Leading article: The Archbishop is on the right track

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Does the Archbishop of York know something we don't? How else to explain his apparent confidence that the Prime Minister is preparing to make "some kind of response" to the fast deteriorating situation in that country. An announcement could be made as early as this week.

The tentative way in which the news came out suggests ground being carefully prepared. The Archbishop, John Sentamu, disclosed that he had had a conversation with the Prime Minister about Zimbabwe and urged him to lead an international campaign against President Mugabe's regime. All the signs are that, far from exerting unwelcome pressure, Dr Sentamu was knocking at an open door.

We hope that he was, and we hope that his tentative prediction about a toughening of British policy turns out to be true. As Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe was, after all, a British colony. We oversaw the – delayed – transition to majority rule, and we helped establish the institutions that Robert Mugabe has so successfully subverted.

There was a time, before Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth in 2002, when British ministers and diplomats deliberately held back from criticising Mr Mugabe and the increasingly autocratic way he ran Zimbabwe. They feared, not unreasonably, that their condemnation would be held up as an example of "imperialist" interference and perversely help to keep Mr Mugabe in office.

In those days the preference was for a Commonwealth solution – in which Britain would be just one member of an international collective urging change. This policy foundered, however, when Mr Mugabe failed to change his ways. And the downside of Zimbabwe's expulsion was that the Commonwealth lost any leverage it had previously had.

Thereafter, an African solution was preferred. The particular hope was that the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, would be persuaded to constrict Zimbabwe's economic lifeline. Regrettably, his sense of African and anti-colonial solidarity trumped his sense of justice. While South Africa now shoulders much of the refugee burden from Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki must also share blame for the dire straits in which the country finds itself today.

The argument against tougher action, including stricter sanctions, was always that it would be Zimbabwe's poorest who would suffer most. Now, as the Archbishop of York argues, it is hard to see that sanctions could make daily life any worse for ordinary Zimbabweans. Sanctions targeted against the elite – including, for instance, restrictions on the number of diplomats in Western capitals, as Dr Sentamu suggests – would be a start. It is high time that Britain took a stand.