The London Declaration was a declaration issued by the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference on the issue of India's continued membership in the Commonwealth of Nations after its transition to a republican constitution. It was made in London on 28 April 1949 and marked the birth of the modern Commonwealth. The declaration had two main provisions: It allowed the Commonwealth to admit and retain members that were not Dominions, so including both republics and indigenous monarchies, and it changed the name of the organisation from the British Commonwealth to the Commonwealth of Nations, reflecting the first change. The Declaration recognised King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth. Following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II in that capacity.
The former term included the device of terminology that would reflect both the developing political independence and the right of countries in the Commonwealth to be republics and the commonality of allegiance that was the cornerstone of the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster 1931. This proved to be a major stumbling block, until a compromise position was proposed by the Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, who planned a position of Head of the Commonwealth, separate but held by the same person as the monarch.
The declaration stated vis-à-vis India:
|“||The Government of India have ... declared and affirmed India's desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.||”|
This formula has since been deemed to be a sufficient precedent for all other countries.
The issue had been discussed at the 1948 Prime Ministers Conference, the agenda of which was dominated by the imminent decisions of two states—India and Ireland—to declare themselves republics. At the meeting, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a Ten Point Memorandum on the settlement between India and the Commonwealth. The Cabinet Committee on Commonwealth Relations recognised that Nehru's proposals could not constitute a basis for continued Commonwealth membership, and that a further conference would be required.
|“||We join the Commonwealth obviously because we think it is beneficial to us and to certain causes in the world that we wish to advance. The other countries of the Commonwealth want us to remain there because they think it is beneficial to them. It is mutually understood that it is to the advantage of the nations in the Commonwealth and therefore they join. At the same time, it is made perfectly clear that each country is completely free to go its own way; it may be that they may go, sometimes go so far as to break away from the Commonwealth...Otherwise, apart from breaking the evil parts of the association, it is better to keep a co-operative association going which may do good in this world rather than break it.||”|
At the next conference, in April 1949, Nehru, seeking above all to avoid two-tiered membership, conceded a more agreeable three-point programme, based upon common Commonwealth citizenship, a declaration of India's continued membership, and recognition of the monarch in a separate capacity than that as monarch. This met general agreement, particularly with the new South African Prime Minister Daniel François Malan, and, over the next two days, the draft was crafted into a final agreement. To avoid criticisms about dropping the word British from the name of the Commonwealth, Nehru conceded a reference to the "British Commonwealth of Nations" in the opening paragraph of the document as an historically-appropriate reference.
King George VI was reticently in favour of the separation of the positions of king and Head of the Commonwealth, having met and liked Nehru, but was concerned with the practicalities. News of the agreement was hailed by all those on the opposition benches in the British House of Commons, including Winston Churchill and Clement Davies. By contrast, Jan Smuts, who had been defeated by Malan in the South African general election the previous year and was considered second only to Churchill as a Commonwealth statesman, was bitterly opposed.
India became a republic in 1950 and remained in the Commonwealth. However, Ireland, which was in the same situation, having passed the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, declared itself a republic on 18 April 1949, ten days before the declaration, and therefore left the Commonwealth.
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