Unique Digital Resource of the Oral History of the Commonwealth
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a member institute of the University of London's School of Advanced Study, has secured a major grant of £398k from the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund its 'An Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth, 1965-2010' project.
The aim of this three-year project is 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.
1965 represented a major turning point in the history of the Commonwealth, which 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 Queen 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. 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.
The project, which begins on 1 September 2012 and is due to be completed in 2015, is led by Professor Philip Murphy and Dr Leo Zeilig, both based at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The interviews will be conducted by Dr Sue Onslow, a leading historian of British foreign policy and the Commonwealth, who will be engaged full-time on the project for its duration.
Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Principle Investigator of the project, Professor Philip Murphy, said:
We are delighted by the success of this application, and extremely grateful to the AHRC for its generous support. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is ideally suited to coordinate this project. We have a long track record of managing major historical research projects, and excellent links with the Commonwealth community. With the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee currently undertaking an enquiry into Britain's future role in the Commonwealth, our project is particularly timely. So much of the work of the Commonwealth takes place through informal discussions, of which there is no written record. As such, oral history provides an essential means of capturing and recording its activities. Our findings will provide an essential body of evidence for anyone seeking to judge whether the Commonwealth has been a genuinely effective organisation.
Dr Leo Zeilig, who is Assistant Director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit (CPSU) and Lecturer in Commonwealth Policy Studies at the Institute, said:
This is excellent news for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the project will make a vital scholarly contribution to the history of the modern Commonwealth. The wide-ranging interviews with many of the key figures in the organisation's recent history will be made available on a unique website, providing researchers, undergraduates, academics and an interested public with background to key moments and developments of the modern Commonwealth. With other exciting historical work being undertaken at the Institute, on Ruth First and the Southern Africa Seminar Series, we are set to become a centre of excellence in oral history, digitisation and widening access to historical material.
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