Why did the UK allow India to be a republic rather than a democratic parliament under the British Monarch?

Why did the UK allow India to be a republic rather than a democratic parliament under the British Monarch?

In the UK, there is a democratically elected prime minister but the Monarch is the Head of State, although the latter is not (directly) involved in government. Likewise, the UK could have done the same in India, establishing an Indian-run Government but with the British Monarch as its head. Why did the UK not choose this option when granting independence to India?


That's an interesting question. When India first gained independence from the United Kingdom on 15 August 1947 it was as The Dominion of India, with King George VI as king and Head of State.

India became a sovereign democratic republic when the Constitution of India came into force on 26 January 1950. This repealed the Indian Independence Act, and removed the king as head of state.

The Constitution of India was drafted by the Constituent Assembly of India, which, in turn, was elected by elected members of the provincial assemblies.

So it wasn't the UK that allowed India to be a republic, it was the elected representatives of the Indian people themselves who chose to be a democratic republic.

At the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions had agreed they were:

"… equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown".

Given that, the UK could hardly insist that any of its dominions should always remain a dominion, or complain when one chose to become a republic.


Because that's what independent means. There were only three options:

  1. keep India as a dominion, with the monarch as head of state;
  2. give India independence and forbid them from having the monarch as head of state;
  3. give India independence and let them choose whether or not the monarch is head of state.

The second is a possibility, since the monarch could simply refuse to act as head of state of the newly independent country, even if India wanted to be a constitutional monarchy. But there's no practical way that Britain could compel an independent country to adopt the monarch as their head of state, and nobody would call the country "independent" if Britain did that.


Because each dominion decided for itself when it became independent. Australia and Canada retained the queen/king as the head of state. But Ireland and South Africa elected to become republics, when they became independent (after the other two).

Compared to the others, India was the latest to become independent, and when she did so, she opted for a "republican" form of government, like the second, later pair, of countries in the previous paragraph. If Britain had managed to dictate otherwise, India's "independence" would not have been real.


History of the Maldives

The history of the Maldives is intertwined with the history of the broader Indian subcontinent and the surrounding regions, comprising the areas of South Asia and Indian Ocean and the modern nation consisting of 26 natural atolls, comprising 1194 islands. Historically, the Maldives had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives' nearest neighbours are Sri Lanka and India, both of which have had cultural and economic ties with Maldives for centuries. The Maldives provided the main source of cowrie shells, then used as a currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Most probably Maldives were influenced by Kalingas of ancient India who were earliest sea traders to Sri Lanka and Maldives from India and were responsible for the spread of Buddhism. Hence ancient Hindu culture has an indelible impact on Maldives' local culture.

After the 16th century, when colonial powers took over much of the trade in the Indian Ocean, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and the French occasionally meddled in local politics. However, this interference ended when the Maldives became a British Protectorate in the 19th century and the Maldivian monarchs were granted a good measure of self-governance.

The Maldives gained total independence from the British on 26 July 1965. [1] However, the British continued to maintain an air base on the island of Gan in the southernmost atoll until 1976. The British departure in 1976 at the height of the Cold War almost immediately triggered foreign speculation about the future of the air base. Apparently the Soviet Union made a move to request the use of the base, but the Maldives refused.

The greatest challenge facing the republic in the early 1990s was the need for rapid economic development and modernisation, given the country's limited resource base in fishing, agriculture and tourism. Concern was also evident over a projected long-term sea level rise, which would prove disastrous to the low-lying coral islands.


Key dates

1801: Kingdom of Ireland becomes part of the UK, annexed to Great Britain under the Act of Union.

1916: A group stage armed rebellion in Dublin - the Easter Rising. They proclaim an independent Irish republic, but the rising is crushed by the British government.

1919: Sinn Féin sets up a Dublin assembly, which again proclaims Irish independence.

Irish War of Independence breaks out.

1921: Anglo-Irish Treaty establishes the Irish Free State.

1949: Republic of Ireland is declared, and leaves British Commonwealth.

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The 12 Longest Reigning Monarchs in History

History is full of leaders who have had eventful reigns. But which monarchs have had the longest reigns in all of history? Here, Konstant Teleshov tells us the 12 longest reigning monarchs in all history.

King Louis XIV of France in 1673. Louis XIV was King of France for over 70 years.

In today's democratic world, it is difficult to imagine that one person remained in power for many decades. This applies particularly to countries with a republican form of government, where the head of state is elected for a specific term, about 5 years on average, by popular vote. Many readers may argue that there are still states with a monarchical form of government, both constitutional and absolute. Also, over the past 100 years, the world has seen many dictators who came to power through revolutions and military coups. The most famous of them include Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 50 years, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (42 years in power), Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein (24 years in power), and Alfredo Stroessner, who was the leader of Paraguay for 35 years. A good example of a constitutional monarch is the current Queen of the UK, Elizabeth II. She has been ruling since 1952 (for 68 years as of 2020), but this is not the longest tenure on the throne - not only in the world but even among European monarchs.

However, history knows 12 rulers, Elizabeth II aside, who ruled their country for more than 65 years. Who are they?

Important note: in this article I will not consider the monarchs whose years in power are not officially confirmed, like the Egyptian Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare, who, according to some sources, had ruled for more than 90 years. I will also not include in this list monarchs who were co-rulers like Constantine VIII, who was nominal co-emperor of Byzantine Empire for 63 years.

12. Ferdinand IV (1759 - 1825) (ruler for 65 years and 90 days)

Ferdinand IV officially became the King of Naples at the age of 8, when his father, Charles XII, went to reign in Spain. It happened in 1759. He is also known as King of the Two Sicilies as Ferdinand I (1816-1825) and King of Sicily as Ferdinand III (1759-1816).

The future ruler was not interested in ruling his state, so he received education only at the minimum level. Ferdinand IV liked to have fun and hunt indeed, in spirit he was closer to the people than to the aristocracy of that time. In foreign policy, the king became an active opponent of the French Revolution, therefore the Neapolitan Kingdom participated in anti-French coalitions. The reason for this was the king’s wife, Maria Carolina of Austria, who was extremely indignant at the execution of the royal couple by revolutionaries. She had a great influence on the activities of her spouse, who founded the silk spinning mill and the Royal Nunziatella Military Academy in Naples. After the start of the Napoleonic wars, Ferdinand IV actively fought the French Empire, but he was forced to flee the country under the threat of invasion from the French three times. Probably his greatest achievement is the founding of an astronomical observatory in Palermo in 1790.

11. Basil II Porphyrogenitus (960 - 1025) (ruler for 65 years and 237 days)

The future emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Basil II, was born in 958 in the city of Constantinople. Two years later, he was crowned as co-emperor of state, which was inherited by his father Roman II. Over the next 13 years, many uprisings and internecine wars took place, before in 976 Basil II began to rule alone.

First of all, he introduced a new tax for large landowners. In addition to the fact that this was a new source of income for the state treasury, the emperor also strengthened imperial power. In foreign policy, Basil II was much more active than his father, annexing many new territories to his big state. The wars with the First Bulgarian Empire were marked by unprecedented cruelty even for that time. For example, after the capture of 15,000 Bulgarians, the emperor ordered them to have their eyes taken out and then to be sent home alive. Because of this decision, he got the nickname "the Bulgar Slayer". Basil II also concluded a profitable military-political alliance with Venice, which supplied its ships for the rapid movement of Byzantine troops.

In general, the reign of Basil II became an era of stability and power of the Byzantine Empire. He proved himself to be a tough and wise ruler, strengthening his state both from an economic and political point of view.

10. Franz Joseph I (1848 - 1916) (ruler for 67 years and 355 days)

The man, who became a real symbol of conservatism, was born on August 18, 1830. Franz Joseph I, who used to get up early in the morning from childhood, taught the inhabitants of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was inhabited by Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Austrians and other nations, about his daily routine. He ascended the throne on December 2, 1848. This year went down in history as the "spring of nations". Young Franz realized that a cruel policy towards his own people could be the cause of the revolution, so he tried not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. Many historians call him the last ruler of the “old order,” who managed to unite several nations and preserve an empire that collapsed two years after his death.

Firstly, Franz Joseph I compromised the demands of the Hungarian people and made Austria-Hungary a dualistic monarchy. Secondly, he managed to reach a peace agreement with Prussia and Russia. So, Prussia became the center of the unification of the German lands in a single empire, and Russia helped Austria-Hungary to wage wars with the Ottoman Empire, because both states had their own interests in the Balkans. Thirdly, and unusually for a European leader at the time, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary had no disagreement with the Pope.

