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Ian Smith: the last boy scout

Updated: Jul 2



I.


At school, I was taught history by a man with a severe limp—his leg appeared to have folded inwards on itself at the knee so that he loped about the school. He walked with a limp because when he was in the Rhodesian army he was blown up by a roadside bomb planted by the Communist guerrillas. He used to teach us about the Reconquista—about how the Spanish Inquisition was not as bad as Protestant propaganda made out—because, at some level, the Catholic Church, the non-subverted elements within it, knows what must be done in Europe: reconquest.


As a diversion, he used to tell us about his time in the Rhodesian Bush War. He used to tell us about how, to detect a minefield, they would tie a Communist guerrilla to the front of their jeep and drive it towards the suspected mined area—if the field was real the man would eventually crack and tell all. When they wanted more general intelligence, they would bind a spreadeagled guerrilla to the ground and then tie a poisonous snake to a stake; the guerrilla could not tell how long the string on the snake was—perhaps it would reach him, perhaps not; and, of course, sometimes it was just long enough…


Ian Smith was the man who was responsible for Rhodesia’s continued existence in a post-colonial world, he was the man to whom my teacher ultimately answered: a farmer, as with so many Rhodesians, who decided to defy Britain, the State Department, the USSR, the Communist-backed black nationalists, South Africa, and—at times—many Rhodesians to maintain responsible government for, in Rhodes’s words, “civilised men south of the Zambesi”. Smith pulled this off for fifteen years, after which he was forced to concede power to Robert Mugabe—a man who subsequently turned the now-renamed Zimbabwe into hell on earth.


Smith was a conservative, a point we will return to later, and took as his lodestar Churchill and his resistance to “appeasement”; for Smith, his stand recalled Churchill’s confrontation with Hitler and—more than Hitler—his own “appeasers” in Britain; for, during his political career, Smith’s main opponent was not the Communists—whom the Rhodesian security forces easily despatched—but the diplomats and Mandarins in Britain’s Foreign Office: the people who, along with various Labour governments, wanted black-majority rule no matter what—even though, as Smith repeatedly pointed out, every African country granted black-majority rule turned into a poverty-stricken kleptocratic one-party dictatorship.


In the war, Smith was a fighter pilot in the RAF; he was bullish to join the war, even though he was discouraged by various bureaucrats at home—and when he was in the fight he lobbied constantly to get to the front lines to meet the Germans head on. He saw British bombing raids on Germany as justified punishment, punishment he wished to participate in, for the Hun’s beastliness. In his military career, Smith reach the rank “flight lieutenant”; he was a junior officer who was a successful combat pilot with an impressive tally—he was shot down in Italy, though he escaped capture.


If you want to sum up Smith in a single word then “tenacious” fits the bill. The key to understand Smith as a man is that he was a sportsman first and foremost: his favourite sport was rugby—the ruck, the lock, the push. Rugby is a sport that rewards the tenacious bulldog push, especially in the scrum; and this is how Smith conducted his life—with a slight philosophical-spiritual element provided by his interest in rowing, a gracefully organic team sport that affords time for meditative reflection.


However, the above personality sketch also reveals Smith’s deficiencies: he was not a thoughtful man—he was not a strategist. Since he became a combat pilot, a successful combat pilot, he must have had above-average intelligence—a fighter pilot requires excellent reaction times, correlated with intelligence. Yet, of course, wartime conditions relax the requirements—and at one point Smith was sent on a gunnery refresher course, perhaps not, as he presented it, bureaucratic time-wasting, but an indication that his skills were not the sharpest. Smith preferred science at school and he was basically a typical conservative: tenacious, adverse to change, detail-orientated, logical, and empirical—he had little historical sense.


Smith also tended towards schoolboy naïvety—a common observation from many at the time. His great opponent from the Foreign Office, Lord Carrington, described Smith as something out of a Boy’s Own adventure story: you know, an overgrown Boy Scout—dib-dib-dob-dob, long live the Queen and the Empire and with a little British pluck and initiative everything will come right in the end. Rhodesians never die. Carrington was no Boy Scout and exerted a negative influence on the world, yet he was not wrong in this regard. “Boy Scout Smith” was deficient because, in my view, Smith never understood the difference between what someone says they are and what they actually are. Hence he “could not believe” that the Conservative Party and the Foreign Office would repeatedly betray him and sell him out (“our own kith and kin”).


