This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. And over those years it has grown and flourished to develop the link between policy and practice, writes Dr Sue Onslow, the institute’s deputy director.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) quickly followed the London Declaration (28 April 1949), which effectively set up the Commonwealth of Nations. It resulted from intellectually imaginative arguments proposed by a member of Winston Churchill’s wartime Cabinet. Secretary of State for India Leo Amery passionately argued for the creation of a ‘School or Institute of Empire studies’ at the University of London, designed to emphasise London’s role as ‘the intellectual or cultural centre of the world’ (even if the UK was being eclipsed in hard power terms by the US).

At the last minute, the ‘Empire’ label was dropped and ICWS was set up under the leadership of distinguished Australian academic Professor Keith Hancock at No 27 Russell Square. It had a designated research library to promote Commonwealth studies, and deliberately emphasised a multi-disciplinary academic approach – much to the alarm of old-school academic purists.

In the 1950s the institute progressively expanded its academic coverage and analysis in response to the unraveling of Empire. Increasingly, the imperial and metropolitan angle was dropped, with a new focus on North-South and West-South relations, international peace, security and governance, and human rights. Thanks in very large part to the ICWS’ research outputs, Commonwealth history became more than simply a branch of British history.

Professor Hancock established a seminar series on Britain’s rapid decolonisation which was innovative and rigorous, requiring pre-circulation of written papers and demanding lively discussion. This led directly to the creation of The Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies (JCPS) in 1961. Other significant seminar series included the Canadian Studies Programme, Hellenism and the British Empire (under Professor Rob Holland), and the Human Rights Consortium. Publications of conferences and archival research now include Societies of Caribbean Studies Annual conferences papers, digitisation of the British Documents on End of Empire (BDEEP) series, and the Black British History workshops.

ICWS academics have made significant contributions to The Round Table journal (Dr Peter Lyon, reader in international relations, acted as editor from 1983–2004). And papers presented at its seminars and conferences are regularly published in edited volumes and leading academic journals such as the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.

As membership of the Commonwealth grew, so too did the multi-disciplinary nature of Commonwealth studies. ICWS conferences, workshops, seminars and publications covered the history, politics, internal affairs and economies of Commonwealth countries, societies and peoples, with its academic remit mirroring the association’s increasingly diverse membership. When Professor W H Morris-Jones was appointed director in 1966, ICWS became an important centre for the study of politics in India, the largest democracy in the Commonwealth (a position it has maintained).

Human rights have always figured prominently in the institute’s activities. Embedded in this has been the study of race relations – described in 1950 by Professor Harry Hobson as ‘one of the two most important issues in 20th-century international politics.’ Arguably, this is still the case.

Racial and social rights were particularly emphasised under former directors, Professors Shula Marks and James Manor. Marks used ICWS as a platform to promote research in Southern African history with a direct political purpose. Contesting the history of South Africa was part of the struggle itself, since its government determinedly promulgated a particular version in school history books. This led to the ICWS-hosted ‘Societies of Southern Africa Seminar Series (SSASS)’ which were published in the Collected Seminar Papers.

Professor Marks’ reputation attracted young scholars such as Luis Covane. He gained his doctorate on Mozambican miners on the Rand under her supervision, and went back to Mozambique to run a major cultural NGO, was involved in discussions that led to the country joining the Commonwealth in 1995, acted as deputy minister of education and helped set up a Commonwealth Society of Mozambique.

Marks also offered a fellowship to the ANC activist and legal counsel Albie Sachs. While at the institute he developed ideas that were incorporated into the post-apartheid South African Constitution. Until the end of apartheid in 1994, the ICWS was the secret location of the Nelson Mandela papers that included the handwritten text of the speech he delivered from the dock at the opening of the 1964 Rivonia Trial. They were returned to South Africa after the 1994 elections.

In the 1990s ICWS director Professor James Manor drew upon wider concerns within Commonwealth civil society organisations (CSOs) that some Commonwealth governments were woefully failing to address domestic human rights violations. This prompted the creation of the MA programme in Human Rights, now the UK’s longest-running interdisciplinary, practice-oriented human rights master’s degree. Graduates have gone on to do important work such as Joanna Ewart-James, who run the Freedom United NGO fighting modern slavery, while some have found success in organisations like the Department for International Development (DFID).