He was also known for his conservatism, simplicity of life, etiquette, and traditions. He called himself "the last monarch of the old school". After his brother was shot in Mexico, the emperor did not receive Mexican ambassadors for the rest of his life. He never got a phone in the palace and had a hard time agreeing to electricity. Franz Josef survived 4 heirs to the throne, so after his death, 29-year-old Charles I of Austria ascended to the throne.

9. Pacal the Great (615 - 683) (ruler for 68 years and 33 days)

Hanaab Pacal is the most famous of all the kings in the history of the classical Maya. His reign is an excellent example of how deeply an outstanding person can leave a mark on history. In the history of the Baakul Kingdom, Pacal I the Great occupies a central place. His descendants constantly used the legacy of the glorious ancestor and the fact of their descent from him to strengthen their own legitimacy. In our time, Pacal I and his tomb in the "Temple of the Inscriptions" have become one of the symbols of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization.

It has been established that Hanaab Pacal was born in March 603, and spent his childhood in Lakam-Ha (Palenque). However, he belonged to the previous dynasty of the rulers of this city only through his mother. Pacal ascended the throne at the age of 12, but really began to rule after the death of his mother in 640 and his father in 642. The stabilization of the economic and political situation of Palenque allowed the new ruler to begin a large-scale construction program in the capital of the Baakul Kingdom. During this time, improvements in construction techniques took place, which made it possible to expand the size of the space covered with a stone roof and create a local architectural style distinguished by elegance and harmony. It is important to note that Hanaab had impeccable artistic taste. In posthumous inscriptions he is called "the owner of the five pyramids".

Pacal the Great is also known for his successful military campaigns, in which he was opposed by the alliance of states located on the east of Palenque: K'ina (Piedras Negras), Pipa (Pomona or El Arenal), Vak'aab (Santa Elena Balancan), Ho -Pet (on the middle Usumasint), and the Kanul Kingdom. Hanaab managed to win several important victories, expanding the territory and increasing the influence of the Baakul Kingdom in the region.

8. Frederick III (1424 - 1493) (ruler for 69 years)

The future last emperor of medieval Europe was born on September 21, 1415, in Tyrol. Frederick III received the title of Duke of Styria when he was only 9 years old. He became king of Germany and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation over the next 18 years. Frederick III became the last emperor who was crowned in Rome.

During this reign, there was the beginning of an active invasion of Austrian lands by the Ottoman Empire and its vassals. The first clashes occurred in 1469. In the western direction Frederick III acted ineffectively. The Swiss Confederation forced him to recognize the independence of the Swiss cantons, but the French power became the main enemy of the Habsburg dynasty for many centuries to come.

On the whole, the personality of Frederick III is rather contradictory. On the one hand, he failed to strengthen imperial power. Major feudal lords strengthened their influence in the state. Austria under Frederick III did not become the center of a future empire it would happen with his son Maximilian I. The financial system was in a protracted crisis. Territorial concessions were also made in favor of Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. On the other hand, the emperor was able to lay the foundations for the future prosperity of the house of the Hapsburgs. His son Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy. This marriage determined the fate of Europe for several centuries.

7. Johann II the Good (1858 - 1929) (ruler for 70 years and 91 days)

How to keep a tiny state in the heart of Europe? How to make it the scientific and cultural center of the continent? Johann II, who ruled Liechtenstein for 70 years, knew the answers to these questions.

He was born on October 5, 1840. The young man received an excellent education in Belgium, France, and Germany. He ascended to the throne on November 11, 1858, and remained on it until his death. He carried out a number of significant reforms that changed the state for the better. Firstly, Liechtenstein became independent in 1866. Secondly, Johann II ordered the dissolution of the army, consisting of 80 people, and declared his principality a neutral state following the example of Switzerland. Thirdly, a Parliament and State Bank were formed. The adoption of a new constitution in 1921 marked the beginning of close cooperation between Liechtenstein and Switzerland against the backdrop of global political changes in Europe after the First World War.

Johann II also actively invested in science, art, reconstructed medieval castles, and donated money to charity. In particular, he helped the Historical Museum of Vienna (it is the "Vienna Museum" now) in the creation of an art gallery. The prince was quite a closed man, so he never married. As a result, he did not leave heirs, and after his death, power passed to the brother of Johann II, Franz.

6. Bhumibol Adulyadej (1946 - 2016) (ruler for 70 years and 126 days)

Bhumibol Adulyadej is known as the monarch under whom Thailand went from an undeveloped state to a popular and well-known country. His reign spans an era during which the world has changed beyond recognition.

The future king was born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the family of His Royal Majesty Prince Mahidon Adunyadet and Mom Sangwal. The young man received secondary and higher education in Switzerland, where he lived until the end of World War II. His older brother Ananda Mahidol also studied in Switzerland and held the title of King of Thailand. The king was found shot to death in his own bedroom in the palace on June 9, 1946. 18-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended the throne, but he was officially crowned on May 5, 1950, under the name Rama IX. The people of Thailand treated the new king as a symbol of the nation, and not as a real monarch. This was due to the fact that the royal family had lived abroad for a long time. Despite this, Rama IX repeatedly made important political decisions, and also enjoyed the right of veto. He was instrumental in the democratization of Thailand in the 1990s. For example, the king forced the resignation of Prime Minister General Suchind Krapayun, who brutally cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. The king was engaged in the development of agriculture, and this contributed to the emergence of Thailand as a major rice exporter. He used some of his money to fund more than 3,000 development projects, especially in rural parts of the country. The standard of living of some rural residents has improved significantly. Bhumibol also initiated the creation of a special squadron of aircraft. Under Rama IX, dairy farming was established in Thailand, and Thai schoolchildren in the 1960s were provided with milk as a source of calcium. The poverty rate of the population fell from 67% to 11%. The king did much to improve the living standards of the people in the border provinces of the country: during the development of these areas, hundreds of schools and hospitals were built in the mountain villages. At the initiative of the monarch, the Thai government negotiated peace and amnesty with communist insurgents from partisan groups operating in the central and northeastern regions of the country in the late 1970s. Parallel to this, Thailand hosted an American base for Southeast Asia.

Bhumibol Adulyadej held a patent for the creation of artificial clouds. He developed projects for bridges and dams, played the saxophone professionally, was fond of photography, painting and sailing, and designed racing yachts. In youth, he was also fond of music: Rama IX wrote compositions himself. He achieved the greatest success in jazz music. One of his compositions became the first number of the program in one of the musical productions on Broadway in the early 1950s. Bhumibol was also fluent in three European languages - English, German and French

5. Louis XIV (1643 - 1715) (ruler for 72 years and 110 days)

King Louis XIV’s reign in France stretched for over 72 years. This was the real heyday of the French state in all areas: economic, military and cultural. The “Sun King” was born on September 5, 1638. He was a welcome child and heir to the French throne. Louis XIV became a king after the death of his father, Louis XIII, at 5 years old. Until 1661, the country was ruled by Cardinal Mazarin, while the young king grew up and received an education. He promised himself that he would not allow any restrictions on the power of the king, because he did not like the events of the Fronde. From that moment, Louis XIV became associated with absolute monarchy. He owns the famous phrase: "The state is me”.

The French king pursued clever and prudent policy. France conducted a large number of military campaigns, most of which ended successfully. Louis XIV actively strengthened his power. He carried out a military reform (the introduction of a special tax to create an army) and persecuted the Huguenots (through the abolition of the Nantes decree). The Sun King knew how to appoint talented people to important government posts, but in the second half of his reign, royal favorites began to take their places. During his reign, science, architecture and painting developed actively. Versailles became a symbol of absolutism and the rich life of the aristocracy of that time. France became a great power in Europe.

However, the state was weakened due to the high costs of the army and the cost of the aristocracy by the end of the Sun King's reign. Louis XIV left his descendants a country that needed changes.

4. Afonso I the Great (1112 - 1185) (ruler for 73 years)

Afonso I the Great is considered the founding father of Portugal. He was born on June 25, 1195 in Coimbra, after which he moved to Guimaraes. In this town he spent his childhood. Portugal at that time was not an independent state. It was a province that was dependent on Castile and Leon. Afonso was driven out of the country by his mother at age 11. Her name was Teresa Leonskaya, and she ruled the county after the death of Heinrich of Burgundy in 1112. When Afonso was 14 years old, he gathered an army and invaded the territory of the county of Portugal. In the battle of Guimaraes, the young man defeated his mother’s army. She was sent to the monastery. After that, the young earl began to rule the region. On July 26, 1139, Portugal became a kingdom, and Afonso I became its first ruler. The Portuguese felt like a nation thanks to the king. He also had 12 children, some of whom died in childhood.

