Dominion Status and the British Empire
On Friday the 10th June 2016 The City Law School hosted a prestigious constitutional law workshop supported by two of the UK’s major legal institutions - The Modern Law Review and the UK Constitutional Law Association.
The seminar was organised by two lecturers from The City Law School, Dr Mara Malagodi and Dr Luke McDonagh.
It was attended by UK and international scholars from a wide range of areas, including law, history, government and sociology. The idea behind the conference was to examine the nature of Dominion status from the point of view of constitutional law and legal history within the states that came out of the British Empire, especially Ireland, India, Pakistan & Sri Lanka, and to explore what lessons can be drawn from each country's experiences.
However, before these case studies could be examined, the opening paper - given by Peter Oliver (Ottawa) with Michael Lobban of the London School of Economics (LSE) as discussant and Tom Poole (LSE) as chair – explored how Dominion status was first formed during the late 19th and early 20th century as the constitutional mechanism for establishing self-government in the Empire’s ‘settler colonies’ i.e. Canada (including Newfoundland), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Major trade and military alliances
As Oliver explained, in many ways Dominion status provided these colonies with the form of representative government within the Empire that Britain’s American colonies had sought prior to the outbreak of the American war of independence. Importantly, Dominion status fell short of full independence from Britain - as demonstrated by the presence in each Dominion of a Governor General to act as the King's representative - something that was intended by the British to perpetuate major trade and military alliances. At this time it was not envisaged that Britain’s other, non-settler colonies would ever be granted this same status.
Yet that is precisely what transpired in Ireland, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) – and in each country Dominion status was negotiated in the context of a very particular set of political circumstances.
As Luke McDonagh argued - on a panel with Bill Kissane (LSE) and Silvia Suteu (Edinburgh) – Ireland’s Dominion status emerged in 1922 as a constitutional compromise between the British authorities and the majority of the Irish nationalist rebels who had agitated for a complete break from the UK during the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1919-1921 Irish war of independence. Meanwhile, partition occurred with the separation of Northern Ireland in 1920 and these six Ulster counties remain in the UK to this day. After the election of the strident Irish nationalist politician Eamon De Valera in 1932, the 1922 Dominion constitution was legally dismantled via legislation, and in 1937 it was replaced by Ireland's current constitution.
Draconian colonial laws
Meanwhile, in India and Pakistan the movement towards independence – buoyed by the key players of Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah – gained mass appeal in the 1920s and 1930s, and was finally achieved in the aftermath of WWII, though here too, sectarian partition followed. Rohit De (Yale) - with Sandipto Dasgupta (KCL) and Rochana Bajpai (SOAS) commenting - explained that for India Dominion status was useful as it enabled a smooth transition from British rule for Nehru and his government, while retaining many of the draconian colonial laws that became useful for suppressing restive Hindu nationalists and communists.
In the case of Pakistan, Mara Malagodi, with Sarah Ansari (RH) and Matt Nelson (SOAS) also on the panel, explored the dissolution of Pakistan’s first constitutional assembly by the executive - effectively a coup led by the army generals - as well as the Pakistani judiciary’s acceptance of this as legal under Pakistan’s Dominion constitution. Malagodi remarked that Pakistan’s import of the Westminster-negotiated Dominion model helped to enshrine executive power over the legislature – the legacy of which is still visible today. Finally, Roshan De Silva Wijeyeratne (Griffith) - on a panel with Peter Slinn (SOAS) and Peter Leyland (SOAS) - outlined the case of Sri Lanka, where Dominion constitutionalism was put forward by the key figure of Senayake as the most appropriate way for Ceylon to transition to self-government, before it too was replaced with a republican constitution in 1972.
Dominion status did not endure - or even last very long - in any of these territories, and recognition of the full independence of Ireland and India as republics was obvious from 1949 onwards. After this date Dominion status began to lose a coherent meaning; and post-1949 many territories that emerged from the British Empire – such as Ghana in 1957, as explored at the workshop by Dominic Dagbanja (Manchester) - came to be viewed as akin to ‘Commonwealth realms’ rather than as Dominions.
Nonetheless, the term Dominion status continued to have an afterlife in Kenya and Uganda, as outlined by Yash Ghai & Jill Cottrell (Hong Kong) - on a panel with Ambreena Manji (Cardiff) and Martin Loughlin (LSE) - as well as in the Commonwealth Caribbean states, as examined by the final panel featuring Derek O’Brien (Oxford Brookes) (presenter), Kate O'Brien (UCL) (discussant) and Phillip Murphy (ICS) (chair).
In addition to providing attendees with a thought-provoking set of discussions, the conference also acted as the first showcase of an ongoing research project on the subject of transitional constitutionalism organised by The City Law School's Mara Malagodi and Luke McDonagh, as well as the setting up of an international network of scholars interested in comparative constitutional law and legal history.
(All photos taken by Michael John White)
The geographic and political units formerly under British control, including dominions, colonies, dependencies, trust territories, and protectorates. At the height of its power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the empire comprised about one quarter of the world's land area and population and encompassed territories on every continent, including the British Isles, British North America, British West Indies, British Guiana, British West Africa, British East Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand.