By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

I’m now 9 months into this major oral history of the Commonwealth project. This gives me the opportunity to muse on progress to date.


Despite our plans to start slowly, allowing for enough detailed back ground research – and crucially, where we could nail down supporting documents or apply for new material via FOI – the project evolved very rapidly. Here we are at the start of June, and I’ve already spoken to over 20 people, four of them twice. Part of the advantage – and part of the problem – has been the ‘snowball’ effect:  once prospective interviewees hear of other ‘names’ who’ve already taken part, this has opened doors. This is tremendous. Thus far, I’ve only had one rejection, and am pretty sure that this person will reconsider as the project moves forward.


Why is this a problem? In terms of management of the material, and management of my time. On an oral history project of this size and complexity, the interviewer needs time to think. We easily forget quite how time consuming and tiring, setting up interviews is; checking arrangements; travelling; the personal energy required to remain focused and alert during the interview itself.  I always make sure I’ve done one preliminary extended discussion first with prospective interviewees: so that they can gain a sense of the purpose of the project, and its outcomes, and what the interview itself will entail. Also, so that they can interview me –  to make sure I know my stuff, and it wont waste their time.

“There is an insidious sense of the conveyor belt speeding up under my feet”

I’ve found myself doing three big interviews a week – and each requires swotting up, very much as for a major exam. Even with research help, I’ve still got to be top of my game and constantly thinking how to make the interviews ‘talk’ to each other. The history of the Commonwealth as a diplomatic actor is so diverse, involving multiple topics, actors and agency, across a 60 year time-span of democracy and development; the evolution of international law and changes in international relations/community.There is an insidious sense of the conveyor belt speeding up under my feet.

Philip Murphy and I have deliberately decided to have a ‘pause’ to assess the material so far, and decide where the interview cohort needs to be revised; and topic areas for further questioning and exploration. Also, the turn around of returning material can be slow – getting the minor amendments or redactions back from the interviewees can take a considerable while. Care is needed that the draft transcript isn’t taken as the chance to rewrite dramatically – although we are keen to encourage people to ‘craft’ their contribution. This takes fine tuning. We’ve set ourselves a target date for the release of ten transcripts on the designated website in time for the November 2013 Colombo CHOGM, so I’ve got to keep a weather eye on that.


Findings so far? The complex way the Commonwealth as a global subsystem interacted with the Cold War environment. Mrs Thatcher had a point about South Africa (no Commonwealth actor likes to hear that). The focus on racial justice delayed political and social justice (this isn’t news to contemporary observers, but the Commonwealth was indeed remarkably quiet on Uganda, and the murderous Gukuruhundi campaign in newly independent Zimbabwe.) The extent to which the association helped to underpinned identity, confer legitimacy and support skills capacity: so acted an adjunct to nation-building and modernity. Despite the proliferation of international actors, states (and their leaders) remain key players in the international system – personal envoys and special advisers had remarkable access, and still do.

What else? Practical outcomes versus process. Some Commonwealth actors certainly became bound up in process – cynics might say that it has had more than its fair share of busy bees buzzing about pollinating all things Commonwealth. A kinder interpretation would be the association has allowed a remarkable policy space for determined political sub-actors, who have used it remarkably effectively. FCO, take note. Certainly accepting what appeared to some to be anodyne guidelines, came back to bite non-democratic regimes in the backside. Since 1965, the Commonwealth has been in a pretty constant state of flux – and while not quite the ‘vertebrate with teeth’ originally conceived, it doesn’t deserve the label ‘jelly fish without a sting.’ Yes, politics is about people, whatever the IR theorists might pontificate that structures in the international system are all that counts.