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21 September 2022

From the NS archive: Twenty-five years of Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth

3 June 1977: The Labour Party and the push for independence in Africa.

By John Hatch

During the 1950s, John Hatch was the Commonwealth secretary of the Labour Party and, until 1970, this magazine’s Commonwealth correspondent too. He also advised African leaders such as Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia. In this piece, Hatch looked at Britain’s policy towards the countries of the Commonwealth since the Queen’s accession in 1952. The 25-year span had seen a widespread push for independence and the Labour Party was seen as a friend to nationalist politicians in Africa and elsewhere. However, the party had not always played a good hand – Harold Wilson, for example, had been less than consistent in Rhodesia’s transition to Zimbabwe. Perhaps, suggested Hatch, the Labour Party and Britain itself had missed the opportunity to be the best of honest brokers.


The Queen was told of her accession at Treetops Hotel in Kenya. Not far away Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues were preparing. The revolt which was to lead to the “Mau Mau” conflict. The Queen and Duke met Governors, white settlers, colonial officials. I never heard that they had met Kenyatta. A dozen years later, after seven years’ detention at the pleasure of Her Majesty, Kenyatta became Kenya’s first President. The Kenyan Africans revolted against the prospect of white settler government. Today, 25 years later, the Africans of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) are waging the same war. So far as Africans are concerned the Elizabethan era has seen some battles won but the war continue.

Only a few months after the Queen’s accession the scheme for the federation of Central Africa was published by Churchill’s government (after being conceived by Labour). It was that federation, established under a white rider-black horse “partnership”, that created the circumstances for Ian Smith’s UDI and its tragic consequences. In 1952 South Africa was also still a monarchy. Throughout that year Dr Malan’s government was trying to circumvent the Supreme Court’s invalidation of racial legislation, especially of the attempt to remove non-European voters from the parliamentary roll. The whites celebrated the tercentenary of van Riebeek’s landing at the Cape, which initiated white settlement; the blacks rioted against white supremacy from the Cape to the Rand. Just five years earlier the royal family had given its seal of respectability to the white regime by paying a state visit.

It so happened that I had been in East, Central and South Africa twice during the last months of George VI’s reign. I had talked with Kenyatta in Kenya, with the Congresses in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, with trade unionists in Southern Rhodesia, had been flattened against the wall of Parliament by white police in South Africa. Anyone with the slightest sensibility could recognise the welling anger of Africans from Cairo to the Cape against the denial of their right to participate equally in the government of their own countries. I wrote my first articles for the New Statesman (anonymously, as [the then editor] Kingsley Martin feared I would be arrested). I talked with Labour Party leaders, especially about the certainty of provoking racial conflict if the Central African Federation were pursued.

It was particularly tragic that many Africans still expressed confidence that Britain, and especially the monarchy, would not betray their loyalty. Shortly afterwards I was appointed by the Labour Party to take charge of its Commonwealth department. Kwame Nkrumah had just become first Prime Minister of the Gold Coast; [Cheddi] Jagan and [Forbes] Burnham had been dismissed from office in British Guiana on charges of organising a communist plot: the Kabaka of Buganda had been deported by Sir Andrew Cohen; Mau Mau was at its height; Malta was thinking of integrating with the United Kingdom; “enosis” had become the battle cry in Cyprus; there was an emergency in Singapore; Nasser had replaced Farouk in Egypt; the first whispers of federation drifted across from the West Indies and louder voices advocated the same policy in Nigeria; and a passive resistance campaign had been brutally defeated in South Africa.

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When I entered Transport House the party was already embroiled in the turbulence of the demise of Empire. It did not quite realise this fact at the time. Clem Attlee had been a passionate advocate of Indian independence, but, after a visit to Central Africa, I heard him describe Africans as “very peculiar chaps”. His successor, Hugh Gaitskell, initially seemed suspicious of Commonwealth pretensions, feeling much more at home with American or European leaders. Yet it must be said that Gaitskell had no trace of racialism in his personality; I doubt whether the 1968 immigration legislation would have appeared if he had lived.

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There seemed to me in 1954 to be two crucial issues in the Commonwealth field if the Labour Party was ever to become credible in the anti-colonial battle. First, it had to rid itself of the smear of racialism, which involved reversing its own decision to exile Seretse Khama because of his marriage to a white girl and opposing the Central African Federation which it had initiated; secondly, it had to demonstrate practical support for the genuine burgeoning nationalist movements. The Seretse issue was solved more easily than I expected. Once the NEC had been convinced by the evidence I produced from a one-man mission through Africa that his people wanted him back and that he was prepared to return without claiming the chieftainship, the battle was really won. For when the Opposition declared that it would rescind his banishment when next in office, Conservative attempts to appoint a substitute chief collapsed. He was allowed to return in 1956; since then he has been knighted by the Queen as President of Botswana; the maligned deportees are now Sir Seretse and Lady Khama!

