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Self Government




   The transition of the  British Empire into the British  Commonwealth and then the Commonwealth of Nations was been one of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century. No other empire before, or since, has so often voluntarily handed over the reins of government to its colonies. There was an attempt in the 1980s to create a similar organisation between the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The word "commonwealth" was even used. The attempt failed.The British had learned from those mistakes which had led to the war of independence with the United States. Yet even before independence, the British colonies in America were the most free, and the most autonomous, that the world had yet seen. They had their own legislatures, and at times some of the governors had been chosen locally.

The British attempt to impose taxation to recoup the cost of defending the colonies from France was only one of the reasons for the War of Independence. In retrospect they should have obtained the consent of the colonies to that tax.

But two other key factors behind are today overlooked. One was the ruling by the influential British judge Lord Mansfield in Somerset’s Case in 1762 a slaveowner’s rights could not at common law be enforced in Britain. It would only be a matter of time before American courts would have been called to follow this ruling. What particuarly upset the slaveowners was that  the British government refused to intorduce legislation to reverse the ruling.



[Lord  Mansfield ]


The other was the Great Proclamation by King George III to restrict the thirteen colonies to the ir boundaries and to reserve the land to the West to the Indians.

It is sometimes forgotten today that by the nineteenth  century, Britain enjoyed responsible government, liberal institutions and the rule of law, as well as considerable personal freedom. ( Responsible governments answer to and must have the confidence of the lower house of parliament.) 

As Vernon Bogdanor observes, these elements were readily transferred to the settler colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of South Africa. The mainland European empires did not and could not do this. Why? Because most did not enjoy such benefits in their home countries.

The great impetus to decolonisation was the Durham Report of 1839. Recognising that the Canadian provinces already had their own representative legislatures, Lord Durham proposed a further, even more radical step. This was that the government of those provinces, through the sovereign's viceregal representatives, would no longer be responsible to London. He recommended that part of government in respect of domestic affairs be conducted still by the Crown, but the Crown acting on the advice of ministers responsible to the colonial legislature. Not the crown acting on the advice of the British ministers. There we see the beginning of a separate Canadian crown.

At one stroke the main tension between the colonies and London was removed. They wer eno self governing, with foreign affairs and defence remaining with London. Full independence would only be a matter of time. But that would be achieved by evolutioary change, not revolution or war.

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