Work begins on groundbreaking digital oral history of the Commonwealth project

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Work formally began this month on the Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth project at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies with the full-time appointment of Dr Sue Onslow, a leading historian of British foreign policy and the Commonwealth, as Senior Research Fellow and lead interviewer.

Under the leadership of Institute Director, Professor Philip Murphy, the three-year project aims to develop a unique research resource on the oral history of the modern Commonwealth that will be of lasting benefit to a broad range of users including scholars, educators and policy makers. It will be made up of 60 extended interviews, workshops and conferences with important political figures who have helped to make the Commonwealth since 1965, as well as journalists and commentators with a long-standing interest in Commonwealth affairs. Audio material, annotated transcripts of each interview, together with video recordings with selected leading actors, will be made available online via the School of Advanced Study's 'SAS-Space'.

The political philosophy of the Commonwealth has repeatedly defied definition; but its very heterogeneity has – in the view of its supporters- provided an unseen source of strength of this ultimate ‘soft power organisation’, bound by common bonds of language, education, familial ties, constitutionalism and the rule of law, and the institutional opportunities of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGMs), an early form of summitry.  Supporters claim that some of its most important successes have been achieved through patient and discreet diplomacy, and have, therefore, largely gone unnoticed by historians, analysts and policy makers.  Yet no systematic attempt has been made to test this assertion by recording the recollections of leading actors in the story of the Commonwealth.

A number of witness seminars organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies have demonstrated the value of oral history in exploring the nature of Commonwealth diplomacy and promoting a wider understanding of the Commonwealth.  The Oral History project therefore promises not only to provide a hugely significant resource to the academic community, but also to shed important new light on a fundamental question for policy makers: whether the Commonwealth's record of achievement justifies a continued engagement with it.

Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow and lead interviewer, said: “I am delighted to have started work on this groundbreaking project. Oral history is a unique and precious resource and we are aiming to capture the complete range of views on the history of the Commonwealth’s activities, from its passionate supporters as well as its critics. These interviews will give the reflections from external leading actors, together with the view from the inside, on the contribution of the organisation to international politics and society over the past 60 years.”

Notes for Editors:
1. For further information please contact Dee Burn at the School of Advanced Study at or +44 (0)20 7862 8670.
2. An Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth, 1965-2010 is a three-year AHRC-funded project that aims to produce a unique digital research resource on the oral history of the Commonwealth since 1965. It will conduct 60 interviews with leading figures in the organisation’s recent history, which will be available in digitised form on a dedicated website hosted by the School of Advanced Study's e-repository SAS-Space. The project will provide an essential research tool for anyone investigating the history of the Commonwealth and will serve to promote interest in and understanding of the organisation.
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. It is also home to the longest-running interdisciplinary and practice-oriented human rights MA programme in the UK. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is a member institute of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
4. The School of Advanced Study at the University of London is the UK’s national centre for the facilitation and promotion of research in the humanities and social sciences. The School brings together the specialised scholarship and resources of ten prestigious research institutes to offer academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. The member institutes of the School are the Institutes of Advanced Legal Studies, Classical Studies, Commonwealth Studies, English Studies, Germanic & Romance Studies, Historical Research, Musical Research, Philosophy, Study of the Americas, and The Warburg Institute.   
5. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) - Each year the AHRC provides approximately £98 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,000 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. 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.