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«THE RHODESIAN CRISIS IN BRITISH AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, 1964-1965 by CARL PETER WATTS A thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham For the ...»

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Unsurprisingly, some members of the Commonwealth did not feel reassured about the intentions of the Rhodesian Government. For example, a few days after the dissolution proclamation, the Indian chargé d’affaires sent a message to Governor Humphrey Gibbs that the Indian Government considered this to be a prelude to a UDI and was therefore terminating its diplomatic representation in Salisbury. 73 The Nigerian Government also regarded the announcement of elections in Rhodesia as a precursor to a UDI and suggested to the British Government that it should call a constitutional conference, even if the Rhodesian Government resisted the proposal. 74 There was further cause for alarm on 26 April, when the Rhodesian Government issued a White Paper entitled ‘Economic Aspects of a Declaration of Independence’. This sought to reassure the Rhodesian electorate that the benefits of a UDI would outweigh its potential costs, and that British threats to impose economic sanctions were not serious or practical. Although powerful economic interest groups in Rhodesia publicly countered this optimistic assessment, and despite the fact that Harold Wilson made a parliamentary statement warning Rhodesia against a UDI, the Rhodesian Front nevertheless won a landslide election victory. 75 It has been suggested that because the Soviet Union failed to obtain support for a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Britain revoke the Rhodesian elections, ‘The signs, it Alan Megahey, Humphrey Gibbs: Beleaguered Governor (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p. 95.

TNA: PRO, FO 371/181877, Sir F. Cumming-Bruce, British High Commissioner, Lagos, to CRO, Cable No. 499, 1 April 1965. On 13 April, Derrick March, WCAD, minuted that the Nigerian suggestion was hard to understand because the convening of a constitutional conference was likely to provoke a UDI, not prevent it.

James Barber, Rhodesia: The Road to Rebellion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), Ch. 12; Elaine Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence (London: Croom Helm, 1978), pp. 35-37;

Young, Rhodesia and Independence, pp. 196-203.

seemed, were set fair for the 1965 Prime Ministers’ Meeting.’ 76 However, it is difficult to agree with this assessment given that Kwame Nkrumah – the most outspoken Commonwealth critic of Britain’s policy towards Rhodesia – accused Britain of failing to discharge its obligations to the African population of Rhodesia. 77 The actions and statements of Commonwealth members during April and May were bound to heighten tension within the Commonwealth, and the British Government had to consider what it could do to persuade its Commonwealth partners that it had the situation under control.

Wilson first looked at whether he might obtain Commonwealth support for the British Government’s negotiating strategy based on the Five Principles, 78 but when it became clear that this did not have the utility that Wilson hoped for, he came up with a tactic designed to deflect criticism on the Rhodesian issue: a proposal for a Commonwealth initiative to end the Vietnam War.

Harold Wilson believed that the Five Principles were not only a means by which to progress negotiations with the Rhodesian Government, but would also have presentational value at the forthcoming Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting. In May he suggested to the Defence and Oversea Policy Committee (DOPC) that he should try to obtain the agreement of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers on the Five Principles but avoid any detailed discussion of how they should be implemented. 79 In fact, Wilson Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 199.

Aluko, ‘The Role of Ghana in the Rhodesian Question’, p. 313.

See above, Ch. 1, pp. 51-53.

TNA: PRO, CAB 148/18, Minutes of OPD (65) 26th Meeting, 19 May 1965, p. 4.

