Matthew Parris

Brexit campaigners remind me horribly of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front

It’s not that their case is similarly weak. It’s the anger, resentment and obsession that put me off

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

We are all of us to some degree prisoners of our own experience. Experience may teach, of course — may counsel or illuminate. But it is also capable of trapping us. We make connections in our imagination between what we saw then and what we see now, and when these memories are of a personal kind and unavailable to others, we’re inclined to treat them as something special: our private mentors. Sometimes that mentoring will be inspired, sometimes mistaken.

I once (in the months before last year’s general election) decided to block my ears to opinion pollsters warning that the Tories were hopelessly bogged down, and instead followed my own hunch. That in this case my leap in the dark paid off will forever incline me to prefer my own judgment to the advice of the polling industry. But next time, of course, I may be wrong.

For Margaret Thatcher, the consequences of sticking to her guns and ignoring every prophet of doom when Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands, enormously — I believe permanently — reinforced her confidence in her instincts and her contempt for backsliding male colleagues. Whether that intensely personal episode ultimately proved a wise counsellor when it came to other -political decisions may be argued both ways.

I have not made up my mind whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain in, but I’ve a pretty good idea how, in the quiet of that polling booth, I shall decide to vote. That sounds like a logically absurd sentence but it’s an honest description of my mental state. Something is warning me to be wary of the Leave campaigners. The wariness is visceral rather than intellectual.

Doubtless on the day I shall be able to rationalise, but at bottom this will have been an emotional decision. It is informed by a personal experience: my boyhood memory of the months leading up to Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain for white Rhodesia. The memory is not of the ebb and flow of the argument, but of the people, the human types, and the mood. Experience says: ‘Do not trust this kind of mood. Do not trust these human types. Do not trust anger. Do not trust resentment. Do not trust simplicities. Do not trust wild, defiant certitude.’

The two decisions — ‘Should Britain leave Europe?’ and ‘Should Rhodesia leave Britain?’ — are actually tremendously different: superficial similarities break down on closer analysis. Rhodesia was standing (in retrospect anyway) against an unstoppable tide. There was, it was to prove, no way a white-supremacist state could forever resist black majority rule. ‘Not in my lifetime’ was Mr Smith’s phrase and it regularly drew huge cheers from white Rhodesian audiences, but of course it was always a hopeless ambition.

To leave the EU is not a hopeless ambition. Vis-à-vis Europe, Britain is in an infinitely stronger position than was Rhodesia against the whole world. After a British exit we shall not be at daggers drawn. Nobody is proposing economic sanctions against us if we leave. We face no danger of a terrorist war from within. A decision to withdraw from the EU might be suboptimal but (as David Cameron himself allows) it would not be catastrophic. Not in the way Rhodesia’s exit proved.

So, no: any lessons I draw from experience are not related to supposed political or economic parallels between the two cases.

But what I remember as if it were yesterday is the type of individuals and commentators who were so very sure Rhodesia must break away; and the tenor of their argument: the timbre not the rationale, that slight but persistent hint of hysteria. If an argument’s eyes can bulge, their argument’s did.

Smith and his Rhodesian Front colleagues were not stupid (well, they weren’t all stupid) but they were obsessed. Their argument was shot through with anger, resentment and bitter nostalgia. A sort of sourness trembled on their lips. Everything they said, everything they thought, was said and thought as though in the presence of a great hovering evil which they could see and which they were urgently intent on making us see too.

Their cause inhabited them, in the way some noble but many misguided campaigners have been inhabited. They could not keep off the subject. Dissent or question infuriated them. Whatever the topic, they seemed to find ways of relating it back to their great, overriding purpose. But the purpose did not feel positive: it was all about resisting something, stopping a ticking clock, turning back a tide.

This, perhaps (for me, as a 16-year-old), was the defining characteristic of the Rhodesian ‘leave’ campaigners, the taste that still lingers in my mouth from those sharp memories. Though on paper the case for Rhexit did include some positive arguments about the opportunities, vistas, horizons for a Rhodesia that had sovereignty, when you looked at the people advancing it you were looking at haters, resenters, men who bridled at the way things were going. In a colloquialism that had not yet been coined, I felt the vibes were negative. It was thin-lipped stuff.

