In the remaining North American colonies new forms of self-government were pioneered from the 1830s, beginning a process that culminated, more than a century later, in the modern Commonwealth. The first Commonwealth nations were a group of self-governing white settler colonies whose independence and unity provided a powerful model for decolonisation.
British governing practice tended towards devolution. The colonial charters that were adopted included executive government by governors and officials appointed by, and responsible to, London, and representatives of the people elected to colonial legislative assemblies.
Tensions between governors and assemblies resulted in rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837. Lord Durham, who was sent as governor-general and commissioner to report on these events, submitted his report to Parliament in 1839, the same year that the decision was made to annex part or all of New Zealand.
Durham suggested that the executive ‘needs but to follow out consistently the principles of the British Constitution. ... if it has to carry on the Government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence’.1 Durham believed that such a system would avert a breakup of the empire.
This advice was not accepted until 1846, when an idealistic secretary of state made the big leap and authorised full ‘responsible government’ in Nova Scotia and Canada. The system was started in 1848. It was soon adopted in other colonies. New Zealand, along with New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania, adopted it in 1856. By the early 20th century, Arthur Balfour (British prime minister from 1902 to 1905) could say: ‘We depend as an Empire upon the cooperation of absolutely independent Parliaments’.2
The self-governing status of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa needed new descriptive labels. ‘Commonwealth’ had cropped up in Victorian times as a feel-good substitute for ‘British Empire’. During the Colonial Conference of 1907, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George spoke of ‘this great commonwealth of nations known as the British Empire’.3
The term ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ was increasingly adopted for the self-governing group of countries.
At the 1907 conference, New Zealand Prime Minister Joseph Ward suggested that the self-governing colonies needed some designation to mark them off from the autocratically ruled Crown colonies. It was agreed that those colonies operating ‘responsible government’ would be designated ‘dominions’ – a title that had been used to describe Canada since its unification in 1867.
It was also agreed that the prime ministers of Britain and the dominions would meet every four years in imperial conferences to coordinate trade and defence policies and their relations with the international community.
Partnership or independence?
The concept of partnership between New Zealand and Britain was espoused by Prime Minister William Massey in the 1920s, but other Commonwealth leaders were determined to get a declaration of independence.
Informal meetings of prime ministers during the 1926 Imperial Conference, chaired by the Earl of Balfour, produced the well-known formula describing the position and relationship of Britain and the dominions. They were ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status … united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’.4
Statute of Westminster
This formula was incorporated in the preamble of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The statute’s chief operative clause provided that no British act of Parliament would henceforth apply in a dominion unless it was ‘requested and consented to’.
Slow to leave
Despite its reluctance to separate from Britain and its delay in adopting the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand acted as if it applied, particularly once a Labour government was elected in 1935. New Zealand took an independent line in the League of Nations and made its own decision to enter the Second World War in 1939.
The dominions thus became as constitutionally independent as they wanted to be. The statute applied immediately to Canada, South Africa and the Irish Free State. New Zealand did not want to be cited in the statute and only consented to being included on the condition that the operative sections did not apply unless specifically adopted by the dominion Parliament. Australia and Newfoundland chose the same option.