A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth

By W. David McIntyre | Go to book overview

5
Rhodesia’s UDI and the Crisis of
the 1960s

The first three decades of the ‘New Commonwealth’ were overshadowed by Britain’s disenchantment with the association. Although fears that the Secretariat would develop simply into an African pressure group were not realised, Commonwealth meetings were, indeed, dominated by African issues. One African historian, Eli Mazrui, called this the ‘Third Commonwealth’. 1 The first had comprised Britain and the six Dominions; the second followed South Asian independence; the third began in 1960 when Nigeria’s independence created a permanent non-white majority. The British now found themselves perpetually on the back foot, especially on matters relating to Southern Africa.

The low points were 1966 and 1986. In 1966, Kenneth Kaunda, of newly independent Zambia, talked of ‘throwing Britain out of the Commonwealth’ because of its handling of Rhodesia. So much pressure was put on Harold Wilson that he hit back with the cry that Britain, too, was independent: ‘We are being treated as if we were a bloody colony.’ 2 In 1986, the issue was apartheid in South Africa and Commonwealth demands for the application of sanctions. Margaret Thatcher breached consensus at a mini-summit in 1986 by refusing to go along with the proposed measures. During the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games of 1986 more countries boycotted the events than competed. Chogm communiqués in 1987 and 1989 signalled specific caveats by the words: ‘with the exception of Britain’. Showing cheerful defiance, Mrs Thatcher once threw out: ‘If it’s one against 48, then I’m sorry for the 48.’ 3 On Southern African issues, then, British leaders refused to be pushed around by the Commonwealth. This, in turn, accentuated a rapid de-Britannicisation process, which, on less contentious issues, was an entirely positive trend. On Africa, however, the British found themselves in a no-win predicament.

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