The Dominions, and the Statute of Westminster

A part of New Zealand /

A part of New Zealand /

Readers become confused by the essential differences between dominions and colonies and protectorates. The British Empire, when it existed, embraced all three. ‘Dominions’ was the name used for countries in the Empire that had a certain degree of self-government, but owed allegiance to the British Crown. The first country to be called a Dominion was Canada (1867), followed by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and, at last, the Irish Free State in 1921. Their new independence was officially recognised at the Imperial Conference in 1926. Actual power to pass legislation independently of the Government was confirmed by the Statute of Westminster.

In 1931 this Statute gave freedom to the Dominions. Following the Great War these Dominions had been accepted as national states in their own right, though they were still part of the Empire. They joined the ill-fated League of Nations (q.v.) but it was seen (by them) as if their ‘freedom’ was still limited.

They had a right of appeal from Dominion courts to the Privy Council in London (a relic of late medieval times), but each Governor-General (appointed by the British Government) could actually withhold approval from the acts of Dominion parliaments. This was unpopular so at the 1923 Imperial Conference it was agreed that Dominions could indeed design their own treaties with other states, and could even have their own foreign policies. Later the Balfour Report defined the dominions as ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, and in no way subordinate to one 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’.

The Statute had as its aim the removal of limitations on the freedom of the dominions by applying the tenets of the Balfour Report. Govenors-General could be stopped from withholding consent to the legislation, appeals to the Privy Council could be blocked, and Constitutions could be changed. Mysteriously enough, though it would appear that dominions would now be totally free, only South Africa and the Irish Free State adopted the State of Westminster in full. Canada renounced her own right to alter her own Constitution, but did this in order to prevent the Anglo-Canadian majority from interfering with the rights of French Canadians. Australia did not adopt the new rights until 1942, and New Zealand only did so five years later.

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