I distrusted this. I distrust it now in the men and women who are as a matter of fact making the case for quitting the EU. I know the case could be made differently. I know a warm, optimistic person, comfortable with his times and positive about the future, is logically capable of campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union. It’s just that as a matter of fact I don’t see many examples.

Perhaps we could extend to the world of politics the Dawkinsite theory of the propagation of memes, and contend that arguments choose their protagonists, rather than the other way round. If so, I don’t care for the protagonists that the argument for leaving the EU has chosen. They remind me of Ian Smith. And look how that ended.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Ah Matthew,how you hit the zeitgeist,so what you are saying is if we don’t get out we will be stuck in an EU that ever more will resemble Zimbabwe??Yup your right,rule by unelected bureaucrats,imposition of laws we hate,vast endemic corruption etc etc.Nothing to be bitter or angry about there then??

  • davidshort10

    As he himself says there is no comparison between the two issues. To generalise about the type of people who are in the Leave camp is as bad as the racism of the Rhodesians. I think Parris is often missing the ball in his columns nowadays.

  • Jack_H

    There are great similarities,in each decision one group supported the majority living in an unaccountable dictatorship and the other group was seeking to live in a country where they were able to hold their leaders to democratic account.


    Strange logic from Matthew. Take some obsolete historical moment and extrapolate it to today. On that basis the American colonies should never have left Britain the greatest trading block of it’s time.

  • A real liberal

    What a ridiculously smug piece. Would have been quicker to say “they disagree with me, which makes them so wrong I’ll find some noxious comparator to rub their their noses in it”.

  • RJ O’Callaghan

    Hi Matthew, I think I fit into your category of “a warm, optimistic person, comfortable with his times and positive about the future” who is most definitely voting Brexit. I know the sort of Brexiteers you’re wary of but can I point out that they have their equivalent in the Remain side in the form of Emma Thompson? I don’t just mean her, but people like her – the sort of pro-European who is a snob and would sooner steal from a poor box than sing the national anthem. I’ve met many of these people and they’re as appalling as any Colonel Blimp. When deciding whether to Leave or Remain, forget all these people, think only of your country – her interests, her capabilities – and trust your own gut on the issue at hand.

    • Kin62

      I am in favour of staying, but you are quite correct; there are a lot of British people who take this appalling view of the average person in this country. Read, say, the comments on a Guardian article; filled with snobbery and loathing.

  • Richard Lally

    You do know don’t you Matthew that saying you will vote for staying in will provoke the kind of hysterical frothing-at-the-mouth that put you off!

  • BillRees

    I find it difficult to imagine an analogy that is less appropriate than the one between Brexit and Rhodesia’s UDI.

    If there is any hatred and contempt in this debate, I think it’s on the side of those who think we should remain in the EU, although I wouldn’t exaggerate their number. But I think there are signs that some British people have a sort of self-loathing, which sees them look down on the institutions of their own country.

    When you talk about the tides of history, I don’t think an institution like the EU represents one of the inevitable tides that we can’t resist.

    Look at how the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, both of which were artificial constructs, broke up, and you see where the real tide of history is heading.

  • Gebhard Von Blucher

    The virulent anti-EU Brigade are almost entirely anonymous and on-line. As their real selves they are the cheery old codger who always greets all the locals in the pub or the slightly stern faced flower arranging lady from the local church who keeps her views to herself. The individuals Mr Parris met were embittered colonials about to lose their privileged way of life. I don’t think the antics of a few real life anti-EU nut-jobs should poison the process by which anyone decides whether we should remain in or leave the EU.

  • Garlands


    I do not understand your reasoning, what has leaving the EU have to do with Mr. Smith’s warnings
    about the problems to be faced by Rhodesia?
    If we compare Mr. Juncker with Mr. Mugabe, both power crazed psychopaths, then I do see
    every reason for the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to vote to leave the EU.