This determination to bridge academia and the world of policy was matched by academic breadth. In 1982 the ICWS established an academic and administrative base for the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies and initiated global networks through its fellowships programme, bursaries and liaison with other Commonwealth universities. In 2002, it established the Emeka Anyaoku Professor of Commonwealth Studies chair, which continues to welcome senior academics from across the Commonwealth. Comparative analysis in the social sciences has remained a core theme in the institute’s work.

By the 1990s there were earnest debates about the lack of Commonwealth studies at other institutions of higher education. Two decades later (as the grandiloquent and frequently ill-informed claims made about the Commonwealth in the political debates around BREXIT have laid bare) there is still a lamentable lack of public knowledge, particularly in the UK. There is currently no place for the Commonwealth on the school curriculum, undoubtedly because after British decolonisation the Commonwealth was seen as ‘an embarrassing remnant of empire and expected to wither away’.

So the meaning of the modern Commonwealth – as an ideal, an idea, an association and a series of global networks – very often passes many people by. The institute’s flagship oral history project on the modern Commonwealth was designed to address this, highlighting the resilience as well as the flaws and limitations of the Commonwealth as an international organisation.

The ICWS continues to provide a public platform for debate on the policies of its member governments, as well as challenging and critiquing claimed progress towards democracy and good governance, and the continued threat to, and abuses of, minority and indigenous rights. In collaboration with other Commonwealth CSOs, the ICWS publicly criticised the choice of Colombo as the venue for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The same reputational dangers loom given the choice of Kigali as the venue for the next Commonwealth summit.

The institute has highlighted uncomfortable realities of the shifting strengths and capabilities of its inter-governmental organisation, the Commonwealth Secretariat. Responding to mounting evidence of pressures on media freedom across Commonwealth countries, in early 2017 the ICWS set up a centre for the study of challenges to media freedom across the Commonwealth, and has worked actively to promote Commonwealth principles to underpin media freedom.

Since its move to Senate House and incorporation within the School of Advanced Study in 2003, the institute has continued to expand its archival collections. It has more than 230 substantial collections, ranging from commentators on Empire, the Caribbean and Pacific regions, and indigenous rights. The holdings are particularly strong on Southern Africa and liberation movements – most notably the Ruth First papers and those of veteran Commonwealth journalist and political commentator, Derek Ingram. ICWS also has an extensive collection of podcasts on the Commonwealth past, present and future, ranging from India, media and the approaching 2029 elections; President Nelson Mandela; and Legacies of Empire.

For seven decades, the institute has worked to bridge the divide between academia and policymaking through public engagement, fellowships, and ground-breaking research. Examples include Dr Susan Williams’ meticulous research into the death of the second UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, which has led to the appointment of a UN investigator; and her book, Colour Bar on President Seretse Khama and his British wife Ruth Williams, was adapted into a major film, A United Kingdom).

ICWS has contributed to the House of Commons regular commissions of enquiry into the role and future of the Commonwealth – never was there greater importance of accurate appreciation of the limits of the Commonwealth as an international association than now (underlined by Sir Vince Cable’s keynote lecture at the institute in October 2018). Academics provide regular political commentary, contribute to television documentaries, and Commonwealth Opinion blog posts. Current high impact research and publications are equally varied, with emphasis on LGBT+ rights, environmental protest, refugee law, and the Commonwealth diaspora.

In fact. here’s to the next 70 years!

Sue OnslowDr Sue Onslow is reader and deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has written widely on British foreign policy and decolonisation, and southern Africa in the Cold War era. Her latest publication is the co-written biography, Robert Mugabe (Ohio Short Histories of Africa).

Related ‘ICWS@70@ information
The Commonwealth and resilience in 21st century
Black British history workshops
Children of the ‘Windrush Generation’
Judge Albie Sachs, former ANC activist, returns to the ICWS

A longer version of this article is available on The Commonwealth Opinion blog.