I wrote my master’s dissertation on the renewal of oil sanctions on Rhodesia in 1971, so the death of Ian Smith makes this something of a red-letter day here at To Bed With a Trollope. And yet as I remarked to a friend, I honestly don’t know what I can say about him now that he’s dead.
The link to the BBC’s Web site gives a general overview of Smith’s involvement in the white-minority government that unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain on 11 November 1965. Smith’s government chose UDI rather than accept the British government’s prerequisites for Rhodesian independence under black majority rule. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government slapped oil and other economic sanctions on Rhodesia, and for the next fifteen years or so the Rhodesian regime was a general thorn in the side of most any Labour or Conservative Government that attempted to find a solution that wouldn’t be regarded as a complete sell-out (cf. this cover of Private Eye, featuring Smith and the then Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home). For a country that was largely insignificant to Britain’s greater economic or strategic interests overseas, Rhodesia’s negative effect on British domestic politics (and for that matter, on its relationship with other Commonwealth countries) was disproportionately large.
I can of course make the cheap and easy comment that one can directly trace a line from Ian Smith’s actions to the chaos that’s going on right now in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But as with any historical cause-and-effect scenario, it’s a good deal more complicated than villifying one person as the mastermind behind the current sorry state of affairs. No matter what one might say about ‘old Smithy’, as some of his contemporaries referred to him, he certainly wasn’t the only one whose actions left much to be desired…and much room for a historian’s criticism.