Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Commonwealth Day 2009

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh attended an Observance for Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey. Commonwealth Day is celebrated every year on the second Monday in March. The ceremony was led by The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, and was attended by the current Chairman of the Commonwealth, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Lord Watson of Richmond, Chairperson of the Council of Commonwealth Societies, the Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, and by High Commissioners from the 53 Commonwealth nations. The flags 53 Commonwealth countries were paraded through the Abbey at the beginning of the service and HM The Queen delivered her Commonwealth Day Message.
‘This year the Commonwealth commemorates its foundation sixty years ago. The
London Declaration of 1949 was the start of a new era in which our member
countries committed themselves to work together, in partnership and as equals,
towards a shared future.
We can rightly celebrate the fact that the founding
members’ vision of the future has become a reality, the Commonwealth has evolved
out of all recognition from its beginning. It has helped give birth to modern
nations, and the eight original countries have become fifty-three […]. Across
continents and oceans, we have come to represent all the rich diversity of
Yet despite its size and scale, the Commonwealth has to me been
sustained during all this change by the continuity of our mutual values and
goals. Our beliefs in freedom, democracy and human rights; equality and equity;
development and prosperity mean as much today as they did more than half a
century ago […].
Then we joined together in a collective spirit […] to meet
the great tasks of our times […]. Together, we should continue to work hard to
deal with today’s challenges so that the young people of today’s Commonwealth
can realize their aspirations. In that way, we can look to the future with

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, also commented on the origins of the Commonwealth:
‘The London Declaration of 1949, which brought us into being, saw the
far-sightedness of eight countries constituting themselves anew. In so doing,
they made the Commonwealth the first real example of an international community
representing a collective, consultative, mutually respectful approach to
international relations. Nehru put it this way: “if you approach another country
in a friendly way, with goodwill and generosity, you will be paid back in the
same coin, and probably in even larger measure”. Of such vision was the
Commonwealth born.’

This year, Commonwealth Day also marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Commonwealth, with the signature of the Declaration of London on April 26th, 1949. The origins of the Commonwealth date back to before 1949, with the 1926 Balfour Declaration, which established the equal status of all member states (‘equal in status to one another, in no way subordinate one to another’) and the 1931 Statute of Westminster, in accordance with which this equal status was adopted into law. In 1949, however, India’s desire to adopt a republican form of constitution, whilst at the same time retaining its links with the Commonwealth, led to a necessary reassessment of the terms of association within the Commonwealth. In April 1949, Heads of State from Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs met in London and deliberated over six days. The result of their discussions was the Declaration of London, which notably stipulated that King George VI was the ‘the symbol’ of the Commonwealth association and reasserted the freedom and equality of the member states in their relationship to the Head of the Commonwealth and in their cooperative ‘pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. As a result of the 1949 deliberations, the prefix ‘British’ was also dropped from the title. At the end of the Second World War, in the context of decolonisation, many new nations emerging from decolonisation chose to join the Commonwealth. Ghana was the first to join in 1957.

From its initial eight member states, the Commonwealth now forms an association of 53 states, representing one third of the world’s population. Nearly two billion people now live in the Commonwealth; half are under the age of 25. The Commonwealth Secretariat was notably founded in 1965 to facilitate consultation and co-operation among member governments and countries and various other professional and advocacy Commonwealth organisations were subsequently created to deal with the growing numbers of Commonwealth members. The ‘Declaration of Commonwealth Principles’ was issued following the 1971 Summit in Singapore, representing the first fundamental statement of core beliefs. The decision to celebrate Commonwealth Day every year on the second Monday in March was the result of a meeting at Canberra in 1976.

Yet despite the expanding Commonwealth membership over the past sixty years, the latest results of a YouGov survey, which were notably commented on in an article published on the BBC website yesterday, revealed generally poor levels of public knowledge about the Commonwealth and that its importance was in decline amongst the British population today. The research, commissioned by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), questioned 2,119 adults in the UK about their attitudes towards the institution. Only one in five respondents was able to name any activities undertaken by the Commonwealth, and among those the overwhelming majority identified the Commonwealth Games. The Commonwealth also only ranked fifth amongst the international bodies that Britons deemed valuable to the UK: whilst 33% of respondents opted for the Commonwealth, 44% chose NATO, 42% voted for the UN, 37% for the EU and 35% for the G8. Furthermore, although 42% said they would be unhappy about the UK withdrawing from the Commonwealth, 55% of respondents said they would not mind or did not know. The younger generation, represented by the 18 to 34 year-old category, had even greater trouble identifying the members of the Commonwealth, where its headquarters were based and who was at its head.

For more information about the history and the organisation of the Commonwealth visit the Commonwealth website: http://www.thecommonwealth.org/. The site also provides a database of its archives and an interactive map.

(Picture credits: Dean and Chapter of Westminster)

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