3. Bhagwat Singh (1869 - 1944) (ruler for 74 years and 87 days)

The future Indian ruler prince was born on October 24, 1865. He ascended the throne of the principality of Gondal, when he was only 4 years old. It was one of many states in India. The country was ruled by the British Empire, but Bhagwat Singh ruled the state. He received a good education from Rajkumar College, which was located in Rajkot. After that, the Indian prince went to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Bhagwat Singh studied there from 1892 to 1895. He was attracted by the ideas of enlightened absolutism, and pursued such an approach in his principality.

During his reign, the rapid development of infrastructure began, free education became available, and telegraph lines and high-quality railways appeared. The merits of the long-lived prince were noted at the highest level: the British monarch awarded him the title of Knight of the British Empire.

2. Bernard VII (1429 - 1511) (ruler for 81 years and 234 days)

For many centuries, the German people did not have a single state. Indeed, for a long time (962 - 1806) the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation existed. This empire included many dukedoms, counties, and other small states. One of these states was Lippe-Detmold. Its ruler, Bernard VII, lived a long and eventful life. He was born on December 4, 1428. When he was one-year-old, his father died, and he was proclaimed leader on August 11, 1929, the Lord of Lippe. Until 1433, his uncle Otto was the regent. After his death, the education of the future ruler was taken over by his great-uncle Didrich von Moers, who was the apostolic administrator of the Paderborn principality-bishopric. Bernard VII officially began to rule in 1446. He is considered the longest-serving monarch in European history.

During his time in power, the state significantly strengthened its economy and prestige in the eyes of other German powers. Bernard VII got the name "the Bellicose" because of his passion for military affairs. He died on April 2, 1511, after living for 83 years. This is an incredible age for the Middle Ages. Former Queen of the Netherlands Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgard is a direct descendant of Bernard VII.

1. Sobhuza II (1899 - 1982) (ruler for 83 years)

I am glad to present you the official winner of our ranking- Sobhuza II. I think the expression "Born and died on the throne" is perfect for this person. Throughout most of his life, Sobhuza II bore the title of Supreme Leader of Swaziland. He became King of Swaziland only on September 2, 1968, after which he reigned for 14 years until August 21, 1982.

The future king was born on June 22, 1899. After 4 months, he became the Supreme leader of Swaziland after the death of his father, Ngwane V. As the boy grew, power was in the hands of his relatives. The young man successfully received a secondary and higher education at the National Swazi School and the Lavdale Institute, which is located in the Eastern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. The coronation of Sobhuza II took place in 1921. So, his reign in power lasted for 61 years, also a world record. During this historical period, many events occurred, of which the Second World War and post-war decolonization should be singled out. The British Empire granted independence to Swaziland in 1968. This was a real success of the foreign policy of Sobhuza II. He became the 7th king of Swaziland that year too. In domestic policy, the king devoted much time to solving the problems of land surveying. Thanks to this, the country had significant income from natural resource extraction.

King Sobhuza II also led an active personal life. In different sources, historians indicate that he had from 60 to 80 wives.

Which long-reigning leader most fascinates you? Let us know below.


Britain is responsible for deaths of 35 million Indians, says acclaimed author Shashi Tharoor

Britain was responsible for the deaths of 35 million Indians, according to Shashi Tharoor.

The Congress MP made the claim in an article for Al Jazeera and also called on the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata to be turned into a museum about British rule.

Mr Tharoor is also an author, and penned the book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India and had previously called on Britain to pay reparations to its former colonies.

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“It is time that it be converted to serve as a reminder of what was done to India by the British, who conquered one of the richest countries in the world (27 per cent of global gross domestic product in 1700) and reduced it to, after over two centuries of looting and exploitation, one of the poorest, most diseased and most illiterate countries on Earth by the time they left in 1947,” he wrote in an Al Jazeera column.

“…Nor is there any memorial to the massacres of the Raj, from Delhi in 1857 to Amritsar in 1919, the deaths of 35 million Indians in totally unnecessary famines caused by British policy,” he added.

Britain ruled India from 1858 until 1947 and several of Mr Tharoor’s articles and speeches discussing the era have gone viral and triggered mass support in India.


Author's Response

I am extremely happy with the review by Leslie Price. He seems to agree with many of my observations and to approve of my attempt at integrating the story of the Dutch slave trade into the wider framework of the Atlantic slave trade and of the early modern Atlantic in general. Right away, I would like to admit to a mistake regarding the demographic effects of the Thirty Years War. Price pointed out that the population of Central Europe could not have been reduced to only one third of its pre-1618 size. Mea culpa. I misread a sentence in an article saying that this war reduced the population of Central Europe by (and not to) one third in general, albeit that in some areas the loss was certainly more than 50 per cent. However, this mistake leaves my argument that a reduction in the population density did not bring slavery back to Europe unaffected. Even when the decline in population was about a third, certain areas quickly needed substantial numbers of mobile, landless labourers in order to make them economically viable again. In spite of this, the ruling elite in Germany never considered forcing people into slavery after 1648, even when they possessed the physical means to do so. Similarly, the dramatic demographic decline of the American Indians resulted in severe labour shortages in the tropical colonies in the New World, but not in the subsequent re-institution of slavery in the various European mother countries, in spite of the fact that only slavery could have produced the number of European emigrants needed to develop the labour-intensive plantations. Indeed, some European powers exiled their political and religious minorities, as well as prisoners, to their colonies and forced them to work as field hands but only slavery would have made it possible to send a regular and sufficient number of labourers across the Atlantic. Only hereditary slavery would result in a permanent servile labour force as the children of slaves could also be employed as slaves, while the sons and daughters of exiled minorities and prisoners could not (1 ).

A more important issue raised by the reviewer pertains to the question as to whether racism was the basis of the Dutch participation in the slave trade, or whether it came into existence later. In my book I point out that the Europeans were racists long before they became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In southern Europe, the Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved their Moslem enemies and also purchased black slaves from Africa, but they did not enslave their domestic opponents, such as the Jewish minority, or their European enemies, such as the Dutch and the English. Later, the Dutch, French, and English used the same double standards as the Iberians. Leslie Price, on the other hand, feels that the decision of the Dutch to participate in the Atlantic slave trade was not based on any pre-existing racism. He posits that the Dutch developed racism because they started trading in slaves, and suggests that the Dutch remained free of racism at home and strictly limited their racism to the overseas world. There is much to be said for the latter view. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese, the Dutch had no African or Arab slaves at home, and unlike the British, the Dutch did not even tolerate temporary slavery to exist in their republic in order to allow planters from the West Indies to come back to the Netherlands accompanied by their personal slaves. In the Netherlands, no Somerset case was needed to establish that slaves were free once they had set foot on Dutch soil (albeit that in actual practice very few slaves left their masters during their temporary stay in the Netherlands). Another argument in favour of the assumption that the Dutch knew no racism at home is the fact that during the sixteenth century, Dutch travellers and sailors, when confronted with slavery in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, were appalled by it. In fact, the Dutch West India Company instituted a special committee to look at the moral implications of the slave trade once the Company was faced with the choice of participating in that trade. And last, but not least, the Dutch seemed to have been more tolerant at home than most other countries in Europe, and accommodated, rather than excluded, outsiders. That explains why the Dutch never forced their religious minorities into exile. In France, on the other hand, Huguenots and criminals were sent overseas to perform forced labour in the West Indies for lengthy periods of time, while others were condemned to long years of forced labour at the galleys in conditions much akin to slavery. The English also sent their royalist and Irish prisoners of war to their West Indian colonies as forced labourers. Of course, the Huguenots, the Irish, and the royalists were not enslaved, but even such temporary recourse to forced labour was unknown in the Netherlands. In sum, there is much to be said for Leslie Price's idea that there was a two-tiered moral consciousness among the Dutch: one set of non-racist values for use at home, and another, racist one, solely for use in the world overseas.

However, there are also arguments that support my case. First of all, it would be a serious mistake to assume that before the end of the eighteenth century modern ideas about the equality of the human race had taken root in the Netherlands. The much-famed tolerance in the Netherlands was not based on modern principles, but on practical considerations enabling a population that was, and remained, deeply divided on religious matters to live together. Religious minorities such as the Catholics and Jews were discriminated against and barred from public office. That the Dutch did not resort to condemning criminals and prisoners of war to perform forced labour, as happened elsewhere, might not have been based on some uniquely tolerant and anti-racist attitude, but on the simple fact that the labour market in the Netherlands was far more supply-driven than elsewhere, as a constant influx of labour migrants from the neighbouring countries provided the labour required to perform the many dirty and dangerous jobs that needed to be done in the Dutch economy at the time. Perhaps we should conclude that the Dutch were racists just like everybody else at the time, but that they had less need than other nations to show it at home (2 ).