  • Steven Barr

    Yes, Ian Smith was fighting against Communsim as well

  • goodsoldier

    You are like Hans Castorp on the Magic Mountain: you don’t know why but you can’t leave the mountain even though corpses are slipped out secretly every day and put on a cheery bobsled for removal. It is uncouth to talk about it.

  • T Gould

    So in other words, you will be voting to stay in because you are more repulsed by the anti-EU sort than the EU. Petty nationalism is such a grubby thing, isn’t it? Caring about nation, sovereignty, immigration? Yuck!

  • Frank

    You really are quite a smug snobbish little sh*t!
    You also appear to lack any understanding of, or sympathy for, democracy. We are supposed to be all supportive of your lifestyle, but you condemn virtually everybody else because they are not like you. Perhaps you need to return to Zim and spend a few years under the delightful Mugabe to get a real understanding of what the nasty uncouth Ian Smith was warning you about.

    • Andrew Daws

      are you making a serious point, or is this an unintentional self parody? Just curious.

      • Frank

        Given your past posts, I would have thought that you could explain to Matthew about the need to extend the courtesy that you hope to receive!

        • Andrew Daws

          you’re telling ME to be courteous? What was it you called him? smug snobbish little …

          Thanks for a good laugh.

  • commenteer

    Oh, my dear, they’re just so vulgar, these Brexit types. Isn’t that your difficulty, Matthew?
    As for Rhodesia, no wonder Smith and his supporters were obsessive. They correctly anticipated the destruction of the wonderful country they had created.

  • Chris Hobson

    I can only find middle class eurosnob capitalist types who want to remain.

  • Alibogs

    Since your disgraceful article in The Times rubbishing the ordinary people of Clacton on Sea, I have tried to prevent myself fom reading your articles. But because I enjoyed your work on radio 4 for so many years I keep giving you the benefit of the doubt. I shan’t in future.

    If the party you support and its leader were at all trust worthy, if they were straightforward, if Cameron was not as patronising and out of touch with ordinary Britons as you, while simultaneously totally focused on his gold plated future with snout and both trotters in the trough, there would be no glint of anguish in the eyes of those campaigning for a return to the status quo, because we would know we could trust the referendum would not be a stitch up by a self serving, short sighted, self centred idiot with no respect for conservative values or history.

    You forget that we have been a sovereign nation for all our history except for the last forty years of it. Rhodesia did not exist as a nation before Rhodes. The gleam in the eye of those who argued for Rhexit, as you call it, was the fanatical gleam of the Marxists and Socialists who value what is new and untried over experience. The fanatical gleam in the eyes of those who argue for Brexit is the conservative gleam of those who fear the folly of Socialist and Marxist ideas which have failed everywhere they have been tried, and who do not wish our country to be dragged down with the Pan European Socialist/Marxist Superstate experiment.

    It appears that the elitism of Marxism as it has always worked in practice appeals to you while you despise the proletariat it is meant to serve, and yet you consider yourself a Conservative.

  • Steven Whalley

    Mr Parris has ignored what came after Ian Smith, in the shape of Robert Mugabe the life-president of Zinbabwe. His corruption ruined what was once a major food exporter, becoming reliant on handouts to supplement its failed and inadequate agriculture. Inflation of the Zimbabwe dollar went up one million-fold, or was that one billion-fold? People flocked to leave and the South Africans had to put up fences to control the flow.

    If Mr Parris’ unbearably vacuous analogy is true we, are indeed better off out.

    If people are dissatisfied with the state of the EU and by association the state of UK politics for allowing it to happen, then that is because we were sold the biggest lie in the second half of the twentieth century, that the Common Market was just a simple free trade organisation. Mr Parris mistakes anger for firmness, determination, and resolve to amend this rank deception.

  • Terry Mushroom

    I don’t want to leave Europe. I definitely want to leave the European Union.

    • Slavosaur

      Europe was used in the piece to refer to the EU.

      • Terry Mushroom

        My point still stands. There is a difference. The U.K. would still be in Europe even if it left the political institution called the EU.

