The Commonwealth at 70: From Westminster to the World

Today we celebrate the launch of our new publication, The Commonwealth at 70: From Westminster to the World, which has been edited by our Director, Dr Stephen Roberts and published by St James’s House. Below Stephen tells us what to expect from the content of the book…

Official Commonwealth at 70 branding from thecommonwealth.org

The Commonwealth at 70: From Westminster to the World commemorates the founding of the Commonwealth in its modern form in 1949, 70 years ago. The volume is a concise and accessible summary of the evolution of the British Empire and how it has developed into the Commonwealth of today. The authors are all experts in their field, and in four chapters have produced brief and elegant summaries of complex topics, ranging widely through time and across the world.  

This attractive book has been produced by the History of Parliament Trust, in partnership with our publisher, St James’s House. It contains many intertwined stories, on all the habitable continents of the world.  It shows how representative institutions played an essential part in the political evolution of Britain, before British patterns of representation crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth century to root themselves in settler colonies in North America and the Caribbean. This was not yet a story of democracy, but rather a dogged defence of property – against higher authority and perceived threats from the property-less. British or more especially, English, customs were transplanted in the early colonies, but were always adapted to the circumstances of the places and people who colonised them.  If one single paramount idea had to be highlighted to explain the loss of the American colonies, Britain’s first Empire, it would surely be the inalienable right of the individual to secure property.

Commerce rather than settlement drove the creation of what historians call the second British Empire, and the vast, exotic territories of the Indian sub-continent lay at the heart, not only of trade, but of imperial strategic calculation. Violence, racism and the displacement of peoples were recurrent themes in the creation and maintenance of the Empire – and in its eventual demise. The Victorian writer John Robert Seeley famously pronounced, speaking for the British, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. Classic English middle-class understatement conceals, to the contrary, many stories of calculation, of struggle and of suffering. The story of the British Empire includes plunder, racism, and tragedy; but it also includes a dialogue between the British and their colonial subjects about the rule of law, representative government, and democracy. And the colonies had much to teach the mother of Parliaments; many advances in democracy came from colonial societies, such as the secret ballot in Australia for parliamentary elections (1856; in the UK 1872) or the women’s franchise in New Zealand (1893, for all women over 21; in the UK for some women 1918, but for all over 21 not until 1928). Progressive political developments were often a feature of frontier societies, where life could be unimaginably hard, even if at the frontier the story of how native peoples were treated was less than glorious.   

With Empire came a wide range of institutions by which it was governed. This volume tells us about Dominions, Protectorates, Dual Mandates and Crown Colonies; about Local Native Councils, and Legislative and Executive Councils. These structures were serviceable and enduring in many cases, even if the delivery of democracy was not at their heart. Sometimes they failed, but even the Central African Federation, described at the time as one of the most complex constitutions ever devised, lasted for ten years. Legislative buildings around the world, such as the Sansad Bhavan (Parliament House) in New Delhi, or Parliament House, in Wellington, New Zealand, are visible and tangible reminders of the Imperial “High Noon”.  When the day of the Empire was over, sometimes the institutions proved useful in the transition to independent statehood, as in the countries of the West Indies. Sometimes they did not.

Empire and Commonwealth have always influenced domestic British politics. Radical puritans returned from America to England to take Parliament’s side in the civil war; MPs denounced visible evidence of corruption in India, in eighteenth-century Parliaments, leading to the great set-piece trial of Warren Hastings; the politics of the Dominions played a direct part in the founding of the republic of Ireland; the struggle for black majority rule in South Africa and the experiences in the UK of the “Windrush generation” of migrants from the West Indies have generated controversy among post-war and current parliamentarians.  For good or ill, the legacies of Empire remain potent in modern Britain. 

The modern Commonwealth is founded on clear principles, but has emerged from conflict; an understanding of the history of Empire can only enhance an appreciation of the essential part that representative democracy continues to play on the Commonwealth stage.  

SR

For further information about the book or how to purchase it please contact Sammy Sturgess at ssturgess@histparl.ac.uk

You might also be interested in our previous publications in collaboration with St James’s House:

Read more about our 2018 publication, Voice & Vote: Celebrating 100 years of votes for women here, and to get a snapshot of what to expect in, The Story of Parliament, see this blog series.

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