By Dr Sue Onslow –  Deputy Director of The Institute of Commonwealth Studies

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and – unlike the more dubious claims and convenient myths of the modern Commonwealth dating from the Declaration of London on 27 April 1949 – it really is our 70th ‘birthday’!  

The ICWS owes its original creation to intellectually imaginative arguments proposed by a member of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet. The then-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 emphasize 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 United States.)

Professor Keith Hancock

At the last minute, the ‘Empire’ label was dropped and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies was set up under the leadership of the distinguished Australian academic, Professor Keith Hancock, at No 27 Russell Square. [In 1983, the ICWS moved – just next door – to No 28.] The new Institute also had a designated research library to promote Commonwealth studies, and deliberately emphasized 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 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 was increasingly regarded as more than simply a branch of British history. Professor Hancock established a leading seminar series on Britain’s rapid decolonization – the seminar style was innovative and rigorous, requiring pre-circulation of pre-written papers and demanding lively discussion which served as ‘a laboratory of ideas, where they could be tested, and refined … and at times jettisoned’. This led directly to the creation of The Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies (JCPS) in 1961. Over the years, academics at the ICWS have also made a leading contribution to The Round Table journal (most notably when Dr Peter Lyon, Reader in International Relations at the ICWS, acted as editor between 1983-2004). Many of the papers presented at the ICWS’ seminars and conferences continue to be published in leading academic journals or edited volumes, including the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, which is also edited out of the Institute.

As membership of the Commonwealth grew, so too did the multi-disciplinary nature of Commonwealth studies. The 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 WH Morris-Jones became Director in 1966, the ICWS became a major centre for the study of democratic politics in India, the largest democracy in the Commonwealth. Morris-Jones had served as Lord Mountbatten’s constitutional adviser during the turbulent and increasingly violent period leading up to the transfer of power in August 1947, and was recognized as a world authority on Indian politics. The ICWS returned again to this focus on India in the 1990s during Professor James Manor’s tenure as Director; this is still reflected in the strength of research and international academic partnerships and collaboration (eg. between SAS, Yale University and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study).

The ICWS’ range of activities has always had a strong emphasis on human rights. 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; while the great ideological contest between communism and liberal democratic capitalism, has been replaced by populist nationalism and transnational violent Islamist networks.] Racial and social rights were particularly emphasized under the leadership of ICWS Directors Professor Shula Marks and Professor James Manor. Marks used the 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 the South African government determinedly promulgated a particular version in school history books. This led to the major Societies of Southern Africa Seminar Series (known to its many academic participants and fans as SSASS] seminars and publications, hosted at the ICWS and published the Collected Seminar Papers.

According to Colin Bundy

The seminar very rapidly established itself as the most challenging, most vigorous and most exciting source of ideas and debates on South African history. Especially in its first few years, the ICS seminar saw the first airing of themes, theories and findings that subsequently became some of the major works on South African history. Within South African scholarship, for a quarter of a century, there was no major debate nor new research field that was not heard in this building.

Marks’ reputation attracted significant young scholars, including Luis Covane, who got his doctorate studying Mozambican miners on the Rand under her supervision. Covane returned to Mozambique to run a major cultural NGO, was involved in discussions that led to Mozambique joining the Commonwealth in 1995, then 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, who used his time at the Institute to develop ideas later incorporated into the post-apartheid South Afri

‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’

can Constitution. Until the end of apartheid in 1994, the ICWS was the secret location of the Nelson Mandela papers. These included Mandela’s handwritten text of his famous speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial in 1964. These papers were returned to South Africa after the 1994 elections. As a more bizarre historical note, as the USSR was disintegrating in 1990-1991, Marks was invited to take part in a discreet seminar involving the FCO and Russian diplomats who were investigating whether Moscow could emulate this Commonwealth ‘model’ for Russia’s future relations with the former USSR republics. They rapidly concluded this was not going to be possible for the Yeltsin government.

In the 1990s ICWS Director Professor James Manor drew upon wider concerns within Commonwealth civil society that some Commonwealth governments were woefully failing to address domestic human rights violations. This prompted the creation of an innovative MA programme in Human Rights. Master’s graduates who have gone on to do significant work include:  Joanna Ewart-James, who runs the Freedom United NGO fighting modern slavery also interim chair of the CHRI-UK, while others who have gone far in DFID. In addition, the Institute hosted the newly created Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s London office for over a decade. It also provided a home for the Commonwealth Journalists Association; and from 1999-2013 it hosted the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit (later entitled the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau) an independent think tank providing policy relevant research into Commonwealth affairs.

This determination to bridge academia and the policy practitioner world was matched by academic breadth. In 1982 the ICWS established an academic house and administrative base for the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, and established global networks on Commonwealth studies through its fellowships programme, bursaries and liaison with Commonwealth universities. Comparative analysis in the social sciences – comparing Commonwealth case studies with the wider world – has remained a core theme in the ICWS’ work. Recently, the ICWS coordinated a major ESRC-funded research programme, involving a 20-member team of scholars from seven different counties; the project was focused on efforts by the Brazilian, Indian, Chinese and South African governments to address poverty and inequality. Five published volumes have come out of this project.

In 2001, the Institute established the chair, the Emeka Anyaoku Professor of Commonwealth Studies, which has hosted visiting senior academics from across the Commonwealth. Past holders include Professors Joseph Ayee, Susan Parnell, and Xolela Mancu. 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, digitization of the British Documents on End of Empire (BDEEP) series, and the Black British History workshops.

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. Sadly, too, precious little attention is given to honest appraisal of the British empire at secondary school level: undoubtedly because after British decolonization, 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 expressly designed to address this, highlighting the resilience as well as the flaws and limitations of the Commonwealth as an international organization – and to prompt discussion on whether the British government should actively engage with it.

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 IC

Marlborough House – HQ of the Commonwealth 

WS publicly criticized the choice of Colombo as the venue for the 2013 CHOGM– the same reputational dangers loom for the Commonwealth, as a self-declared values based association, 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 organization, the Commonwealth Secretariat. Responding to mounting evidence of pressures on media freedom across Commonwealth countries, in early 2017 the Institute set up a centre for the study of challenges to media freedom across the Commonwealth (considerably before British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt declared this to be one of Britain’s core foreign policy goals to underpin liberal internationalism), and has worked actively to promote Commonwealth principles to underpin media freedom.


Senate House

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 over 230 substantial collections, ranging from commentators on Empire, the Caribbean and Pacific regions, and indigenous rights. The ICWS holdings are particularly strong on Southern Africa and liberation movements – most notably the Ruth First papers. Among its recent acquisitions are the extensive personal papers of veteran Commonwealth journalist and political commentator, Derek Ingram. Its recent publications collection has a strong focus on minority rights, Commonwealth diaspora experience (indentured labour), women, and legacies of empire. Again, this parallels emphasis within the wider Commonwealth political sphere of CSO groups promoting a progressive rights agenda, to give substance to the Commonwealth’s Charter as a values based multilateral association. The ICWS 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.

Over the past seven decades, the Institute has worked to bridge the divide between academia and policy making, through public engagement, active fellowships, and ground breaking research. Multiple examples include 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, later made into a major film, A United Kingdom). The 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 lecture in his keynote lecture at the Institute in October 2018). ICWS 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!


Dr 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).