Work begins on digital oral history of the Commonwealth project at University of London

Posted on 16/09/2012 by


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.”

An Oral History of the Modern Commonwealth, 1965-2010

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