From the British Empire to the Modern Commonwealth

From the British Empire to the Modern Commonwealth

This demand was accomodated due to the compromising skill of the British political elite. In 1949, at a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers, it was finally ratified that India could be a republic and at the same time remain a member of the Commonwealth. In addition, India would not have to swear allegiance to the British crown, simply recognise the British king as head of the Commonwealth. “So the way was cleared for a multi-faceted Commonwealth, where an independent state might claim the British King as its head (as in Australia), or where a republic might have a president as head (as in Tanzania), or even where a state might have its own monarch (as in Malaysia, Swaziland or Tonga). The common Commonwealth link between such diverse political structures was the acknowledgement of the British monarch as the ‘head of the Commonwealth’.”4 However, this outcome is to anticipate the rush of political developments in the 1950s and 1960s.

The additional change that India brought onto the Commonwealth’s structure became in fact a further model regarding the process of acquiring full nationhood by the many colonies which, until 1950, had not even experimented with the elective principle, let alone taken on powers and duties involved in self-government and independence. It accelerated steps towards achieving full independence. By 1970 most colonies had gained full nationhood though the elective principle was not always established.

Nevertheless in the early 1950s the political elite in Great Britain planned a gradual and thorough preparation for independence in spite of the fast changes. It meant “the principles of democracy, of fair and open elections, had to be instilled in the minds of the people. The Westminster system of government was considered to be most suitable model, perhaps with a few local adaptations to suit chiefs and existing political leaders. So the emergence of parties was encouraged, to provide a government and a loyal opposition. The practice of cabinet government under a prime minister was introduced, with indigenes working their way into ministerial positions and co-operating under one leader.”5 Programmes of familiarising the people with the idea of expressing their political wishes through voting and of participating in the local and national levels of political life were at the same time being undertaken.

Unfortunately, however, the emerging political elites in the colonies, particularly those newly emerged political elites in the African colonies, would not wait on the sidelines while the British administrators became satisfied that the people were fully mature in their appreciation of the task of independence. Therefore, the British political elite found themselves again revising political plans for the colonies to speed up the process of decolonization. The political leaders in the United Kingdom skillfully used this growing sentiment of nationalism in creating new nations rather than getting frustrated by the situation. Some of the Asian colonies, however, had considerable political experience. Therefore Britain was happy that they too could move speedily in the direction India had taken. Ceylon had already been undergoing a considerable political preparation throughout the twentieth century; by 1931 it had an almost wholly elective house with an almost full universal suffrage. It was granted nationhood in 1948. Burma too became independent in the same year. In the Malay peninsula a federation was formed in 1948 in an attempt to strengthen the whole political structure there. This action took place together with an extension of the elective principle, at state and the federal level, and in 1957 full nationhood was given. Malaya expanded into Malaysia in 1963 when it was joined by Singapore (temporarily) and the Borneo states of Sarawak and North Borneo (which became Sabah).

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