Another point the reviewer made concerns the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves. He rightly labelled these actions as a jump into the dark that only countries such as Britain, with a dynamic economy, seemed to be able to afford. In fact, that is what I point out in my book. The question is, however, whether having a declining economy during the first half of the nineteenth century, as the Dutch did, constituted sufficient reason to keep quiet about the inhumanity of the slave trade and slavery. Are my moral standards in this case too high, as Price seems to feel, and should I have refrained from blaming the Dutch for being so reluctant even to talk about abolishing the slave trade and slavery? There is no doubt that the British government at the time had many more financial resources at its disposal than its Dutch counterpart, and that this fact weighed heavily as slave emancipation, and concomitant compensation for the slave owners, was a costly affair. However, I would like to point out that during the first half of the nineteenth century the Dutch seemed to have had sufficient funds to wage an expensive colonial war in Java as well as a prolonged military campaign against the secession of Belgium, and that only decades later the Dutch political elite made sufficient public money available to end colonial slavery and pay compensation to the slave owners. In addition, it has always been argued that the smaller countries of Europe, such as the Netherlands, were more democratic, more progressive, and more innovative than the larger countries where the established interests of the court, church, and nobility were usually much more opposed to change. The Dutch are rightly proud of their early modernity based on a long republican tradition, the absence of nobility, a virtually uncensored publishing industry, the wide circulation of newspapers, a comparatively generous welfare system, and religious pluriformity. In my book I simply noticed that this rose-coloured picture is badly marred by the fact that all these supposed advantages had no practical effect when it came to abolishing the slave trade and slavery, and that the Dutch did not even manage to organize a sizeable abolition movement. If that is not a moral shortcoming, what is? (3 )

As was to be expected, Leslie Price's main criticism is aimed at my last chapter, in which I discuss the hotly-debated heritage of the Dutch participation in the slave trade and of colonial slavery. I agree with most of what he writes. Price is absolutely right in pointing out that the present generation cannot be held responsible for what previous generations have done. Why then, he asks, do I bother to add a separate chapter arguing that Dutch feelings of guilt about their country's involvement in the slave trade, and the acceptance of slavery, are an a-historical projection of present-day moral attitudes into the past. Such projections frequently occur in public debates in the Netherlands, and that is why I felt the need to address these issues. These a-historical interpretations usually come into play when the German occupation of the Netherlands during the years 1940–1945 is discussed, or the slave trade, slavery, and the conquest and the decolonization of the Dutch East Indies. Are there no similarly sensitive areas in the history of Great Britain? Is the general public there really more interested in a purely scholarly approach? When that is the case, our reviewer, and other historians in the UK, should count their blessings. That professional historians attempt to write history without shame, pride, and other moral emotions is unfortunately not always accepted in the public debate on the Continent, and professional historians have to react to this, whether they like it or not. In Germany, for instance, the history of the national-socialist regime (1933–1945) stubbornly refuses to become a purely scholarly topic, in spite of the fact that the present generation Germans and Austrians were born after its demise. In France, matters seem even worse, as the French Parliament passed in quick succession three laws making it possible to prosecute anyone who does not consider the holocaust, the persecution of the Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I, and the Atlantic slave trade as crimes against humanity. After a right-wing majority had replaced a left-wing one, a fourth law was passed, suggesting that in the public education system of the country more attention should be paid to the positive side of French colonialism. No wonder that a committee of French professional historians is asking their Parliament to refrain from prescribing the way in which history should be interpreted. The committee was set up after a young French historian, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, had published an award-winning study comparing the Atlantic, internal African, and Arab slave trades, and was subsequently accused of being racist and charged at a Paris court with denying the uniqueness of the Atlantic slave trade as stipulated in French law (4 ). In the Netherlands, professional historians of the slave trade and of slavery are also faced with the vicissitudes of a stereotyped public debate, but the case of France shows that it could be a lot worse.


Republican Membership

At the same time, the struggle for self-government in India (then also including Bangladesh and Pakistan) was growing. India and Pakistan achieved independence – as dominions and members of the Commonwealth – in 1947, and Sri Lanka followed in 1948.

These events marked a change in direction for the Commonwealth, as these were the first countries where the pressure for independence came from the indigenous populations rather than communities descended mainly from British settlers. This laid the groundwork for the evolution of a multiracial Commonwealth.

Then the Commonwealth faced a constitutional crisis. It was assumed that the association’s principal bond would be that all members would have the monarch of the United Kingdom as head of state. India’s constituent assembly decided to adopt a republican form of government, yet wished to remain within the Commonwealth. At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting of 1949, it was agreed that India might remain a member as a republic but accepting the monarch ‘as the symbol of the free association of independent member nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth’.

This development opened the way for other countries which adopted republican constitutions (or had a national monarch) to become Commonwealth members. At the start of 2006, 37 of the 53 members did not have Queen Elizabeth II as titular head of state, but all accepted her as Head of the Commonwealth.

The Queen is also head of state in 16 Commonwealth countries, all of them fully independent. She is head of each of these states individually. Excluding the UK, the countries of which the Queen is sovereign are now formally known as realms (though the term is, in practice, virtually obsolete) and the Queen is represented by a governor-general who carries out the formal offices of head of state.


The British Anti-Apartheid Movement

The reaction of the outside world to the development of apartheid was widespread, and by the 1980s posed a sustained challenge to the South African regime, which, facing myriad internal and external threats, eventually capitulated to make way for a new, democratic dispensation.

While countries throughout the world took various measures to weaken and topple apartheid, it was the anti-apartheid movements in the United Kingdom (UK), Holland and the United States of America (USA) that mounted the most serious of these challenges to the apartheid state, the UK’s perhaps being the most effective of all such organisations throughout the world.

By the late 1980s the UK’s Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had unleashed a wide range of campaigns and established branches throughout the country. From small beginnings, the AAM developed a campaign that became one of the most powerful international solidarity movements in history, a model that has subsequently been used to weaken or displace many other dictatorial regimes.

A poster produced in 1971 by the British Anti Apartheid Movement protesting British Arms to South Africa, Source: African Activist Archive

The AAM developed links with political parties and other powerful forces to put in place and reinforce effective measures to destabilise every aspect of apartheid structure, mounting economic, cultural, trade and sports boycotts which resulted in sanctions campaigns supported by governments throughout the world.

By its nature, the AAM was a co-ordinating machine – unable itself to achieve its goals, it persuaded individuals, organisations, political structures and governments to take whatever actions would be necessary to achieve the isolation and weakening of the apartheid state. It’s function was to make powerful actors – such as governments, political parties, trade unions and union federations or the United Nations, but also masses of individuals acting in concert – take significant decisions that had material and, often, historic effects.

The success of the AAM was to slowly, over three decades, bring awareness of the issues to the British public, and to pressure the British and other governments to eventually throttle the apartheid machine by stopping trade, cutting off oil supplies and access to arms, and isolating white South Africa to the point that it was forced to dismantle its oppressive regime.

With nothing more than three, four or five paid staff working out of tiny offices, but hundreds of volunteers and a range of contacts from the highest echelons of power to the everyday citizen, the AAM went a considerable way towards bringing down one of the most repugnant systems in the 20th century.

Britain took over the Cape in 1795 and, after relinquishing control, recolonised the territory during its war with France in the early 19th century. British capital controlled the diamond and gold mines discovered in the late 19th century.

After vanquishing the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 (now referred to as the South African War), Britain granted dominion status to the Union of South Africa in 1910.

By the late 1950s, Britain was one of South Africa’s most significant trading partners, with more than 30 percent of South Africa’s imports coming from the UK, and 28 percent of South Africa’s exports going to Britain. Besides the economic relationship, Britain enjoyed close relations with its former colony, and between 1946 and 1959, 113,000 Britons had settled in South Africa.

However, other aspects of British culture eventually worked against white domination. Since the 19th century, London became home to exiles from every part of the world, notably to Karl Marx, who wrote his most famous and influential tome, Das Kapital, in the British Library. Similarly, South Africans fleeing from apartheid in the early 1950s settled in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital of the British Empire, and set up structures that took on a life of their own. Vella Pillay, Tennyson Makiwane, Abdul Minty, Yusuf Dadoo, Kader Asmal, Oliver Tambo and later Thabo Mbeki and the Pahad brothers (Aziz and Essop), among many others, all settled in England for periods and used it as a base from which to conduct the struggle against apartheid.

