Speech to York Conservative Association Supper Club

23rd September, 1966

A national policy can only be founded on a true and realistic appreciation of a nation’s power and capabilities. Whether the nation is large or small, a policy so founded can not only bring material success but be the basis of a justifiable national pride – something which no healthy nation can long dispense with. On the other hand a policy founded on delusion and upon miscalculation of possibilities and realities will only end in disgrace and failure, and the road thither is likely to be marked with broken promises and shifty words.

We are experiencing the truth of this today, as the Government’s policy towards Rhodesia lurches from one stage to the next. The delusion which underlies that policy is the idea that this country can dictate the course of events in central Africa. We cannot. Time was, during the fifty or sixty years which followed the partition of Africa between the European powers, time was when the government in Whitehall administered, and administered pretty well, great stretches of territory in central Africa, though as a matter of fact that government never at any time administered Southern Rhodesia. But that time is past: our writ no longer runs. It is possible to like, or not to like, this fact; what is impossible is to wish it out of existence.

We have indeed power over our own statute book at Westminster: we can decide what constitutions for those distant territories we choose to inscribe upon its pages. But the course of events there does not lie in our power or control – all that we have, or had till yesterday, is a certain degree of influence such as a kindred country with an imperial past and some economic present might exercise at so vast a distance and across obstacles so severe.

These are the facts of which any rational policy must take account. But the Government have not been rational. They have acted as if they saw no practical distinction between Rhodesia and Rutland. They embarked on the course of attempting to overpower by sanctions a government in the heart of another continent. It is not an operation for which even Lord North and George III can be appealed to for precedent. In consequence they have led the nation down a cul-de-sac, from one contradiction and breach of faith to another, with a prospect at the end of appalling confusion and tragedy.

They declared that Rhodesia was a wholly British responsibility, and then called on other nations to assist in terminating a rebellion. They said that an oil embargo ‘bristled with difficulties’, and then they tried to apply it. The Prime Minister undertook solemnly and repeatedly to the House of Commons that this country would not seek a United Nations resolution to enforce the embargo; and then he went back on his undertaking and did exactly what he had said we should not.

The Government put the R.A.F. into Zambia; and then they took the R.A.F. out of Zambia. The Government talked about a period of direct rule in Rhodesia from Whitehall; and then they said it might last only ‘for minutes’. The Government told the Commonwealth Conference at Lagos in January [1966], ‘on expert advice’, that it would be a matter of weeks rather than months before their measures terminated the rebellion; and now in September, at the Commonwealth Conference in London, they asked for another three months to see how things go on, under a time limit after which this country would join in going to the United Nations for mandatory sanctions.

The Government are playing the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We know what happened to him. We do not particularly mind if it happens to them. What does matter is that, through delusion and miscalculation, this country in a situation fraught in any case with dangers for others whom we cannot protect, will have failed to use that limited power and influence which it did possess in the manner best calculated to diminish those dangers.

A reasonable person, when he finds that he is walking down a cul-de-sac, turns round and looks for another road. The same applies to a nation. It needs courage; but nations, like people, do need courage.