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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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A month after UDI Richard Crossman estimated that half of Wilson’s time was spent dealing with the Rhodesian Crisis. 10 It is probable that Wilson devoted a similarly high proportion of his time to Rhodesia in the months preceding UDI. Was this, as Ziegler suggests, a justifiable preoccupation? Several factors may be adduced in support of his assessment. First, Wilson was the chief of a largely inexperienced Cabinet, and it might be argued that this compelled him to take a leading role in all manner of executive problems, including Rhodesia, which was multi-faceted and therefore could not be left entirely in the hands of the Commonwealth Relations Office. Second, during the early months of the Labour Government the position of Wilson’s first Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was compromised by the fact that he did not have a seat in the House of Commons, which immediately enhanced Wilson’s role in foreign affairs. Third, Wilson’s academic background (as an economist at Oxford) meant that he was theoretically well suited to comprehending the economic dimensions of the Rhodesian Crisis. On the other hand, it can equally be argued that Wilson’s dominance had deleterious effects. First, it undermined the notion of collective Cabinet responsibility for Rhodesian policy, which other complications in the Government’s affairs tended to reinforce. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s political secretary, wrote in her memoirs that Rhodesia simply did not get the attention that it deserved before UDI because the Government was preoccupied with the economic crisis in Britain. 11 A second, and related point is that because there was little sense of collegiality, the direction of the

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

Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape, 1975), p. 407, entry for Thursday 9 December 1965. Crossman was also ‘disconcerted’ to find out that James Callaghan was spending around a third of his time dealing with Rhodesia (though it really should have been no surprise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was so engaged with matters relating to economic sanctions).

Marcia Williams, Inside Number 10 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972), p. 34.

Government’s Rhodesian policy was not subject to proper scrutiny by the Cabinet. The result, in the words of Robert Good, the U.S. Ambassador to Zambia at the time of UDI, was a policy that ‘placed Rhodesia’s neighbour, Zambia, in mortal danger, came within an ace of destroying the multiracial Commonwealth, and promoted an unprecedented involvement of the United Nations in programmes of dubious effectiveness and therefore of questionable wisdom.’ 12 Good commented that after UDI, ‘Wilson’s reactions to his several “constituencies” produced a policy constantly working at cross-purposes’, 13 but this is equally true of the period preceding UDI, which can be demonstrated by analysing the effects of Wilson’s decision to rule out the use of force.

Wilson calculated that by excluding military action – not only in private but also in public – he would satisfy the first of his constituencies:

British public opinion and the Conservative Party. However, this was either partially or entirely at cross-purposes with the other constituencies of which Wilson had to take account. In Rhodesia, Wilson hoped that his rejection of force would encourage the African nationalists to adopt a more realistic aim than immediate majority rule, but it is clear that he only succeeded in giving the Rhodesian Front the green light to proceed with a UDI. In the Commonwealth, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a handful of African Robert C. Good, UDI: The International Politics of the Rhodesian Rebellion (London: Faber, 1973), p.


Ibid., p. 295. In an academic study written shortly after the publication of Good’s book, Martin Mason also highlighted the contradictions in British policy. Britain’s explicit aims of maintaining authority over Rhodesia, and discharging its responsibility to the African majority before relinquishing authority, were incompatible with the implicit aims of maintaining Britain’s international prestige, and preserving its general economic interests. Responsibility Without Power: Britain and Rhodesia Since 1965 (Ottawa, Carleton University, 1975), pp. 6-8.

moderates were relieved that the British Government did not intend to use troops to impose a solution in Rhodesia, but the majority of the Afro-Asian members suspected the British of connivance with their ‘kith and kin’. Denis Greenhill, who went on to become Permanent Under Secretary in the Foreign Office within a few years of UDI, has suggested that Wilson ‘was far too sensitive... to the feelings of other Commonwealth countries and that made it very difficult to get a settlement really’. 14 Yet this ignores the fact that Wilson not only felt a deep personal sense of attachment to the Commonwealth but also ‘believed that it represented the surest way by which his country could remain among the foremost powers’. 15 In the United Nations the Afro-Asians and the Soviet bloc also condemned Britain for its unwillingness to use force, pointing out that it was morally wrong to leave the African majority in Rhodesia under white oppression.

