposed the union of the United Kingdom and her self-governing colonies into their own global federation.

Envisaged along a similar model to the recent federation of British North America, colonial legislatures would become provincial governments, overseeing domestic affairs. A new Imperial Parliament in Westminster, elected by voters in all self-governing territories, would manage defence, foreign policy, and other international issues.

The benefits of this proposal were many. Colonial citizens would have a direct say in the determination of imperial policy. New parliaments for the constituent nations of the United Kingdom would solve the Home Rule issue at a stroke. And, perhaps most crucially, the federation would be a stronger power than Britain alone, better able to manage its development, finances, and defence at local and global level.

The movement was not without supporters. Branch offices of the League quickly opened in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Barbados, and British Guiana (now Guyana). Many notable figures in politics, literature, and education lent their support, such as writer E. M. Forster and Canadian Prime Minister Charles Tupper.

Sadly, disagreements over trade policy and other matters led to the collapse of the London office in 1896. Branch offices faded away over time. Elements of the League reformed as the Round Table movement in 1909, but the First World War and Statute of Westminster made Imperial Federation seem increasingly improbable. The Round Table survives today as publishers of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

Modern Revival

The years following the Second World War proved even more traumatic for Britain and the emerging Commonwealth. Heavily bombed, bankrupt, and burdened with war debt, the United Kingdom appeared to many a spent force, associated with out-of-date ideologies. It came under pressure to dispose of its colonies and end the Commonwealth Preference trade agreements and sterling currency area. While civil unrest erupted in several territories, the emerging West European trade alliance threatened to lock Britain out of continental rivals’ technology and economic growth.

The government of Harold Macmillan (1957-63), upon undertaking the Colonial Cost Benefit Review, made the decision to hastily dismantle the remaining empire, effectively abandon Commonwealth Preference, and seek membership of the new European Communities. The decisions were not without controversy, both at the time and as the EEC evolved into the European Union and Eurozone. Throughout the process, successive British governments sought to placate hostile public opinion with assurances that British sovereignty and Commonwealth relations were not under threat – claims that appeared increasingly hollow to many.

British Prime Minister Edward Heath signing the Accession Treaty

British Prime Minister Edward Heath signing the Accession Treaty

As Britain edged closer to continental Europe, other Commonwealth countries were forced to reassess their trade and foreign policy relationships. For most of the modern day realms, this meant greater dependence on the United States, and growing trade with emerging Asian powers like China and Japan. However, negotiating now as single entities rather than a Commonwealth bloc, individual realms had little influence over their new partners. Trade agreements with these nations have remained a source of controversy years after being signed, with disputes frequently reopening debate on their economic impact.

This environment led to the foundation of the Federal Commonwealth Society at a meeting in The Old Bank of England on Fleet Street, London, in September 2002. Since the 1980s, FCS founder Nick Thompson had advocated British withdrawal from the EEC and rejuvenation of Commonwealth relations. In particular, he saw the potential for the Crown’s 40+ surviving realms and territories to re-establish their close cultural and military relationships into a trade and defence union.

The organisation grew rapidly, a Canadian chapter being founded in Toronto within weeks of the London meeting, and an Australian chapter following shortly thereafter. The FCS was re-named the United Commonwealth Society in 2006. Today’s UCS has members throughout the world and branches in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and across the United Kingdom.

Timeline of Federal/United Commonwealth Society Leadership

2002-2004                             Nick Thompson (United Kingdom), Founder and Chairman Emeritus

2004-2008                             James Alcock (Canada)

2008-2009                             Ashley Ryder (United Kingdom)

2009-2013                             Luke Seaford (United Kingdom)

2013-2017                              David Haisell (Canada)

2017-present                          Jon-Paul Teasdale (United Kingdom)