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.