Tucked away in the art-deco tower that is Senate House lies one of Britain’s foremost academic institutes for the study of Britain’s post-imperial relationships. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is part of the University of London, but its heart is with the 54 nations that make up Commonwealth. The 2.4 million people who make up what was once the British Empire are the most diverse grouping working together daily to try to forge a prosperous, democratic future for themselves.
With Britain about to leave the European Union you might have thought that the government would have come down hard on any suggestion that links with, or the study of, the Commonwealth might be severed.
Yet the Institute of Commonwealth Studies has an illustrious history. Founded in 1949, it is the only postgraduate academic institution in the United Kingdom devoted to the study of the Commonwealth. It is also home to the longest-running interdisciplinary and practice-oriented human rights MA programme in the UK. The institute’s library is an international resource holding more than 190,000 volumes, with particularly impressive Caribbean, Southern African and Australian holdings and over 200 archival collections.
I recall the seminars led by Professor Shula Marks in the 1970’s and ‘80’s on southern Africa. Passionate, often heated, they changed the debate about the subcontinent’s history. As director of the ICS (1983-1993) she brought a critical edge to thinking about the Commonwealth – in many ways presaging the current debate about post-colonialism.
It’s current director, Philip Murphy, has followed in her footsteps, while encouraging and supporting a range of students and academics from across the Commonwealth. I am among them. The ICS has provided a warm welcome for fresh ideas which are rigorously tested in a collaborative environment.
Plans to close the Institute
It is against this background that plans to close the Institute should be judged. Yet they make little sense – even financially.
The proposed redundancies of Professor Murphy and other administrative staff poses a potentially disastrous loss of academic leadership and crucial administrative support in SAS, just as the UK faces the greatest transformation in its international relations and global position since the end of empire. Given the departure of the UK from the European Union, discussion of the possibilities and realities of the Commonwealth for British foreign policy will indeed increase in public, political and academic discourse.
This was underlined to ICS academics involved in discussions around the UK’s major Strategic Defence Review in the summer of 2020. However, the claim that there will be active collaboration across SAS Institutes to promote and celebrate the Commonwealth without the existence of the ICS is frankly laughable. Inter-disciplinary academic projects and events need overall ownership and academic grounding if they are to succeed. The ICWS already provides this, and has the external academic credibility and extensive networks to promote such activities and events. Nothing the School has said so far suggests a credible picture of delivery, given the engrained institutional ethos of SAS, and the reality of engrained silos of academic activity.
The argument for closure suggests that additional resources and support to be given to Black British History and research into the Windrush scandal. The ICS has provided leadership, academic credibility and effective delivery of conferences and workshops in London and at regional universities on Black British History since 2014. The ICS also initiated an oral history workshop, and established a crucial preliminary research project, now expanded into a major AHRC research programme (submitted September 2020) on the Windrush scandal. Thus, through its Research Fellows, the ICS has built up the necessary academic and public profile, social trust and networks to continue to deliver these timely academic research streams.
The ICS also benefits considerably from its large network of SRFs and Associate Fellows, whose academic endeavours and breadth of knowledge come at no extra cost to SAS. A substantial number of these fellows are from Commonwealth countries and the British BAME community. If implemented, these proposals would disperse these highly valued academics of diverse background – in direct contravention of the University of London’s declared purpose to foster academic diversity and inclusion.