  • Davedeparis

    Has anyone noticed that the Rhodesian national anthem, “Rise, O Voices of Rhodesia” and the EU anthem are both based on “Ode to Joy”?

  • Terence Wilkinson

    The Remain campaign propaganda hits a new low. Vote Remain and you are a swivel-eyed White Supremacist! So far this week I have read the following opinions about the danger of leaving the EU: we would be more at threat of terrorist attacks, unless Russia invades us first, but of course only England would be invaded as the UK will break up, Northern Ireland will explode again and without our guidance the EU will fall apart. And all because of selfish, evil, crazy Leave voters. Now to my eye all this looks hysterical and a bit swivel eyes. So far I have yet to see or hear a positive argument for remaining in the EU. It is particularly disappointing that the Prime Minister himself has yet to advance a positive case. Does anyone else think he does not really believe that we need to remain in the EU but rather is cheerleading this guff because he feels obliged to?

    • Sahib

      Yes, we’ve come to expect most media to be fear mongers, whatever side they support. However, if you do want more rational arguments for remaining in the EU, I suggest you google The Economist’s background guide of 15th Jan, and it’s article on “Brexit Delusions” of 17 Oct 2015.

  • Vinnie

    Another idiotic article by the man Parris

    • Peter Simple

      If you want to read what a well-educated but fundamentally unintelligent person thinks about anything, expressed in comparatively elegant prose, then Parris is your man. Not my cup of tea, even though he used to write very witty “Commons Sketches” for the DT, back in the days when it was a genuine newspaper.

      • Slavosaur

        You and the OP at it – just coming out with disparagement without any argument underlying your claim, nothing specific in the piece objected to. There’s a word for that intimated by Parris’s piece – bile.

  • Larry in Arabia

    Yes Matthew, hindsight proves Rhodesians were mistaken fighting black rule based on a false belief it would end their civilized society. if only they could have seen the well administrated utopia that awaited them in the future Zimbabwe their fears would have been put to rest.

  • David Simpson

    I think this must be some kind of record – not a single comment that I can see in support of MP’s position. In some respects he states my feeling – I don’t like the EU we have and I am hugely disappointed by the pettiness and irrelevance of Cameron’s proposed “reforms”. But if we’re going to be given an opportunity to vote on leaving or remaining I would at least like a debate (and the time for one) on the fundamentals. If we are going to remain in, what sort of Europe do we want to remain a part of? And having clarified that, then we can each vote either to stay in and fight for that, or agree that the chances of winning the argument are near zero, and vote to leave. I am not going to vote to leave because some Pole is still able to claim child benefit for his family in Krakov (and doesn’t that make more sense? at least his children are not using our schools, hospitals, social services et al).

  • Brentfordian

    Prior to May last year Parris told us that UKIP supporters reminded him of fascists – not that they were, you understand, just that his ‘experience’ had made the connection. Not his fault that the comparison was odious, it was just some mysterious internal connection that he couldn’t control.

    Now Brexiters remind him of Ian Smith. Not that they are, you understand, just that his experience …

    I’m sorry that Parris finds the anger, resentment and obsession of those with whom he disagrees so difficult to deal with – for me, it’s the almost psychopathic passive aggression that is Parris’s hallmark I find distatesful. Not, you understand, that I am suggesting for one minute that Parris is a psychopath.

  • annewareham

    Well, that’s unpleasant, for sure.

  • mickey667

    Thanks for putting not words what i have been feeling.

    There;s something slightly alarming about those leading the Out campaign. Something visceral and a little nasty.

    I mean its stars are Galloway and Farage now.

    I still may vote out, but i’m becoming more and more uncomfortable with the consequences of doing so.

  • mickey667

    Most of the comments below the line are kinda proving Mr Parris’s point

  • annewareham

    Daniel Hannan @DanHannanMEP

    One more thing that needs saying. Thanks, @David_Cameron for giving Britain this referendum. Both sides should try to be generous and civil.

