British Empire
The end of the British empire - the Dominions
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A letter written in 1931 describing arguments over the Statute of Westminster
(Catalogue ref: DO 127/10)
  • This letter was sent from the Dominion Office to Sir William Clark on 27 November 1931.
  • The Statute of Westminster, passed in 1931, officially gave all of the Dominions the full power to rule themselves, although they already did this.
  • By this stage the Irish Free State had also become a Dominion, although Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom (the 26 counties that make up today's Irish Republic became the Irish Free State). There had been a bitter and bloody war over Ireland only 10 years earlier (see case study 4). This is why the letter comments on it being unwise to include any specific reference to the Irish Free State. The Irish leader was WT Cosgrave, who is mentioned in the letter.
  • The Statute of Westminster was mainly designed to sort out red tape. There were sometimes legal complications because the constitutions of the Dominions said that on some issues the Dominions had to get permission from the British Parliament to pass certain laws. The Statute of Westminster allowed the Dominions to pass any laws they wished to pass without having to consult the British Parliament.
  • As this letter shows, there was some controversy over the measure - led by Winston Churchill. Churchill and other MPs (mostly Conservatives) were deeply concerned that a measure like the Statute of Westminster weakened the empire and therefore weakened Britain.
  • Churchill was in the minority. The letter mentions other leading Conservative MPs, like Austen Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin, who made speeches against Churchill’s views. The politician called ‘JH’ in the letter was J H Thomas, the Minister in charge of the Dominions Office. In the 1930s he actually resigned over measures that gave India more control over its own affairs.
  • New Zealand did not immediately agree to accept the Statute, but did so in 1944.
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