ON BOARD THE TIGERTHE Rhodesian issue dominated two conferences of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers during 1966. The first, at Lagos in January, produced the remarkable prediction in its communique:
The Prime Ministers noted the statement by the British Prime Minister that, on the expert advice available to him, the cumulative effects of the economic and financial sanctions against Rhodesia might well bring the rebellion to an end in a matter of weeks rather than months.Some of the delegates found this difficult to swallow, for the passage went on:
While some Prime Ministers had misgivings in this regard, all expressed the hope that these measures would result in the overthrow of the illegal regime in Rhodesia within the period mentioned by the British Prime Minister.The Lagos conference also produced a sixth principle to be added to the other five as a basis for an Independence Constitution:
The need to ensure that, regardless of race, there is no oppression of majority by minority or of minority by majority.Rhodesia had little quarrel with this sentiment, provided it could work both ways. Experience in other African states had shown that while the whites bent over backwards to treat the Africans fairly, the opposite did not hold true once the Africans took over the reins of government. The second conference, at Marlborough House, London, in the following September saw the African Prime Ministers at their intemperate worst. They concentrated entirely on the Rhodesian issue, to the disgust of the more responsible Commonwealth statesmen who were anxious to discuss other matters of general concern. The agenda was disrupted as the Africans demanded direct action in Rhodesia, particularly the use of force. After nine days of bitter debate a communique was issued which showed that the 22 participating countries had failed to agree on a common policy and had split on racial lines - the Africans demanding an end to negotiation and the British Prime Minister and his supporters rejecting the use of force and insisting on another attempt to negotiate.
Immediate steps were taken to hold further talks, and a stream of British Ministers and top officials visited Salisbury to discuss points of difference with the Rhodesian Prime Minister. But they got nowhere. The British terms were unacceptable with their insistence on smooth transition to majority rule, and the Rhodesian insistence on a braking mechanism was equally unacceptable to the visitors. No progress seemed possible.
Then, on December 1, Rhodesians were electrified by the news that at 5.30 that morning Ian Smith and his Minister of Information, Mr. Jack Howman, together with Sir Humphrey Gibbs and Sir Hugh Beadle, had boarded an R.A.F. Comet to fly to the Mediterranean to meet the British Prime Minister and his Commonwealth Secretary. Their destination turned out to be Gibraltar, where they were to board the cruiser, H.M.S. Tiger, for talks that would be conducted in the strictest secrecy.
While H.M.S. Tiger cruised through the choppy waters of the Mediterranean, the atmosphere on board her soon assumed the character of the weather. Mr. Wilson opened the first meeting quietly enough. His difficulty, he explained, was the time factor. Britain could not wait any longer before proceeding to carry out the commitments she had made to the Commonwealth regarding further action on Rhodesia. The African states were arguing that the British had not hesitated to use force to put down previous rebellions when the rebels were black, but when it came to Rhodesia, which was white-dominated, they hesitated.
Ian Smith replied that he appreciated Britain's position, but her trouble was that she was working to a time schedule dictated by others. The other Commonwealth countries should not be allowed to interfere when there was a possiblity of a settlement, even if it took two more months.
There was no question of waiting another two months, Wilson retorted. Negotiations had gone on long enough, and Britain's relations with other countries were being poisoned by her failure to deal successfully with the Rhodesian problem. An immediate settlement was imperative.
Ian Smith's eye had a glint in it as he objected to the proposal that Rhodesia would have to give up her independence before any new constitution was agreed upon, without any guarantee at this stage that it would be granted. He could not make a final decision on a vital point like this on his own - he would have to consult his Cabinet colleagues.
Harold Wilson blew up. The terms of the invitation to join him aboard the Tiger, he said, were that Smith should have a completely free hand to confirm or reject a settlement.
lan Smith replied that he could not accept this version of the invitation. He had had a very limited time in which to consult his Cabinet before leaving Salisbury, and he was certainly not in a position to finalize the terms of a settlement without further reference to his colleagues. New factors had been introduced and his Cabinet would have to be put in the picture.
