Skip to main content

What Is the Commonwealth of Nations?

The Commonwealth of Nations is led by Queen Elizabeth II and its 54 member countries work towards a better world.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth Prime Ministers at Windsor Castle in 1960.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth Prime Ministers at Windsor Castle in 1960.

The Commonwealth of Nations Member States

The Commonwealth of Nations, often referred to more simply as the Commonwealth, is a voluntary political alliance of 54 countries or member states. Most were once part of the British Empire.

The members cooperate in the spirit of friendship and equality to achieve positive results in areas including law and politics, the environment, civil rights, international trade relations and education. From Bangladesh to Vanuatu, Mozambique to Singapore and Barbados to New Zealand, each member has a vital role to play.

Of the 54 members, only 15 have Elizabeth II as their monarch—these are termed the Commonwealth Realms. 34 members are republics. The other five have their own monarchies.

The Commonwealth is comprised of large nations and small countries, rich and poor, developing and developed. The Commonwealth boasts a population of approximately 2.5 billion people. Contrary to the common belief, its success is not reliant on more mature age groups and traditionalists. Over 60% of the Commonwealth's people are under 29 years old, according to the Commonwealth website.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General

The Commonwealth has its own charter which states clearly the principles and goals of the united countries.

The Right Honourable Baroness Patricia Scotland of Astall P.C, Q.C. (Privy Counsel, Queen’s Counsel) is the current and 6th Commonwealth secretary-general.

Each secretary-general serves for 4 years with a maximum of 2 terms. Previous incumbents of the role include Don McKinnon (New Zealand) who served 2 terms between 2000-2008 and Kamalesh Sharma (India) from 2008-2016. Baroness Scotland is the first woman to hold the post.

The 2022 Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games uses sport to draw the members together. The 2022 games take place in Birmingham, UK between 28th July and 8th August 2022. More than 5500 competitors from 72 countries compete in more than 280 events. For more information, check out their website.

Marlborough House, London is the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Marlborough House, London is the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, Foundation, Commission and Learning Initiative

The administrative work of the Commonwealth has been managed by a secretariat since 1965 and its official address is Marlborough House in London, once the residence of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra when they were Prince and Princess of Wales and Elizabeth II's grandmother Queen Mary, the wife and widow of George V.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The secretariat aids the member nations and it is assisted by a network of 80 organisations under the umbrella term of the Commonwealth Family.

The Commonwealth Foundation is also based at Marlborough House, this works to help developing countries and promotes democracy.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission works to remember people who gave their lives during the 2 world wars and to care for their resting places.

The Commonwealth of Learning is committed to education.

The Commonwealth Prime Ministers and King George VI at Buckingham Palace in 1949.

The Commonwealth Prime Ministers and King George VI at Buckingham Palace in 1949.

How Did the Commonwealth of Nations Evolve?

  • As the British Empire broke down, the different members claimed varying levels of independence. Meetings between Britain and its dominions were held from 1887.
  • In The Balfour Declaration of 1926, countries including Australia and South Africa agreed to a policy of equality for all of the nations that swore allegiance to the British monarch, at that time George V (1865-1936). This was when the term Commonwealth came into use.
  • In the Statute of Westminster, 11th December 1931, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand formally became founding members of the Commonwealth.
  • In 1947, India became the first example of a former British Empire member to claim independence from the British crown whilst retaining links to the Commonwealth in a positive and proactive association. Pakistan also claimed independence in 1947, the country left the Commonwealth in 1972 and rejoined it in 1989.
  • In 1949, the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth’s member countries voted to allow republics and other independent nations into the alliance which was given the new name of the Commonwealth of Nations. When the London Declaration (1949) was created George VI (1895-1952) was the first monarch to be termed as the Head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth of Nations 1926-2021

  • Elizabeth II has been Head of the Commonwealth since 1952 and its members have voted to accept her son and heir Charles as her successor. It was not an automatic or hereditary appointment.
  • A few years ago there were plans that Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be roving ambassadors for the Commonwealth but they have since retired from life as working royals. Other members of the royal family actively promote the Commonwealth of Nations positive effects.
  • South Africa was not a member state from 1961 until 1994 largely due to its apartheid policies.
  • In 2013, The Gambia left the Commonwealth but they rejoined in 2018.
  • The Maldives joined in 1982 as a special member and in 1985 became a full member. The Maldives left in 2016 and rejoined in 2020.
  • Rwanda was the last country to join in 2009; the country had no association with the old British Empire.
  • Rwanda hosted the biannual CHOGM conference in June 2022 – CHOGM is the acronym for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This was after a pandemic related hiatus of 2 years. Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall attended the meeting.
  • Barbados claimed independence from the crown in 2021. 2022 marks the country's first meeting and games since their status change.

The Future of the Commonwealth

Dedicated Queen Elizabeth II's legacy to Prince Charles, William and George as heirs to the throne and hopefully to the Commonwealth of Nations is a strong and vibrant alliance that seeks to improve trade, international relations, the rights of people and the environmental issues that are challenging the planet.

It will be their responsibility to maintain the Commonwealth's prominence and to help its member states governments to transform aspirations and promises into realities.

Parliament Square in London where the Commonwealth members flags fly.

Parliament Square in London where the Commonwealth members flags fly.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

Related Articles