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In the British Empire, a self-governing colony was a colony with an elected government in which elected rulers were able to make most decisions without referring to the colonial power with nominal control of the colony. Most self-governing colonies had responsible government.
Self-governing colonies for the most part have no formal authority over constitutional matters such the monarchy and the constitutional relationship with Britain. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London, serves 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 state. 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.
The first local legislatures raised in England's colonies were the House of Burgesses of Virginia (1619) and the House of Assembly of Bermuda (1620), originally part of Virginia. The Parliament of Bermuda, which now also includes a Senate, is the third-oldest in the Commonwealth of Nations, after the Tynwald and Westminster (currently the Parliament of the United Kingdom). Of the three, only Bermuda's has legislated continuously, with the Royalist camp maintaining control of the archipelago during the Commonwealth of England and the Protectorate.
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 1849. 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.
Malta was also a self-governing colony between 1921 and 1933, 1947 and 1958, and 1962 until independence two years later.
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.
In 1981, under the British Nationality Act 1981 and reflecting the change in status toward devolved self-government (and depriving colonials of the rights of abode and work in the United Kingdom), self-governing and Crown colonies were renamed "British Dependent Territories".This terminology caused offence to both loyalists and nationalists in the territories and was changed in 2002, by the means of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, to British Overseas Territories.