had already corresponded with the Old Commonwealth Prime Ministers on this subject.80 Menzies and Pearson thought that the Five Principles provided a good basis on which to proceed with negotiations, but Pearson was not optimistic that the Five Principles would gain much support at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting because they did not raise the possibility of convening a constitutional conference, which had been mentioned in the 1964 final communiqué. 81 A few days before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting the DOPC acknowledged this same point. It was suggested that one possible method of reducing pressure on Britain over the Rhodesian issue might be to set up a Commonwealth Consultative Committee for the whole of Southern Africa, including South Africa and the Portuguese territories. On the other hand, it was acknowledged that this could alienate the Portuguese Government, whose assistance would be needed to alleviate Zambia’s difficulties in the event of economic conflict with Rhodesia. 82 Thus, Wilson faced the unwelcome prospect of attending the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting armed with little to combat criticism of British policy on Rhodesia. It was at this juncture that Wilson ‘decided to turn the situation to his own advantage by conceiving the idea of a Commonwealth peace mission’ to Vietnam. 83 NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 4, Wilson to Menzies, Pearson, and Holyoake, 23 April 1965. Wilson made it clear that he was reluctant to put the Five Principles to Smith during the Rhodesian election campaign in case Smith sought the endorsement of the electorate to reject them.

NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 4, Menzies to Wilson, 4 May 1965; and Pearson to Wilson, 3 May 1965.

Canadian officials were also sceptical about the acceptability of the Five Principles to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers. See NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, ‘Rhodesia’, Confidential Memorandum, 7 June 1965, pp.


TNA: PRO, CAB 148/18, Minutes of OPD (65) 29th Meeting, 16 June 1965, p. 6.

John W. Young, ‘The Wilson government and the Davies peace mission to North Vietnam, July 1965’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1998), p. 549.

In his diaries Richard Crossman recorded that by mid-1965 he had become so worried by the Vietnam situation that he decided to raise the issue in Cabinet: ‘But it fell flat. This was mainly because, with the Commonwealth Conference just starting, Harold was able to say that a big initiative was now on the way – and he didn’t want to say anything about it for obvious reasons.’ 84 Wilson consulted Derek Mitchell (his Principal Private Secretary) and Oliver Wright (his Foreign Office Private Secretary) before asking the Foreign Office to work out the details of the scheme. 85 When the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting opened on 17 June, Wilson convened a restricted meeting to discuss his proposal, and was successful in obtaining general approval. 86 Crossman suggested that he only came to know the details of Wilson’s scheme when he saw Robert Menzies congratulating Wilson on television, just two days after Crossman had raised his concerns about Vietnam in Cabinet. Crossman was unimpressed by the ‘political matiness and gimmickry of the proceedings’. 87 He was also worried that Wilson would be absent for up to a month as a result of the ‘stunt’ and was therefore relieved when it failed as a result of Communist opposition. After the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting Crossman

–  –  –

R. H. S. Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister Volume 1: Minister of Housing 1964-66 (London:

Hamilton and Cape, 1975), p. 250, entry for Tuesday 15 June.

A multi-member Commonwealth delegation would visit Hanoi, Peking, Saigon and Washington, and would talk with the International Control Commission (Canada, India and Poland), which had been set up to oversee the implementation of the 1954 Geneva agreements. Young, ‘The Wilson government and the Davies peace mission to North Vietnam, July 1965’, p. 549; and Harold Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970: A Personal Record (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Michael Joseph), pp. 108-09.

Young, ‘The Wilson government and the Davies peace mission to North Vietnam, July 1965’, p. 550; and Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, pp. 109-10.

Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Vol. 1, p. 253, entry for Thursday 17 June.

Crossman, ‘I think we have got most of the value we can out of it already’, which led Crossman to conclude that the main purpose of the proposal had been to prevent the Prime Ministers’ Meeting from breaking up on the first day as a result of a row over Rhodesia. In that sense, Crossman wrote, ‘I have no doubt the stunt was brilliantly successful.’ 88 Similarly, one historian has commented that: ‘Wilson was nothing if not manipulative and there were many critics who came to doubt the seriousness of such a peace attempt, which could be seen as a publicity exercise to divert attention from his problems within the Labour Party and the Commonwealth.’ 89 Wilson survived the opening day of the Prime Ministers’ Meeting by using his guile, but he obviously could not escape the Rhodesian problem altogether. When discussion of Rhodesia took place on 21 June, the African Commonwealth Prime Ministers subjected Bottomley and Wilson to a very rough ride indeed. 90 The barrage of criticism that Bottomley and Wilson had to endure was no doubt a most disagreeable experience, but their tolerance did much to preserve the goodwill of the African members of the Commonwealth in particular. One British High Commissioner observed that ‘African leaders and their principal followers sometimes display political adolescence in their Ibid., p. 255, entry for Sunday 27 June.

