1965: the Commonwealth comes of age

Stuart Mole

For many, the modern Commonwealth dates from the London Declaration of 1949. This opened the gates of Commonwealth membership to many countries emerging from decolonisation. But it was 16 years later, in 1965, that the crisis over Rhodesia triggered convulsions in the Commonwealth that were almost its undoing, even as an independent Commonwealth Secretariat struggled into life.

With the break-up of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963, the way was clear for the independence of two of its component parts, each under black majority rule. In 1964, the territory of Northern Rhodesia became Zambia and that of Nyasaland formed the state of Malawi. Both joined the Commonwealth. The remaining colony of Southern Rhodesia, led by representatives of 200,000 white settlers, balked at the notion of black majority rule. They feared that enfranchising a black population of four million would risk plunging the country into chaos. This put them on a collision course with the British government. Although prepared to grant formal independence, British policy became “No Independence Before Majority African Rule” (NIBMAR).

This approach was anticipated by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then British Prime Minister, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference (CPMC) in London, in July 1964. “Southern Rhodesia,” he declared “would attain full sovereignty as soon as her governmental institutions were sufficiently representative.” In response to pressure from other governments, he reminded them that Rhodesia was self-governing as regards internal affairs, and that the granting of independence was solely a matter for the British parliament.

The 1965 CPMC, in Marlborough House, London, saw 18 governments around the table. Newcomers included Dr Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Dauda Jawara of The Gambia, Dr Borg Olivier of Malta and Dr Hastings Banda of Malawi. The new British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, took the chair. Other notable figures were Sir Robert Menzies, of Australia; Prime Minister Shastri, of India; Tunku Abdul Rahman, of Malaysia; Field Marshal Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan; Dr Milton Obote, Prime Minister of Uganda; Lester B. Pearson, of Canada; Dr Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana; Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, of Nigeria; Sir Albert Margai, of Sierra Leone; and Dr Eric Williams, of Trinidad and Tobago. Rhodesia was the dominant issue, with Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government threatening to assume their own sovereignty without British consent. Harold Wilson had warned that such action would be treasonable, though he rejected using military force against England’s “kith and kin” in Africa.

The debate was opened by Arthur Bottomley, the British government’s Commonwealth Secretary. He sought to counter two key arguments of his predominately African critics. First, on the call for an immediate constitutional conference, he argued that “Mr Smith would not come and some African leaders were restricted so none could effectively take place.” Second, on the use of force, he said the Rhodesians “had the loyalty of powerful armed forces”. To use force “would be a major military undertaking” and, even if successful, chaos might result. Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah riposted: “Essentially, the problem was that there existed under the British flag a regime that did not differ in essentials from the brutal regime in South Africa.”

Emboldened by Britain’s public rejection of the use of force and after the failure of last-ditch talks, Ian Smith moved quickly. On 11 November 1965, Smith and his Rhodesian Front cabinet gathered in Salisbury to sign the instrument of independence. “The mantle of the pioneers has fallen on our shoulders to sustain civilisation in a primitive country,” declared Smith. The move was quickly denounced by Harold Wilson as an “act of rebellion against the Crown”. Declaring that “the world has taken a step backwards”, Wilson announced a limited range of sanctions against Rhodesia. Further embargoes followed on 1 December; and oil sanctions were introduced on 17 December.

At the same time, the Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in consultation with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, invited Commonwealth Heads to Lagos for a special summit on the Rhodesian crisis. At first, the prospects looked unpromising. The Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, refused to attend. So too did the Ghanaian and Tanzanian presidents, with both countries breaking diplomatic relations with Britain. Wilson feared that he would be “put in the dock” and had to be persuaded to come by the Canadians. President Kaunda of Zambia did not attend, and his representative hinted that a Zambian withdrawal from the Commonwealth was possible.

In such fraught circumstances, 18 Commonwealth governments gathered for two days of talks in the Federal Palace Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos. Leaders condemned the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), founded as it was on a “political system based on racial discrimination”.

Notwithstanding their acknowledgement that the primary responsibility for ending the rebellion lay with Britain, they insisted that the matter was of “wider concern to Africa, the Commonwealth and the world”. They clashed once more on Britain’s failure to use force, but having been assured by Harold Wilson that sanctions would topple the regime in “weeks rather than months”, they resolved to establish a Sanctions Committee to monitor progress (with a view to seeking mandatory UN sanctions if necessary). They also agreed a special programme to help train Rhodesian Africans.

This last proposal arose out of a recommendation tabled by the Secretary-General. The use of this procedure was a first for the SG, as was the role of the Secretariat in co-organising the summit.

Despite Wilson’s assurances that sanctions would quickly take effect, it soon became apparent that this was woefully optimistic. Even as Britain enforced a naval blockade of Beira, in Mozambique, to prevent the shipment of oil, plentiful supplies were beginning to flow across the Beit Bridge between South Africa and Rhodesia.

The next CPMC was scheduled for London in June 1966, if the rebellion had not ended by then. However, Wilson (re-elected in March with a substantial Labour majority) hoped to show greater results by postponing the meeting until September.

With yet more new members around its elegant conference table, Marlborough House was beginning to burst at the seams. Rhodesia consumed four days of plenary discussion and five restricted sessions (with only Heads and the Secretary-General present). Tempers flared. The Zambian Foreign Minister branded Wilson a “racialist”, while Wilson complained that “Britain is being treated as if it were a bloody colony.” Arnold Smith admitted that it was “a severe testing time for the Commonwealth”. In the end, a bargain was struck. Mandatory sanctions were pursued though to little ultimate effect (with British companies themselves later revealed to be complicit in sanctions-busting). Britain made a number of fruitless attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with Smith, while Commonwealth governments sustained the focus on majority rule. “Holding the line against sell-out,” remarked Arnold Smith, “was as difficult as pulling on a greasy rope in a tug of war.” In the end, it was to be another 13 years before the Lancaster House Agreement gave birth to Zimbabwe in 1980. The use of force – by Africans rather than Europeans – became inevitable and cost many lives and much blood. It opened the way for an even greater struggle for the ending of apartheid in South Africa.

But the events of 1965-66 were a profound test for a Commonwealth that no longer could be the wholly owned subsidiary of the British government. With its Secretary General and Secretariat, its consultations outside London and its belief that – despite Britain – the organisation could advance, the Commonwealth had come of age.

About the author:

Stuart Mole is Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University and former Director of the Secretary-General's Office in the Commonwealth Secretariat


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