The second racial problem was much tougher. Many prominent members of the Labour Party had been seduced by the argument that foreign capital investment would lead to economic development in colonial territories that would percolate down to the indigenous helots. (The same argument persists today over investment and trade in South Africa.) They therefore believed that the Central African Federation should be allowed to prove itself. For several years Gaitskell agreed with them. In 1959, however, African revolts in all three territories, the Devlin and Monckton reports and concern over the spread of violence, raised the issue of African rights to a new pitch. It even played some part in the 1959 general election, along with the Hola massacre in Kenya. Mau Mau had established that Kenya’s white settlers were not strong enough to govern that country without British military help; it began to be asked whether the same lesson applied to the Federation.

Harold Macmillan’s antennae relayed the message that colonial politics could affect electoral prospects in Britain. He replaced the hard-liner [Alan] Lennox-Boyd with the more liberal Iain Macleod. Gaitskell also realised, for the first time, that colonial issues were not peripheral to British politics. All his closest advisors like Frank Soskice favoured a continuation of the Federation, and he was conscious that many white Federal inhabitants had relatives here. Nevertheless, through an alliance between Julius Nyerere, Lynn Ungoed-Thomas and his own brother, Arthur, he was eventually persuaded that the Federation should be strongly criticised, even if this led to its dissolution. The combination of African and Labour pressures pushed Macleod to a not unwilling conclusion. The Federation was killed, Malawi and Zambia gained separate independence, leaving the residual problem of Rhodesia.

The second issue of the independence decade was more complex. Which nationalist movements should be supported by the Labour Party and by what means? In 1957, the party organised a socialist Commonwealth Conference including selected colonial nationalists, at Beatrice Webb House. It had its detractors within the party’s hierarchy; but a notable proportion of delegates were soon to become ministers in their newly independent states. One became a President. This was Kenneth Kaunda’s first experience outside his own continent. Already the party had connections with some nationalist movements. I first met Julius Nyerere when he attended a seminar I was giving at Edinburgh University; he and I spoke in Scotland against the federal proposals in 1951. Four years later I took the greetings of the Labour Party to his year-old Tanganyika African National Union; 30,000 supporters turned out to greet me.

At the beginning of the 1960s, therefore, as new flags replaced the Union Jack in Tanganyika, Nigeria, Kenya, Singapore, Jamaica and the rest, the Labour Party had accumulated a large fund of sympathetic capital in the ex-colonial bank. Leaders like Nyerere, Kaunda, [Michael] Manley, Lee Kuan Yew anxiously listened to British election results, cheering Labour victories and groaning over defeats. Most of this was dissipated by the end of the decade. Labour shocked the nationalist leaders by acting quite differently in government from in opposition.

The major single factor was the ambivalence over Rhodesia. It was felt that Harold Wilson had betrayed African trust, not just by refusing to use the same force against Ian Smith as had been employed against African rebels; but by deliberately deceiving men like Kaunda about his intentions. The new Commonwealth leaders were also offended to find that politicians of both parties still regarded them as inferiors. Wilson seemed to regard the Commonwealth as his own possession. He quarrelled with Nyerere over majority rule in Rhodesia. He became petulant when his fitness to chair a peace mission to Vietnam was questioned. In 1970 Heath’s churlish behaviour towards Nyerere and Kaunda demonstrated that politicians of both parties thought of themselves as great power leaders dealing with insignificant upstarts. The ex-colonial presidents and prime ministers found that they had to look to Scandinavia, Holland, China, sometimes Eastern Europe, for sympathetic help; to the US for commercial aid.

This trend has become more marked in the 1970s. Within the Third World today I am rarely asked whether Labour will participate in new schemes. Britain is felt to have become parochial [and] nostalgic for great power status, uninterested in the great dramas affecting more than half mankind. Attempts like those of Nyerere and Kaunda to build participatory democracy in single-party states, a constitutional innovation, or Manley and Burnham’s socialist experiments are ignored or misrepresented. The Queen’s [Silver] Jubilee will be accompanied by a London Commonwealth Conference. Most delegates still believe that the organisation is worth preserving. Yet even the Queen’s dinner will not convince them that they can expect a lead from Britain in meeting the real problems facing the mass of human beings living outside Europe.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).