It was Vella Pilay and Tennyson Makiwane who first established the germ of the Anti-Apartheid Movement on British soil. They began holding meetings in the 1950s and planned the first boycotts of South African products, which eventually culminated in the highly influential AAM.

Beginnings: Boycotts in the Fifties

On 26 June 1959, the Committee of African Organisations (CAO) held a meeting at Holbourne Hall in London, calling for the British public to boycott South African products, especially fruit, which was widely available in towns and cities throughout the UK. Julius Nyerere, then leader of the Tanganyikan African National Union (later to become president of Tanzania) and Kanyama Chiume of the Nyasaland African National Congress were the main speakers, and the Congress Movement’s Tennyson Makiwane African National Congress (ANC) and Vella Pillay South African Indian Congress (SAIC) added their voices to the appeal.

In November 1959 a Boycott Committee was formed, and the CAO’s Dennis Phombeah was made chairman of the body. Other organisations played an important role in the committee, including the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Christian Action, and the Universities and New Left Review. Patrick van Rensburg of the South African Liberal Party also took on a significant role, and he asked Chief Albert Luthuli to issue a statement calling for an international boycott, which Luthuli did in a press release dated 21 December 1959. The AAM came to regard Luthuli’s statement as its founding document.

According to Kader Asmal: ‘If any event galvanised the Boycott Movement into action it was Chief Albert Luthuli’s plea for sanctions”¦’ Luthuli’s statement read: ‘I appeal to all governments throughout the world, to people everywhere, to all organisations and institutions in every land and at every level to act now to impose such sanctions on South Africa that will bring about the vital necessary change and avert what can become the greatest African tragedy of our time.’

Demonstration at Trafalgar Square organized by the Anti Apartheid Movement. Source: Museum of London and Henry Grant.

The Boycott Committee set about organising for a month of boycott action in the New Year, and support came from a wide range of sources, including student bodies, unions, various newspapers, writers and artists and the Liberal and Labour parties. British public opinion was overwhelmingly against apartheid, especially in such communities as those from the Caribbean, and the committee tried to tap into this sentiment to win support. However, in some quarters the idea of a boycott was anathema – except for a few church leaders, most churches failed to heed the call. Most members of the Conservative Party also refused to support the call. Indeed, when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan made his famous ‘Winds of Change’ speech in the South African Parliament in February 1960, he condemned the boycott.

Other organisations were more forthcoming, and in December 1959 the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, the vast union federation, officially backed the call for a boycott.

The boycott month, set for March 1960, began with a march to Trafalgar Square, where the South African High Commission was based, on 28 February 1960. As many as 15,000 held a rally at Trafalgar Square after the march, and speakers included Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe, and Tennyson Makiwane, with Father Trevor Huddleston in the chair. The event received favourable coverage in the press, and a Gallup poll found that 27 percent of those polled supported the boycott.

The Sixties - Sharpeville and After

When police fired upon anti-pass protesters in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960, there was widespread international condemnation of the apartheid regime. British newspapers splashed the massacre on their front pages, and for almost a week hundreds of people demonstrated outside the SA High Commission in Trafalgar Square. While the call for boycotts had been a huge success, the massacre reinforced the British public’s abhorrence of apartheid.

The subsequent banning of the liberation organisations had the effect of sending many ANC and PAC members into exile, and increased the ranks of the organisations’ offices abroad, especially in London. Some have argued that Sharpeville precipitated the formation of the AAM, but the Boycott Committee had already in mid-March made the decision to internationalise the boycott. When the ANC, now underground, called on the United Nations to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, the resolve of the Boycott Committee to expand the campaign was strengthened, and the movement took on its new name, the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

At the Boycott Committee’s meeting of 20 April 1960, the minutes reflected the name change. Yusuf Dadoo, a leader of the SACP and SAIC who had recently arrived in London, suggested that the AAM call on the UN to impose economic sanctions, and that the AAM call on the union movement and African states not to handle oil headed for South Africa.

The transformation of the Boycott Committee into the AAM saw the movement shift its tactics: the call for economic sanctions became a call for regime change, set within a discourse of national liberation, rather than a moral plea to help nudge the apartheid government to reform. However, the call also became a threat to the financial interests of sectors of the British economy, and put the AAM on a path of conflict with powerful corporate blocs and conservative politicians.

Anti Apartheid Movement Activities in the Sixties

With South Africa set to become a republic in May 1961, the AAM called for the country to be expelled from the Commonwealth. When newly independent African states joined in the call to expel the country, South Africa was forced to withdraw from the body. Barbara Castle, the chair of the AAM’s London committee, organised a 72-hour vigil to publicise the issue.

The AAM organised a ‘Penny Pledge’ campaign, appealing to British people to donate a penny to the movement and sign a pledge to boycott South African products. The boycott campaign was supported by the Labour Party, but the party stopped short of calling for economic sanctions. Labour’s support would take on an erratic pattern in the following years: when Oliver Tambo had difficulty in entering Britain, the party intervened but it did not support the AAM when it organised a speaking tour for Tambo.

The AAM organised the International Conference on Economic Sanctions Against South Africa, held in April 1964, which saw delegates from 40 countries in attendance. At the meeting, Abdul Minty and Vella Pillay met with ES Reddy, the secretary of the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid, and forged a relationship that would continue until the fall of apartheid.

Following the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial, in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, the UN Security Council set up a panel of experts to look at ways to oppose apartheid. The AAM set up the World Campaign for the Release of South African Political Prisoners, and launched a worldwide petition, which was signed by 194,000 people. The AAM organised a letter campaign, calling on people and organisations to bombard the South African government with letters demanding the release of the Rivonia Trialists.

When the accused were sentenced on 11 June 1964, 50 MPs marched to South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. On 18 June, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 191, calling on South Africa to release all political prisoners.

The AAM was instrumental in getting various councils to oppose sport and cultural contacts with South Africans. It worked with the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) to get South Africa excluded from the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964.

SANROC button calling for the rejection of Apartheid in sport. Source: African Activist Archive

The AAM continually updated its list of South African products, and kept the issue in the public eye, especially through its newspaper, the bi-monthly Anti-Apartheid Bulletin. The movement explored ways to further the boycott, and expanded its activities to include sport and cultural boycotts. Having opposed the Springbok Rugby tour of 1960, the AAM organised demonstrations at every match of the Springbok cricket team in 1965. On the advice of the Labour government, the Queen did not attend one such match at Lords.

Love of Labour Lost

When the Labour Party won the election in 1964, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced in Parliament on 17 November that his government would stop all arms sales to South Africa.

Nonetheless, Labour failed to halt already agreed contracts, and continued to supply naval spares to the South African navy. Labour was reluctant to support the AAM in all its campaigns, especially if these threatened the economic interests of the country. It failed to heed the report of the UN Security Council’s panel of experts on sanctions, who argued that sanctions were feasible. Instead, Labour ministers considered the Vorster regime as more pragmatic than that of Verwoerd, and argued that Britain could exert a positive influence on Vorster.

Faced with disappointment, the AAM reviewed its policies and strategies, and decided to broaden these and make them more effective.

When Rhodesia’s Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain on 11 November 1965, a series of effects followed. With Rhodesia forming a bloc with South Africa, the AAM began to campaign against South Africa’s neighbour and ally, stretching the resources and capacity of the movement. The AAM also began to work more closely with the liberation movements of Namibia (then South West Africa) and Mozambique.

Faced with a crisis in its international relations, the Labour government considered taking on Pretoria as an ally, and dangled as a carrot the possibility of lifting the arms embargo. The AAM was devastated by this development, and Abdul Minty wrote to the Labour government expressing the AAM’s view. Eventually, Harold Wilson prevailed over his rivals and left the embargo in place, but the incident shook the AAM’s relation to the Labour Party.

By the late 1960s, the AAM had lost ground as other issues took centre stage in British public opinion. Abdul Minty concluded that ‘once apartheid and racialism were great moral issues, now it is seen in the economic light’.

Abdul Minty one leading figures in the Anti Apartheid Movement speaking at a session of the World Conference on Sanctions Against South Africa. Photographer: Michel Claude, Source: United Nations.

When the Labour government agreed to joint naval exercises with the South African Navy, the AAM asked Barbara Castle and David Ennals, both Labour ministers and former AAM presidents, to resign from either the AAM or the Labour Party. The episode triggered rifts within the AAM over strategy and tactics, and the movement resolved to develop bases among students, trade unions and antiracist organisations, and to attenuate its emphasis on parliamentary lobbying.

