#SNAPSHOT IN HISTORY – APPOINTMENT OF A HIGH COMMISSIONER, DIPLOMATIC GAFFE [THE TOOTHLESS BULLDOG INCIDENT] 1967

By Eugene Makai

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Ian Douglas Smith’s government in Rhodesia on 11th November, 1965 and subsequent imposition of sanctions against it by Britain did not only become a great matter for Zambian foreign policy towards Rhodesia but also towards Britain.

The Zambian government believed Britain was being soft on Rhodesia because of the ‘common heritage’ factor – a diplomatic way of saying white Rhodesians were mostly of British stock and descent.

These sentiments generally implied and expressed in the most sensitive way, became a subject of a diplomatic incident between Britain and Zambia when Mr. A. M. Simbule, Zambian High Commissioner-designate to the United Kingdom bluntly called Britain ‘A humbled, toothless bulldog’ in relation to its Rhodesia policy.

This scandalized not only White Hall but also the House of Commons when he refused to apologise or retract his statement.

Calls for him to be considered ‘persona non-grata’ and not to be accepted as Zambia’s top diplomat in the UK were made in the House of Commons much to the relish of the local press.

A debate in the House of Commons on 27th June, 1967 quizzed the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Mr. Herbert Bowden (later became Baron Aylestone) why the British government was taking it lying down.

The short of a long story is that Mr. Simbule did eventually present his credentials to Her Majesty the Queen on 22nd July, 1967.

The High Commissioner is seen in this photograph heading to Buckingham palace that day all dressed up in Zambian colours.

EXCERPTS FROM THE DEBATE : HC Deb 27 June 1967 vol 749 cc237-40

MR. BOWDEN (Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations 1966 – 1967)

The position is as follows. In February of this year the Zambian Government sought agreement to the appointment of Mr. Simbule as High Commissioner in London and Her Majesty’s approval was duly given. Subsequently, Mr. Simbule was reported to have made statements at Dar es Salaam in derogatory terms about Her Majesty’s Government. Her Majesty’s Government made it clear to the Zambian Government that the controversy created by Mr. Simbule’s remarks would, if they were left uncorrected, make it impossible for him to fulfil the task of fostering good relations between our two Governments which would fall on him as Zambian High Commissioner in London. Mr. Simbule arrived in London at the end of last month despite the fact that our inquiries of the Zambian Government were incomplete. Since then he has made a number of statements stressing his feelings of warm friendship for the British people and his desire to strengthen Zambia’s relations with Britain. Our consultations with the Government of Zambia have, however, still not been completed; consequently no steps have yet been taken to arrange for Mr. Simbule to present his Letter of Accreditation and to be received as High Commissioner.

MR. BIFFEN (Honourable Member for Oswestry)
Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there are limits of self-effacement which the public will expect from Her Majesty’s Government in this situation? Will he take it that the kind of gratuitous insults offered by Mr. Simbule at Dar-es-Salaam are totally unacceptable, and that his position as the accredited representative of his country cannot be accepted unless he makes an unqualified withdrawal of those remarks?

MR. BOWDEN (Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations 1966 – 1967)
Of course, everyone in the House regrets the inane remarks of this gentleman before he arrived in this country as the High Commissioner following on the signing of the Agreement, but one does not want to be vindictive and I would have hoped that an opportunity could have been given to him, and I think it has been given to him now, to retract. Unfortunately although he has himself made some statements regretting the controversy and assuring us of his friendship, some of his colleagues have not been helpful in this respect.

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