Britain’s UDI

Michael Sonenscher

As a teenager in 1965 I heard Harold Wilson making a broadcast to the white population of Southern Rhodesia, where I grew up. He was an impressive figure, articulate but plain-spoken, with an ability to recognise the fears and prejudices of his audience and address them in adult terms. The tiny settler population had in 1962 elected a Rhodesian Front government which, on 11 November 1965, soon after Wilson made his broadcast, issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. White settler rule came to an ignominious end some fifteen years later, on 18 April 1980.

Today, a much larger British population is about to elect a government that will, it seems, give the United Kingdom its own version of UDI. There are self-evident differences between the two processes, but the similarities and parallels throw an unfavourable light on the present state of British politics. Britain’s UDI may have been a long time coming, but the country’s ability to deal with the consequences is no more powerful or sophisticated than that of the tiny settler population of Rhodesia in 1965.

The parallel is most striking on the side of the government, which is, in some respects quite literally, heir to the attitudes and assumptions that once bound Lord Salisbury, the Monday Club and Denis Thatcher to the fate of Ian Smith, William Harper and P.K. van der Byl. Now, as then, there is an easy confidence that the spirit of Dunkirk and being ‘bloody difficult’ will be a ready substitute for the intricacies of legal entitlements and the details of pensions or passporting. Now, as then, there is a deep-seated suspicion of different languages, different ideas and different approaches to what, in reality, are sometimes intractable circumstances and shared difficulties.

Then more than now, the problems centred on finding ways to establish a stable future in a context formed by the end of empire and the unpredictable interplay between geopolitics and violent liberation movements. Now more than then, they centre on finding ways to maintain a stable system of social democracy in a comprehensively post-imperial context, but with the same unpredictable interplay between geopolitics and violent liberation movements. Wilson’s message, in 1965, was that the short-term solution would have long-term consequences and, with more than a little help from Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has paid the price. Nobody in the present government, whether Theresa May or David Davies – or, least of all, Boris Johnson – seems to have the ability or courage to see or say that there may be a price to pay.

The parallel is most depressing on the side of the Labour Party. It is a measure of how far it has fallen that there is now nothing to set alongside the warning that Harold Wilson once issued – however ineffectually – to the settler population of Rhodesia in 1965. Wilson’s warning was kind and concerned, but it was still a warning. It was political rhetoric for a political drama played out by people who still had to learn that dramas are usually less fatal than life. Wilson tried very hard to make his audience see the difference. It is difficult to imagine anything comparable from the combined talent of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. It will be a long time before the Labour Party recovers from Britain’s UDI. And, with political parties like these, it may be a long time for Britain too.


  • 13 May 2017 at 5:41pm
    ashewan says:
    Dear LRB,
    1000 words more or less preamble so that some Cambridge history prof can slag off Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and the Labour party (nobody else?).
    FFS you really must stop this kind of thing. I'm 71 and this is the most important election of my life, a transcendental moment in the settlement of this country.
    Get a grip please.

    • 15 May 2017 at 10:55am
      chrisclack says: @ ashewan
      'preamble' just means you didnt understand the first 1000 words?

    • 15 May 2017 at 4:31pm
      ashewan says: @ chrisclack
      Not sure why I didn't understand them words; where they written in cuneiform?
      The preamble was a fancy introduction by a Cambridge prof to the core message 'slagging off Corbyn et al'. I suppose being a Cambridge prof you have to do that kind of thing; the prof could have just written a one liner 'Corbyn is rubbish'. Would have saved time.

  • 15 May 2017 at 2:20pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    I admit I haven't been around for as long as you. But every election in my adult lifetime has been described by Labour supporters as "the most important in a generation" - with the sole exception of 2001, which was so obviously a foregone conclusion that there was no need to rally the troops. They even said it in 2005; an election which, for reasons that were clear enough at the time and have only become stronger in retrospect, the Labour party would have been much better off losing.

    • 15 May 2017 at 4:36pm
      ashewan says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Don't know about other labour supporters but I think this is 'the' election given its historical context*.
      Wouldn't you agree?
      * will elaborate if required

  • 15 May 2017 at 6:37pm
    Graucho says:
    Jean-Claude Juncker=Wilson, May=Ian Smith, and who is Mugabe in this ? The parallel doesn't work for me I'm afraid.

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