Bill Kirkman

Talk to C U Commonwealth Society The topic is the first 25 years of the Commonwealth Society, but I am going to begin my talk by going back 50 years. My reason is that the 1960s was the period of rapid de-colonisation, particularly in Africa. It was a process which I had the opportunity to observe at first hand in my capacity as Commonwealth Correspondent of The Times, covering many of the constitution-making conferences. Ghana had become independent in 1957 – the first African colony to do so. In the early 1960s many other African colonies achieved independence (17 in one year – 1960). An important issue was that the speed of change was a conscious policy decision by the UK (and France) that the move to independence was inevitable – and that it should not be delayed. In parenthesis, I would say that I wholly agreed with this. One result of the rapid de-colonisation policy obviously, was a great increase in Commonwealth members. I came to Cambridge in 1968 as head of the Careers Service. Some 12 years later the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (now part of a more wide-ranging body) was established and very quickly there was a great increase in the number of Commonwealth students in the University. I felt it would be a good idea to bring them together in a Cambridge branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society. (A local branch did exist, but it was nearly defunct.) In 1989 I was at a meeting at the RCS and met Major-General Sir David Thorne, recently appointed Director-General of the RCS. I explained that Cambridge had many overseas Commonwealth students who would value being brought together under a Commonwealth umbrella. David Thorne – a brisk, no-nonsense positive enthusiast – said ‘Right. You had better set up a society. I’ll come to Cambridge to help get it going’. You didn’t ignore David’s enthusiasm, and so I invited as many students as I could find, and a number of people who had worked in Commonwealth countries. We persuaded Andrea Morley, a sixth-former in Cambridge, to become secretary and we formed the Cambridge Commonwealth Group. We drew in some very interesting people, including Davidson Nichol, (former vice-chancellor in Sierra Leone); Eleanor Emery (former British High Commissioner in Botswana), Teresa Spens and Alan Young (a local dentist: who became our first treasurer). We also recruited Barbara Sommerville, who later became chair for four years. We organised interesting events (including one where Barbara Sommerville gave a demonstration of pancake tossing), But what we all agreed was that to succeed the group MUST be run by students, and very quickly that is what happened. A few years later, in 2003 – by which time Terry was on board - we produced a new constitution which made it formally a University society, changing the name to Cambridge University Commonwealth Society. The constitution laid down that the majority of the committee, including, crucially, the chairperson and junior treasurer, should be students. Terry – also crucially – became secretary. The Society has been running successfully ever since.