About the Commonwealth

From Australia to Antigua, Canada to Cameroon, the Commonwealth is a remarkable international organisation, spanning every geographical region, religion and culture. It exists to foster international co-operation and trade links between people all over the world. 

After 60 years of its existence, the Commonwealth is a remarkable organisation which remains a major force for change in the world today.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 independent countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule.

The origins of the Commonwealth come from Britain's former Empire. Many of the members of the Commonwealth were territories which had historically come under British rule at various times by settlement, conquest or cession. The administration of such colonies evolved in different ways, to reflect the different circumstances of each territory.

After achieving independence, India was the first of a number of countries which decided that, although they wished to become republics, they still wanted to remain within the Commonwealth.

To reconcile these aims, the 1949 London Declaration recognised King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth. Following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II in that capacity.

The Queen's role

The Queen is Sovereign of 15 Commonwealth realms in addition to the UK. She is also Head of the Commonwealth itself, a voluntary association of 53 independent countries.

This is an important symbolic and unifying role. As Head, The Queen personally reinforces the links by which the Commonwealth joins people together from around the world.

One of the ways of strengthening these connections is through regular Commonwealth visits.

Commonwealth visits and events

During her reign, The Queen has visited every country in the Commonwealth (with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995 and Rwanda which joined in 2009) and made many repeat visits. One third of The Queen's total overseas visits are to Commonwealth countries.

The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family are also regular visitors to the Commonwealth.

The Queen keeps in touch with Commonwealth developments through regular contact with the Commonwealth Secretary General and her Secretariat. This is the Commonwealth's central organisation. 

Based in London, it co-ordinates many Commonwealth activities. Her Majesty also has regular meetings with Heads of Government from Commonwealth countries.

Each year, The Queen attends the Commonwealth Day celebrations in London. Since 1977, Commonwealth Day has been celebrated throughout the Commonwealth on the second Monday in March. 

The Queen attends an inter-denominational service held in Westminster Abbey, followed by a reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary General.

 

Origins of the Commonwealth

The origins of the Commonwealth lie in Britain's former colonial empire. 

Until 1949, the member states of today's Commonwealth were united through common allegiance to the British Crown.

After the Second World War, many countries sought their independence. Soon after attaining independence in 1947, India declared that it wished to adopt a republican constitution, but also wanted to remain within the Commonwealth.

This was accepted in the London Declaration agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1949, provided that India accepted King George VI as "the symbol of the free association of the independent Member Nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth".

Over the next two decades, British rule ended in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. 

With a few exceptions (such as Myanmar, formerly known as Burma), the newly independent countries joined the Commonwealth and recognised King George VI and, following his death, Queen Elizabeth II, as Head of the Commonwealth.

The London Declaration made it possible for the Asian and African states of the former Empire, most of which wished to become republics, to remain within the Commonwealth upon attaining independence. This has led to the development of the contemporary Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth symbolises the transformation of the Crown from an emblem of dominion into a symbol of free and voluntary association. In all history this has no precedent

The Queen, speaking in 1977

Member countries of the Commonwealth can therefore have different constitutions: a republic with a president as Head of State (such as India and South Africa), an indigenous monarchy (for example, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga), a sultanate (Brunei), an elected Paramount Chieftaincy (Western Samoa), or a realm recognising The Queen as Sovereign (for example the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Barbados).

Whichever form their constitution takes, member countries all recognise The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.

Today the Commonwealth continues to play an important social and political role in the world, as a major association of countries. 

The term 'Commonwealth' was first used by British Liberal politician Lord Rosebery in Adelaide, Australia, in 1884. During a famous speech, he referred to the British Empire as 'a Commonwealth of Nations'.

The role of the Monarchy

The Queen has been Head of the Commonwealth throughout her 60 year reign. This is an important symbolic and unifying role. As Head, Her Majesty personally reinforces the links by which the Commonwealth joins people together from around the world.

In 1949 the London Declaration recognised the British Monarch as the symbol of the free association of independent member nations and as Head of the Commonwealth. After the death of her father King George VI and her accession to the throne, The Queen became Head of the Commonwealth, recognised by Commonwealth leaders in that capacity.

Throughout Her Majesty’s reign, the Commonwealth has grown from just seven nations to 53 members representing two billion people. During this time, The Queen has played a unique part as a symbol of unity and strength at the heart of the Commonwealth.

One of the ways of strengthening these connections is through regular Commonwealth visits.

During her reign, The Queen has undertaken more than 200 visits to Commonwealth countries and visited every country of the Commonwealth (with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995 and Rwanda which joined in 2009) as well as making many repeat visits. 

One third of The Queen's total overseas visits are to Commonwealth countries.

The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family are also regular visitors to the Commonwealth.

The Queen keeps in touch with Commonwealth developments through regular contact with the Commonwealth Secretary-General and her Secretariat. This is the Commonwealth's central organisation. 

Based in London, it co-ordinates many Commonwealth activities. Her Majesty also has regular meetings with Heads of Government from Commonwealth countries.

Commonwealth Governance

Since 1971, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) has been held every two years, at locations throughout the Commonwealth.

Her Majesty is usually present in the host country, during which she has a series of private meetings with the Commonwealth countries’ leaders, attends a CHOGM reception and dinner, at which she makes a speech. The Queen has been present at every CHOGM since 1973 to witness the tremendous change and progress the Commonwealth has made with every meeting.

In 1959, The Queen made available the former Royal Palace of Marlborough House for Commonwealth purposes, and in 1965 it became the headquarters of the newly formed Commonwealth Secretariat.

Her Majesty keeps in touch with Commonwealth developments through regular contact with the Commonwealth Secretary-General and her Secretariat. The Queen also has regular meetings with Heads of Government from Commonwealth countries.

In December 2012, Commonwealth leaders adopted an historic new Charter for the Commonwealth which reaffirms the core values that unite the Commonwealth. The Charter was presented to Her Majesty at the Commonwealth Day reception on 11 March, 2013.