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Debates over Brexit have been “dominated by a yearning for restoring UK sovereignty”. The Brexit vote during June 2016 was declared  as an independence day by key members of the leave campaign. Similarly, such sentiments have been used about the exit day on which the UK is to leave the EU under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act  

Independence is often perceived as one decisive moment – a clean break with the past and a new beginning. However, this article posits that independence might be better thought of as a gradual process, characterized by both change and continuity. Taking the example of the development of Australia’s foreign policy post-federation, the article showcases that de jure sovereignty does not automatically or immediately result in de facto autonomy.

Before commencing, it is important to note the context of Australia’s independence as a former British colony is a very different political, economic and legal analysis to that of Britain and the EU.  However, the Australian example helps illustrate how a country with newly offered legislative/political independence (which Britain looks to attain soon) might seek autonomy through a gradual rather than instantaneous process. 

Australia’s Long Road to Independence

The standard account of Australian independence is that the six original self-governing colonies (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia) got together on the 1st January 1901 (Federation day) to form the Commonwealth of Australia upon the adoption of the Australian Constitution. Thus, independent Australia was born.

However, such a notion is a common misconception – especially when considering foreign policy. It was not until much later and through gradual legislative change that Australia became autonomous in its foreign policy. Whilst Australia did become nominally independent in 1901, London retained control over substantial legislative powers, and thus strongly impacted Australia’s foreign policy.

Prior to federation, there were six self-governing colonies and the UK had power to conduct external affairs in their name. Each colony was represented by agent-generals in London heading up an overseas government office (similar to a high commissioner). Hence, each state had its own distinct representation, and the vestiges of such a structure persist to this day.

When the six colonies came to form Australia in 1901, this was done so under the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (1900). Through this act, the British Government still had the power to conduct foreign relations for the Australian Commonwealth. The landmark 1926 Balfour Declaration, marked a gradual shift in London’s views of their dominions. The declaration stated that the UK and their dominions were equal in status of matters of internal and external affairs. These were principles which gave way to the legislation needed to enact such autonomy within the dominions. This legislation came in the form of the British Parliament passing the 1931 Statute of Westminster. It gave legal status to the independence of Australia. More importantly, it gave dominions much more space to self-govern, reducing powers previously exercised from London such as foreign affairs. However, this statute had to be adopted within the Australian parliament as well to come into effect. It was not until 11 years later on the 9th October 1942 that Australia adopted the act. Hence, it was only then did Australia become technically able to pursue its own Foreign Policy.[i]

In short, the Commonwealth of Australia was born in 1901 with Britain controlling foreign policy. Independence was offered in 1931 and taken up in late 1942. From federation until World War 2, foreign policy was controlled by Britain, and Australia was expected to fight alongside Britain (as it did so in both world wars). Despite becoming a country in 1901, it was not until 1940 that Australia established its first diplomatic mission outside Britain. It was not until the later 1930s that Australia’s external affairs department went from mainly focussing on trade and immigration, to that of the conventional diplomatic autonomy that exists today. 

The gradual change from de jure sovereignty to de facto autonomy 

De jure sovereignty came in the form of the Britain passing the 1931 statute of Westminster which Australia’s parliament had to adopt to gain full control over external affairs. However, concern over domestic secessions and reliance on Britain’s military were some of the possible reasons why Australia did not pass the statute of Westminster immediately and thereby exercised de facto autonomy. The British Empire had just been victorious in the first world war and was able to come to Australia’s assistance if need be. In the 1930s, fear of Japan was high after the Manchuria attack. Thus, there was still recognition that being attached to Britain was in Australia’s defence interest.

It was the Second World War which saw Australia enter on the path to de facto autonomy. At the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Prime Minister Menzies declared that as Britain was at war with Germany, so was Australia. Australia was part of the military campaigns across Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. However, closer to home, Australia as an allied power was at war with Japan as well. With the focus now on protecting their own country, Australia military strength alone was not enough and needed assistance from a great power. Britain was preoccupied fighting in Europe and Australia realised it was time to look to America instead of Britain to counter the threat of Japan. Thereby, taking its first step towards de facto autonomy

In a landmark address in December 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin called on support from the USA and declared Australia free from “traditional links of kindship with Great Britain”. From a Foreign Policy perspective, this was considered a pivotal moment: Australia expressed to the world their desire to pursue independent foreign policy and replace Britain with America. This shift in foreign policy then gave way to the adoption of the statute of Westminster in 1942. Which completed the transition to de facto autonomy that Australia utilises today.


The history of the transformation of Australia’s foreign policy highlights the fact that de jure change does not necessarily result in de facto change. Australia did not exercise the theoretical powers it had gradually acquired to pursue an independent foreign policy in practice, until a decisive moment of crisis. For various understandable reasons, Australia still preferred having a link to Westminster. Only upon realising the potential benefit from closer ties to the US, did Australia take full advantage of independence and achieve de facto autonomy.

Coming back to the present of Brexit. Whilst acknowledging again that these are two different contextual scenarios, the history of Australia’s independence suggests that de jure power to formulate independent (foreign) policy does not necessarily guarantee that this will be exercised immediately. Britain has been pro-active in envisioning a revitalised foreign policy and exploring trade deals post-Brexit. Yet, leaving a political union after decades, it  might take some time in re-adjusting policies, in addition to the various other domestic matters to contend with. Hence, we should not be surprised if independence is achieved gradually.

[i] It should be noted that it was not until minor changes passed through the 1986 Australia Act, that Australia was technically to be fully independent of British parliament and courts. However, as this article discusses external affairs, this act is irrelevant to the discussion.



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