Independence within the British Empire: Commemorating the Statute of Westminster

The Statute of Westminster of 1931 was perhaps meant to grant legislative authority to the dominions of the newly forming British Commonwealth, but its effects and adoption in other countries is more complicated.
  • Statute Of Westminster gave Canada legislative autonomy, however there was disagreements between federation and provinces that did not end until the Canada Act of 1982.
  • In the Irish Free State the State of Westminster played a major role in paving the way towards the adoption of a new constitution in 1937 that reestablished the state as Ireland
  • Australia's western half tried to split from the new Australian Commonwealth and form their own place within the British Empire via a referendum however the British refused to recognize it citing the Statute of Westminster and stating that the affairs of the Australian Commonwealth must be sorted internally.

December 11th marks the anniversary of the Statute of Westminster, an act of parliament from the United Kingdom which resulted in major long-lasting effects on the status of her imperial dominions. Indeed, when speaking of the independence of present-day countries such as Canada or Australia, the reality is that the more commonly mentioned years of 1867 and 1901 are technically less accurate than 1931 due to the Statute. Though earlier years solidified the creation of these countries as dominions within the British Empire, one can argue that it was the Statute of Westminster which actually granted these dominions independence from the legislative activities of the British parliament, transforming them from solely dominions into independent members of a British Commonwealth. In commemoration of the significance of this event, we have compiled some interesting facts and bits of history regarding some of the key countries affected by the Statute of Westminster.

5. Disagreements within Canada

The Statue of Westminster was of particular importance to what was then the British Empire's Dominion of Canada, as it was part of long-standing debates surrounding Canada's role in and obligations to the empire. Of particular importance was the role of the Canadian military. When Britain entered the First World War so too did her imperial subjects, regardless of their opinion on the matter, and combined with a political crisis over the question of wartime conscription Canada found itself in the midst of internal conflict among its citizens, particularly between English and French Canadians. The Statute of Westminster was here part of a larger picture of reforms related to the relationship between Britain and Canada known as the British North America Acts. Indeed, although the Statute gave Canada legislative autonomy, the overarching disagreements between federation, province, and empire did not end until the Canada Act of 1982. All this makes the question of marking Canadian independence technically difficult, but nonetheless the Statute of Westminster remains of clear importance.

4. The Irish Free State

Ireland did not yet exist but was rather referred to as the Irish Free State after the events of the Easter Rising, the First World War, and the eventual Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. While this "Free State" was free in name, the reality was far different from what had occurred in the thirteen American colonies. Instead, the Irish Free State was seen as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth, more akin to Australia or Canada than the United States, and it is also worth noting that the creation of this state marked the first use of the term "British Commonwealth" as a departure from the British Empire. All this plays into the significance of the Statue of Westminster, a legislative act which the Irish Free State never technically adopted but still used as part of a series of measures in order to effectively remove all elements of British control. This involved not only the removal of dominion status but also an Irish minister separate from the British and the abolishing of the Oath of Allegiance to the British crown. Indeed, the State of Westminster played a major role in paving the way towards the adoption of a new constitution in 1937 and the official renaming of the state as simply Ireland.

3. The Attempted Australian Split

The Statute of Westminster had an interesting effect on the history of the transformation of the British Dominion of Australia into the Commonwealth of Australia. The Statute was passed by the Australian parliament only in 1942, and even then the British maintained the power to pass legislation about the territory over the heads of Australians until 1986. However, in practice, the independence granted by the British in 1931 was applied without exception. This policy of non-intervention was quickly put to the test when, in 1933, Australia was almost split in two. The country's western half wished to split from the new Australian Commonwealth and form their own place within the British Empire, holding a referendum within its territory which resulted in 68% in favor of separation. Western Australians sent a delegation to the UK and asked the British to recognize their referendum as law, but the British refused, citing the Statute of Westminster and stating that the affairs of the Australian Commonwealth must be sorted internally. The Australian parliament wanted nothing to do with separation, and so the Statute resulted in keeping the country together.

2. South Africa and the Cape Qualified Franchise

Then called the Union of South Africa, a unified state among Britain's imperial possessions in the south of Africa had only come into being a mere couple decades before the Statute of Westminster came into being. A unitary state rather than a federation (which characterized most other similar dominions), the Union of South Africa was self-governing and comprised of multiple colonies along with three major languages (English, Afrikaans, and Dutch) and the newly gained administrative territory of German South-West Africa after the First World War. Of utmost importance to this new state was the question of voting rights, particularly in the context or relations between the native black African and white colonial populations. One of the southern African colonies, the Cape Colony, insisted that its new Cape Province within the Union of South Africa maintain the same system of voting rights that it enjoyed before the dominion's creation. This system, known as the Cape Qualified Franchise, kept voting qualifications away from the question of race and thus notably allowed all races to vote in equal measure. The Cape Province was able to keep its equality within the dominion right up until 1931, when the Statute of Westminster came to pass. The new powers enjoyed by the South African Parliament after the Statute allowed it to override the Cape Province, which it did by extending further voting rights to its white population while excluding its black and colored citizens. Indeed, the reality remains that the Statute of Westminster ultimately played a role in the creation of a segregated Apartheid state in South Africa.

1. The Differing Paths of New Zealand and Newfoundland

The cases of the Dominion of New Zealand and of Newfoundland are interesting as a comparative example, as they were two smaller dominions within the British Empire which ultimately took different paths in their history after the Statute of Westminster. Both colonies politely declined to enter the federations of their larger neighbors, Australia and Canada respectively, and like the Union of South Africa, both had become dominions only just before the First World War. However, both New Zealand and Newfoundland had far less of a drive to become independent than other parts of the British Commonwealth, and indeed some saw direct British rule as more beneficial than having too much local legislative power. Newfoundland was mired in a variety of corruption and financial scandals, and in fact, never had the opportunity to adopt the Statute of Westminster at all. The Dominion's parliament itself pleaded to the British to resume direct control over the territory, which it did in 1934. New Zealand, however, was more concerned with its size and capability to handle military and foreign affairs, and so delayed the adoption of the Statute for sixteen years. Indeed, New Zealand was the last dominion to adopt the Statute of Westminster, and even then the British maintained control over legislations on its constitution. However, the differences in internal affairs and relations with the British, partly defined by the Statute of Westminster, led to two very different histories. Simultaneous with New Zealand's eventual adoption of the Statute in 1947 were a series of referendums in Newfoundland on its very future, held in 1946 and 1948. The result was that Newfoundland was incorporated into Canada early in 1949. New Zealand, however, continued its independence from its Australian neighbor, finally removing the British authority over its constitution in 1986.


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