However, arguments were also put forward suggesting that this created a situation in Rhodesia that constituted a regional threat to international peace and security within the meaning of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Labour Government found it necessary to go along with a programme of mandatory sanctions, which was entirely inconsistent with its concerns about creating a precedent that could be applied against South Africa.

The fact that sanctions failed to work also exposed Britain to continuing criticism at the United Nations, as Lord Caradon, Britain’s diplomatic representative in New York commented: ‘the credit we had achieved and the merit we had achieved in the general membership was much reduced by our failure to cope with Rhodesia.’ 16 It is therefore a central contention of this thesis that although the Labour Government’s decision not to CAC: DOHP, GBR/0014/DOHP 3, Baron Greenhill of Harrow, Assistant Under Secretary of State, 1964Transcript of Interview, 14 February 1996, p. 10.

Ziegler, Wilson, p. 219.

Rhodes House Library, Oxford: Oxford Colonial Records Project, MSS Brit. Emp. s395, Lord Caradon, Transcript of Interview, 23 April 1971, p. 29.

use force to impose a constitutional settlement in Rhodesia was politically safe in domestic terms, it represented a grave error of judgment in relation to Britain’s international standing.

This thesis has also argued that the Labour Government’s handling of the Rhodesian Crisis created difficulties in Britain’s relations with its Old Commonwealth partners and the United States. It is clear from the evidence in The National Archives that the Government’s contingency planning to deal with a UDI was compromised by a lack of momentum. This was a result of the tendency in the Defence and Oversea Policy Committee to defer crucial decisions pending an assessment of the circumstances that prevailed at the time of a UDI. The Old Commonwealth and the United States – who were resolved to do no more than follow Britain’s lead in the event of a UDI – therefore could not formulate their own contingency plans, which left them feeling frustrated with, and even suspicious of, the British Government. Bureaucratic conflict between the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO), which revealed much confusion about the aims of the Government’s Rhodesian policy, exacerbated this lamentable state of affairs. The CRO was chiefly responsible for the Government’s contingency planning to deal with a UDI, but according to Denis Greenhill it was a ‘superfluous Ministry’ and a ‘useless department’. 17 Greenhill was of course a Foreign Office mandarin, so it is not surprising that he criticised the CRO in such unequivocal terms, but he was not the only one to do so. According to the Confederation of British Industry, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Arthur Bottomley, was ‘of no quality whatsoever’ and was ‘hopelessly out of his depth’, and his Permanent Under CAC: DOHP, GBR/0014/DOHP 3, Baron Greenhill, Transcript of Interview, 14 February 1996, p. 9.

Secretary, Sir Saville Garner, was ‘a dead bloody loss’. 18 Garner’s own memoirs acknowledge ‘a mood of disillusionment’ in the CRO, which reflected concerns about the future of the Department, and ‘a constant undercurrent of criticism’ in Parliament, the press, and other government departments. 19 Low morale may have contributed to the CRO’s poor performance during Rhodesian Crisis, which was especially evident in its liaison role with the Old Commonwealth and the United States. In conclusion, it is clear that the weaknesses in the Labour Government’s administrative machinery compounded the confusion in its Rhodesian policy, which resulted not only in vociferous criticism of Britain by Afro-Asian states in the Commonwealth and the United Nations, but also in a loss of Britain’s prestige among its closest international partners.

Some thoughts on future research This thesis has demonstrated that the Rhodesian Crisis was multi-faceted and enormously complex by analysing only its British, Commonwealth and American contexts. Further work is necessary on certain points associated with these contexts, and on other aspects of the Rhodesian Crisis that this thesis has not addressed (for reasons of space). As far as the British domestic context is concerned, more research is necessary on attitudes within the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour constituencies. It would be helpful, for example, to evaluate Dr David Kerr’s claim that ‘Vietnam rather captured the left wing of the Labour Party, both inside and outside the House’, to the extent that it overshadowed Peterhouse School Archives, Marondera, Zimbabwe: Papers of Sir Humphrey Gibbs, ‘Report on CBI Mission to Rhodesia, October 1965’, p. 13. Transcript of a recording by Eric Faulkner (who was a member

of the mission). Quoted in Richard Coggins, ‘Rhodesian UDI and the search for a settlement, 1964-8:

failure of decolonization’, Oxford D.Phil (2002), p. 75.