  • newminster

    “Their argument was shot through with anger, resentment and bitter nostalgia. A sort of sourness trembled on their lips. Everything they said, everything they thought, was said and thought as though in the presence of a great hovering evil which they could see and which they were urgently intent on making us see too.
    Their cause inhabited them, in the way some noble but many misguided campaigners have been inhabited. They could not keep off the subject. Dissent or question infuriated them. Whatever the topic, they seemed to find ways of relating it back to their great, overriding purpose. But the purpose did not feel positive: it was all about resisting something, stopping a ticking clock, turning back a tide.”

    I have to say that these two paragraphs sum up exceptionally well my own experiences here and in other supposedly quality media supposedly read by sane and intelligent people.
    Also a few blogs but you expect the swivel-eyed maniacs there.
    If there is a case to be made for leaving the EU then make it. Very few, and none that I can see here, have done other than insult any columnist or commenter who even hints that leaving may not be in Britain’s best interests. They tend to be incoherent, infuriated (as Parris says) by any dissent or question, prone to the use of words like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ when referring to any politician who has the gall to make a case for remaining in the EU.
    Their arguments are, as he says of Smith’s supporters, “shot through with anger and resentment”. Not one of them has in my experience provided one sensible argument to support a case that Britain is worse off than she would otherwise be as a result of being in the EU. They are susceptible to any and all of the “urban myths” about banning single-decker buses and demanding straight bananas.
    They made their minds up to leave long before Cameron was elected and he could have come back from Brussels with an agreement to send all the Eastern Europeans home tomorrow and Juncker’s head on a platter and an agreement that the UK need never pay another penny to Brussels and still they would want out.
    Why? I don’t know and neither do they because if they did they wouldn’t be so angry about the whole business. Anger is not going to win people over. If anything it will do the opposite. Calm down and try to be civil.

    • Simon Fay

      Gove, who I don’t much like, summed the core of it up by describing how his hands were tied as a minister by the EU. That alone should suffice as a ‘Leave’ argument.

      BTW Matthew’s cartoon avatar thingy has a singular grotesquerie that (inadvertently?) underlines his position as establishment kinky politico.

  • mikewaller

    A brilliant piece of writing! Another pertinent example would be Suez, 1956, when similar set of delusional oldies, yearning for a time when we had the global powers we had long since lost, made fools of us big time by invading Egypt. In that instance, all we had to do was withdraw, accept international humiliation and then come to terms with the new realities. Leaving the EU would be something else.

    What strikes me as particularly wicked is that the present older generations who, as a result of their own massive self-indulgence, have already loaded our young with huge debts, now want to further blight their lives in pursuit of a wholly unsustainable mirage. With Putin an ever-increasing threat in the East, China starting to look like a busted flush in terms of re-invigorating the global economy, and hundreds of thousands of new industrial workers competing for an increasingly inadequate supply of global jobs, these fantasists want to go it alone! It beggars belief.

  • puleez

    Ask a Zimbabwean whether he or she would prefer to ruled by Ian Smith or Mr Mugabe.

  • thorthane

    The author forgot to mention dead white men…..Yes, Eurosupporters tend to be younger and sexier, but there is a difference between trusting one’s own judgment and ignoring substantive facts: leaving the European Union is an attempt by an indigenous population to halt the dismantling of an organic democracy and the imposition of rule by a foreign elite – how does that compare with Zimbabwe? The article’s comparison of course concentrates solely on economic aspects.
    And yes, supporters of British home rule tend to be angry, and that is partly because of the massive bias against their cause, slightly relieved recently, in the BBC and other major media outlets.
    I hope the author will now write a piece on how fragrant and inspiring are the supporters of European Union membership – Peter Mandelson, Jean-Claude Juncker, Emma Thompson, Goldman Sachs, the CBI, Richard Branson – perhaps their campaign will remind him of the Anschluss plebiscite?

  • ferdinand

    Ian Smith did a lot for Southern Rhodesia. The Remainers have done virtually nothing for this country having given it away. Remainers are like Mugabe’s troops. utterly obedient – complete cowards