For Smith, if it said “Conservative” or “Britain” that was what it was—he struggled to grasp that institutions and individuals can be corrupted, subverted, or become decadent. He praised honesty and straightforwardness and so expected everything to be “what it said on the tin”; and although he learned to reduce his naïvety over his political career, in my view he could never overcome his somewhat autistic incredulity that people are very often not what they say they are and will happily say one thing and do another. In other words, sometimes in life you open the tin that says “English Bully-Beef” and get rancid French beans instead; and there are some people who are basically so “decent”, to use a concept that seems dead in the current world, that they can never get over the way people actually are. Smith was one such person.


“Flight lieutenant” Smith is perhaps best highlighted when you consider the talent he went up against; for example, he had to negotiate with Henry Kissinger—a man who, even in his dotage, remains sharper than the entire American foreign policy establishment. This is not to say Kissinger was necessarily hostile to Rhodesia’s position—“At this time, we can say, with certainty, that the United States has given all due weight to our strategic interests in Southern African—not forgetting our commitment to détente; so all consideration will be given to a dialogue between our partners in the region, with respect to bilateral considerations—and, indeed, trilateral…”—rather the fact is that Smith was just not in Kissinger’s league intellectually (in fact, Kissinger was sympathetic to Rhodesia—or said he was, anyway…); and the same goes, I suspect, for Smith’s other interlocutors on the world stage—such as the hereditary peer Carrington, with whom he had to negotiate extensively and whom he detested.


Carrington was a dismal man; actually described as a “stupid boy” by a master at Eton, he went on to run major companies and the Foreign Office. He eventually had to resign from the Foreign Office because he failed to anticipate the Argentine invasion of the Falklands—pretty stupid. Yet I wonder if he was smarter than Smith—perhaps he was just relatively stupid for Eton. Further, it may be that there is a quality, a “lordly” quality, that is in the blood as well—an ability to think strategically, whereas to me Smith always seemed to think tactically and rigidly. Carrington might have been a decadent and relatively stupid lord, but he was still an hereditary peer; he still had the natural leadership ability that Smith lacked; and such men, whatever their quality, may be as rare as hen’s teeth.


Indeed, although Smith lauded “responsible government”, in some ways I doubt he was that responsible: he crashed his Spitfire and was seriously injured, yet he said in his memoirs that the Spitfire hit a semi-buried fuel tank and flipped on landing. The Spitfire? Or was it Ian Smith—“I”—who hit it? Perhaps I demand inhuman responsibility, but there was an evasive aspect to Smith’s story that perhaps points to his deficiencies—he was pretty responsible, but was he responsible enough to successfully lead a country?


Smith’s father was a hard-working businessman who ran several bakeries and farmed livestock—his mother was the daughter of a miner. This is not a snob point, it is simply the fact that Smith was not strategic material—not “lord” material, in the widest sense; although, of course, given the conditions in Rhodesia anyone with slightly above-average intelligence and a strong work ethic could do very well—yet I wonder where the Smiths would have stood in a bigger pool, in Britain or even in the less class-bound US. I suspect, at most, Smith would have been a backbench MP or a state legislator. If Rhodesia had chugged along in the British Empire then Smith might have done okay—as it stood he was not suitable to manage a catastrophe.


Obviously, there was a small talent pool to choose from in Rhodesia: there were only about 250,000 whites in the country—the cabinet was a six-man affair at one point, with Smith able to pop back to his farm in the parliamentary lulls. The impression is somewhat similar to the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, in which the London district, fed up with Whitehall’s post-war rationing, declares unilateral independence and sets up border controls at the tube stations. There is something quite British, quite quaint and Potemkin, about the whole Rhodesia affair. It displays several quintessential British characteristics: quaint smallness, eccentricity, bloody-mindedness, and the “Scott of the Antarctic” stoical defeat-into-victory attitude—carry on regardless etc (“We appear to be being blown up by landmines, sir.” “Yes, Smith, very good; carry on, carry on.”).


