IT NEVER WOULD HAVE OCCURRED TO ME that the Commonwealth was born in 1949. In fact, it would have never occurred to me that the Commonwealth was even born at all, merely a long evolution that had its origins with the British Empire, which eventually transpired into a free association of independent Commonwealth states. But if I had to choose a date, it most certainly would not have been the London Declaration of April 26, 1949.
The term 'Commonwealth of Nations' was invented by Lord Rosebery on a trip to Australia in 1884. The first meeting of colonial heads of government was held back as far as 1887 and there were many that followed, including the all-important imperial conference of 1926 that resulted in the infamous Balfour Declaration, whose pronouncements were formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
Indeed, the Statute of Westminster was until very recently considered the real beginning of the modern Commonwealth, because for the first time each country was legally recognised as equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was a truly transformative development.
On the pages of the Commonwealth Secretariat you will even find that Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand "joined" in 1931. (Interestingly they are mute on when the United Kingdom "joined".) Certainly, the significance of 1931 cannot be overstated. The Imperial Commonwealth at that point stood for independence, equality, unity, allegiance, patriotism and free association of its members.
1949 is noteworthy only as a weakening of those things. The dropping of the British pedigree, the end of our united allegiance to the King, the loss of our common patrimony, all in order to make way for the newfound Republic of India, who would not countenance associate membership. The London Declaration was the moment the British Crown Commonwealth became de-Britished, unCrowned and Common-poorer, in that the wealth we had in common became much less so.
1949 was the point in time when our monarchy was demoted to the status of symbol in order to make way for republicanism. We were no longer required to recognize the King as our sovereign, only as the symbolic "Head of the Commonwealth". As a result, Commonwealth republics now outnumber Commonwealth realms, but even more apparent than republicanism, was the ever increasing political need to turn the page and erase from historical memory our so-called "colonial legacy". Her Majesty herself on coronation day in 1952 gave an indication of this desire:
"The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace."The spirit of that international fellowship technically still lives on, but nobody gets excited about the Commonwealth anymore. The popular fraternity - our pan-Britannic patriotism - has evaporated forever. Admittedly, our cultural loyalty may have gradually withered anyways, and certainly culture and identity are increasingly complex notions in the 21st century. But if defending the British Monarchy or an "English Queen" on the basis of national identity now seems like an increasingly remote possibility as we head further into the cosmopolitan mire, that path was firmly set in motion back in 1949.
Sixty years of celebration. Yippee and hooray.