Ninety years ago, a remarkable thing happened: the British Parliament voluntarily ceded greater political autonomy to its dominions and provided a means for other territories to align themselves with an English-speaking commonwealth.
In December of 1931, the Statute of Westminster was negotiated and given royal assent. In the growth and development of self-governing nation states, this agreement is remarkable for allowing territories to elect a representative government while also keeping in place a monarchy. Even as British dominions gained independence, Great Britain did not lose the trappings of empire and could feel a sense of pride that they had nurtured former territories into countries with many commonalities, not the least of which were language and law.
Recognizing political equality with separate governments free to pursue their own futures maintained an “empire of choice,” promoting free association but with separate standards to reflect the uniqueness of each country.
Unlike other empires, the colonial experience under British rule became an experiment in self-government. But, like a normal life cycle, the empire had to adjust to changes as communities grew, territories matured, and states expanded or contracted in territory and influence.
While many people left England for any combination of religious and political reasons, migrants never completely jettisoned the fabric of their English upbringing. Regardless of where they landed, part and parcel of each colony was an understanding of the basic rule of law and some shade of elected self-government.
While there might be disagreement about many things, the idea that laws governed the conduct of people was an accepted principle. Additionally, the notion that leaders would be elected or initially selected created a system that individuals had some say in their community leadership.
As good leadership and a stable legal environment generally produce growth, these communities prospered, expanding their economy in such a way as to attract the attention of the mother country. This adult supervision was welcomed if it was benign and supportive, but once the colonies were seen as potential sources of income, the adult supervision changed to an overbearing overreach that became exploitive. This oversight was rejected and the terms of the supervision were ripe for re-negotiation.
The American colonies renegotiated by staging a peaceful protest that was ridiculed, leading to incredible misunderstandings resulting in a revolution that created the United States as a separate country. The revolution and the fight for independence was not a rejection of all things English, but was, rather, an attempt to replace the King and Parliament with another system that would be more adequate to the needs of the colonists and responsive to a growing and thriving community.
Revolution is not the only way to re-negotiate the relationship between mother country and territory. There is also the peaceful way of developing a contract or, in the case of political subdivisions, a treaty that spells out the relationship between the two bodies ceding power to a local government while retaining other powers for the larger and stronger Empire.
It would be nice to think that his American experience taught King George that war was not an ideal solution in dealing with distant subjects who liked the structure of the government but rejected his policies. Certainly, the English experience with other territories shed less blood and promoted a hybrid of self-government so that locals felt some ownership for their political future. And, if the cost of this arrangement was not burdensome, the locals cooperated to allow a hereditary monarch to continue to serve as titular head of state.
Peaceful negotiation seemed like the right thing for mature people to do, and, in the orbit of British territories, the relationships gradually became established by a contract that initially produced satellite countries creating a prosperous trading arrangement for all parties. Sometimes, though, the representative of the crown, be it a Lord Lieutenant, Governor or Viceroy, overreached and trampled on a portion of local independence.
Mature people know that fighting has great unintended consequences, so rather than engage in armed struggle, England and its territories went back to the negotiating table to resolve their differences.
As part of their growth and maturation, most territories engaged in a conflict to define their relationship with England. The liberty to govern themselves was the first achievement such that political order was no longer imposed from afar. Rather, each territory or dominion established a parliamentary system of sorts, having an elected body that selected a prime minister to govern, but under the auspices of a benevolent sovereign.
Once a political system was established, the next issue causing tension in the relationship was trade. In the days of empire, free trade was a bad word. In fact, the whole idea of empire was to create a system of commerce that demanded exclusive trade between the colony and mother country.
This deal clearly enhanced the wealth of the mother country but at the expense of the colonists. They chafed under a system that limited their economic opportunity to take advantage of other trading partners that might include better terms.
After World War I, the League of Nations attempted a paternalistic system to bring rural indigenous people into civilization. British territories, clearly civilized and most now with their own self-government, saw the idea of the League in terms of recognition as independent states no longer tethered to an Empire. They were not interested in fighting, but simply wanted more autonomy.
The background leading up to the Statute of Westminster is akin to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. Applied to the stages of colonial government, there is a logical, if not rational, progression that as communities mature, they move from dependence to greater self-reliance.
But the pinnacle of community development is self-determination and independence, and this pinnacle is only achieved when the rule of law is respected, and government is limited to grant the greatest amount of freedom for rational, human actions.
The Statute of Westminster accepted a negotiated liberation of its territories as mature independent countries free to pursue their unique national ambitions.
Will Sellers is a 1985 graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at [email protected]