An Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth, 1965-2010

Lead Research Organisation: University of London
Department Name: Inst of Commonwealth Studies


The aim of this project is to produce a unique digital research resource on the oral history of the Commonwealth since 1965. It will conduct 60 major interviews with leading figures in the recent history of the organisation, which will be available in digitised form on a dedicated website hosted by the School of Advanced Study's 'SAS Space'. The project seeks to produce a Commonwealth equivalent of the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme based at Churchill College, Cambridge. It 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. 1965 represented a major turning point in the history of the Commonwealth. The organisation had emerged from the remnants of the British Empire. Originally bringing together Britain and the self-governing 'Dominions', post-war decolonization saw the ranks of its members swelled by newly-independent states from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, decisively altering its character. With the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965, Britain ceased to play the central coordinating role (although the British monarch continued to hold the title of Head of the Commonwealth). The focus of the organisation shifted in the 1960s towards the struggle to achieve black majority rule in Rhodesia and South Africa. From the 1990s, with the end of apartheid, there was a new emphasis on promoting human rights and good governance. Despite these changes, however, some essential characteristics of the Commonwealth remained constant: it operated essentially through informal discussion and persuasion; it lacked a constitution or founding treaty; and the 'official' Commonwealth was part of a broader network including a variety of civil society organisations, many of them considerably older than the Secretariat.

The crucial question for contemporary policy makers, and one that the project seeks to explore, is how effective the Commonwealth has been as an organisation. This shapes debates about the amount of time and effort member states should be prepared to devote to it. In the case of British government, since the 1960s there has been a tendency for new administrations to come to power promising to place greater emphasis on this 'under-utilised resource', only to sideline the Commonwealth in the pursuit of more tangible foreign policy goals. Analysis of the archives of the Commonwealth Secretariat provides one means of seeking to gauge the significance of the organisation. Yet this collection tends to cast more light on the Secretariat's administrative role than on the Commonwealth's contribution to international diplomacy. This project seeks to investigate, through the use of detailed interviews with some of the leading protagonists, those elements of the Commonwealth's activities that are not easily captured in written records. These would include the informal and often highly sensitive diplomacy conducted via the Secretary-General's good offices. They would also include candid assessments of the way in which the Commonwealth was perceived by representatives from the member states.

Planned Impact

The timely nature of this project means that it is potentially of great value to a wide range of users. The Coalition government came to power in 2010 promising to put the 'Commonwealth' back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and to make greater use of what it regards as an under-utilised resource in British diplomacy. Implicit in the approach of recent British governments is the assumption that the Commonwealth is not merely of value to the UK in terms of 'soft-power' diplomacy, but also in terms of maintaining a network of trading relationships that are of benefit to the UK economy. Indeed, this lay behind the creation in 1997, of the Commonwealth Business Council, with the encouragement of the UK government.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies has as its principal mission the dissemination of research within and beyond the academic community. Taking advantage of its central London location, it has established excellent relations with the Commonwealth High Commissions, Westminster and Whitehall, the Commonwealth Secretariat and a range of Commonwealth civil society organisations. An integral part of the Institute is the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (formerly the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit) which produces commissioned research for policy-making bodies and undertakes its own policy-relevant research projects. As CI on the project, Dr Zeilig, the Assistant Director of the CA/B, is extremely well placed to disseminate its findings to non-academic audiences, and to feed them into other studies.

The project website will be launched with a reception and press conference at the Commonwealth Secretariat at Marlborough House. In order to encourage popular engagement with the project, the launch will be accompanied with the publication of a pamphlet setting out some of the most significant points that emerge from the interviews and offering a guide to the website. The website itself will contain not merely the transcripts of the interviews generated by the current research project but other materials on the history of the Commonwealth including transcripts, audio-visual recordings of witness seminars organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and digitised documents selected from the Commonwealth Secretariat Archives. We will seek to ensure that the website is the first port of call for anyone seeking materials on the history of the Commonwealth, including teachers of history. As in the case of potential academic beneficiaries, the Institute will utilise its network of contacts in the community of Commonwealth organisations to spread an awareness of the existence of this resource to a global audience.


