ARTICLES: BRITAIN AND THE RHODESIAN REBELLION

The Failure of Negotiations

It is suggested, therefore, that as far as the British government was concerned, the irremovable barrier to fruitful negotiations consisted in the fact that, knowing its initial weakness in negotiations with the Smith government – knowing that it had no credible threats that might induce its opponents to approach its own position – it was at the same time unwilling to grant independence to the Front government, on any term other than its (the British) own. This was so because it was never entirely convinced of the Front’s professions of an eventual Rhodesian government acceptable (in “one-man-one-vote” terms) to all the Rhodesian people. That the Rhodesian govern- merit perceived this unwillingness can hardly be doubted. But the British stance, however morally right, had little, as we have argued, diplomatic foundation, and the Rhodesians could perceive this. They could therefore see the British government and the government’s propositions as a mean of “playing for time” rather than as proposals or counter-demands about the Rhodesian demand for independence for Rhodesia in the near future. The British (in Rhodesian eyes) never admitted the validity of their demand.

There is nothing wrong with “playing for time” as a diplomatic device, but once the motives for it, and its weakness, are easily perceived by the other party, and there are no direct means of preventing that party from pursuing its aims, then the value of this device begins to become dubious.

The basic demand of the Rhodesians – that the negotiations be about independence for Rhodesia, to be conceded to the Rhodesian Front Government – was, I suggest, never acceptable to the British government, and was seen by the Rhodesians not to be acceptable. From the Rhodesian point of view there was then no basis for negotiation in the normal sense of that word. Given their intentions, UDI was for the Front inevitable. For Mr. Smith “this thing” had “gone too far”. For Mr. Wilson, negotiations as a mechanism for delaying UDI, and as far as the Africans were concerned, for further increasing the-ambiguity about the time-span to wards independence, had failed.

This is why by the time of the telephone conversation, the relation between the two governments were beginning to look slightly comic, and were fast approaching the position described by Henry Kissinger, as characteristic of episodes of this kind:

“In the absence of an agreement on what constitutes a reasonable demand, diplomatic conferences are occupied with sterile repetitions of basic positions and accusations of bad faith, or allegations of ‘unreasonableness’ and ‘subversion’. They become elaborate stage plays … “

Mr. Wilson, forced to satisfy a plethora of constituents, most of them opposed to each other, found the domestic and international constraints as he perceived them, overwhelmingly confining. He played his hand with great, at times excessive, flamboyance. But he was beaten from the start. “Men make their own history, but they do not do so just as they please”.