Joe Garner, The Commonwealth Office 1925-1968 (London: Heinemann, 1978), pp. 365-69.

Rhodesia. 20 Yet there are some obstacles to this line of enquiry. First, the records in the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester are very patchy, at least in relation to the period before UDI. 21 Second, it may be the case that the records of Labour constituencies do not provide much information about Rhodesia, either because the minutes of constituency meetings only briefly record decisions rather than full discussion, or because records have simply been lost or destroyed. Kees Maxey, a member of the Billericay Constituency Labour Party, which was very active during the Rhodesian Crisis, 22 has suggested that the majority of constituencies with which he had any contact did not share the careful approach to record keeping practiced by the Billericay Constituency. 23 Similarly, very little is known about attitudes among Liberal MPs and Liberal constituencies towards the Labour Government’s Rhodesian policy, 24 which may Dr David Kerr, MP for Wandsworth and Parliamentary Private Secretary, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1967-69, in ‘Rhodesian UDI’, ICBH Witness Seminar, 6 September 2000, Session One Transcript, p. 26. http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/rhodesia National Museum of Labour History, Manchester: Commonwealth Papers: Southern Rhodesia Correspondence (1961-1969) and Southern Rhodesia Documents (1963-1966).

The Billericay Constituency formed a Rhodesia study group, which wrote Rhodesia: The background to the present conflict, and policy for the British Government (Essex: Billericay Constituency Labour Party, September 1968). A copy is in the School of Oriental and African Studies: Archives of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Box 60, COU 122 (b) Southern Rhodesia 1963-1972.

Conversation with the author, Dr Michael Kandiah, and Dr Richard Coggins, London School of Economics and Political Science, 5 January 2006. Maxey is the author of From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe (London: Fabian Society, 1972); and The Fight For Zimbabwe. The Armed Conflict in Southern Rhodesia since UDI (London: Rex Collins, 1975). His papers are deposited in Rhodes House Library, Oxford.

There is some material dealing with Jo Grimond’s views in the British Library of Political and Economic Science: Papers of Alastair Hetherington, Hetherington/10.

be considered a significant factor in relation to Labour’s slim parliamentary majority between 1964 and 1966.

The international dimensions of the Rhodesian Crisis are the most neglected. This thesis has redressed the balance to some extent by exploring the Commonwealth context, especially the consultation and co-operation between Britain and its Old Commonwealth partners, which has been acknowledged as a new and important avenue of inquiry. 25 Relatively little attention has been paid to the United Nations dimension of the Rhodesian Crisis. Some studies have focused on Rhodesia’s complicated status in international law, 26 and there was a steady stream of literature dealing with sanctions imposed after UDI. 27 This thesis has touched briefly upon British attitudes towards UN involvement in the Rhodesian Crisis, but it is also important to look at how the British Government managed the issue at the UN in the period before UDI. Britain relied heavily on its Old Commonwealth partners and the United States to prevent the Rhodesian Crisis from slipping out of its control in the General Assembly and the Security Council, but this gave Introductory comments by Professor Arne Westad, Chair, Panel Four, ‘Rhodesian UDI: The International Context’, Rhodesian UDI: 40 Years On Conference, London School of Economics and Political Science, 6 January 2006.

For example, Claire Palley, The Constitutional History and Law of Southern Rhodesia (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1966); J. Nkala, The United Nations, international law and the Rhodesian independence crisis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); and V. Gowland-Debbas, Collective responses to illegal acts in international law: United Nations action in the question of Southern Rhodesia (London: Nijoff, 1990).

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