THE Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth and before that the British Empire) is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary. It was established in 1949 when the self-governing Dominions - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa - were joined by the newly-independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Pakistan. From that imaginative start it has grown to
53 members as Britain has divested itself of colonial responsibilities. The fundamental commitment that binds the diverse Commonwealth together is parliamentary democracy. For that reason some countries have their membership suspended from time to time - Zimbabwe is in that position now and Pakistan was while under President Musharraf's military rule.

Since the Commonwealth has no army or other means of enforcing its collective view, it is often dismissed as a talking shop. But, there is a good case to be made for an organisation comprised of one-quarter of the world's states to meet regularly and - just talk. In fact, though, the Commonwealth does much more than that through programmes of interchange among its citizens in areas of common interest and in various other quiet but effective ways. One of its most important forums is its small Ministerial Action Group which can be brought into play to negotiate disputes or other problems between its member states.

The principal event of the 60th anniversary was a service at Westminster Abbey on Monday attended by Queen Elizabeth who has held the title of Head of the Commonwealth for 57 years of the 60 that the organisation has existed - a remarkable record.