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The Commonwealth

Commonwealth cricket
Among the things shared by Commonwealth countries are many sporting and cultural traditions, such as cricket
     At the end of the Second World War, Britain was at the centre of a vast Empire that covered a large part of the world; but the age of empires was already ending. Countries like Canada and Australia had al­ready become independent; and Gandhi's struggle led to Indian independence in 1948. After that, one by one, almost all Britain's "colonies" followed the same path, and in the space of about 20 years, the British Empire ceased to exist. Today,  the Falkland Islands are among the few "colonies" (now called dependent territories) that still exist .
   However, most of the former colonies have chosen not to break all their links with Britain, but to join Britain in a new association of independent states, the Commonwealth.
  Today, the Commonwealth is the biggest international grouping of states after the United Nations, and far from getting smaller, it has got bigger in recent years. So what is the Commonwealth? What does it mean to people? 

What is the Commonwealth?

What does a professor in Pak­istan have in common with a cowboy in Canada, a lawyer in London and a shopkeeper in Soweto?

Not much, maybe, but they do share some things: firstly, they can all probably speak the same language, English even if they also speak an­other language. Secondly, they are all citizens of the Commonwealth.

Until the 1960's, that meant that any of them could come and live and work in Britain if they wanted to. That "freedom of movement" did not last very long,  and Britain no longer has an open door for Commonwealth immigrants. Yet millions of men, women and children from different parts of the Commonwealth, and their descendants, now live in Britain.

However, the 63 million people who live in Britain are only a very small minority of the total population of the Commonwealth, which includes nearly 2.5 billion people, almost two thirds of them in India.

The Commonwealth came into existence in 1931, when Britain gave independence to four of its most im­portant colonies, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The five countries decided that al­though each was an independent state, they had a lot of things in common, particularly a common cultural heritage, and they would continue to keep close links in a lot of fields. They also agreed that the King of England would be the symbolic head of state, even if each country was free to gov­ern itself in the way it wanted to.

After the Second World War, most of Britain's colonies became independent, and most chose to become members of the Commonwealth when they did so; however, India caused a problem in 1949, by saying it wished to remain in the Commonwealth but become a republic. Obviously, if India became a republic, the King of Britain could not continue to be head of state, even symbolically.

Fortunately, Commonwealth leaders came up with a solution; and since then, states which belong to the Commonwealth have been free to choose any form of democratic constitution. Sixteen of them, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, recognise the Queen as their head of state; five others have their own monarchies, but thirty-three Commonwealth countries are republics.

An association of equals

the queen The Queen is the symbolic head of the whole Commonwealth, though of course she does not have any power. In fact, one of the most important things about the Commonwealth is that it has no power, just influence. The nations belonging to the organisation all come together as equals – at least in theory – from the smallest, Nauru (an island in the Pacific, population 8,000!) to the biggest, India (population 1.4 billion). Britain is not in any way the "chief country", even if other countries recognise its special position, as the country which gave Commonwealth nations their common language, and the basis of their legal, educational and sporting traditions. The current Secretary General of the Common­wealth, Patricia Scotland, is from the Caribbean island of  Dominica.

The Queen is highly respected in the Commonwealth, and makes frequent visits to different countries.


Commonwealth map
The Commonwealth in the world
 In many ways, the Commonwealth is like a smaller version of the United Nations, made up of most of the world's English-speaking countries with the exception of the USA. After the U.N., it is the most important organisation in the world in which rich developed countries (like Britain, Canada, and Australia) can discuss cultural and economic questions with developing countries including some of the richest in the world (such as Brunei) and some of the poorest (e.g. Namibia and Bangla Desh).
   Unlike the United Nations, it does not have any permanent assembly.
   Heads of government from all Commonwealth coun­tries meet once every two years. However, there are also regional Commonwealth conferences, where countries from a particular part of the world come together and discuss the problems of their continent or region of the world.

If the Commonwealth still exists in 2020, after almost 90 years, it is obvious that some people consider it to be an important and useful institution.
  Originally, the Commonwealth was an important trading block. That is no longer the case. When Britain joined the Common Market, Commonwealth countries, notably Australia and New Zealand, lost many of their special trading privileges with Britain, and had to find new markets for their products.
  Interestingly, the Commonwealth is still represented in the European Union, even though the UK has left it.  Malta and Cyprus are both EU7 member-states, and also members of the Commonwealth.
   Today the Commonwealth's main aim is to promote peace, friendship and co­operation between the different nations which are members
   For example in 2020, the Commonwealth provided help and information on the COVID-19 crisis, which was very useful for smaller nations. When the Queen made an exceptional televised speech about the pandemic, she made it for the people of the whole Commonwealth, not just for people in the U.K.

Jamaican music, in particular Reg­gae, became popular in Britain then in other countries, thanks to the strong Jamaican culture that exists in parts of Britain. Bob Marley was one of the biggest stars of his time.

