How Wilson planned to invade Rhodesia
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Monday 01 January 1996
Behind the public triumph of Harold Wilson's first full year as Prime Minister, papers released today reveal the difficulties facing the Labour government in 1965.
The 30-year state papers made available at the Public Record Office in Kew reveal that Wilson considered a far-fetched plan to invade Rhodesia after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 and that the Government all-but abandoned the concept of the five-year national plan. They also show how Labour abandoned its manifesto commitment to prevent rail closures.
After UDI in November, contingency plans for invading Rhodesia were drawn up by Ministry of Defence planners, despite Wilson's aversion to making war on "our kith and kin". The papers show, however, that the planners warned against using the most extreme option because "the consequences of failure would be appalling".
Wilson also made an informal approach to Lord Mountbatten to fly to Rhodesia to rally loyal support. In his reply to the Prime Minister, Mountbatten made clear his support for the plan, which was eventually vetoed by the Queen.
Other papers reveal that Wilson had no basis for making his famous prediction that the rebellion could be ended "within a matter of weeks rather than months". Intelligence assessments indicated that the Rhodesian regime could probably survive economic sanctions indefinitely.
On the domestic front, Wilson was faced with a minor sterling crisis in July, which was used as a pretext for dropping "certain schemes of social importance", such as the abolition of NHS charges.
"If the government intended in any case to postpone these projects for a time, it would be well to announce this now in the context of the economic difficulties," he told the Cabinet.
By the time the draft of the first five-year national plan was discussed at full Cabinet, on 3 August 1965, the utopian idea of "scientific planning" seemed out of touch with the harsh realities of the economic situation. Although it was published after a low-key Cabinet discussion - which marked the end of George Brown's ambition to assert the power of his Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) over the Treasury - it was the first and last national plan.
The papers also reveal Labour's U-turn over rail closures, and the Cabinet discussions about ways they could "put the government's policy in better perspective" by deliberately arranging some closures to be proposed which they could reject.
The scribbled words "I should like Marcia to see all these in future" on the cover of a folder of confidential Cabinet papers, shed new light on the Prime Minister's relationship with his personal political secretary, Marcia Williams. The memos which followed Wilson's request show the depth of suspicion Marcia aroused in Downing Street officials, and they contradict her later protestations that she did not see classified or secret documents.
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