ARTICLES: BRITAIN AND THE RHODESIAN REBELLION

We merely emphasise here, then, the obvious point that in politics, appearance, the image a party to negotiation presents or is taken by its opponents to present, is often more important than the farmer’s own assessment of the political reality. And it can plausibly be argued that the image presented by Britain on this question of the reaction to a seizure of independence was, in the prevailing circumstances, one of ambivalence. And this in spite of British government protestations about the consequences of UDI. This ambivalence explains Mr. Wilson’s extensive efforts to press Smith to continue negotiating, even, as some of Wilson’s supporters felt, to the point of ‘reneging’ on the five principles.

The last few weeks before UDI can be interpreted as an essay in British politics as much as an adventure in colonial or international relations: the period of preparation of the domestic society for a UDI now deemed inevitable, or at least, oddson. The negotiations with Smith were as important as the activities of the British government to attain “national unity” at home (which in this case can be taken to mean: to ensure that the main opposition party would not be in a position to take advantage in the context of assumed racial sympathies of the electorate, of the government’s difficulties prior to an expected seizure of independence by the Smith regime). It was necessary not only to come to agreement with Smith, but to do so in a way that did not raise unduly the political temperature of the society, and in a way that did not jeopardise the survival of the government at the forthcoming election expected by most politicians. In fact, any politician of the three main parties who has tried to suggest at party conferences a ‘hard-line approach to the Smith regime, and a little more consideration for the Africans will have recognised the relevance of old Edmund Burke’s dictum made with reference to the problems of ruling the Indian Empire: ” … It is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers”.

And yet, the whole ‘kith and kin’ argument needs to be qualified some-what. For it is this writer’s opinion that if, perchance, Mr. Smith and his friends had been communists, even white communists, they would undoubtedly have been subjected, even before any UDI, to the use of military force. Here, the international and domestic requirements of intervention come together, but in this case, conspired against the Africans, and in favour of Mr. Smith.

Economic Sanctions

This problem of each negotiating party’s perception of the other’s circumstances and probably motives is all important. For it also relates to the question of the utility, in general, of economic sanctions. As far as Smith was concerned, the problem of whether the threat of sanctions could be effective and successful in forcing his government to refrain from UDI, or to bring down his government after UDI, need not have been a particularly important one. For the “failure image” attached to the use of sanctions and economic boycotts (Abyssinia, South Africa and all that) may have disposed him to believe that the imposition of sanctions as an international measure can never be taken seriously. Here again it is the belief about the lack of inefficacy of sanctions (shared not only by the Smith regime, or only in Rhodesia) as a means of causing the reversal of governments or of causing them to change their minds on particular subjects, that was the important thing. Consequently, I would hold, that, given the “failure image” of economic sanctions, they probably had little real utility for the British as a negotiating weapon, and ought perhaps never to have been so used.

With this lack of efficacy in the threat of economic sanctions as ┬ádiplomatic weapon, with the ultimate sanction of Jaw and legal responsibility – the use of force – ruled out by the Government, the British government, as a negotiator, and a reacting one at that, was from the start in a cry weak position. It is therefore not surprising, even apart from the desire of the Smith regime to have independence “at whatever cost”, that the negotiations did not come to a successful conclusion. Here was a government, (the British) constrained in its external relations by its estimate of the limits imposed on it by the domestic situation.