The Cabinet Papers banner

Dominion status and legislation

Dominion status

Britain's change in status was reflected in post-war Commonwealth administration. These political adjustments became linked to imperial economic policy and, more generally, foreign economic policy.

In recognition of their contribution to the war effort, Britain asked the dominions to represent themselves at the Versailles Conference, and they subsequently became members of the League of Nations. The big question in Commonwealth relations was how to achieve consistent foreign policy, so Britain engaged in a process of 'continuous consultation' with the dominions. This broke down in 1922 when the Turkish Army threatened the British Army on the eastern side of the Dardanelles at Chanak. Britain requested Dominion assistance, but acted alone when negotiating withdrawal. South Africa and Canada both refused to support Britain materially.

Balfour declaration of 1926

At the 1926 Conference, Barry Hertzog, South Africa's Prime Minister, insisted on complete freedom of action for South Africa. The need for Britain to define Commonwealth relations became pressing. In 1926 Arthur Balfour drafted this definition of the dominions:

"They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

In 1931 the Statute of Westminster formalised the situation, enabling the dominions to alter their constitutions.

Empire Settlement Act 1922

There were attempts at economic coordination in the 1920s, even though ties between Britain and the dominions had loosened. The 1922 Empire Settlement Act provided funds to assist 'suitable persons' to emmigrate to the Colonies, and in particular, the dominions. In the 1920s the British government spent £6 million subsidising 400,000 emigrants. The Great Depression ended the demand for settlement.

Commonwealth economic development and cooperation was discussed at the 1923 Imperial Economic Conference. The dominions did not support a protective system of preferences and tariffs for empire trade and nothing definite came out of the discussion.


The National Archives Newsletter Icon

Send me The National Archives’ newsletter

A monthly round-up of news, blogs, offers and events.