When the two Prime Ministers met at 11.45 p.m. for their third meeting on December 2, Wilson pressed Smith to give an unqualified "yes" or "no" to the proposals. lt was essential that he should give a definite answer to the British Cabinet on his return to London. In an effort to assist he had ordered the Tiger to head back to Gibraltar so that Smith could return to Salisbury to discuss the proposals with his Cabinet.
Alternatively, he suggested that Mr. Howman should return to Salisbury and take the proposals with him to put before the Rhodesian Cabinet. But lan Smith refused to agree to this.
Harold Wilson turned on the heat. lf Rhodesia did not agree to a settlement, Britain would go to the United Nations for selective mandatory sanctions, and his undertaking to the Commonwealth Conference would be enforced - that if agreement were not reached by the end of the year any previous undertaking that independence would be granted before majority rule would fall away and Rhodesia would never get her independence on any other basis than immediate majority rule.
Ian Smith replied stiffly that threats were of no consequence to him - he was concerned only with principles.
All right, said Mr. Wilson, in that case they should meet again the following morning. In the meantime Mr. Smith should telegraph his Cabinet to stand by to consider the working document as soon as it had been transmitted to Salisbury. The Rhodesian Ministers must give an unqualified "yes" or "no" before midnight on Sunday, December 4.
The next morning Ian Smith said that the proposals regarding a return to constitutionality were the main stumbling block, but that agreement on the constitutional arrangement was in sight.
Mr. Wilson said his main worry was that during the interim period the Rhodesians might embark on a second UDI, in which case Britain would feel free to take what military action she thought necessary. It was also possible that after independence was granted a white-dominated Government might overthrow the Constitution, and therefore Britain wanted certain external guarantees. He suggested a treaty and also a defence agreement and he wanted to give the Governor greater power over the police and military.
The British Government would have to be satisfied on the use that would be made of the Rhodesian forces and the police during the interim period and a British representative on a Defence and Security Council under the control of the Governor would be able to keep us informed.Mr. Smith objected on the ground that this meant keeping Rhodesia under supervision, and when Wilson confirmed this he said the whole proposal represented an alarming change in the British attitude. When the full conference resumed on the Saturday afternoon, a Working Document incorporating the British proposals was presented, and the meeting adjourned while the Rhodesians considered it. When they met again that evening Mr. Wilson urged Mr. Smith to sign an undertaking that he would "commend it to his colleagues in its entirety." This Ian Smith refused to do because it was not acceptable to him.
The undertaking was then altered to read:
Mr. Smith undertakes to inform his colleagues that it is acceptable to Her Majesty's Government as a settlement of the Rhodesian problem.This Mr. Smith accepted. While the new undertaking was being typed, Mr. Wilson was called away because "something of importance had occurred".
When they met again at nine o'clock that evening Mr. Wilson's whole demeanour had changed. Jack Howman described the scene to the Rhodesian Parliament after their return:
We came into the Admiral's day cabin to find Mr. Wilson in an absolute fury. I have never seen a man exhibit such malevolence as he did at that moment.He stormed at lan Smith. The British Government was no longer prepared to wait for a Rhodesian answer. lf Smith did not give it now he would withdraw the whole document. He was at liberty to leave the ship immediately. He (Wilson) had been in touch with his colleagues in London that afternoon and some of them were very disturbed. "The British Government refuses to be pushed around any longer", he declared. lan Smith told him with equal vehemence that he was not prepared to sign. He would take the document back to Salisbury and give it further study, but if Wilson insisted on an answer now it would have to be "No."
Then Wilson really lashed out. The situation was an intolerable humiliation for him. Here was Rhodesia, which represented only one-tenth of one per cent of the Commonwealth, creating a situation which might result in a split of the Commonwealth itself. He had all along understood that Smith would attend the Tiger meeting with plenipotentiary powers to make decisions. But if he insisted on consulting his colleagues he must conclude that Smith never intended to reach a settlement.
After further exchanges and a consultation which Mr. Wilson held with Sir Humphrey Gibbs and Sir Hugh Beadle, the British Prime Minister agreed that they shoud both take the document back to their respective Cabinets for discussion and decision. The answer would have to be a straight "Yes" or "No''. He would also postpone the deadline for a decision by 12 hours, so he would therefore expect Mr. Smith's answer by 12 noon Salisbury time on Monday, December 5.
