At the behest of Canada, South Africa and Ireland, the 1926 Balfour definition provided formal, international recognition of independence. It defined the relationship between Britain and the dominions as equal and autonomous communities. This formula paved the way for constitutional independence as embodied in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which stated that no act of the British Parliament would henceforth extend to a dominion without its specific request and consent. The dominions could become as independent as they wanted to be.
In 1926 the British statesman Arthur Balfour famously defined the relationship of the dominions to Britain: ‘They are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by their common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’1
Many New Zealanders opposed these developments, believing they would weaken imperial unity. Prime Minister Gordon Coates regarded the Balfour definition as a poisonous document, while others deplored the ‘damned Statute of Westminster propaganda’.2 The government only allowed the Dominion of New Zealand to be cited in the statute provided that the operative sections did not apply unless adopted by the New Zealand Parliament.
In the meantime, the country began to act as if the statute was in force. The first Labour Government elected in 1935 took a very independent line in the League of Nations. In 1938 Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser told Parliament, ‘this country has to make up its own mind on international problems as a sovereign country – because under the Statute of Westminster ours is a sovereign country’.3 The pioneering diplomat Carl Berendsen later recalled that New Zealand ‘wanted no independence, theoretical or practical’. But he admitted that in his time (from the 1920s to the 1950s) ‘there never was … one single instance when the New Zealand Government was unable to do all, and exactly what it wished’.4
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 the New Zealand government made its own decision to enter the war. At war’s end, it played a notable part in the planning of the United Nations and became one of the 51 founding members under the name ‘New Zealand’, with ‘Dominion of’ omitted – a signal of its desire to show independence.
In 1939 the prominent historian J. C. Beaglehole declared: ‘New Zealand has not yet advanced to full self-government. Apart from certain constitutional conventions, she is still legally in a position of subordination. She should adopt the Statute of Westminster as soon as possible as an indisputable contribution to Dominion self government.’5
Statute of Westminster adopted
The constitutional situation in no way compromised New Zealand’s close affinity with Britain and the other dominions. Peter Fraser was quite aware of ‘the paradox that, the freer we become, the closer we draw together’.6 He realised, however, that constitutional technicalities had eventually to accord with political realities. In 1947 the Statute of Westminster was adopted and full power to amend the Constitution Act 1852 was also gained so that the abolition of the upper house could proceed. This was accomplished in 1951, thus providing a deviation from the British Westminster model.