institute of commonwealth studies65 major interviews with leading figures in the recent history of the Commonwealth are now available online, hosted by the School of Advanced Study. This major Arts and 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 organization since 1965 – from the point of view of contemporary diplomatic actors. Originally bringing together Britain and the self-governing ‘Dominions’, post-war decolonization 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 policy makers is how effective has the Commonwealth been as an organization? 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’s 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 significant 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, but in unexpected ways: promoting practical development; Mrs Thatcher was a Commonwealth asset; the Secretary-General’s good offices and his special envoys were particularly important in the 1990s, 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 views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society