The Commonwealth and democracy

In 1961, South Africa, one of the first members of the Common­wealth, decided to leave the organisation. Perhaps that was a good decision for South Africa at the time; if it had not left in 1961, it would probably have been expelled a few years later, because other Commonwealth coun­tries condemned Apartheid.
   The Commonwealth is an or­ganisation which includes people of all races and religions. It has, in theory, no placefor racism,  for dictators or for repressive regimes.
  Before South Africa left the Commonwealth, other Commonwealth nations asked Pretoria to give up its policies of racial segregation; Pretoria did not take any notice of them.
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela (left) who ended apartheid in South Africa, and brought the country back into the Commonwelth  
After South Africa's departure, developing nations in the Commonwealth put strong pressure on the larger nations, particularly Britain and Australia, to cut cultural and sporting links with South Africa. The British government did not at first want to do so, but in the end the links were stopped; a lot of countries in the Commonwealth had threatened to walk out if they were not. This way, the Commonwealth helped to put international pressure on Pretoria to change its degrading policy of racial segregation. It also put pressure on Britain to be more active in fighting against racism.
   In 1994, two weeks after Nelson Mandela became President of the new multi-racial South Africa, he asked for South Africa to be readmitted to the Commonwealth. A week later, he was in London with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for an official ceremony, attended by the Queen.

South Africa was the second nation to rejoin the Commonwealth. Pakistan left the Commonwealth in 1972, but came back in 1979 after the military government was ousted from power.

In 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth for human rights violations by the regime of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is now dead, and Zimbabwe hopes to rejoin the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Games

After the Olympic games, the world's biggest athletics competition is the Commonwealth Games, which take place, like the Olympics, every four years. The atmosphere is similar, and many of the world's best athletes take part each time. The next Commonwealth Games will be held in Birmingham, England, in 2022

Words guide

attended by
: in the presence of - apartheid : a system where people of different races must live in different places - citizen: member - come up with: discover - current: present - debt: money which is owed to other people - degrading: inhuman, bad - expel: throw out - former: which were in the past - heritage: traditions that have been acquired over a long period of time - issues: questions - link: connection - no longer the case: not true any more - obviously: clearly - oust: throw out - Pretoria - the capital of South Africa - purpose: function, role - share: have things in common - statement: communiqu‚, short report - struggle: fight - take notice: pay attention, listen - trade: commerce - unlike: different to - walk out: leave


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Student Worksheet - being prepared...

The Commonwealth

Careful reading:    Reading for information : write the answers in the boxes.
  • The smallest country in the Commonwealth;
  • The countries where Reggae music is popular;
  •  Countries that left the Commonwealth.
  • The first countries to belong to the Commonwealth.
  • The year in which it all started.
  • The origin of the Commonwealth.
  • The first republic in the Commonwealth.
  • The things that link Commonwealth countries.
  • One of the richest countries in the World
  • Patricia Scotland
After you have read the text on the Commonwealth, say which of these statements are true: write down the sentence / expressions that justify your answer.

    1.    People from any Commonwealth country can come and live in Britain if they want to.
    2.    India is the largest country in the Commonwealth.
    3.    The Commonwealth has existed for over seventy years.
    4.    When India became a republic, the British monarch continued to be its symbolic head of state.
    5.    Most Commonwealth countries are now Republics.
    6.    South Africa was thrown out of the Commonwealth because of Apartheid.
    7.    The Commonwealth has no permanent Assembly.
    8.    Nelson Mandela disapproved of the Commonwealth.


(a) Skimming: Being able to skim through a document and extract the most important bits of information is a valuable skill. Pupils must be made to realise that one can "read" a document without understanding all the words. Indeed, one can get a good idea about the meaning of a text in which a large number of words are incomprehensible. It is important to give pupils confidence, and make sure that they do not put up mental blockages as soon as they come to a word or group of words that they do not understand. Skimming is a way to practise this.
    Write up these questions on the board:
    What is the Commonwealth?
    What problems has it faced?
    What is Britain's place in the Commonwealth?
    What do people think of the Commonwealth.
Now give your pupils five minutes (at most) to read the whole ocument, and try and find answers to these questions. They can note them down on paper, or prepare them in their heads.

    Ask students for oral answers to the questions; if other students disagree with an answer they hear, or want to add more details, they should do so.

    (b) Careful reading: Either get students to fill in the careful reading questions above, or else as soon as the phase of oral discussion has ended (and it may not last very long at all), move directly on to more detailed reading, putting up the following lines on the board (you can write them up while pupils are skimming) - or copying and distributing them.
The smallest country in the Commonwealth;
The countries where Reggae music is popular;
 Countries that left the Commonwealth.
The first countries to belong to the Commonwealth.
The year in which it all started.
The origin of the Commonwealth.
The first republic in the Commonwealth.
The things that link Commonwealth countries.
One of the richest countries in the World
Patricia Scotland
Divide pupils into pairs, and have them read through the Focus, pages 4 and 5, as carefully as they can, finding what each of the above lines refers to.
    This should take ten to fifteen minutes. Once rapid pupils have finished, they can go on to the True/False exercise on page 9, while others continue reading.
    After the time is up, return to an oral phase, and get pupils to give make statements based on the ten sentences you have written on the board. As before, other pupils should be encouraged to add more details, contradict etc.

 Have students find out the names of as many Commonwealth countries as they can. Here are the main countries: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Jamaica, Malta, Cyprus.
    Get students to prepare a short statement saying something about two commonwealth countries, one "Old Commonwealth" country (one of the developed countries), and one "New Commonwealth" country (a developing country).

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Updated from an article originally published in Freeway, the Intermediate level English newsmagazine.
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Intermediate level EFL resource

Level -  High Intermediate.
IELTS Level :  5-6
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
50 - Difficult
Grade level: 12

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