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Statute of Westminster 1931

From Academic Kids

The Statute of Westminster 1931 was the enactment of the United Kingdom Parliament (December 11, 1931) which established the legislative equal status of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire and United Kingdom. (There exist also the unrelated Statutes of Westminster of 1275, 1285 and 1290 (known as First, Second and Third), passed by the parliaments of King Edward I.) The Statute is sometimes referred to, especially in the former dominions, as the Treaty of Westminster, although it was not in the form of a treaty.

Today the Statute of Westminster is relevant for outlining the powers which Commonwealth Realms hold over any changes to the structure of the British Monarchy.

The Statute applied to the dominions of Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Union of South Africa and except in relation to revision of the acts of parliament upon which the constitutions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand were founded. The Statute was expressed not to apply to Australia, New Zealand or Newfoundland unless and until adopted by those Dominions' Parliaments.

Statute of Equality

The Statute gave effect to certain political resolutions passed by the Imperial Conferences of 1926 and 1930. One of the effect was removing the last imperial bond of power of British Parliament over dominions. The Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865 was repealed in its applications to the dominions. After the Statute was passed, the British government could no longer make ordinary law for the dominions, otherwise than at the request and with the consent of that dominion.

Adoption of the Statute was strongly opposed by conservatives in Australia, and it was not until 1942 that it was finally adopted to clarify Government war powers; the adoption was backdated to the start of World War II in September 1939. New Zealand adopted the Statute in 1947. Newfoundland never adopted the Statute — Britain resumed direct rule in 1934 and retained it until Newfoundland became a Province of Canada in 1949.

The key passage of the Statute provides that:

No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the commencement of this Act shall extend or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion, unless it is expressly declared in that Act that that Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof.

It was also enacted that:

No law and no provision of any law made after the commencement of this Act by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void or inoperative on the ground that it is repugnant to the law of England, or to the provisions of any existing or future Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom, or to any order, rule, or regulation made under any such Act, and the powers of the Parliament of a Dominion shall include the power to repeal or amend any such Act, order, rule or regulation in so far as the same is part of the law of the Dominion.

Under the provisions of other sections of the statute, the British Parliament still had the power to pass legislation regarding the Canadian constitution and the Australian states. In practice, these powers were not exercised. For example, in a referendum held in Western Australia in April 1933, 68% of voters voted for the state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of becoming a separate Dominion within the British Empire. The State Government sent a delegation to Westminster to cause the result to be enacted, but the British Government refused to intervene on the grounds that it was a matter for the Commonwealth of Australia. As a result no action was ever taken. These residual powers were removed by the Canada Act 1982 and the Australia Act 1986.

Commonwealth powers over the monarchy

The preamble to the Statute of Westminster sets out conventions which impact on attempts to change the rules of succession to the Crown. The second paragraph of the prologue to the Statute reads:

And whereas it is meet and proper to set out by way of preamble to this Act that, inasmuch as the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and as they are united by a common allegiance to the Crown, it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members of the Commonwealth in relation to one another that any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom:

This means, for example, that any change to the Act of Settlement's provisions barring Roman Catholics from the throne or giving male heirs precedence over females would require the unanimous consent of the parliaments of all the other Commonwealth realms if the unity of the Crown is to retained. Note however that preambles to an Act of Parliament do not form part of the Act itself and has no force in law, so the preamble merely expresses a constitutional convention, albeit one fundamental to the basis of the Commonwealth. In any case there can be no effective restriction on the powers of those Parliaments which recognise the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy, namely the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Before King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin consulted the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, at the King's request. The King had wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, who as a divorcee, was considered unacceptable to become Queen by British politicians of the time. Baldwin was able to get the four Dominion Prime Ministers to agree with this consenus, and thus register their official disapproval over the King's planned marriage. The King later requested the Commonwealth Prime Ministers be consulted on a compromise plan, in which he would wed Simpson under a morganatic marriage and thus not have her become Queen. Under Baldwin's pressure, this plan was also rejected by the Dominions. All of these negotiations occurred at strictly diplomatic level and never went to the Commonwealth parliaments.

When Edward abdicated however, the South African Parliament formally voted to "approve" the King's decision. The move was largely done for symbolic purposes, in an attempt by Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog to assert South Africa's "independence" from Britain. South Africa would eventually become a full republic in 1961.

In Ireland, the effects of Edward's abdication were more direct, and Prime Minister Eamon de Valera used the departure of the monarch as an opportunity to remove all monarchical language from the Constitution of the Irish Free State. A new "native" constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann was approved by Irish voters in 1937, with the Irish Free State becoming simply "Ireland", or Éire. Ireland became a republic in 1949 (taking the "official description" Republic of Ireland).

The convention about altering the "Royal Style and Titles" was altered by the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1953, when they agreed to pass individual Royal Styles and Titles Acts to enact different royal styles in each Realm.

Today, the powers given by the statute's preamble only apply to the United Kingdom and to three of the original dominions: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as Ireland and South Africa are now republics and Newfoundland is part of Canada. However, since 1931 over a dozen new Dominions (now called "Commonwealth Realms") have been created, all of which now hold the same powers as the original three over matters of change to the monarchy. This has raised some logistical concerns, as it would mean 16 parliaments would all have to vote to approve any future changes.

The powers of the new Commonwealth realms were confirmed in 1981, when Fiji, Mauritius, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada, as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, gave their assent for Charles, Prince of Wales to marry Lady Diana Spencer. Approval was sought in this case as it was expected that the marriage would produce royal heirs to the Commonwealth thrones, as in fact occurred. When Charles remarried in 2005, this fact, and the age of his wife, meant that the marriage was very unlikely to affect the succession. As a result his second marriage never received Commonwealth assent.

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