The AAM also reviewed its sanctions campaign, and instead of relying on governments, decided to expose individual companies doing business with South Africa.

The AAM began to express support for armed struggle when the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and militants from Zimbabwe’s ZANU embarked on the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in July 1967. But it had to be careful not to alienate less radical sectors of the British public.

Other campaigns continued, and in 1967 the AAM tried to stop the British Lions from touring South Africa. The D’Oliveira incident in 1968 – when the South African government refused to allow the British cricketing tour because it was captained by Basil D’Oliveira, a ‘Coloured’ South African – highlighted the reasons why the public should heed the AAM’s various boycott campaigns. In 1969 various sports fixtures were disrupted by the Young Liberals in league with SANROC.

The Seventies

In the early Seventies, the ANC was at its lowest point, but the AAM began the decade with its most successful campaign ever, ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’. When the Labour Party came to power in 1974, the AAM found that despite promises and expectations, the party was unable to throw its weight behind the movement. The AAM then went on a drive to cultivate a mass base among students, unions and churches.

The AAM had also at its 1967 annual conference decided on measures that would make the sanctions campaign more practical: it began to focus on disinvestment, putting pressure on specific companies to pull out of South Africa. The Seventies saw this aspect of AAM activity take off.

With more and more political trials underway in South Africa, the AAM worked with the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) and in 1973 set up Southern Africa the Imprisoned Society (SATIS) to draw attention to the plight of political detainees.

When the Black Consciousness leaders were arrested and banned in 1974, the AAM mounted campaigns in support of the South African Student Organisation (SASO).

Stopping the Springboks

With the Springboks due to play a series of 23 games throughout Britain, the AAM’s Hugh Geach and SANROC’s Dennis Brutus established the ‘Stop the Seventy Tour Committee’ (STST), with Peter Hain as the committee’s spokesperson.

Under the umbrella of the AAM and the STST, scores of organisations in each region arranged mass protests in concert with direct action tactics (such as pitch invasions) over the three months of the tour (from 30 October 1969 to 2 February 1970).

Dennis Brutus played a leading role in SANROC and worked closely in AAM in protests against Apartheid in sport. Source: The Telegraph.

The protests were massively successful, with thousands turning out at the games to protest while the STST used direct action tactics to disrupt whichever games they could. A planned cricket tour soon after drew an even more intense series of protests. Virtually every sector of British society was involved, from the Labour and Liberal parties to the Afro-Caribbean communities, the churches, unions, students and the British aristocracy. African countries threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Games to be held in Edinburgh in July 1970 and the government, facing an election, ordered the Cricket Council to call off the tour.

The tours and protests received huge coverage in the British press, and the issue of apartheid was condemned from every quarter.

The Conservative Party won the elections and announced that it would end the embargo and resume sales of military equipment to South Africa. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) urged Prime Minister Ted Heath not to break the UN Security Council resolution by selling arms to South Africa. The AAM organised a rally at Trafalgar Square which was attended by 10,000 people, and a declaration in favour of the embargo was signed by 100,000 people. Abdul Minty flew to Singapore to present the declaration to the Commonwealth heads of state conference. The Conservative government sold only a few helicopters to South Africa, although it never officially reversed its position.

Constructive Engagement vs Disinvestment

In the early 1970s, proponents of a less radical approach to dismantling apartheid began to gain ground when arguments were made for ‘constructive engagement’, which proposed that aid and trade would more effectively dissolve apartheid and that economic growth would bring a share of the cake to all. Instead of disinvestment, these critics proposed that British firms be called upon to raise the wages of their Black workers and provide training and upward mobility.

BJ Vorster and Malawi's president Kamuzu Banda in 1971. From: http://www.aboutmalawi.net/2011/07/photos-of-hastings-kamuzu-banda.html

Meanwhile Vorster’s policy of détente – an attempt to woo African leaders and neutralise possible enemies – was yielding results: Malawi’s Banda visited South Africa, as did leaders from various other African countries.

In contrast, the AAM’s disinvesment campaign sought to show how British firms profited from apartheid policies, and called on sympathetic forces such as trade unions to withdraw any investments they might have in the South African economy, and persuade the government to halt new investments.

When it was discovered that Barclays Bank had a tiny investment in the Cabora Basa dam project in Mozambique, the AAM targeted the bank, which had thousands of branches throughout the UK.

Building a mass base

The failure of the Labour Party to support the AAM’s most important campaigns led to disillusionment with parliamentary politics and prompted a shift in the AAM. The movement now began to cultivate students, unions, church groupings, women’s organisations and other sectors in an attempt to build a mass base that would ensure the success of its campaigns.

At the 1970 spring conference of the National Union of Students (NUS), the students passed a resolution that they would support the armed struggle against apartheid. The union’s president, Trevor Fisk, who had met with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) leaders on a trip to South Africa, went against the AAM’s cultural boycott when he supported the idea of academics taking up work at universities in South Africa. The students voted him out, and Jack Straw was elected in Fisk’s place, marking a radicalisation of the student union, which called for a total cultural, sporting and academic boycott.

The infrastructure of the NUS, with branches at every university in the UK, became a resource for the AAM, and students became the largest sector of the AAM’s membership. The two organisations joined forces in September 1971, and joint conferences were held annually from July 1972. Scottish students launched their own network in May 1973, and were especially active.

The AAM also began to build a base among unions. Some unions had supported the movement since its formation. however, the Trades Union Congress, which had strong links with the conservative, white-dominated TUCSA in South Africa, turned down an invitation to attend the AAM’s national committee in 1961. The TUC continued a policy of constructive engagement, and became a battleground as more unions began to forge links with the AAM, many trying to radicalise the TUC’s policies and get the federation to support the AAM.

In 1971, 14 unions were AAM affiliates. It took the 1976 Soweto uprising to bring a flood of affiliates, and by 1980 35 national trade unions were affiliates. More and more unions began to refuse to handle South African goods, and the International Conference of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) asked workers to observe a week of action in November 1976. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference in 1977 also proposed a week of action, during which the Union of Postal Workers asked its members to stop telephonic communication and not handle post to and from South Africa.

Churches in the UK generally took a conservative position, although he British Council of Churches (BCC) called on the Labour government in 1964 to impose an arms embargo and supported sports boycotts. Yet, the council withheld support for more radical measures, such as a World Council of Churches (WCC) call for international corporations to withdraw from South Africa. Most churches followed the policy of constructive engagement, but the Methodist Church and the Church of Scotland tended towards a more radical policy towards South Africa.

During the 1970s the churches fostered links with the Black Consciousness Movement rather than the ANC, SACP or PAC. The Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU) and the Black People’s Convention (BPC) members attended seminars organised by the British Council of Churches and the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility.

After Beyers Naude’s Christian Institute was banned in 1977, the British churches began to take more radical positions. Manas Buthelezi preached at Westminster Abbey in 1977 and Desmond Tutu participated in events on British soil in 1978.

A shift occurred at the BCC’s general assembly in 1979, and the council accepted a policy of ‘progressive disengagement’ in place of the constructive engagement it had practised. The move rendered the churches more susceptible to closer ties with the AAM.

AAM activities in the late Seventies

When Angola and Mozambique achieved independence in 1975, the geopolitics of the region took a dramatic turn, and South Africa was isolated more than ever. Nevertheless, it was the unrest in Soweto in 1976 that changed the country and started a process that would lead to renewed resistance and eventually negotiations. The AAM, which had always had a special relation to the ANC, now had to contend with new forces in the liberation movement, and the re-emergence of the trade union movement in 1973 brought yet another aspect to the struggle.

SATIS launched an emergency campaign in May 1976 after Joseph Mdluli was killed in detention in March 1976. When Steve Biko was killed in 1977, the AAM called for an inquiry, a call that received backing from many groups.

Labour’s foreign secretary David Owen attended an IDAF-organised memorial service for Biko at St Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1977 the Commonwealth governments endorsed the Gleneagles Agreement, an informal measure to ‘take every step discourage contact or competition by their nationals with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa’.

The new Labour government, elected in 1974, terminated the Simon’s Town Agreement, but continued to hold joint naval exercises. The AAM exposed NATO collaboration with the apartheid government in Project Advokaat, a secret underground naval surveillance system, and in March 1975 organised a mass rally against joint naval exercises and collaboration with the apartheid state.