Rhodesia was settled by NCOs and junior officers—not necessarily in the military sense—and that is basically where Smith came from; after all, “Smith” is probably the quintessential English yeoman name, you cannot be more English unless you are a “Brown”—and a man who runs a smithy is a solid journeyman, not a lord. As such, Rhodesia constituted a “populist” revolt in the empire—just like the gilets jaunes or MAGA in the domestic sphere today. The people who made it in Rhodesia could never live so well elsewhere—except, perhaps, another popular destination for this type: Australia. They were the proverbial plumbers and electricians—or, as in Smith’s father’s case, men who ran bakeries—who could never have a swimming pool and servants anywhere else.


The Rhodesians should be compared with the people who settled Kenya, or Keen-ya as they would say—they were drawn from the aristocracy, and, for the most part, left as soon as independence was declared; then again, being ultra-rich, they had somewhere to go. The Rhodesians were de Jouvenel’s squeezed middle—only abroad, in the imperial setting; they faced hostile LSE lecturers in Britain, the decadent home elites—and they faced the hostile “lower”, the Western-educated Robert Mugabe, in their own country. They had nowhere to go—hence they fought, hence populists admire them today.


II.


The Rhodesian experience demonstrates why neoreaction does not work. The neoreactionaries laud Rhodesia and Singapore as examples of responsible government: genuine classical liberalism—limited representative democracy based on a property qualification in action, backed with a traditional spirit of British empirical science and technological excellence (“Nothing in words,” as the Royal Society used to say). The problem is that such societies are not viable. Where is Rhodesia today? Non-existent—and Singapore is an “IQ-shredder”, she effectively sterilises her well-groomed and intelligent lab rats.


The problem with Rhodesia and Singapore is that they were founded as techno-commercial enterprises—another idea that neoreaction adores, although it does not work in reality. Rhodesia was founded by Cecil Rhodes; it was different to other British colonies—it came out of his own business operation. Ironically, Rhodes named the capital city “Salisbury” after Britain’s then Prime Minister. Yet Salisbury, really the last true Conservative to govern Britain, hated “colonial types” and saw them as endless troublemakers with their annexations, money-grubbing, and boorish attitudes. He often wanted to restrict colonial acquisition, since he saw it to be foolish and impractical—and I think Salisbury was right in the end.


Rhodesia was settled by people who wanted la dolce vita—a black servant-boy and a swimming pool—and although they worked hard they were never a genuine organic community; and this is why they were ultimately blown away when the bad winds came—and the same will go for Singapore, a racial and religious melange based on the mighty dollar.


Who has lasted in Southern Africa? The Boers—despite extreme difficulties, the Boers are still there. This is because their history is much deeper on the continent; remember, Rhodesia was only settled in the 1890s—independence was on the cards in the 1960s; so the entire “history of Rhodesia” was about 70 years—the Boers have been around for centuries. Smith wanted to encourage immigration, but in truth what was assembled through immigration consisted of a highly mobile population with little attachment to the land—hence many people left when independence loomed, and even Smith’s family, perhaps more sensible than Smith, suggested that he should leave for America after World War II concluded.


Further, this community—although predominantly British—did not constitute an ethnos in the way the Boers do. In short, techno-commercial projects—even if successful in purely economic terms due to responsible government—do not last. What lasts is blood, soil, and spirit: the Boers are people of a common blood, with a common land, and guided by a common spirit—a common destiny. Ultimately, this true organicism is the correct foundation for politics, no matter how impressive flashy GDP growth thanks to technocratic management may seem. Lord Salisbury would agree, since he supported the Protestants in Ireland because it was his family, in the 1600s, that settled the Protestants in the territory—he felt bound by family ties of blood and honour not to abandon these people to their fate.


Men like Rhodes, rootless techno-commercialists and, in his case, sterile homosexuals who form secret brotherhoods as substitutes for family, tend to be opposed to natural and organic political forms—hence Rhodes engaged in chicanery, such as the Jameson Raid, to undermine the Boers. Ultimately, the “Rhodes Empire” only lasted a few decades and is nowhere now—he has no blood kin to defend his statue in Oxford from being pulled down. Hence the neoreactionary route is a dead end—against nature.


