We talk to the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), who says ‘far from gently fading away, the collective memory of empire and its consequences is becoming an ever more prominent element in current political debates.’
Professor Philip Murphy joined SAS from the University of Reading where he established one of the first courses in the UK on the intelligence community and British politics in the 20th century. His major research interest in Intelligence and 20th-century British and Commonwealth history has made him a sought-after expert by the international media. He is regularly consulted as an academic expert and has written extensively on decolonisation and the development of the modern Commonwealth. His most recent book, Monarchy and the End of the Empire, was described by the Telegraph newspaper as ‘superbly researched’ and ‘by a country mile the most important and well-informed to have been written about the contemporary British monarchy’.
What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies?
The wonderful thing about the School of Advanced Study (SAS) is that there’s no such thing as a typical day (or indeed a typical month or year). You don’t have the sense of ‘it’s the second Tuesday of February – I must brush off my Cold War lecture’. I might be involved in a research project, organising or introducing a conference, seeing a PhD student, talking to a journalist or officials from the FCO or the Commonwealth Secretariat, or chairing a meeting. And then there is always something fascinating going on in one of the other institutes of the School, and interesting people passing through the building. The challenge is to keep track of everything. I tend to use my electronic diary like a Satnav.
Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
Well we’re always trying to get a number of new balls into the air and keep dozens of existing ones up there. One of the things SAS does really well is forging and maintaining links between scholars, enabling them to share ideas, and ensuring that those ideas reach a broader audience. A couple of years ago, for example, we established a really exciting series of termly workshops on Black British History. Thanks to the tremendous work of its two conveners, Michael Ohajuru and Miranda Kaufmann, we’ve managed to bring together academic and freelance researchers, artists, filmmakers and teachers from around the country to discuss the writing and dissemination of black British history. We’re always looking for new opportunities to do this kind of work. I think we have an important role to play in forging those sorts of contacts through the School’s new Centre for Postcolonial Studies. The Centre’s project officer, Catherine Gilbert, has already made a brilliant start. More immediately, the ICWS is keen to launch some new short courses, aimed specifically at members of policymaking, diplomatic, news and business organisations and NGOs, who want quickly to get up to speed with what the Commonwealth is and how it works.
What was your own experience of being a student like?
I guess I have mixed memories of my time as a student. Coming to Magdalen College, Oxford, from a Hull comprehensive school in the mid-1980s was a bit of a culture shock. Unlike the situation today, my problem wasn’t with the statues but with some of the people. At the same time, it was incredibly stimulating and challenging. One of the great things was the breadth of the modern history course. Although I’ve turned into a contemporary historian, I still love reading medieval history; and studying Renaissance Florence with the formidable Dr Philip Jones taught me lessons about the nature of power which I’ve been able to apply to a range of modern situations. In my spare time I would hang out at the Oxford Union. I never had the guts to take part in a debate, but it did allow me the privilege of close-up views of figures like Edward Teller, Joseph Beuys, Enoch Powell and Jerry Falwell who’d already achieved their fair share of celebrity/notoriety. This didn’t turn me into a nuclear hawk, a Powellite or a fundamentalist Christian (although I do like Beuys’ work). But it did convince me of the need to defend the principle of free speech on university campuses from all comers. I was at my happiest at my graduate college, St Antony’s. It was the opposite of many ‘old’ Oxford Colleges – unstuffy, cosmopolitan, outward looking and engaged – and most of my closest friendships were made at the time. I hope SAS also has something of that spirit.
What’s the focus of you current research?
My major research commitment in recent years has been our AHRC-funded Commonwealth Oral History Project. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of having been associated with during my six years as director of the institute. The interviews themselves – mostly conducted by Dr Sue Onslow with consummate skill and insight – will be an extremely valuable resource for future generations of historians and policymakers. We are currently being funded by an AHRC follow-on award to disseminate this work, and this gives us a great opportunity to reach out to and forge contacts with a range of organisations which could benefit from the research. Having examined the Commonwealth aspect of the role of the Crown in my 2013 monograph Monarchy and the End of Empire, I’m keen to explore other aspects of the impact of the contemporary British monarchy, and I hope this will result in another book. I have plenty of other ideas on the boil, but it might be tempting fate to say too much about them at this stage!
Do you think Commonwealth studies remains relevant today?
Yes, absolutely. The Commonwealth both as an organisation and an idea still has a certain amount of currency in the modern world. At a time when Britain is embarking upon a crucial debate about its place in the world, it’s essential that there is a source of informed and non-partisan information on the Commonwealth, and the ICWS is uniquely equipped to provide this. We also have centres of excellence which bear directly on other pressing political issues, such as our Refugee Law Initiative expertly led by Dr David Cantor and Dr Sarah Singer. At the same time, I think we have a much broader mission, which is to explore the legacies of the European empires and their impact on the contemporary world. Far from gently fading away, the collective memory of empire and its consequences is becoming an ever more prominent element in current political debates. We need to understand why that is, and to provide a genuinely free and neutral space for the discussion of those issues.