Self-governing colony

Self-governing colony

A self-governing colony is a colony with an elected legislature, in which politicians are able to make most decisions without reference to the colonial power with formal or nominal control of the colony. In almost all cases self-governing colonies have responsible government.

The term is most often used for British overseas territories (formerly known as crown colonies), in the Commonwealth, formerly the British Empire. Historically, the status of self-governing colony has often represented a transitional stage between direct rule from the United Kingdom and full independence as a Dominion or, more recently, a Realm of the Commonwealth.

General description

While the legislatures of British self-governing colonies — for the most part — control their internal affairs, the British government retains control of foreign affairs, defence and various international trade matters. The British government is represented in self-governing colonies by a Governor, who exercises some degree of control over affairs of state. The Governor appoints a cabinet with executive power from the majority party in the legislature, which usually has responsible government, and is led by a Chief Minister or Premier.

Self-governing colonies for the most part have no formal authority over constitutional matters such the monarchy and the constitutional relationship with Britain. They utilise appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London, as the ultimate avenue of appeal in matters of law and justice.

Colonies have sometimes been referred to as "self-governing" in situations where the executive has been under the control of neither the imperial government nor a local legislature elected by universal suffrage, but by a local oligarchy. In most cases such control has been exercised by an elite class from a settler community.


The term "self-governing colony" has sometimes been used in relation to the direct rule of a Crown Colony by an executive governor, elected under a limited franchise, such as in Massachusetts between 1630 and 1684.

However, in the modern sense of the term, the first self-governing colony is generally considered to have been the Province of Canada, in 1841; the colony gained responsible government in 1848. All the colonies of British North America became self-governing between 1848 and 1855, except the colony of Vancouver Island. Nova Scotia was the first colony to achieve responsible government in January-February 1848 through the efforts of Joseph Howe, followed by the Province of Canada later that year. They were followed by Prince Edward Island in 1851, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland in 1855 under Philip Francis Little. The Canadian colonies were federated as a Dominion in 1867, except for Newfoundland, which remained a separate self-governing colony, was a separate Dominion in 1907-1934, reverted to being a crown colony in 1934, and joined Canada in 1949. However, the term "self-governing colony" is not widely used by Canadian constitutional experts.

In Australasia, the term self-governing colony is widely-used by historians and constitutional lawyers in relation to the political arrangements in the seven British settler colonies of Australasia — New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia — between 1852 and 1901, when the six Australian colonies agreed to Federation and became a Dominion. New Zealand remained a separate colony until 1907, when it too became a Dominion.

In southern Africa, the Cape Colony was granted representative government in 1852, followed by responsible government in 1872. Natal became self-governing in 1893, Transvaal in 1906 and Orange Free State in 1908. These four colonies were united as a unitary Dominion, the Union of South Africa in 1910.) Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), became a self-governing colony in 1923.

The best-known examples of self-governing colonies are the Dominions, during the mid-to-late-19th century and early 20th century. In the Dominions, prior to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, a Governor General, officially the monarch's representative, was a "de facto" arm of the British government.

After the passing of the Statute of Westminster, the Dominions ceased to be considered colonies, although many colonies which did not have Dominion status were self-governing. However, after that time, the Dominions were largely free to act in matters of defence and foreign affairs, if they so chose and "Dominion" gradually acquired a new meaning: a state which was independent of Britain, but which shared the British monarch as the official head of state. The term Dominion has since largely fallen out of use and been replaced with the term Realm.

By 2007, the only self-governing colonies under the above definition are: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. All other British overseas territories experience greater degrees of UK government intervention in their affairs.

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