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London 09:03, 18 Oct 2012
New York 04:03, 18 Oct 2012
Last updated at 23:04 (UK time) 29 Aug 2011

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth turned 60 years old in 2009. Find out more about its origins, how it works, and what its priorities are.

Origins

26 April 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration, which brought the modern Commonwealth into being.

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 transformed positively into a partnership based on equality, choice and consensus.

Balfour Declaration

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.

The Declaration of London

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 to discuss the future of the Commonwealth. The outcome was the Declaration of London.

Their final communiqué was both innovative and bold in a number of ways. It stated that His Majesty King George VI would be recognised as 'the symbol' of 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 emphasised repeatedly 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 co-operative '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, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II assumed the role of Head of the Commonwealth.

Rapid Expansion

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.