By Ben Whitlock
In August 2022 Stephen Noon caused something of an upset by suggesting that the SNP led-Scottish Government shouldn’t opt for an immediate independence referendum. But instead, should pursue a more gradual approach, one that would see Scotland gain more autonomy and policy independence and develop a new looser relationship with the rest of the UK. In a subsequent post for the Centre for Constitutional Change, Noon argued that a model for this kind of relationships already exists, Scotland should follow in the footsteps of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand who spent much of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century as British Dominions. This is not the first time that a revival of dominion status has been proposed to resolve modern Britain’s constitutional problems: in 2016 Elystan Morgan, the cross-bench peer and former Labour MP called for the creation of a Dominion of Wales, while the Welsh nationalist movement has long had a flirtation and interest in dominion status.
Despite its importance in the constitutional history of Britain and the British Empire, dominionhood is not well understood today. Even during its heyday in the interwar period, the concept was fluid, this was ironically part of its attraction, as it provided a means to reconcile political autonomy, domestically and international, alongside close association and collaboration with Britain. Frustratingly for those who might wish to revive it, dominion status was never formally defined. The closest definition is found in the Balfour Declaration of 1926 that defined the dominions (and the UK) as:
“autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
This was not independence-lite, however, in the words of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes “we were Colonies, we became Dominions. We have been accorded the status of nations”. This was a prosses that had no defined end point, what mattered was that the close familiar bounds – to use the preferred interwar terminology – were preserved. Dominionhood as a concept and practicality was inescapably linked to continued collaboration with the UK and membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations; a political community that developed out of British Empire and that would evolve into the modern Commonwealth of Nations after 1945. Within the British Commonwealth, the UK played the leading role, providing the final military and economic guarantee for the dominions, but its politics was deeply shaped by the politics of the dominions, as Andrew Baker has argued. In short, the British Commonwealth was a political community that allowed independence but fostered collaboration and interdependence. There are few comparable projects, and perhaps the closet is the modern EU, which is built on the principle of pooling sovereignty.
As members of the British Commonwealth the dominions would collaborate with the UK in a wide range of policy areas, meeting periodically at the Imperial Conferences to discuss everything from inter-Empire/Commonwealth migration, trade, the constitution, and war and peace. The dominions would regularly rely on parts of the British government to undertake major policy roles. For example, the Committee of Imperial Defence provided military planning capacity, but was formally a sub-committee of the British Government. While the Bank of England played the leading role in managing the Sterling Bloc of currencies within the Empire and Commonwealth that had pegged their currency to the Pound Sterling. Rather than providing a gradual reduction in political and economic links between parts of the Empire, dominionhood meant close collaboration with the UK on major international issues. For the interwar Commonwealth, Britain and the dominions coordination and collaboration were the watchwords that defined their relationship.
What made the coordination and collaboration possible was that members of the British Commonwealth shared a common political identity and ideological outlook. This was often expressed by means of a familiar analogy, the UK was the mother country and the dominions her daughters. Together they held common political assumptions on the importance of liberal democracy, human rights, and loyalty to the common Crown, that was the formal symbol of their association. But they also held values we would not celebrate today: they supported colonialism and viewed themselves as taking part in a civilising mission towards indigenous people in Africa, Asian and their own interiors. These ideas were central to how the dominions understood themselves and their place in the world, they regarded themselves as having the same political values as the UK and sought to collaborate with it and other dominion governments in the face of global challenges.
This is perhaps the key point that Stephen Noon and others miss about dominion status, it is not a halfway house between British rule and independence. This was an ongoing process that aimed to reconcile dominion autonomy and Commonwealth unity. This was a unity that was under written by developing a shared political vision and saw Commonwealth governments collaborating on a significant number of sensitive policy issues. Nor, was it a one-way process, in 1934 following a debt crisis, Newfoundland decided to give up this converted status in favour of rule by a British appointed committee. This does not mean that Noon or others are wrong: dominionhood could very well provide a way forward to the UK’s current constitutional predicament. It’s lack of a defined meaning means that a new form of relationship can be developed, inspired by the original idea of dominionhood that it is possible to balance autonomy and unity. But before we dust off old constitutional concepts, we should perhaps learn more about what they entailed. Dominionhood was not about slow walking to independence, rather it was about preserving close political, economic, and societal links between the UK and the settler colonies.
Ben Whitlock is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Aberdeen.