British politics now looks more like that of Weimar Germany, postwar Italy or the France of the Third and Fourth Republics. It has become quite hard to believe that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries the properties of the elusive British constitution were a subject of sustained, serious and intense intellectual inquiry.
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.