The death earlier this week of former Rhodesian Prime Minister Iain Smith at the age of 88 did not go unremarked in the British blogsphere. On politicalbetting.com earlier this week, former Conservative candidate Richard Willis, now a Reading Councillor and longtime bete noire of Liberal Democrats everywhere, paid a fulsome tribute to Smith.
This immediately drew criticism from other contributors and the row has continued into this evening.
There is very little right in any of this and the real sufferers have been and continue to be the people of Zimbabwe. Let's be quite clear about this - Robert Mugabe is an odious despot and had Washington for example had the same moral fibre about removing this despot as it had about Saddam Hussein, I suspect American tanks would have been in Harare long ago. In perpetuating this vile dictator, Britain and America illustrate the hypocrisy that characterised the Iraq invasion of 2003 and give credence to those who believe that the push to Baghdad was far less about freedom than it was about oil and settling old scores.
However, Robert Mugabe is a creature of his upbringing and the times in which he lived and part of those times was Iain Smith. While it cannot be said that Smith created Mugabe, the fact remains that Smith's politics created an environment in which there was no alternative to Mugabe once white rule ended.
It's hard to accept now but Rhodesia was an integral player in the twin dramas of decolonisation and the Cold War which played out in Africa in the 1960s. In the former, an inpoverished Britain sough to rid itself of the burden of running an empire but did so too quickly and with inadequate social and economic development in place. The latter drama saw anti-Communist despots like Mobutu in Zaire supported and encouraged while those in Opposition found the embrace of Marxism and accompanying Soviet and Cuban support too hard to resist.
For Mugabe and his type, the alternative to colonial rule in the Smith rule was not western liberalism but African nationalism dressed up in socialist colours. For Smith, ceding power to the opposition meant ceding power to Marxists. He could never see the necessity of creating the social and economic environment in which more moderate politics could emerge. His paternalism was flawed and the result was the radicalisation of black African opinion in a political climate in which they had no say. Those who stayed in Rhodesia and tried to work with Smith had no support and paternalism was followed not by democracy and development but by dictatorship and darkness.
Smith was incapable of leading Rhodesia/Zimbabwe to a democratic pragmatic future - Mugabe was incapable of being part of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia's democratic pragmatic future.
We can also never forget the role played by Margaret Thatcher and Lord Carrington in bringing this about - it is a collective failure for which the British must take particular responsibility.
We can but hope that the future for Zimbabwe will be far brighter than its present and past. For activist bloggers to quibble about who is right and who is wrong seems absurd, small-minded and pointless when a nation is suffering.