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Description The project has produced annotated transcripts of interviews with 65 leading figures in the history of the Commonwealth since the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965. It also contains the transcript of a major witness seminar held at Marlborough House at which former senior staff discussed how the Commonwealth Secretariat tackled the major challenges the Commonwealth faced. The interview throw fresh light on a wide range of regional, political, social and economic issues. They explore how the Commonwealth contributed to the transition to majority rule in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa and how it responded to a series of crises including human rights violations under Idi Amin, the invasion of Greneda in 1983, the boycott of the Commonwealth Games in 1986 and the coups in Fiji in 1987. They shed new light on the role of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth, and the personal influence she was able to exert on the organization. The interviews point to the importance of creative leadership in developing the Commonwealth Secretariat and ensuring it remained relevant and effective. As a relatively small unit, its identity was heavily shaped by the personal characteristics and ambitions of its five successive Secretaries-General. The interviews contain important material exploring the contribution of the Commonwealth to developing countries in areas such as trade, debt-relief and the encouragement of good governance and the rule of law. They also explore frustrations around the organisation's limited capacity and uneven record of achievement, and its sometimes faltering attempts at reform, particularly around the 2011 report by the Eminent Persons Group.
Exploitation Route The overriding purpose of the Commonwealth Oral History Project is to provide a resource to be used by write academics, policy-makers, journalists and civil society organisations. Our over-arching research question was whether the Commonwealth has proved of value as an international organisation over a range of different issues. Our hope was to explore not merely issues such as the isolation of apartheid South Africa which already feature prominently in the history of the Commonwealth, but other, less high-profile initiatives, which nevertheless had the potential to make a difference. Inevitably, in what is essentially, an oral history archive, our witnesses sometimes took diametrically opposing views, both on specific areas of policy and on the broader question of the overall effectiveness of the Commonwealth. As such, the interviews often point to areas where significant and sometimes passionate disagreement remains (such as the policy of the Thatcher government towards South Africa and its role in bringing about political change). These will only be resolved (or at least clarified) by further scholarly enquiry, for which the interviews will provide valuable source material. In other cases, the interviews point strongly towards a particular conclusion - for example that the Commonwealth played a significant role in developing the idea of financial sanctions against South Africa, which in turn proved effective in bringing the National Party government to the negotiating table. Yet this is a hypothesis that requires much more detailed research, drawing on a variety of sources, before it can be advanced with any degree of confidence. But, again, the interviews provide an important starting point. There are other issues - such as the Commonwealth's role in the area of debt relief - which are touched on relatively briefly across the range of interview, but which appear to be fruitful areas of further enquiry. Aside from the academic sphere, we have been actively promoting the COHP as a valuable source of information for policy-makers and journalists. The selection of a new Commonwealth Secretary-General, who is due to take office later in 2016, has revived long-standing debates about whether the organisation can be reformed and made more effective and relevant. The interviews potentially point to valuable lessons which can be drawn from earlier attempts to reform the organisation, and from successful examples of leadership and agenda-setting. The website is regularly refreshed and updated. New interviews with John Major and Alexander Downer and a witness seminar on the 1997 Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting have recently (2018-19) been added to the website.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description There have been 38,850 individual page views of the website in total since its creation. Over a 60 day period (up to 4 March 2016) there were 2,391 visits, and 4,402 page views. The publication on the website of blog pieces relating the interview material to Commonwealth news items (which we advertise by Tweeting about them) has led to appreciable spikes in the number of hits. Recent blogs on the Ugandan elections (Feb 2012) and the election of Baroness Scotland as Commonwealth Secretary-General (Nov 2015) have attracted a higher than normal volume of users to the site. The findings of the project are being fed into high-level political and diplomatic discussions about the future of the Commonwealth including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Westminster Seminar in December 2016, and an FCO closed workshop on the Commonwealth at Wilton Park in March 2016 at which the Commonwealth Secretary-General elect, Baroness Scotland was present. The findings are increasingly being used by journalists and documentary producers seeking information about the Commonwealth, and team members are increasingly in demand to speak about the organization on the media. The lead researcher, Dr Sue Onslow, for example, will be taking part in the live coverage on BBC 1 of the Commonwealth Multi-Faith Service in Westminster Abbey on 14 March 2016. Murphy's monograph, 'The Empire's New Clothes: the Myth of the Commomwealth', which draws heavily on the project's interviews, was mentioned by over 100 media outlets worldwide on its publication in April 2018, including The Evening Standard, The Financial Times, The Telegraph India, The New Zealand Herald, The China Post, The Las Vegas Sun, The Gulf News, The Taiwan News, the Vancouver Sun and the New York Daily News. The Guardian (10 April 2018) carried an extended extract from the book as part of its 'Long Read' feature. Murphy also featured prominently on Radio 4's documentary on the Commonwealth, 'Imperial Echo' presented by Jonny Dymond (broadcast 23 April 2018).
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

Description Authorship of 2 podcasts for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in-house Diplomatic Academy, entitled Multilateral Organisations - The Modern Commonwealth
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Participation in Wilton Park FCO seminar on the Commonwealth on 7 March 2016
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Participation in diplomatic training course for senior Commonwealth diplomats at the Commonwealth Secretariat. Drawing directly on the interview archive, this presentation highlighted the evolution of the Commonwealth, the past value attached to its 'convening forum' by leading Ministers and Civil Servants and the range of its soft power activities and interventions.
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Preparation of "Multilateral Organisations: The Commonwealth" Practitioner Module for the FCO Diplomatic Academy on-line learning. This is a major contribution to FCO's Diplomatic Academy material, focussed on learning outcomes, on the history, evolution and modern realities of the Commonwealth . It comprises 4 units, and draws directly on insights and comments gained in the Commonwealth Oral History project.
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Title Commonwealth Oral History Project website 
Description The website contains the annotated transcripts of interviews with 65 individuals associated with the recent history of the Commonwealth (including searchable pdf versions) and of a witness seminar on the Commonwealth Secretariat held at Marlborough House, as well as a glossary, bibliography, related historical documents and audio/visual materials, and a series of blog pieces. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Use of the material in a variety of journalistic and policy-relevant contexts. 
Description Launch event for the Commonwealth Oral History Project, Senate House, London, 21 October 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was the formal UK launch of the findings of the AHRC-funded project 'An Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth'. It was scheduled in the evening of 21 October 2015, as the highlight of a two-day conference on the Legacies of the European Empires. This helped to ensure that the audience included scholars from across the UK and the rest of Europe. The event was chaired by the former director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Professor Shula Marks, and included presentations from the project PI, Professor Philip Murphy, lead researcher, Dr Sue Onslow and CI, Dr Ruth Craggs. Ahead of the launch, the team prepared a detailed press pack, outlining some of the major findings of the project and including excerpts from the interviews. This ensured that immediately before the launch there were major news pieces on the project in The Times (17 Oct and in the Daily Mail (17 Oct).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015