“The Commonwealth needs to find where its unique characteristics can be most useful”

Clyde Sanger

As a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, Clyde Sanger covered the coming of independence to six Commonwealth African countries and the turbulent events surrounding the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965. Later, he became Director of Information in the Commonwealth Secretariat under Smith’s successor, Sir Shridath Ramphal. Here, Sanger talks to Global about the formation of a central Secretariat, and the African and Caribbean leaders credited with its establishment as an independent organisation working on behalf of all member countries.

Global: In the 1960s, how different were Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ meetings from today’s Commonwealth summits?

Clyde Sanger: The most obvious difference is size. In 1958, the meeting was small enough to take place in No. 10 [Downing Street]. By 1964, there were still only 18 Heads of Government meeting at Marlborough House [in London]. Britain was still in the chair and the hub of discussion. The meeting was longer – more than a week – and the agenda wasn’t carefully prepared.

What led to the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the appointment of the first Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith?

A fascinating story, which really began at the 1964 summit. Sir Alec Douglas-Home [the then British Prime Minister] was looking for unquestioning support as he foresaw the Rhodesian rebellion. He claimed decolonisation was virtually complete and suggested new ways in which Commonwealth countries could cooperate – technical assistance in agricultural projects, aid for higher education and a Commonwealth Foundation to strengthen professional links.

African and Caribbean leaders wanted more organised cooperation, and more formal machinery, to help smaller, isolated states. Between Eric Williams (Trinidad), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) and Milton Obote (Uganda), they developed a proposal for a Secretariat, and a Secretary-General, focused mainly on economic development. India and Canada were doubtful. Arnold Smith, as a senior Canadian official, persuaded his Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, to accept the scheme.

Officials met for months, and Smith, who had been Canada’s ambassador in Cairo and Moscow, was immersed in Commonwealth meetings. Before the 1965 meeting, seven candidates were nominated. Britain was against a vote, suggesting that a retired colonial governor act as Secretary-General during a year of procedural talk. In the end, Smith triumphed overwhelmingly in a secret ballot.

Within months, Arnold Smith and his fledgling Secretariat were facing a wave of crises – Rhodesian UDI, war between India and Pakistan, and trouble in Cyprus. How did they cope with those challenges?

Remarkably well. Arnold had come to know top-notch officials from different countries and put together a good team, with a Ghanaian, Amishadai Adu, heading political affairs. The UN Security Council faced warfare between India and Pakistan, with 10,000 deaths and a tank battle in Kashmir. Eventually, the Soviet leader, Alexei Kosygin, brought the combatants to terms. Smith stayed clear, realising that the Rhodesian situation was much more explosive for the Commonwealth.

Why do you think the British government’s handling of the Rhodesian rebellion caused such dissension in the Commonwealth?

Harold Wilson [who replaced Douglas Home as British Prime Minister] mishandled Rhodesia from the start, almost inviting Ian Smith to rebel by foreswearing the use of force. Britain never hesitated to send troops to Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, or to Guyana later. An RAF squadron in Zambia and a naval blockade off Mozambique were pathetic responses. Julius Nyerere broke off Tanzania’s relations with Britain, and Pearson saved the day at the 1966 Lagos summit by pressing for more effective sanctions.

Who were the great figures in the Commonwealth at this stage?

Besides Nkrumah, Williams and Obote, the Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew made his intellectual mark soon after his citystate became a Commonwealth member. Pearson retired in 1968, and Pierre Trudeau [who succeeded Pearson as Canadian Prime Minister] surprisingly embraced the association after treating it flippantly. He enjoyed close relations with Nyerere, Michael Manley (Jamaica) and Malcolm Fraser (Australia). And Arnold Smith had skilfully built the Secretariat’s political clout and achieved a limited executive role.

By 1969, the Commonwealth seemed calmer, although Rhodesia remained an issue and South Africa was a growing preoccupation. Why was that?

There was general fatigue about the impasse over Rhodesia, after futile meetings with Ian Smith aboard destroyers. The focus in 1969 was on ending Nigeria’s devastating civil war. Arnold Smith was deeply involved in peace talks with leaders on both sides. Wilson, nearing the end of his premiership, was credited with defending the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Does the modern Commonwealth still have a relevance and a role?

A difficult question. Despite an Indian incumbent at present, that great country seems nonchalant about the Commonwealth. But Commonwealth supporters must not lose heart: it has been of great importance many times, and needs to find the areas where its unique characteristics can be most useful.

Interview by Stuart Mole

About the author:

Clyde Sanger is a veteran journalist and former Director of Information, Commonwealth Secretariat


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International