Unique oral history project sheds unprecedented new light on the story of the Commonwealth

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Is the Commonwealth just an obsolete relic of the British Empire? There is a widespread view that if the organisation is to survive for much longer, it urgently needs a major programme of reform and rejuvenation. But has it ever actually performed a useful purpose? This is the overarching question which a ground-breaking new study seeks to answer.

The Commonwealth Oral History Project will be officially launched at a ‘Legacies of the Empire symposium’ at Senate House on 21 October. It is the result a three-year programme of research - ‘An oral history of the modern Commonwealth, 1965-2010’ - funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It was conducted by a team of scholars based at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS), with Dr Sue Onslow acting as lead researcher.

The director of the project, Professor Philip Murphy, says, ‘We set out to capture the memories of some of those who did most to shape the history of the Commonwealth since the creation of the Secretariat in 1965, and many of our findings are absolutely fascinating. This will be a vital resource for generations of scholars and policymakers, and for anyone who wants to get behind the rhetoric and understand how the Commonwealth actually functioned.’

Since the project started in 2013, Dr Onslow has talked to some 65 leading players involved in Commonwealth activities from 1965 to the present, including those from governments who were on the receiving end of Commonwealth strictures. They include the Commonwealth Secretaries-General, Sir ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, and Sir Don McKinnon, former prime ministers from across the Commonwealth, and two former British foreign secretaries – Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord (Douglas) Hurd.

The result is an extraordinary collection of interviews, which will give an unparalleled overview of the changing nature of the organisation over the last 50 years. The interviewees are often frank about the Commonwealth’s problems and limitations, but also give surprisingly positive insights, as well as candid assessments of its likely survival and future. 

These Commonwealth Oral Histories are freely available on a dedicated website hosted by SAS.

Some of the significant insights offered by the interviews:
● Throw important new light on the Commonwealth’s attempts to end apartheid in South Africa, drawing on the memories of
some of those most closely involved

● Give behind-the-scenes accounts of relations with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

● Demonstrate sharply conflicting assessments of Margaret Thatcher’s policy towards South Africa

● Chart South Africa’s input into the Commonwealth since 1994

● Provide rare insights into the Queen’s ‘hands-on’ role as head of the Commonwealth

● Investigate the extent to which the Commonwealth was an important policy incubator in the major achievement of international debt forgiveness for heavily indebted poor countries

● Demonstrate the important role of leadership in the history of the Commonwealth and the extent to which it was shaped by the personalities of its Secretaries-General

● Offer important insights into the value leaders attached to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings

● Provide important new details about some of the challenges the Commonwealth faced from episodes such as Idi Amin’s brutal rule in Uganda, the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the coups in Fiji in 1987, and 2000

● Reflect thoughtfully on the on-going debate about democracy/development

● Highlight conflict mediation in Africa

● Chart the troubled history of efforts to reform the Commonwealth.

‘These interviews show the Commonwealth has been surprisingly resilient. It hasn’t been just ‘a talking shop’, and it underlines ideas still matter – ideas about rights, development, governance, the rule of law,’ says Dr Onslow.

‘These interviews highlight the history of its frictions, its limitations, its achievements and its quiet strengths. The repeated message from leading Commonwealth personalities is its informality and multiple support networks help built ‘trust’: the secret ingredient in any diplomatic activity, right across the board.’ 

- Ends -

Notes to Editors:
1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653  / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk.

2. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities and celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015. It was officially opened on 15 March 1995, by Sir Anthony Kenny as a federation of the University of London’s research institutes and, since then, has established itself as the UK’s national humanities hub, publicly funded to support and promote research in the humanities nationally and internationally. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2013-14, SAS: welcomed 743 research fellows and associates; held 2,081 research dissemination events; received 26.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 202,891 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews

3. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) is the only postgraduate academic institution in the UK devoted to the study of the Commonwealth. Founded in 1949, its purpose is to promote interdisciplinary and inter-regional research on the Commonwealth and its member nations in the fields of history, politics and other social sciences.  Its areas of specialism include international development, governance, human rights, north-south relations and conflict and security.  The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is a member institute of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. www.commonwealth.sas.ac.uk or follow the institute on Twitter at @ICWS_SAS

4. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk