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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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repressive and discriminatory laws. Pearson referred to the 1964 communiqué – which had acknowledged that a constitutional conference should be convened with a view to establishing an independent Rhodesia ‘within the Commonwealth at the earliest practicable time on the basis of majority rule’ – and suggested that it would be necessary for the 1965 communiqué to go beyond this. 100 Wilson noted that although those words had been included in the 1964 communiqué they were not an agreed statement, and clarified that the British Government had reserved its position.101 In his memoirs Wilson wrote that ‘Lester Pearson certainly did not go all the way with the Africans, particularly on military intervention, but he felt that we should be doing more.’ 102 This is a somewhat opaque representation of Pearson’s position, since he was evidently sympathetic to the idea of a constitutional conference and therefore closely aligned with the views of the

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activism was certainly no surprise to the British Government. 103 Nevertheless it did cause irritation: in the wake of the Meeting one senior official suggested that the British Government ought to develop ‘a particularly close connection with Australia and New Zealand and a slightly less close connection with Canada’. 104 Yet whatever the British may have thought of Canadian policy, it can certainly be argued that Pearson played a Ibid., p. 82.

Ibid., pp. 82 and 84.

Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, p. 116.

Arnold Smith had put the British on notice that Pearson intended to take an active role. TNA: PRO, DO 183/674, Sir Harry Lintott, British High Commissioner, Ottawa, to Sir Saville Garner, Commonwealth Relations Office, 17 May 1965.

TNA: PRO, DO 193/81, Minute by P. Rogers, Deputy Secretary, Cabinet, 1 July 1965, para. 4, in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, pp. 342-43.

valuable role by helping to diffuse some of the tension at the Meeting engendered by the Rhodesian issue.

There were evident degrees of separation in the positions adopted by the African and Asian Prime Ministers, which is perhaps the most significant reason why the 1965 Meeting did not disintegrate over discussion of the Rhodesian problem. The most radical African leaders at the 1965 Meeting were Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Sir Alfred Margai (Sierra Leone), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), and Milton Obote (Uganda).

Bruce Miller observed:

With variations, their position was that, having either experienced the use of force by British administrations in their own countries or seen it deployed in such other colonies as Aden, British Guiana, and Cyprus, they saw no reason why Britain should not use it against the Smith regime in

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Nkrumah initially took the lead on the Rhodesian issue. He was highly critical of several Labour Ministers who had bitterly denounced the 1961 Constitution yet now accepted it as the basis of progress towards independence in Rhodesia. He reproached the British Government for its failure to call a constitutional conference and called for it to do so without further delay. He rejected the argument that a constitutional conference was impractical because the Rhodesian Government was unwilling to attend and urged Britain Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 205. Eric Williams (Trinidad) also adopted a similar position. NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, pp. 82-83.

to use troops if necessary to impose direct rule. 106 Nkrumah’s demands set the tone for the meeting. Kaunda emphasised that white minority regimes posed a threat to peace in southern Africa and warned that without a swift solution in Rhodesia it would become more like South Africa and the Portuguese colonies. He therefore supported the call for an immediate constitutional conference. 107 Wilson recalled in his memoirs that Nyerere, ‘With his brilliant forensic powers … put us in the dock on charge after charge.’ 108 He dismissed Britain’s attempts to negotiate with the Rhodesian Government and argued that

there were no insurmountable obstacles to British military intervention, as Wilson put it:

‘for him history and geography could not overcome an issue of principle.’ 109 Margai and Obote both spoke in similar terms, criticising Bottomley for his apparent willingness to compromise with the Smith regime, and insisting that any settlement in Rhodesia must be based on ‘one-man-one-vote’. 110 Curiously, Nkrumah played a more moderate role after making his initial statement, refraining from supporting Nyerere and even ‘telling Albert Margai to shut up’, which astonished the British High Commissioner to Accra. 111 It has been argued that significant differences between Nkrumah and Nyerere on other political issues affected their behaviour at the 1964 and 1965 Meetings. 112 They had, for example, NAA: A1838, 190/11/1, Part 2, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No.

5212, 21 June 1965; and Aluko, ‘The Role of Ghana in the Rhodesian Question’, pp. 313-14.

NAA: A1838, 190/11/1, Part 2, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No.

5212, 21 June 1965.

Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, p. 116.


NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, pp. 75-78.

Thompson, Ghana’s Foreign Policy 1957-66, pp. 390-91. The author cites ‘Interview: CF-103, 10 November 1965, London.’ Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 200.

disagreed vehemently in 1963 about the proposed East African Federation. 113 Such division must caution against any suggestion that the more extreme African leaders constituted a monolithic bloc, and this may have helped Wilson and Bottomley to weather the storm of criticism.

Wilson and Bottomley also received some degree of support from moderate African leaders, especially Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria), who was more sympathetic to the difficulties that the British Government faced and critical of obduracy on both sides in Rhodesia. He said that African majority rule in Rhodesia could not be achieved overnight because Rhodesian Africans had no experience of administration. He therefore suggested that it was essential to build confidence and co-operation between blacks and whites in Rhodesia. 114 The Asian representatives were not uncritical of some of Abubakar’s comments. Lal Bahadur Shastri (India) rejected the argument that there were no Africans capable of governing Rhodesia; he said that such arguments had been used in relation to all colonial territories. Shastri did, however, agree with Abubakar’s emphasis on confidence-building measures and accepted that the timing of a constitutional conference must rest with the British Government. 115 Agha Hilaly (Pakistan) went further, Whereas Nkrumah believed that movements for regional unification militated against broader PanAfrican visions of continental solidarity, Nyerere dismissed ‘the curious argument that the continued “balkanisation” of East Africa will somehow help African unity’. Quoted in Mazrui, Towards a Pax Africana, p. 71. For Nkrumah’s Pan-African vision see Africa Must Unite (New York: International Publishers, New edn. 1970).

NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, pp. 78-79; and NAA:

A1838, 190/11/1, Part 2, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No. 5211, 21 June 1965.

NAC: MG 31-E47, Vol. 66, Minutes of PMM (65) 8th Meeting, Item 5, ‘Rhodesia’, p. 81.

condemning minority government as indefensible and expressing his support for an immediate constitutional conference. 116 Yet the Asian delegates were by no means sympathetic to the extreme African leaders who called for the use of force against Rhodesia, and one British official subsequently commented on the ‘obvious distaste of the Asian members at some of the African interventions’. 117 The same official also observed that Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia) and Donald Sangster (Jamaica) were ‘fast asleep during the plea of Africans on the dangers to world peace in Africa’ and concluded that the 1965 Prime Ministers’ Meeting had shown that the Commonwealth in ‘its original concept as a cohesive body with common interests’ was dead. 118 The drafting of the 1965 final communiqué took eleven hours, most of which was taken up by ‘long and unpleasant debates’ about the wording in the passage dealing with Rhodesia. 119 The communiqué went a little further than the preceding year’s, stating that ‘in the process of seeking to reach agreement on Rhodesia’s advance to independence a

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negotiations did not produce satisfactory results the British Government ‘would be ready to consider promoting such a conference in order to ensure Rhodesia’s progress to

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communiqué also stated that the Commonwealth Prime Ministers ‘welcome the statement of the British Government that the principle of “one-man-one-vote” was regarded as the Ibid., p. 83.

TNA: PRO, DO 193/81, Minute by P. Rogers, Deputy Secretary, Cabinet, 1 July 1965, para. 1, in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, p. 341.


NAA: A1838, 190/11/1, Part 3, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No.

5448, 26 June 1965. See also Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, pp. 118-19.

very basis of democracy and this should be applied to Rhodesia.’ 120 This was enough to satisfy all the delegates except Nyerere, who dissociated Tanzania from the communiqué.

He explained: ‘I am not concerned about timetables. I know that this is a tough, difficult business and that it cannot be done in a hurry. But this does not matter so much as long as the objectives of achieving independence on the basis of majority rule were established in advance. But it was the adamant refusal of Mr Wilson to commit the British Government to these six words that caused all the trouble.’ 121 Nyerere was concerned that the wording of the communiqué allowed the British Government to negotiate with the Rhodesian regime on the basis that majority rule could be deferred until after independence was granted. 122 Wilson said privately that if he went any further it would raise the possibility of ‘dangerous reactions’ in Rhodesia, and he threatened to revoke all the concessions that he had made on the wording of the communiqué if the African Prime Ministers insisted on trying to bind him to an explicit commitment to independence based African majority rule. 123 Menzies not unreasonably paid tribute to Wilson when he said that ‘Mr Wilson and his Government went as far as any government could go on this matter’. 124 This was certainly born out by the reaction of Ian Smith. On 1 July he made a statement in the Rhodesian Legislative Assembly in which he expressed strong criticism of the Prime Ministers’ Meeting. He warned that any attempt to convene a constitutional Cmnd. 2712, Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting 1965: final communiqué (London: HMSO, 1965). Quoted in Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 201; and Wilson, The Labour Governments 1964-1970, p. 119.

The Observer, 27 June 1965. Quoted in Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, pp. 199-200.

Ibid., p. 200.

NAA: A1838, 190/11/1, Part 3, Australian High Commission, London, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No.

5448, 26 June 1965.

Current Notes (June 1965), pp. 349-50. Quoted in Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 201.

conference would be interpreted as interference in Rhodesia’s internal affairs and declared, ominously, ‘I hope no-one has any false illusions as to what that would mean.’ Yet, for the moment, he remained committed to further negotiations. 125 Conclusion The Rhodesian problem was central to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meetings of 1964 and 1965. The circumstances leading up to the 1965 Meeting – consolidation of the Rhodesian Front’s domestic political support, its increasingly open talk about the possibility of a UDI, its evident contempt for the African members of the Commonwealth, and seething Afro-Asian indignation at Britain’s professed inability to end racial discrimination in Rhodesia – gave Wilson ample reason to believe that the Meeting could end in disaster. Yet, as Bruce Miller commented, ‘Wilson had weathered the Prime Ministers’ Meeting with nothing to tie his hands except the promise to consider a constitutional conference in loosely defined circumstances.’ 126 The outcome of the Meeting can be explained by three main factors. First, Wilson managed the Meeting very effectively: initially, he deflected attention from the Rhodesian problem by proposing a Commonwealth peace mission to Vietnam; then he demonstrated considerable patience in the face of withering African criticism; finally, he set a clear limit on the extent to which he was prepared to compromise on the wording of the final communiqué. Second, Wilson was fortunate that Lester Pearson took a similar position to those adopted by some African and Asian representatives. Although the British found the Canadian Prime ANZ: ABHS 950, W4627, 245/8/3, Part 12, ‘Southern Rhodesia’, United Nations Brief, DEA, Wellington, 3 September 1965, pp. 2-3.

Miller, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, p. 201.

Minister’s ‘holier than thou’ attitude somewhat irritating, it nevertheless helped to offset the damage that the Australian Prime Minister inflicted upon African confidence in the Commonwealth. The third, and probably most significant reason why Wilson secured a favourable outcome, is that there were divisions among radical and moderate Commonwealth leaders, which allowed him some scope for manoeuvre, especially on the timing of a constitutional conference for Rhodesia. Yet although the Meeting ended on terms favourable to the British Government, the unpleasant experience of being ‘in the dock’ did begin a process in Whitehall of questioning the concept and utility of the Commonwealth. 127 See documents in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5, Part II, pp. 340 ff.

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