From the opposite direction, Smith’s protestations that black Rhodesians were “freer, happier, and wealthier” than other Africans do not stand scrutiny. What Smith said was true: black Rhodesians had more more freedom, security, and wealth than other Africans—they could speak their minds more freely, for example. Yet, however, Smith forgot that man does not live by bread alone. The fact is that it is an offence to any man live in subordinate conditions to men from another race or religion—or even another man as an individual. It does not matter if your cage is a gilded one, it is still a cage—you are still denigrated in your own ancestral land.


TE Lawrence was more perceptive than Smith or the neoreactionaries: he pointed out that whether a people should be free—here meant in the sense “not dominated by another tribe”—is not determined by education, intelligence, or economics; rather, it is about how hard and how much blood a people is willing to expend for their freedom. Thus, observed Lawrence, the Afghans are free, whereas other more advanced peoples are not—and this is still true today, the Afghans are not the best-governed, the most intelligent, or the most technologically advanced people in the world; and yet they are freer than many other peoples, because they have the will to sacrifice for it. It amounts to condescension to tell other people: “Accept our rule, you will be more comfortable economically.” It feminises, it makes them a kept woman.


Ultimately, the people with higher blood unity and attachment to the land will prevail: the Rhodesians talked a lot about “fighting to the last man”, but in the end it was all talk—they had no real attachment to the land; they were a collection of Europeans settled on a territory for commercial reasons in relatively recent times. They were essentially British, yet Britain had reneged on them—and unlike the Americans they were not on a relatively sparsely populated continent with no other comparably advanced industrial states. In other words, they had no space and time to create a separate identity, as Americans did.


This is not to idealise the Boers: Smith was sold out by everyone—the British, the Americans, some Rhodesians, and the South Africans. The Boers, as with every race and religion, have their own internal divisions—their own perverts and decadents. Hence Smith found that Pik Botha was a particularly treacherous South African to deal with; funnily enough, in keeping with my common observation, Botha had been a playwright and an amateur actor—in other words, he was a narcissist; and this is a sure tell for a leftist approach to life, life behind an irresponsible mask, even if it is in the ferociously “fascistic” National Party. And, besides, the National Party made much about their Christian credentials and yet cooperated with Israel to build a nuclear bomb—yet would a Christian state recognise anything but a Christian government in the Holy Land? Perhaps hypocrisy is always punished…


So I have a problem with the “responsible government” line—and not just because I would probably run an “irresponsible government” if I were a leader, mainly based on the I Ching and horoscopes. There was a tension in Smith between his official line—evolutionary development to raise as many black people as possible to meet the property qualification to vote, not revolutionary total democracy—and what he actually thought. Smith, who did a degree in economics, famously a non-subject that is inherently leftist, was more modern and progressive than you might think—he had been trained to think like a progressive technocrat, like an economist; and his strengths lay in those times when he concentrated on rugby, the RAF, and farming—yet intellectually, he was formed as a progressive.


§


South Africa’s apartheid and Rhodesia’s classical liberalism are often conflated, especially in left-wing propaganda; however, Rhodesia was never an overtly racialist regime, as was apartheid South Africa with its separate organs of government for different races. The rule in Rhodesia was that if you met the property qualification you received a vote—as it happened almost only whites met the property qualification; yet the idea was that as more Africans were educated (in the 1890s, when the whites arrived, Smith repeatedly noted, the blacks did not even have the wheel) they would participate in government.


I think what this evolutionary schema conceals is that deep down Smith knew that the number of Africans who would ever meet the standards set for participation in responsible government would be small—less than the white minority; and the reasons why this was so can be found in the literature on race and IQ. So, in a way, “responsible government” was rhetoric—it effectively meant white-minority rule forever, even after evolutionary change; and the left knew that—and could justify their position with the idea that the whites monopolised the land and had a technological advantage and so could hold the blacks back forever; if only the blacks had more resources, they could bridge the gap to responsibility...