A poster produced in 1971 by the British Anti Apartheid Movement protesting British Arms to South Africa, Source: African Activist Archive

In 1977, reports confirmed that South Africa was set to test a nuclear bomb, and despite warnings from Western governments not to go ahead, the regime exploded a nuclear bomb in the south Atlantic in October 1979. The AAM linked up with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in a drive to ‘Stop the Apartheid Bomb’.

After June 1976, the government became more willing to heed the AAM. In May 1977 the government announced that it was no longer supplying South Africa with NATO codification data. Labour’s Foreign Secretary, David Owen, proved to be more receptive than any other minister had ever been, and twice met with the AAM in 1977, agreeing to investigate transgressions of the arms ban.

The government even dropped its veto at the UN and voted for a mandatory arms embargo, something no previous British government had done. Labour’s NEC took a more radical line than the government, and pushed for a freeze on new investment.

But the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 meant that the AAM could rely even less on the British government to back its campaigns.

The Eighties

The success of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party in the first democratic election in Zimbabwe in March 1980 left South Africa exposed as the only racist regime remaining in Africa, and freed the badly stretched AAM to focus its scarce resources on its South African campaigns. In its attempts to isolate South Africa, the AAM sought to influence the UN, the Commonwealth and the European Economic Community (EEC) to pressure the new Thatcher government to support international sanctions.

Joseph N. Garba (left) Chairman of the Special Committee against Apartheid and Reverend Trevor Huddleston President of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement at a press conference, 10 October 1984, Photographer: Milton Grant, United Nations.

In the sporting field, the AAM worked with SANROC to compile a list of sportsmen and women who broke the boycott – more than 700 had visited South Africa between 1980 and 1987. Rugby was the biggest challenge, and the British Lions tour of South Africa went ahead in 1980. The Rugby Football Union sent another team in 1984, but pressure from the AAM and ministers ensured it was the last to do so.

The revolution in Iran in 1979 saw South Africa’s main source of crude oil cut off, and the UN Special Committee, together with the Holland Committee on South Africa and the church initiative Kairos, organised a seminar which called for an oil embargo against South Africa. The AAM launched a campaign against multinational companies, especially Shell and BP, which were involved in the oil trade with South Africa. Other organisations involved in the oil trade also came under the spotlight, and the AAM pressured the British government to cut South Africa off from benefitting in any way from North Sea oil. After an ILO conference in 1983, maritime unions joined in the action, and the cost of oil became much more expensive for South Africa.

The cultural boycott, endorsed in a resolution of the UN General Assembly in 1980, was reinforced with the drawing up of a register of entertainers who had performed in South Africa. Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and David Essex, who had performed at Sun City, pledged that they would not return to South Africa. Local authorities, such as the Greater London Council, took action against anyone on the register and anyone who refused to make the pledge. When the president of Equity (the British drama association), Derek Bond, announced that he would break the boycott, members of Equity voted to ban members from performing in South Africa. Bond was forced to resign.

Visits to Britain by black South African artists were difficult to target, and the group Bahamutsi performed in England, as did a group from the Market Theatre. Paul Simon’s work with black South African musicians for his Graceland album came under fire, although the album hit the charts in the UK. The academic boycott proved difficult to implement, even though the Association of University Teachers voted in 1980 to boycott all links with South African universities.

However, other initiatives were more successful. The rebel cricket tour by a team captained by Mike Gating in 1990 was forced to cut short the tour.

The Thatcher Government

From the beginning Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to apartheid was steeped in reluctance. The Pretoria regime, seen as an ally in the Cold War, enjoyed a kind of covert support from the new Conservative government. Unable to openly side with a racist regime, and publicly expressing abhorrence of apartheid, Thatcher used every loophole to oppose sanctions, preferring ‘dialogue, steady pressure and exploitation on SA provided by our economic involvement there’.

According to Christabel Gurney: ‘At the moment when the AAM was at last succeeding in building a coalition of support for the isolation of apartheid, it was confronted by a prime minister who was implacably opposed to sanctions.’

Nonetheless, it is a testament to the AAM that even a government as conservative as Thatcher’s was forced to take steps against Pretoria that eventually pushed it to the negotiating table. The fact that Thatcher was positioned to the right of most of her cabinet meant that certain forces within the Conservative Party were more receptive to the call to end apartheid.

In the face of widespread scepticism towards PW Botha’s Tripartite Parliament that persisted in the exclusion of Black South Africans, Thatcher refused to condemn the constitutional makeover of apartheid, preferring to give it ‘the test of time’. When Botha tried to garner international acceptance for his new scheme by touring Europe in June 1984, the British government was the only Western power to extend an invitation to Botha. The AAM ensured that Botha got a frosty reception, and a wide range of groupings protested at his visit. So effective was the anti-Botha lobby that Thatcher was forced to meet with the leaders of the AAM – in the first and only such occasion. After talks with Trevor Huddleston and Abdul Minty, Thatcher issued a statement recommitting the British government to the arms embargo and the Gleneagles Agreement. On the day of the meeting between Botha and Thatcher, 50,000 people marched to an AAM rally in Hyde Park.

British opposition to Thatcher’s increasingly conservative rule resonated with an anti-apartheid ethos, and opposition to Thatcher naturally morphed into opposition to apartheid.

The Tide Turns

By the mid-80s, the AAM had mobilised a vast network and succeeded in largely overwhelming opposition to sanctions. Local authorities, trade unions and churches now came on board in an unprecedented and sustained attempt to force the Pretoria regime to the negotiating table.

Local authorities throughout the UK took concrete steps in support of the AAM’s agenda:
Sheffield London’s Camden Council London boroughs Brent, Islington, Tower Hamlets and Newcastle-upon-Tyne Scotland’s huge Strathclyde Regional Council all expressed opposition to apartheid in concrete measures. According to Gurney, ‘By 1985, more than 120 local authorities, representing 66 percent of the British population, had taken some form of anti-apartheid action.’

Britain’s huge union federation, the TUC, previously at arm’s length from the AAM, now came out in full support of UN sanctions. In 1981, at its annual congress, it passed its first resolution calling for sanctions. General secretary Len Murray met with an AAM delegation in June 1982, in a first for the TUC’s highest official. The TUC rallied to the side of African workers fired by Wilson-Rowntree in South Africa, and in 1985 passed a resolution calling on unions to support the AAM’s boycott campaigns.

Against the advice of the AAM, the TUC’s new general secretary, Norman Willis, and Ron Todd, chair of the federation’s international committee, visited South Africa in July 1986. Nevertheless, the visit impressed on the duo the horrors of apartheid and prompted them to take effective measures. Todd was appalled by the realities of apartheid, and when the pair visited a family in Alexandra township, hippos descended on them and they were arrested. From then on the TUC made South Africa a priority, even producing a film promoting the boycott, which was seen in cinemas throughout the UK.

Churches, invited by the South African Council of Churches, attended the launch in 1985 of the Kairos document, which called on Christians to recognise the period as one calling for unprecedented interventions. In 1986 major church bodies called for targeted sanctions.

The AAM’s campaigns throughout the subsequent period were supported by huge swathes of British citizens, and international measures required less effort to persuade partners and governments, although the Thatcher government always needed to be cajoled.

Hitting the South African Economy

The AAM’s campaign against Barclays Bank came to a dramatic end when, in November 1986, the bank pulled out of South Africa. With students throughout the UK closing their Barclays accounts, the bank admitted: ‘Our customer base was beginning to be adversely affected.’

Between 1986 and 1988 as many as 55 British companies sold off their subsidiaries in South Africa and a further 19 reduced their investments. The number of British companies investing in South Africa fell by 20 percent. Standard Chartered, the second largest bank in South Africa, also pulled out, as did insurance companies Norwich Union and Legal & General, and arms manufacturer Vickers.

Poster produced by the Anti Apartheid Movement calling on people to boycott Barclays Bank and force the bank to withdraw from South Africa, South Africa, Source: African Activist Archive.

When Chase Manhattan Bank decided it would not roll over its loans to South Africa, the government in August 1985 announced a moratorium on the repayment of foreign loans. Foreign exchange markets and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange were temporarily closed, and other banks followed the lead of Chase.

With the re-election of Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1987, the AAM began to focus on public support for sanctions instead of putting all its efforts into getting the government to impose sanctions. The AAM launched a ‘People’s Sanctions’ campaign, asking ordinary members of the public to boycott South African goods. It targeted the largest supermarket chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, urging them to stop buying products from South Africa. The People’s Sanctions campaigns were remarkably successful – a Harris poll fond that 51 percent of Britons were in favour of some form of sanctions.

