Historian and former Chair of the Commonwealth Round Table Editorial Board Victoria Schofield

Victoria Schofield ended her term as chair of the Round Table Editorial Board this year. In this article, she reflects on a period which included a pandemic and two important Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.

It was a huge privilege – for six years I felt like I was the ‘face’ of The Round Table; whenever I told friends about my esteemed position, this was followed by further discussions about what that entailed,  which led me to describing the importance of the ‘Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs’ founded in 1910, who my colleagues were, and how we all passionately believed in the future of the Commonwealth, regardless of its critics and detractors.

But it was also a lot more both practically and logistically. As an independent writer used to working on my own, I found myself liaising with my fellow colleagues on the Editorial Board, relying upon them for advice and assistance. I also benefited – perhaps even more than I had as a simple ‘Editorial Board’ member – from that wonderful collegiate friendship, which is a hallmark of The Round Table’s unique character.

Highlights were the two CHOGMS in London 2018 and Kigali 2022. On both occasions I was able to attend as many of the functions as I had time for – the Opening Ceremony, the Peoples, Youth and Women’s Forums as well as interacting with other like-minded individuals representing their respective organisations. And, as one of the ‘accredited’ organisations of the Commonwealth, doors opened to meetings and briefings which were both helpful and constructive in terms of overall interaction and understanding.

London in 2018 was especially memorable. Although I did not know it at the time it was the last time I saw Her Majesty the late Queen in person, listening to her once more extolling the values of the Commonwealth, an organisation to whose well-being she had dedicated her long life.  In terms of achievement what was most significant was the adoption of the Blue Charter, an important milestone whereby all Commonwealth countries agreed to work together to address the challenges relating to the oceans; they also agreed to meet their national and international commitments for ‘marine protection and sustainable ocean development.’

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But challenges were on the horizon. In normal circumstances there would have been another CHOGM two years later. As we all know too well, the world went into lockdown because of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic which literally hit home in 2020 and which meant a huge change in the way we could interact. Instead of chairing meetings in person with the enjoyable contact I had become used to with my fellow colleagues, followed by a dinner with a guest speaker, our meetings were  on Zoom and I became accustomed to seeing those same colleagues in square boxes, sometimes at odd angles, with faces slightly distorted, pets or small children occasionally crossing the screen with  ‘noises off’ when someone had forgotten to go ‘mute’; there was also the strange sensation of watching a speaker who had forgotten  to ‘unmute’ as though he or she was acting in a silent movie. Meetings became more perfunctory, less fun, and it was much more difficult to ‘read the room’ which I had begun to learn was an essential component of being a good ‘Chair’. Even so, as we all recognised, Zoom meetings were an efficient use of our time to such an extent that holding some meetings by Zoom has now become standard procedure, as it has for many other organisations worldwide.

During this period, however, we did accomplish important work. The bi-monthly Journal continued to be produced. And the Editor, Dr Venkat Iyer, made the suggestion that, since we were bound by Zoom, we might usefully engage with our International Advisory Board (IAB) by inviting them to join Zoom meetings to discuss the journal, the times fixed to suit their respective time zones around the world. I found this a particularly inclusive venture – names which were previously listed in the inside cover of the Journal gained faces and personalities. Our interactions made the Round Table feel more representative of the Commonwealth as a whole rather than the RT’s voice coming just from our UK based Editorial Board members.

We also embarked on what we called the Long Term Review (inspired by an excellent paper produced by veteran Editorial Board member, Gordon Johnson) to ensure that The Round Table would remain fit for purpose in a changing world of ‘Open access’. Under the guidance of Website Editor, Debbie Ransome, our website grew from strength to strength in terms of becoming a portal for the Journal as well as a more immediate expression of our work. We also took note that we had evolved since the early days of informal appointments and that it would be helpful to have ‘role’ descriptions  – a task undertaken by a  sub-committee chaired ably by Alexandra Jones – so that whosoever we’d invited to become a member of the Editorial Board would know what was expected of them, whether it was chairing a sub-committee established for a particular purpose, like the membership committee, writing articles or opinion pieces and assisting with peer reviewing the articles of other contributors. During my tenure we added new and younger members to the Editorial Board’s membership who came with fresh ideas and initiatives – Harriet Aldrich and Poppy Cullen – again dispelling any potential image that we, as older members supporting the Commonwealth, were out of touch with the youth.

Another highlight for me (and my swansong since my time as Chair was drawing to an end) was CHOGM 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda – an important location (albeit controversial because of Rwanda’s human rights record) because African countries already constituted two-thirds of Commonwealth members, and by the time CHOGM concluded two more African countries had joined – Togo and Gabon.

For CHOGM 2018  I had developed the habit of writing a daily briefing for the website, describing which sessions of the various forums I had attended,  giving a glimpse of the hectic days which constituted a CHOGM and what was discussed; in Kigali I continued the practice, depending  heavily on my taxi driver, Eric, who reliably deposited me wherever I needed to go;  he also gave me an insight into Rwandan history, his own parents having been killed in the 1994 genocide. Before Togo and Gabon joined, Rwanda was the newest member of the Commonwealth having the unique position of not having formerly been a British colony and yet which had chosen to join this diverse grouping of 54 (now 56) countries.

And so my final reflection on having been Chair of The Round Table, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs is this: for all those who criticise the Commonwealth, in the present day, no country is wanting to leave – instead, as we see, more countries are wanting to join. As we know, no multinational multi-cultural organisation can be perfect, but it serves a purpose because it brings together people from countries who might not otherwise interact. It means that the ‘small states’ of the Pacific and Caribbean have a voice. It shows what such a large and diverse group of countries has in common and that is not only the English language but a commitment, as expressed in the Commonwealth Charter, to ‘the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all members of the Commonwealth.’

In June 2023 I handed over as Chair to James Robbins who is now the ‘face’ of The Round Table, once more ably assisted, as was I, by Secretary Alex May, without whose guidance my six years might not have been the success I like to think they were, together with newly elected Treasurer John Elliott. Challenges of course remain but we are no longer in lockdown and we are free to meet in order to discuss, debate and opine – the foundation of good communication – with the ability to nurture, as Dr Stuart Mole said when he handed over as Chair to me, the remarkable intellectual and practical space which the Round Table continues to offer.

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