After the Second World War, with the empire intact and the dominions prospering, there were expectations that the British ‘world system’ would recover its global role. But already decolonisation had begun its dramatic course. Dominion status and Commonwealth membership already marked out the independence of the white settler colonies. Over the next half-century they would be joined in the Commonwealth by many of the other countries that had made up Britain’s empire.
When New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland said that he loved the British Empire with all his heart he was expressing the feelings of many Pākehā New Zealanders. Despite this, New Zealand had adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947, and sought closer ties with the United States. In 1951, worried that the US would retreat into isolation and leave New Zealand without a defender in the Pacific, Holland urged standing with the United States 'through thick or thin, right or wrong'.1
The empire was dismantled with astonishing speed. Many newly independent countries joined the Commonwealth, which by the early 1970s had more than 30 members. Most of these new members were Asian or African nations, and there was at times tension between one or both of these groupings and the 'old Commonwealth' (sometimes known as the white Commonwealth), of which New Zealand was part. The 1966 Commonwealth conference, at which an Afro-Asian caucus began meeting, was the most divided, with a split narrowly avoided. Particularly contentious issues included sporting contacts with South Africa and support for Rhodesia's white minority government.
The new Commonwealth evolved its own slender infrastructure. In 1965 members approved the creation of a secretariat as a ‘clearing house’ for cooperative endeavours and the organisation of conferences. In the following year the Commonwealth Foundation was created to foster professional linkages, and its mandate was extended to welfare organisations and culture in 1980. In 1971 the regular meetings of prime ministers were re-styled as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), and began to happen in different venues around the world.
The 1991 CHOGM was accompanied by a forum for non-governmental organisations and meetings that produced the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, a manifesto for the post-Cold War age. Among ‘fundamental political values’ were listed democracy, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and universal access to education. These were seen as concomitants of sustainable development, free trade and the market economy.
The most popular element of the new Commonwealth was the Commonwealth Games, held every four years, between Olympiads. New Zealand has played host three times, in Auckland in 1950 (when it was the Empire Games) and 1990, and in Christchurch in 1974.
At the Auckland CHOGM in 1995 (the only CHOGM to be held in New Zealand), Nelson Mandela represented South Africa and Mozambique was accepted for membership. From the retreat near Queenstown, the Millbrook Action Programme included a new Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to deal with ‘serious and persistent’ violations of Commonwealth principles. The programme also gave the secretary-general a range of measures of response to such violations.
In 1961 South Africa announced it would withdraw from the Commonwealth because of criticism of apartheid. There were moves to expel New Zealand from the Games Federation after the All Black rugby tour of apartheid-era South Africa in 1976.
Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who upheld the right of sporting bodies to determine where they would play, was, however, a pragmatist. He supported the Statement on apartheid in sport (or Gleneagles agreement) of 1977, which condemned racial discrimination and indicated that major sporting contacts with South Africa would be ‘unlikely’ until apartheid ended.
A new pattern was pioneered at the Edinburgh CHOGM in 1997. The meetings were preceded by a Commonwealth Business Forum, which created the Commonwealth Business Council. There was the first Commonwealth Youth Forum and a Commonwealth Centre for NGO presentations, which became the model for the Commonwealth People’s Forum.
This tri-sector Commonwealth, comprising political, corporate and civil society sectors, was described by the secretary-general in 2009 as a ‘three-legged stool’ which required all three legs for stability.
Commonwealth in the 2000s
In the early 2000s the Commonwealth emerged as a rules-based system, with sanctions to deal with backsliding, and with the majority of its membership made up of republics and small states. Former New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon, who was secretary general from 2000 to 2008, re-organised the CHOGMs to include foreign ministers’ meetings for handling routine business, so that heads of government could concentrate on vital global issues.
Critics of the system accuse it of a lack of positive leadership, but others cherish the contemporary Commonwealth as a global good. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley described it as a place where people could be comfortable with diversity.