Story: Empire and Commonwealth

Page 5. From empire to Commonwealth

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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 in fact decolonisation had begun its dramatic course. Dominion status and Commonwealth membership already denoted 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.

Beloved 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 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 advocated standing with the United States 'through thick or thin, right or wrong'.1

Commonwealth members

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 Rhodesia's white minority government and sporting contacts with South Africa.

Commonwealth structure

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. The Commonwealth Foundation was created to foster professional linkages in 1966, and its mandate was extended to welfare organisations and culture in 1980. In 1971 the regular meetings of prime ministers were restyled as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), which were hosted by different Commonwealth members.

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 the ‘fundamental political values’ listed were 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.

Playing together

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 (to 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 (a former colony of Portugal, not Britain) was accepted for membership. Named for the site of the retreat, near Queenstown, the Millbrook Action Programme set up a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to deal with ‘serious and persistent’ violations of Commonwealth principles. The programme empowered the secretary-general to respond to such violations with a range of measures.


In 1961 South Africa announced it would withdraw from the Commonwealth because of criticism of its apartheid system. 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 decide where and whom to play, was, nevertheless, a pragmatist. He supported the Statement on apartheid in sport (Gleneagles agreement) of 1977, which condemned racial discrimination and indicated that major sporting contacts with South Africa would be ‘unlikely’ until apartheid ended.

Tri-sector Commonwealth

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, reorganised the CHOGMs to include foreign ministers’ meetings for routine business, so that heads of government could concentrate on key 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.

  1. Quoted in Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993, p. 120. Back
How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Empire and Commonwealth - From empire to Commonwealth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012