Commonwealth studies must fight its corner

October 20, 2000

The Commonwealth is not 'the tail-end of empire' and its study offers significant political insights, argues John Morgan.

The University of London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies is the only postgraduate academic institution in the United Kingdom -and probably the world - devoted to the study of the Commonwealth.

It makes an outstanding contribution to research and scholarship, organising more than 150 seminars and conferences a year on a variety of topics, most of which are open to all. Its library is an international resource housing more than 160,000 items together with about 200 archival collections.

But its continued existence as an independent entity is in question as it undergoes a review of its role, mission, structure and activities.

The review is most welcome. The world needs to achieve equitable and sustainable development amid the economic and social pressures of globalisation, ecological problems, demographic pressures on finite resources and the decline of the nation-state as a political agent.

The continued existence of the Commonwealth as a benign yet active international organisation is of the utmost importance. But to give it intellectual substance and democratic political meaning, academic studies must be undertaken, and this is the responsibility of the universities.

A review of the institute's work is therefore timely. Intellectual trends and priorities change, together with the necessity to respond to the needs of the wider community. A number of questions need to be considered. There is the nature of Commonwealth studies and how it relates to the growing academic interest in post-colonialism. Should the institute's work be extended to systematic comparisons with other imperial and postcolonial experience? The institute's academic reputation rests largely on its contributions to historical scholarship, raising the question of its relationship with the Institute of Historical Research.

To what extent should the institute be concerned with the contemporary Commonwealth and with policy studies? This area of activity forms only a small part of its programme, organised through a policy studies unit, but the arguments for Commonwealth studies as a discrete activity suggest that this role should be extended.

Are comparative studies best undertaken in a small specialist institute or within a wider framework? On the surface, the multidisciplinary nature of Commonwealth studies seems to make the dispersal option attractive, with academic, administrative and financial benefits. But a probable consequence would be a loss of identity. The advantage of a specialist institute is that it provides the foundation on which comparative studies can be built and from which specific connections with policy-making and its implementation can be made. Such an institute would retain the advantage of being able to connect with others, within and without the University of London. The prime opportunity for this is through the dynamic and proven Commonwealth links that already exist. The core value of the Commonwealth is enhanced through its ability to adapt. In the same way, the core value of the ICS should be adapted and developed.

However it is constituted, there is no doubt that Commonwealth studies exists. The essential thinking was set out in the 1996 report of the Commission on Commonwealth Studies. This emphasised that the countries of the Commonwealth possessed a degree of common heritage that resulted in important similarities, together with instructive differences and a language in common. The report defined Commonwealth studies as multidisciplinary, but as taking place within the historical and political context of the Commonwealth, examining in a comparative way relations between individual Commonwealth societies and others.

Individual country studies were seen as necessary building blocks for comparative studies, which had as much to do with the present and the future as with the past. As one senior historian wrote to the commission, the Commonwealth should not be seen as "the tail-end of empire", but as a dynamic and free association of independent states. The Commonwealth has remained a significant actor in world politics. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa is a fundamental example.

Comparative studies of Commonwealth societies have made important contributions to knowledge and to theoretical understanding, showing how institutions derived from a common origin adapt to different circumstances. Such studies are vital to the practical development of people in leadership positions from ministers to local community activists.

Commonwealth studies continues to improve the understanding of problems to the benefit of the world. The validity of these arguments grows stronger as we finally enter the 21st century.

W. John Morgan is a member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and professor of comparative education at the University of Nottingham.

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