By 1964, the wind of change had brought independence to eighteen New Commonwealth states, with many more about to follow. Britain avoided direct involvement in the Vietnam War. President de Gaulle left the political scene in 1969 and the way was opened for Britain accession to the EEC.
Empire and commonwealth: Britain and Rhodesia, 1964-75
In 1961, South Africa left the Commonwealth and moved further and faster towards apartheid. In 1963, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland broke up into its three separate entities. In 1964, northern Rhodesia became the new independent state of Zambia; Nyasaland became independent Malawi. Southern Rhodesia hoped for independence at the same time but Britain made it clear that this could not happen until majority rule replaced the political domination by the white population. In 1965, Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia, rushed into UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) for Rhodesia. Smith was absolutely committed to perpetuating white rule: he said ‘I don’t believe in black majority rule in Rhodesia…not in a thousand years.’ Oil sanctions were not having much effect. It was too easy for Rhodesia to get supplies through the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, and the big oil companies often openly ignored the sanctions policy.
Smith believed he could rely on support from the right wing of the Conservative Party and that all he had to do was wait for Britain to give in. Wilson’s diplomacy got nowhere. It upset many Commonwealth countries and many of the Labour left, while making Britain look weak.
The Biafra crisis of 1967
Biafra, the northern part of Nigeria populated mostly by the Ibo people, attempted to become an independent state in its own right. There was a bitter civil war. The British government felt bound to support the official government of Nigeria and the idea of territorial integrity. Public and press opinion in Britain was strongly in favour of Biafra and its charismatic, Sandhurst-educated leader, Colonel Ojukwu. The issue gave the Wilson government a difficult time until it ended with defeat for Biafra.
By 1970, British relations with southern Africa were deteriorating badly. South Africa was moving steadily towards supporting isolation. It was clear, too, that South Africa was giving support to Smith’s breakaway regime in Rhodesia. Heath continued the policy of sanctions, even though they had proved ineffectual and were opposed by many on the Conservative right, such as the Monday Club and big businesses with trade interests in southern Africa. Ian Smith’s position was strengthened by a surge in white immigration to Rhodesia in the late 1960s.
In 1972, Marxist insurgents started a guerrilla war (the Bush War) modelled on the armed resistance movements fighting in Portuguese Africa. Militarily, the Smith regime could cope with this as long as there was help from South Africa but the South African regime suddenly opted for a less confrontational approach to its black African neighbours in October 1974. Portugal was going through a revolution that would end Portuguese colonial rule in Africa. The flow of fuel and armaments into Rhodesia from South Africa was drastically reduced. Pressure from South Africa did what British diplomacy and sanctions had failed to do. In 1976, Smith accepted the Kissinger Plan, drawn up by the United States and approved by Britain and South Africa. The plan set out the steps leading to majority rule in Rhodesia. In 1979, multiracial elections were held and the country was renamed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. For fifteen years, successive British governments had been made to look futile by the frustrating obstinacy of Smith and his ability defy them.
The Labour government knew from the start in 1964 that there would have to be a reduction in Britain’s military commitments. The Minister of Defence, Denis Healey, started a process of spending cuts designed to bring the defence budget below £2 billion by 1970. Healey’s defence white paper in 1967 set a timetable for troop withdrawals from Aden, the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore. Conversely, Wilson was criticised on many sides for not going far or fast enough. Wilson really believed in the Atlantic alliance and in Britain continuing to have a world role. There was no serious debate about giving up the expensive British nuclear deterrent. The Wilson government announced it would continue to deploy its Polaris missiles. In 1967, a commitment was made to upgrade the system to more advanced (and costly) specifications. The whole process of winding down Britain’s overseas defence commitments was very slow and long-term.
All this changed in January 1968, with the drastic spending cuts introduced by Roy Jenkins after the 1967 devaluation crisis. Withdrawal from east of Suez was rapidly accelerated. Troops were to be pulled out of Aden, the Arabian Gulf, Malaysia and Singapore by the end of 1971. The development of a high-tech warplane, the TSR2, was abandoned because it was too costly, even though Healey and Wilson wanted to keep it going.
When the Heath government came to power in 1970, there was discussion about delaying or reversing some of these withdrawals. Heath was especially reluctant to pull out of the Gulf because so much of Britain’s oil came from there. The process was not complete by the end of 1971 and in some cases British troops did not come home until the late 1970s. But the old idea of a far-flung chain of British bases was finished. Britain’s future military reach would be Europe and the Mediterranean. Kenneth Morgan described how ‘The last pretence of a being a world power was being stripped away.’
The rejection of Britain’s application to join the EEC was a shattering blow to the Macmillan government in January 1963. Macmillan and his negotiator, Heath, had become convinced that British membership of the EEC was absolutely essential, for economic reasons above all. The Labour government that came to power in 1964 was not nearly so committed to this policy. In 1962, Hugh Gaitskell had fought passionately against Britain’s first application - he told the Labour Party conference that: ‘it would be the end of a thousand years of history.’ Many on the Labour left and in the unions were equally hostile. On the other hand, there were many several enthusiastic pro-marketeers in the cabinet, especially Roy Jenkins and George Brown, who became foreign secretary in 1966. Wilson was not keen on the EEC - he much preferred relying on the Atlantic alliance and stronger links with the Commonwealth - but he could see the strong economic reasons for entry.
In October 1966, Wilson’s cabinet agreed to back a new application for EEC membership. Wilson’s biographer, Ben Pimlott, has suggested that several doubters in the Labour government only ever supported the bid because they knew de Gaulle would block it anyway. The government won a vote in parliament in favour of proceeding. De Gaulle demanded assurances that Britain would detach itself from the ‘special relationship’. There was no way that Wilson would go so far. In November, de Gaulle used his veto against British entry. By the time Britain’s third application was being prepared in 1971, the British prime minister was the passionately pro-European Heath and the French President was Georges Pompidou, a man convinced that the EEC needed Britain as much as Britain needed Europe. In 1975, British membership was confirmed when the Wilson government held a referendum and the victory was more than 2:1. This looked reassuring but the fact that the referendum was held at all could be seen as a worrying sign of a lack of commitment.
The ‘special relationship’ was under strain because the Americans felt that Britain had failed to provide enough active support in both Vietnam and 1973’s Yom Kippur War. When Heath came to power in 1970, his approach was orientated towards Europe. Heath rejected attempts by the American Secretary, Henry Kissinger, to use Britain as a link with Europe. Heath insisted that the US should negotiate with all nine states, not use Britain as a go-between. Kissinger was furious and relations worsened during the Yom Kippur War when the US wanted to use NATO bases in Europe for an airlift of supplies to Israel. Most European states, including Britain, refused permission. Their fear of an Arab oil embargo outweighed their loyalty to American policy. Anglo-American relations were badly strained though they did recover later. By the mid-1970s, there was a feeling that the West was doing badly in the Cold War and that the NATO alliance was in danger of falling apart. Margaret Thatcher and the new American president from 1981, Ronald Reagan, were determined to reverse this sense of military weakness and to start ‘winning the Cold War’ again.