Smith recounted that when he returned home from the war he was greeted by his thankful parents, then by his old black servant who cried to see him again and had, Smith wryly observes, used “choice words” when Smith was shot down by the Germans—then Smith saw his dog again. He was keen, in an attempt to humanise himself, to let us know he always liked dogs…The picture is meant to affectionate, yet it also contains condescension—the feminised blacks, “Massah been away at war so long—Lordy, but I wondered what would become of us…” “It’s okay, Festus, massah is home now. It’s all going to be splendid.” This is the definite hierarchy that you find in agricultural-aristocratic societies, as in the Deep South; and it rankles the modern reader, since we just refuse to think that way—or have been trained not to.


Yet, at a certain level, I think Smith suffered from arrogance and uncritical superiority as regards “the natives”. Natural, since the natives were basically large children—dependents, somewhat above the family dog but not by much. Loyal in their way but with a tendency to bite—especially if rabid with Communism. As recounted elsewhere, Smith was once told that a boulder on a sacred hill where Rhodes had made peace with the blacks at Rhodesia’s foundation had tumbled down. The local tribal religious leaders took it as a sign—an omen. Smith did not dismiss it, but that scientific bias I noted earlier strained it out; for him religion was pro forma, decent people went to church but it would be “a bit queer” to say God had instructed you to save Rhodesia; no, Smith was a practical common-sense chap, and it is in that respect he was arrogant with regards to the natives—as with many Westerners, he thought he knew it all (and yet Rhodesia did fall, as the boulder fell). You will never find the divine madness in a conservative.


Smith’s ambiguous position, exoterically non-racialist, sums up the general ambiguity over the Second World War and Britain’s commitments in that war. Throughout his memoirs, Smith is keen to bash the Hitlerites, celebrate Churchill, and emphasise that Communism, Nazism, and dictatorship are all the same thing. Yet at one point, early in his memoirs, he recounts how after the war finished he watched a blond Frenchman beat a black American boxer in the ring—Smith is all for the Frenchman; and surely the blondism is suggestive, rather Aryan—did Smith think, perhaps unconsciously, that Britain should have made peace with Germany? Perhaps he was not for Hitler, but perhaps he was less antagonistic than he pretended for rhetorical reasons. Otherwise what does that anecdote mean?


The anecdote also suggests that at some level, even if denied for rhetorical reasons, Smith saw the differences between black and white as being immutable and not resolvable by evolutionary change. Similarly, in my anecdote with which I opened this piece, I call the people who were tortured “Communist guerrillas”—if this were a piece from the left I would have said “black guerrillas”; and, indeed, they were black—though not all Communists are black. The South African Communist Party’s armed wing was, for example, led by a Jew—Joe Slovo. I suspect that the Rhodesians would have treated a white Communist differently—and that is because the rules of war within races are acknowledged to be different to those reserved for outsiders. It was long established in the European tradition that methods would be used on non-Europeans that white armies would never subject Europeans to.


The Rhodesian PM who preceded Smith was a Jewish former union leader called Welensky. Smith had some respect for him, but he noted that Welensky helped Rhodesia’s enemies—for example, he invited a Royal Commission to adjudicate on Rhodesia’s relations with what became Zambia. This decision put a lot of power in British hands at a crucial moment. Smith also noted that Welensky (I almost wrote Zelensky, so easy to mix these people up) was an appropriate post-war leader because the people who ran Britain after the war seemed to be “more like Welensky”. In other words, the people who ran Britain after WWII were no longer British but were more like a Jewish trade unionist. What did Smith mean by this? Coupled with the boxing match anecdote, you have to wonder what the Boy Scout really thought…


III.


Although seen as an extremist, a very relative term, Smith was really a conservative to the last. His attitude exemplifies everything that is wrong with conservatism, essentially a biological disposition that is more connected to reality than the left but not completely isomorphic with it—for it is only a disposition to resist change, not an engagement with the whole. Hence Smith, like a tenacious rugby player in a scrum, held out for “Western Christian civilisation” even though it was obvious that the major powers had abandoned this idea.


