In 1920 the British Empire controlled a fifth of the world's land surface. Today the Empire has developed into a voluntary association of forty-nine independent states with a combined population of more than 1,100 million: a quarter of the world's people, including some of the richest countries and some of the poorest.
This voluntary association of nations began when Britain's older colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) became independent nations. The dismantling of the Empire has been a gradual process: right up until 1962 the citizens of this huge area had the automatic right to live and work in Britain itself. This is no longer the case.
Today, Britain has only fifteen 'dependent territories', which rely on Britain for their defence. All of these are tiny (except the British Antarctic Territory, which is uninhabited). When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the remaining fourteen territories will have a total population of only 150,000.
The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth. She is also recognised as Head of State in eighteen countries, including Canada and Australia. Although Britain maintains a strong influence in the Commonwealth, and the Queen takes a keen personal interest in Commonwealth matters, despite her title she has little real power.
The modern Commonwealth includes republics and other monarchies in addition to states headed by the Queen. In 1950 India became a republic while remaining within the Commonwealth. Since then most of Britain's former dependent territories have become independent and have remained within the Commonwealth. Among the exceptions are South Africa, which left the Commonwealth in 1961, and Pakistan, which left in 1972.
The Commonwealth has been criticised for being a post-colonial club. But to its members, it is a voluntary association of independent states in the business of promoting democracy, good government, human rights and economic development.
It has also been criticised for having little influence. Indeed, the Commonwealth does not act as a bloc in international affairs and has little influence over non-members.
However, its influence over its own members derives from the benefits which membership brings in developmental support and cooperation on international goals.