From Unitary Legal System to Multipolar International Organization

Research Project

The Legal History of the Commonwealth of Nations in the Inter-War Years

The inter-war period was an epochal one for the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was a time of unique tension, when newly confident Dominions began to assert their independence from the United Kingdom. There were divisions between those Dominions who were concerned to prevent any indication of subservience to the United Kingdom (Canada, the Irish Free State, and South Africa) and those who wished to preserve the legal integrity of the association (the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). This tension played out in a number of legal and political arenas. Each legal controversy was capable of a variety of different interpretations—for example, the view of the abdication of Edward VIII was not the same in Pretoria as it was in London.

This research project is designed to consider the manner in which each of the various Dominions viewed Commonwealth relations in the 1930s. It is based on primary archival research in each of the constituent members of the Commonwealth. It evaluates the legal evolution of the Commonwealth in the inter-war period by looking at flashpoints in relation to the legal doctrines which underpinned the organization, asking such questions as whether there was a legal right to secede (an article on this topic was published in the Journal of Legal History in 2018), what Dominion status signified, and what the link between nationality and ‘common status’ was. 

This uniquely interesting time in Commonwealth legal history presaged the more famous post-World War II period, when the Empire was effectively dismantled. The legal doctrine which had held the Empire together in 1918 had been fatally weakened in the inter-war period by developments in Commonwealth law.

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