The Rhodesian party returned to Salisbury and Mr. Smith immediately went into session with his Cabinet. Mr. Wilson had returned to London and held a meeting with his Cabinet, which accepted the terms. At the end of the meeting, it was reported, the Ministers emerged "grim faced", indicating that Britain had made some unpalatable concessions.
The Rhodesian Cabinet, however, sat right through Monday. The noon deadline came and went. Then, at 8.30 p.m., lan Smith emerged from the Cabinet room and told the waiting crowd that the proposals had been rejected.
He said that while Rhodesia was prepared to accept proposals fulfilling Mr. Wilson's six principles as the basis of a constitution for an independent Rhodesia, they could not accept the abandonment of the 1965 Constitution before a new constitution had been finally secured and put to the test of public opinion. They also rejected the British proposals for a "return to legality", which involved major departures from the principles of parliamentary government which Rhodesia had enjoyed for 43 years.
The Rhodesian Government is, of course, anxious to remove the differences that have existed over the past year between Rhodesia and Britain. Nevertheless, the Rhodesian Government cannot be expected to yield such fundamental principles and in a manner which amounts to surrender and the submission of power.lan Smith concluded his statement:
The fight goes on.The Tiger negotiations might well have succeeded had Mr. Wilson not made the mistake of leaving no room for manoeuvre on the details of the return to legality - they had to be accepted in their entirety, without argument, with no possibility of amendment. Faced with such an ultimatum the Rhodesians, determined to follow the course they had set, reacted in the only predictable way. Their decision caused shock and dismay among their many countrymen who had been hoping for a settlement, an end to sanctions, a return to the community of nations, so that they could get on with the vital job of developing the country. But after mature reflection many of them concluded that the rejection had been justified. And that the man responsible for the failure had not been Ian Smith but Harold Wilson.
Immediately after Rhodesia's rejection Britain took the independence issue to the United Nations despite Mr. Wilson's earlier contention that it was a matter entirely for Britain and Rhodesia to settle between them. Since her independence had not been internationally recognized and she had no seat in the United Nations. Rhodesia's application to state her case was refused.
It was ironic that just as the Rhodesian issue came up for discussion in the Security Council. the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for
the immediate cessation of intervention in any form whatsoever in the domestic affairs of states and peoples.In his anger at Rhodesia's rejection of the Tiger proposals, Harold Wilson declared: "No Independence Before African Majority Rule". If anything was calculated to stiffen the Rhodesian backbone it was NIBMAR. It united the white Rhodesians, and a great many of the black Rhodesians as well, solidly behind the Government's determination not to give in. The British Prime Minister was a poor psychologist. It was nearly two years before the British and Rhodesian Prime Ministers met again. There had been little contact during the interval and it seemed that all prospect of further negotiations had been abandoned. Then, suddenly, on October 9, 1968, it was announced that the Rhodesian Prime Minister and a strong team had departed the previous evening in an R.A.F. Britannia to meet Mr. Wilson and a British team on board H.M.S. Fearless at Gibraltar.
It was a different Mr. Wilson who met the Rhodesians this time. He was courteous and considerate and evidently prepared to be reasonable. But he made it clear in a television interview before the meeting that the biggest issue at the talks would be the creation of a "blocking quarter" of elected Africans able to veto any retrogressive amendment to a negotiated constitution, and also that agreement would have to be within the limits of the six principles laid down by Britain.
Both sides were genuinely anxious to reach a settlement, but once again the differences between them were too great What particularly stuck in the Rhodesian gizzard was a British requirement regarding possible amendments to the entrenched clauses of the Constitution - that if such an amendment were found by the Constitutional Council to be unjustly discriminatory between the races, the Council could refer it to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which would have the final say.
The Rhodesians argued that this provision opened the door to outside interference in the country's affairs, that the Privy Council would be called upon to make political rather than judicial decisions, and that the Appellate Division of the Rhodesian High Court was the proper body to hear appeals of this kind.
The negotiations failed. To their mutual regret, Britain and Rhodesia continued to be at loggerheads.