Smith just held on as “the Bulldog breed” to the idea that Britain was still Britain circa 1890 and not a socialist state that was committed to racial equality whatever the consequences; in such circumstances, tenaciousness is more a hindrance than a help—you can resist perversion, but you have to do so in accordance with reality as it stands. Smith, for his part, just wanted to “force it”—deny reality.


It is a condition common to NCOs, to “gym teacher fascists” like Mussolini: they see politics as being like a rugby game where what is required is more effort and more pep—more will. If there is a problem, what is required is for you to “put your back into it”. It is true that the problem is often lack of effort; however, there are some problems that are not soluble through re-doubled effort—and in these circumstances to apply effort will cause you to injure or destroy yourself, as happened to Mussolini. Smith, the consummate sportsman, was vulnerable to this temptation.


Smith was proud, for example, that he marginalised his own “reactionary extremists” in parliament, forced them to split into another party—although he frequently bemoaned people who betrayed him, presumably his “reactionary extremists” felt the same about him. The Rhodesian military—particularly the elite Selous Scouts and SAS—made it very clear to Smith, through locutionary hints, that “Ian, we have your back—our security chiefs have sold us out, we’re your men.” This was particularly salient as Rhodesia approached its handover to black-majority rule: the agreements made to facilitate this change, particularly the Lancaster House agreements, were broken time and again—it was obvious that Mugabe’s Marxist-Leninist ZANU would intimidate its way to power.


The Rhodesian military could easily seize power and stop the process; the Communist guerrillas were hopeless at everything except civilian terrorisation and no outside party would interfere. Yet Smith refused to launch a coup and stop the process—even though he could see what would happen, even though he knew the process was a sham and all the agreements had been broken.


Smith then spent the rest of his life bemoaning the way Rhodesia had turned into Zimbabwe—into a one-party Marxist-Leninist dictatorship where people were beaten, murdered, and starved while Mugabe plundered the treasury. Yet he could have stopped it all; he had the men to do it. He also had the grounds to do it: the agreements had been broken—and nobody is bound by a broken agreement. Instead, Smith wanted to wallow about how terrible it all was and how he had been betrayed by Britain—and South Africa, and, well, everyone.


I maintain that conservatives are masochists who want to lose: they orgasm from being the stoical “daddy” whose wife and daughter burn his house down around him while he “does the decent thing” in the hope they will relent. They are not very in touch with reality; and Smith is actually culpable for what Mugabe did, at least in part, because he knew what had happened and had the men to stop the situation and yet did nothing. The conservative is a self-torturer; he trusts that the world he lives in is as straight-forward and honest as himself and can never quite believe it when he finds out that it is not—he simply redoubles his efforts and “tragically” suffers defeat for “queen and country” (even if both have disappeared).


I think this partially explains the way Smith lionised Churchill: deep down he knew, unconsciously, that Churchill was not “a straight bat for the Empire” but was a drunken sot who wrecked it all—yet Smith, who put his all into the war, could not face this ultimate disillusionment. He had to repress it. Reality: Churchill was a bad man, the Second World War was a con—and Smith will be called “a Nazi” for the foreseeable future even though all he wanted was responsible government, classical liberalism.


Smith could not know, but the Cold War would be over in about ten years. The support from the Soviets would have dried up and the situation would have been different—Rhodesia might have had a softer landing, more like South Africa. So if he had acted and prevented Mugabe’s ascension to power, he could have made life a great deal better for everyone—his reputation was not enhanced by his concessions to Mugabe and the West’s demands; although, in fairness to Smith, he was not interested in his reputation—for a democratic leader he had minimal narcissism. By the 1990s, Smith lauded Mandela’s new government—the Boy Scout never could face the grimness.


Smith was not leadership material: he was “flight lieutenant” Smith—a decent man, a man you want on your team, but not a man you want to lead you. He was like many conservatives, like Jordan Peterson or Peter Hitchens today—people who are decent but hemmed in with illusions that they call “common sense” or “reason” but are really rationalisations to help them avoid awful reality; such people also have a certain arrogance, mainly derived from a linear science-inflected thought pattern that conceals reality. In this world, we want less pseudo-responsibility and more divine madness.


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