The first Empire Day took place on 24th May 1902, celebrated prior to 1901 as the birthday of Queen Victoria. Empire Day became a major event, involving, among other things, school parades. Today 60 years ago, on 12th March 1958, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced in Parliament the renaming of Empire Day as Commonwealth Day.
The Commonwealth and Britain have a shared history, cultural links, common legal systems and business practices. Following a 1973 proposal by the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Secretariat selected the second Monday in March as the date on which Commonwealth Day is observed throughout all countries of the Commonwealth.
This 12th March people in Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, the Pacific and Europe will observe Commonwealth Day. Faith and civic gatherings, debates, school assemblies, flag raising ceremonies, street parties and fashion shows are just some of the events they will use to celebrate the vast diversity, strong unity and uplifting values that define the Commonwealth.
In London, Head of the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth II will attend a multicultural, multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey with a mixture of testimonies, performances and readings from throughout the Commonwealth. The event will be broadcast live on BBC One from 2.45pm (GMT) and will feature a procession of Commonwealth flags, with a young flag bearer representing each of the 53 nations of the Commonwealth.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, sends this message on Commonwealth Day:
We all have reason to give thanks for the numerous ways in which our lives are enriched when we learn from others. Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future. There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.
We shall see this in action at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which takes place in the United Kingdom next month, bringing together young people, business and civil society from across the Commonwealth.
These gatherings are themselves fine examples of how consensus and commitment can help to create a future that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and sustainable. Having enjoyed the warm hospitality of so many Commonwealth countries over the years, I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming the leaders of our family of 53 nations to my homes in London and Windsor.
Sport also contributes to building peace and development. The excitement and positive potential of friendly rivalry will be on display next month as we enjoy the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. Contributing to the success of the Games, alongside athletes and officials, will be thousands of volunteers.
Voluntary effort, by people working as individuals, in groups or through larger associations, is so often what shapes the Commonwealth and all our communities. By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.