Whatever the outcome of the Rhodesian rebellion, the episode has already become an ‘historical’ problem, and thus one on which commentators will continue to speculate for a long time. It can do no harm, however, even at this relatively early stage, and with the benefit only of the published evidence, to look at certain aspects of the rebellion – in particular, those concerning the series of discussions, negotiations and talks between the Rhodesian and British governments before the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Nov. 11, 1965. It may give us certain insights into the mode of operation of the present British Government, but more importantly, into certain permanent characteristics of the British approach lo problems of this nature. For it is necessary for those of us from the so-called Third World, to become more and more aware of the underlying premises and assumptions which condition the side and method of the British administration of foreign policy and colonial problems. The Rhodesian rebellion gives us a good opportunity to do this, for it has indeed combined both the foreign policy and the colonial aspects of British external affairs.
The aim here, then, is to examine the period of negotiations ending with UDI, or, in other words, with the failure of what the British Government used as its ultimate diplomatic weapon: the threat of economic sanctions.
The student of foreign policy is forced almost immediately, in looking at this period of negotiations to recall two sets of observations – one about international, and the other about domestic politics. The first has been made in a study of the foreign policies of Metternich and Castlereagh, by the American political scientist Henry Kissinger: “It is”, he writes, “a mistake to assume that diplomacy can always settle international disputes if there is ‘good faith’ and ‘willingness to come to an agreement’. For in a revolutionary international order, each power will seem to its opponents to lack precisely these qualities. Diplomats can still meet but they cannot persuade, for they have ceased to speak the same language”. The observation about domestic politics is the perhaps hackneyed and essentially unverifiable one about elections in multiparty democratic countries: that opposition parties never win elections; rather, it is, that governments lose them.
The main question to be answered about this period is not: why did Smith do it (that is either obvious or unanswerable), but rather what conditions or events disposed him (or the Rhodesian “Front government) to declare UDI at that particular time; and why was the British government unable to prevent him from so doing. And the two observations referred to above serve to emphasise what, as in most crises, has been true of this one: the almost invariably close relationship between the negotiations between governments on the one hand, and the social and political atmosphere prevailing at the time within their respective countries. Domestic opinion becomes an important constraint on the conduct of external relations – especially when these relate to colonial problems.
The British Prime Minister’s conclusion as to the immediate cause of the rebellion was a relatively simple one – the conspiracy theory of politics. He suggested, in the House of Commons and elsewhere, just after UDI, that Smith was never the complete master of his actions; that he was in fact forced into rebellion by certain of his Rhodesian Front colleagues within and outside the government: extremists, unthinking as to the range of consequences of their actions. Mr. Wilson’s explanation has tended to emphasise the ‘irrationality’ of these men an irrationality which gradually forced itself on Smith and, consequently, on the process of negotiation itself. Thus, we are told, by the period of famous telephone conversation of the morning of November 11 between Wilson and Smith, reason had quitted the scene – at least to Wilson’s mind, the Rhodesian scene. Wilson has therefore seemed at times, by emphasising Smith’s lack of manoeuvre vis-a-vis his colleagues, to depict the Rhodesian Prime Minister as a politically weak man, and thus to exonerate him from the charge of actually desiring UDI at that time.