1. The original English word for a political community, not necessarily a kingdom.

The British state during the Interregnum (1649 - 1660) was known as the Commonwealth (the equivalent of the Latinate word Republic).

The word was applied to some of the colonies in New England, especially Massachusetts.

2. When the former colonies: Canada, Australia , NewZealand and South Africa were recognized as independent by the Statute of Westminster they were considered still to be members of the British community. The heads of government continued to meet together. These "White Dominions" were considered to be the British Commonwealth, a not fully defined entity, but consisting of equal states whose head of state remained the British monarch and used the British form of government.

3. When the other colonies became independent most of their heads of government also came to the meeting. Later the term British was dropped from the title. Most members of the Commonwealth are now republics. There is now a Secretary General and a small secretariat. The Commonwealth is perhaps a symbolic organization. However, the members all use English to some extent as a working language and share the experience of having had British rule and the procedures of the British civil service (something which has survived even such experiences as Communism in Aden - the author's personal observation in Aden).

The 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Harare Zimbabwe issued a declaration on Good Government which urged democracy on the members. This may prove to be as influential as the Helsinki Accords which inspired the eastern European democratic revolutions. Zimbabwe has been suspended from its membership for abusing human rights, and lack of democracy.

The 1993 meeting received the application of Cameroon (the southwestern part once was administered from Nigeria). Mozambique has also joined, though never ruled from Britain, but has Commonwealth members on all its borders. South Africa rejoined after elections on a common roll.

Rwanda, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Israel and the Palestinian territories were said to be seeking to join in November 2007 too. Of these, Rwanda has joined.

4. The term is now being used for the association of states, the successors of the Soviet Union . (Sodruzhestvo).

Can the Commonwealth develop its trans-national functions further? As the United States's influence declines following its political and economic paralysis (2011) can the Commonwealth use its influence to replace some of the US leadership? Can it become a practical alternative to the United Nations?


Last revised 30/07/11


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