by Laurence Byrne, Research Librarian for Commonwealth Studies

As Krishnan Srinivasan has noted, the Commonwealth is perhaps the only international organisation shaped by the British experience and by the experience that other nations have had of the British. No wonder, then, that the organisation has, arguably, perpetually struggled for identity and purpose. During the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, there was renewed discussion about the role of the organisation, what exactly it does, and how the UK’s relationship with it is set to change in the wake of the decision to leave the European Union. We take a look at some items in the Commonwealth Studies collection at Senate House Library which might shed some light (or not) on those conversations.


The history of the Commonwealth is both deeply complex and, in one key sense, incredibly simple. As Patrick Gordon Walker writes in The Commonwealth, “Everything about the Commonwealth springs from the historical association of its members.” Given that the ‘historical association’ being referred to is colonisation, it is perhaps not surprising that the organisation often lacks unity. These titles provide an interesting sample of the approaches that historians have employed in attempting to understand the Commonwealth, and to attempt to predict its trajectory in the 21st century.

Pictured, left to right: The British Empire and Commonwealth: a short history by Martin Kitchen (1996); The evolution of the modern Commonwealth, 1902-80 by Dennis Judd and Peter Slinn (1982)

Also available in Senate House Library: The Commonwealth by Patrick Gordon Walker (1962) [not pictured]

Change and reinvention

Change, or rather reinvention, is one of the constants of the Commonwealth. At a loss for a clear identity in the post-war era, the existence of the Commonwealth at least meant that Britain remained at the centre of something. If the former colonies of the British Empire were to become independent, at least Britain could be comforted by the fact that these countries would remain forever linked to London through their membership of the Commonwealth of Nations. For the newly autonomous nations, and those on their way to independence, the Commonwealth would provide a refuge from the proliferation of blocs, alliances and pacts which emerged during the Cold War era.

Broadcast from Auckland during the six-month Royal Tour of the Commonwealth, The Queen’s 1953 Christmas Message addressed the new role of the Commonwealth head on, stating that “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.”

Here we see perhaps the first attempt at a reimagining of the Commonwealth, no longer based on colonialism and exploitation but on friendship and equality.

Pictured, left to right: The Commonwealth in the world by J.D.B Miller (1958); The rise, decline, and future of the British Commonwealth by Krishnan Srinivasan (2005)

The Modern Commonwealth

Another key moment in the reinvention of the Commonwealth was the beginning of the 21st Century. The 1999 CHOGM, held in Durban and attended by delegates all 52 eligible countries, seems to have instilled new hope in the ability of the organisation to make a difference on the world stage. Ford and Katwala’s Reinventing the Commonwealth captures the spirit of this moment, envisioning Commonwealth membership as an international recognition of good-governance and prosperity. In the same year, the South African Institute of International Affairs published The Commonwealth in the 21st Century. A recurring theme of many of the articles contained therein is the unrealised potential of the Commonwealth to solve the complex issues which many of its members face. This might sound like a familiar refrain for given the recent discussion around the potential of the Commonwealth to resolve the challenges of the UK leaving the European Union.

Pictured, left to right: Reinventing the Commonwealth by Kate Ford and Sunder Katwala (1999); The Commonwealth in the 21st Century eds. Greg Mills and John Stremlau (1999)

The future of UK-Commonwealth relations?

There have been a number of interesting publications on the topic of the Commonwealth and the European Union of late. This is not a new topic, and the relationship between Britain and the two institutions was of course a huge topic of debate during the period of Britain’s application to join the European Communities. However, as is often the case with the Commonwealth, the reality is rather different from what is being imagined by those who see the organisation as a potential answer to the uncertainties of Brexit, as Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, pointed out in his recent piece for the Guardian (based on his book The Empire’s New Clothes).

Pictured: Britain, the Commonwealth and Europe : the Commonwealth and Britain’s applications to join the European Communities ed. Alex May (2001)

Also available in Senate House Library: The Commonwealth and the European Union in the 21st century : challenges and opportunities in international relations eds. Melanie Torrent and Virginie Roiron (2016) and Brexit and the commonwealth : what next? ed. Peter Clegg (2017) [not pictured]