Young, ‘The Wilson government and the Davies peace mission to North Vietnam, July 1965’, p. 549.

For a more thorough discussion of the Commonwealth proposal see Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, pp. 71-82.

See Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, pp. 114-19. cf. NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, pp. 75-87; and NAA: A1838, 190/11/1, Part 2, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable Nos. 5211 and 5212, 21 June 1965.

conduct, almost like wilful children.’ 91 He explained that African leaders ‘often deliberately indulge in exaggeration of their private thoughts when they make public speeches’ especially on racial matters, which helped to bolster their domestic authority. 92 Their tendency to ‘indulge in excessively long-winded statements’ was a product of their cultural environment. ‘Their opinion springs from a traditional method of government in many African tribes. According to their custom, free, democratic and often very lengthy discussions hold a vital place in the settlement of public affairs.’ 93 By allowing the African leaders an opportunity to express their views fully it ‘made them feel that the Commonwealth can be a valuable as well as congenial body’. 94 Wilson’s willingness to endure such lengthy discussion was an extension of his successful Cabinet management strategy. 95 It was no doubt helpful in preserving the unity of the Commonwealth in 1965 and beyond.

Lester Pearson helped to moderate the outcome of the 1965 Meeting, just as he had done the year before. Robert Menzies had once again increased tension by deriding African insistence on ‘one-man-one-vote’, and with his remark that he ‘found it puzzling to be TNA: PRO, FCO/211, No. 1, ‘An impression of the Commonwealth conference’, Despatch from M.

MacDonald, British High Commissioner, Nairobi, to Mr Bowden, CRO, 9 December 1966, para. 7, in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Volume 5, East of Suez and the Commonwealth. Part II: Europe, Rhodesia, Commonwealth (London: The Stationery Office, 2004), p. 366. MacDonald’s comments on the attitudes and conduct of African members at the September 1966 Meeting may be applied equally to their conduct at the special conference convened in Lagos in January 1966, the 1965 Meeting, or even the 1964 Meeting.

Ibid, para. 9, in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, p. 367.

Ibid., para. 10, in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, p. 368.

Ibid., in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, p. 367.

See above, Ch. 1, pp. 82-86.

reminded of Magna Carta and its principles and at the same time to hear the Prime Minister of Rhodesia referred to contemptuously and have his name coupled with allegations of corruption and bribery’ when Smith was not there to defend himself. 96 With several speakers criticising British inaction and demanding that Wilson convene a constitutional conference, and some calling for Britain to use force against Rhodesia, Pearson sought to steer the meeting away from extreme views. He began by stressing that ‘Everybody agreed on the principles that peace needed freedom, and that freedom implied self-government, which in turn implied majority rule as a basis of universal suffrage, and above all the absence of discrimination. The principles had all been agreed last year and this: the application was the difficulty.’ 97 This was an astute opening statement because it emphasised the points of agreement and helped to diminish the focus on the contentious issues of implementation. Pearson praised the efforts of the British Government to put the agreed principles into practice and hailed Wilson’s public statement on the consequences of a UDI as ‘an outstanding example of political courage.’ 98 Pearson rejected indefinite delays as unsafe, but also suggested that coercive economic and political measures or the use of military force would result in ‘nothing but chaos’. 99 Although Pearson recognised that the British Government was solely responsible for deciding what to do, he said that it was the duty of other Commonwealth members to give their views on the decision. Pearson said that a constitutional conference should be convened soon (though he gave no specific time frame), African nationalists should be released from detention to participate, and there should be early progress in repealing NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, pp. 78-79.

Ibid., p. 81.



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