I want to suggest, then, that the only viable fundamental principle for the British negotiating position was one that contained an assertion of direct responsibility for the transfer of power to the majority within at least a stated maximum period, coupled with an assertion of the implications, legal and political, of such direct responsibility. The status quo “five principles” and the 1961 Constitution were not sufficient since their acceptance as a basis for negotiation imposed in turn on the British Government a degree of immobility: the British government could accept, on certain terms, a movement forward to independence, but could not induce the Rhodesian government to move back. Which is to say that it was unwilling ultimately to threaten the Rhodesian government with a revocation of the Constitution of the country – a British colony. The threat needed, of course, to be credible. (The British government need not necessarily have wished to induce this movement back: the point is that it should have provided itself with the propensity for doing so).
There were numerous reasons, as far as the British government was concerned, for not including this as part of its negotiating package. There was the obvious one that, to be able to make the ultimate threat ‘of revocation credible, it would be · necessary to threaten to intervene physically and that such intervention’ was not – given the state of British forces, the distance involved and so on – practically possible. There is room for debate about this, but it is ‘not necessary to pursue the argument here. It must be noted, however, that whatever the discussion among the public about the use of force; arguments about capacity, distance and so on, were not the basis of the British government’s public position about military intervention.
For, as was clear before and, after the rebellion, beneath any assessment of ·military intervention ‘based on logistics, there was the political -argument. It can, I -think, be plausibly argued that even if it were physically possible to intervene quite easily ‘in Rhodesia, the threat of the use of force might not necessarily have convinced Smith of the determination of the British to assert their responsibilities: his unwillingness to accept the threat as credible would be based on his assessment of the nature, at the time, of British public opinion.
Public Opinion and British Diplomacy
The state of British opinion has been frequently discussed. It has been suggested, first, that the bulk of British opinion would not support a force against “kith and kin.” Secondly, that British opinion was in some way or the other ‘racialist’, so that port the rebel Smith regime rather than the majority who were victims of the illegal action. In themselves the two arguments are not too important.
True, the London Daily Mail, in an article published on July 13, 1964, and headed, “Let them go-it-alone says Britain”, reported the result of the National Opinion Poll survey which the paper’s political correspondent interpreted to mean that “many Britons believe that the Government should recognise Southern Rhodesia as an independent country … that many others were unsure because of the complexities of the problem, but the recognise-independence-group was the strongest of the lot”. It is not necessary to discuss whether public opinion was in any way ‘racialist’ whatever they may mean. This would lead nowhere. But the reaction of British politicians for some time before and after the British General Election of 1964, to the problems of race relations in Britain, may well have given Smith the impression that the British Political parties and the new (post-October 1964) British Government , in particular, were on racial questions somewhat afraid of their public opinion and, therefore, not anxious to take a position which, how-ever correct, might be electorally un-popular.
It is important to try and recreate the political atmosphere in Britain in October 1964 particularly because the racial question might have affected the chances of a decisive Labour victory. (One of Labour’s key men, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Patrick Cordon Walker, was defeated at Smethwick by a Conservative candidate whom Labourites held to have used racist propaganda in his campaign). A social philosopher, Hannah Arendt has observed that the danger point with respect to problems of race’ in society arrives at the “moment when social discrimination change[s] into a political argument”. It seems that there was some fear that in Britain this point had been reached, and perhaps quite rightly, the Government wished to engage in no adventure such as the use of force against white Rhodesians, which might have exacerbated the position. Of course, this assumed that the use of force would mean immense bloodshed and chaos, the possibility of which no British politician at the time seemed willing to minimise. (Following the announcement of the government’s economic measures to counter UDI, Mr. Heath was quickly on television evoking “the Congo”). The temptation for Mr. Smith to seize independence from Britain in the uncertainty then prevailing – while the Government in Britain had a majority of less than ten and was somewhat jittery about the racial situation’ – must have been quite great.