Research for Commonwealth Oral Histories, hosted by the School of Advanced Study, began in 2013 with the aim to provide a world-class online resource for students, researchers, historians and policymakers. Dr Sue Onslow, senior lecturer at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) and the project’s leader, says the 65 interviews contain powerful stories.

This major Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project is an essential research tool for anyone investigating the history of the Commonwealth, international politics, diplomacy, regionalism, development and cultural geography.

It includes powerful stories from world leaders and their advisers, insights into the challenges of newly independent states, the struggle against white minority states in Southern Africa, evidence of the Commonwealth as a major policy incubator, the enduring importance of leadership and personal diplomacy, and the current role of civil society in 21st-century international relations. These extended interviews are wide-ranging, covering the chronological development of the Commonwealth, and are spread across this global association.

Taken together, they give an unparalleled overview of the changing nature of the organisation since 1965 – from the point of view of contemporary diplomatic actors.

Originally bringing together Britain and the self-governing ‘Dominions’, post-war decolonisation saw the ranks of its members swelled by newly independent states from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, which decisively altered its character.

With the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat, 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 good governance and human rights.

As these interviews show, despite these changes, some essential characteristics of the Commonwealth have remained constant: it operated essentially through informal discussion and persuasion – ‘informality’ was indeed its secret weapon. The ‘official’ Commonwealth was part of a broader network including a variety of civil society organisations, many of them considerably older than the Secretariat, and which are now important actors for this ‘soft power’ organisation.

The crucial question for contemporary policymakers is how effective has the Commonwealth 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 the British, since the 1960s there has been a tendency for new governments promising to place greater emphasis on this ‘under-utilised resource’, only to sideline the Commonwealth in the pursuit of more tangible foreign policy goals. It is clear Britain doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth needs Britain as a major global player, as well as Canada and Australia, as members of multilateral organisations.

Has the Commonwealth been an effective diplomatic actor? The answer from these interviews may come as a surprise to its critics. Yes, it has, but in unexpected ways:

  • promoting practical development
  • Margaret Thatcher was a Commonwealth asset
  • the Secretary-General’s good offices and his special envoys were particularly important in the 90s, in promoting transitions to democracy in Africa post-Cold War
  • the Commonwealth was an important policy incubator in the major achievement of international debt forgiveness for heavily indebted poor countries
  • promoting transitions to democracy through election monitoring, and institutional best practice

The Commonwealth achieved results out of all proportion to its limited financial resources. But the interviewees are clear-eyed about the association’s problems and limitations, and give candid assessments of the Commonwealth’s likely survival and future.

The fully searchable discussions on Commonwealth Oral Histories are part of a larger AHRC-funded initiative, ‘An oral history of the Commonwealth’. It will be officially launched at a ‘Legacies of the Empire symposium’ at Senate House on 21 October.

The digital research resource focuses on the key Commonwealth diplomatic themes:

  • leadership
  • mediation
  • bilateral and collaborative international pressure for racial justice;
  • developmental issues
  • democratisation
  • the Commonwealth’s contribution to the evolution of international norms and legal frameworks (debt forgiveness, the law of the sea, election monitoring, nuclear non-proliferation)