In various ‘days of action’ activists piled up South African goods onto trolleys and then refused to pay for them, causing blockages and inconvenience, while a ‘Boycott Bandwagon’ toured the country and spread the message. The AAM produced a film, The Fruits of Fear, promoting the boycott.

New targets were identified: gold, coal and tourism. In conjunction with End Loans to Southern Africa (ELTSA), the ANC and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the AAM set up the World Gold Commission to look into the issue of gold sanctions. The movement also joined with the UK’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to set up an embargo of South African coal, while tour operators were targeted in the campaign to stop Brits from holidaying in South Africa.

Anti-apartheid movements from other countries, in particular Holland and the US, focused on oil giant Shell, which jointly owned one of the largest refineries in South Africa and had interests in coal mining and petrochemical industries. The AAM joined in these efforts, and launched a total boycott of Shell products in the UK. Some local authorities moved their heating oil contracts from Shell, and the company’s Annual General Meeting (AGM was broken up by protesters.

Focus on Repression

With the declaration of the state of emergency in July 1985, activists inside South Africa were increasingly coming under harsh laws: detentions, political trials and, for some, death sentences. The AAM urged churches, trade unions and students to draw attention to the plight of detainees. SATIS convened a UDF Treason Trial Campaign Committee in 1985, calling for the withdrawal of charges. Trevor Huddleston launched a petition, ‘Free All Apartheid’s Detainees’, in June 1987, which 300,000 people signed, and a campaign was launched to oppose the repression of trade unionists, who were being targeted by the apartheid state.

Solomon Mahlangu was hanged in April 1979 despite a UN Security Council appeal, and 14 other activists were condemned to death over the next 14 years. Because of international pressure, seven of them were spared the death sentence. The AAM and Southern Africa: the Imprisoned Society (SATIS) held vigils outside South Africa House. Women’s groups took up the case of Theresa Ramashamola, one of the Sharpeville Six accused, while other AAM activists drew attention to the Upington Seven. The AAM met with Thatcher’s foreign minister, Lynda Chalker, and eventually Thatcher was pressured into voicing her concerns to PW Botha and, in the case of the Sharpeville Six, an indefinite stay of execution was announced in July 1988.

The Free Mandela Campaign

After the launch of the Free Mandela campaign in South Africa in 1980, the AAM also took up the cause, which had already been underway because of the efforts of ES Reddy, the secretary of the UN Special Committee. Together with the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), the AAM produced a film about Mandela, called South Africa’s Other Leader, which was watched by millions during PW Botha’s visit to the UK in 1984.

Mandela was awarded the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in August 1981, and similar awards were made by 50 councils and local authorities over the next decade. The street in which the AAM had its offices was renamed Mandela Street. The AAM urged Britons to send postcards to the jailed leader, which they did in their thousands.

Button of the Free Mandela Campaign produced by the Anti Apartheid Movement. Source: African Activist Archive.

The AAM set up the Free Nelson Mandela co-ordinating committee in 1983 to liaise with the many organisations that called for his freedom. Musicians were especially responsive to the call to free Mandela, and several artists and bands released songs making the call, including The Sussed and The Special AKA, which recorded Free Nelson Mandela, written by Jerry Dammers. Hugh Masekela played at a ‘Festival of African Sounds’ in 1983 at London’s Alexander Palace, commemorating Mandela’s 65th birthday.

Dammers linked up with Dali Tambo (son of Oliver Tambo) to form Artists Against Apartheid, which organised a rock concert on Clapham Common in July 1986. Thabo Mbeki spoke at the festival, which was attended by 250,000 people.

The AAM’s ‘Freedom At 70’ campaign, lasting more than a month, began with a concert and ended with a rally five weeks later. Dammers worked with the AAM to organise a huge concert at Wembley to kick off the campaign. Held on 11 June 1988, the concert featured Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and Sting, among scores of others, and 72,000 people attended the event. The event was screened live by the BBC over nine hours, and the broadcast was made available to TV stations in 63 countries. Headlined ‘Nelson Mandela: a 70th Birthday Tribute’, the concert was a huge success, and made Mandela a household name in the UK as well as elsewhere.

The day after the concert, Oliver Tambo and Trevor Huddleston addressed a rally in Glasgow, attended by 15,000 people. Twenty five marchers, each representing a year of Mandela’s 25-year incarceration, then set out on a walk to London, stopping along the way at 40 towns and cities where events were held to call for Mandela’s freedom. The marchers arrived in London on the eve of Mandela’s 70th birthday, 17th July 1988, at a rally at Hyde Park. The next day, Tambo gave each of the marchers a bust of Mandela.

Sting was one of many artists at the AAM organized concert to pressurize the Apartheid government to release Mandela. Source: Iconicphotogalleries

The success of the campaign was reflected in the findings of a poll, which revealed that 70 percent of respondents thought Mandela should be freed, and 58 percent thought Thatcher should do more to get Mandela out of prison. It was also reflected in a near doubling of the AAM’s membership, from 8,500 in 1986 to 19,410 in March 1989. Even Thatcher was swayed by the campaign, and she assured Huddleston: ‘We raise his (Mandela’s) case regularly with the South African government.’

The decade ended with the formation of the Southern African Coalition (SAC), a grouping made up of churches, trade unions, NGOs, local authorities and development agencies. SAC, in which the AAM was a key player, arranged a huge parliamentary lobby, with 4000 representatives from every part of the country, which called for sanctions against South Africa.

The Nineties

FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation organisations on 2 February 1990, and on 11 February Mandela walked out of prison in Cape Town. His freeing was greeted with spontaneous celebrations throughout the UK, with thousands descending on Trafalgar Square and other sites throughout the country.

The AAM was caught in a strange predicament: almost everything it had fought for was now a reality, and the movement had to re-assess its role and, indeed, its very reason for existence. Rather than dissolve itself, the AAM continued to monitor developments in South Africa. Membership numbers fell, but a core of activists remained to see through the last mile in the struggle against apartheid.

The AAM decided on three key issues: it would continue to call for sanctions until majority rule was a reality it would encourage the creation of a climate conducive to negotiations and it would only endorse one outcome – a united, non-racial South Africa.

Already, Thatcher was moving to undo the sanctions. On 2 February she announced that the ban on cultural, academic and scientific links would be relaxed, and on 10 February she declared that she would lift the voluntary bans on new investment and the promotion of tourism. The AAM stepped up its People’s Sanctions campaign, and worked with European groups to stop the European Community from lifting sanctions. The ANC called for sanctions to be maintained until a transitional executive council was in place, and the AAM endorsed the ANC’s call. However, there was confusion when the ANC allowed a South African rugby team to tour the UK in 1992.

In April 1990, convinced that FW de Klerk was trying to stall negotiations and renege on agreements, the AAM met with foreign secretary Douglas Hurd to draw attention to the continued imprisonment of hundreds of political prisoners, many of them on death row, but Hurd refused to intervene. The AAM initiated a mass letter-writing campaign, with letters being sent to De Klerk and Lynda Chalker.

The AAM was horrified when ‘Third Force’ violence spread from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg. De Klerk, on his third visit to the UK in October 1990, was met by the AAM’s emergency campaign. Its letter to Thatcher, was headed: ‘Tell De Klerk: stop the violence and repression.’ When the AAM got news of the Boipotong Massacre, Huddleston demanded that the government consult with the European Union and the Commonwealth to find ways to monitor the violence. AAM protesters held a vigil outside South Africa House. Mike Terry and Huddleston flew to South Africa, and Huddleston addressed crowds at the funeral of the victims.

On his return, Huddleston organised an international hearing, where delegates from 27 countries heard eye-witness accounts of the killings. The British government changed its stance at the UN, and gave its support for UNSC resolution 772, which authorised the UN to send monitors to South Africa. Observer missions were then established by the OAU, the Commonwealth and the European Community.

The AAM’s last mass rally was held at Trafalgar Square on 20 June 1993, where Walter Sisulu demanded that an election date be announced. When the date was announced on 2 July 1993, Huddleston once again appealed to the OAU, the Commonwealth and the European Community to send observers to monitor the elections, and the subsequent deployment constituted ‘the world’s largest ever international election monitoring operation’, according to Gurney.

The AAM’s last campaign, ‘Countdown to Democracy’, launched in January 1994, appealed to Britons to donate money to the ANC, which had initiated a ‘votes for freedom’ appeal. Throughout the UK, people cast symbolic votes and donated money to the ANC, the trade unions alone raising £250,000.

On election day, 27 April 1994, the AAM witnessed hundreds of South Africans cast their vote at South Africa house, many of them activists in exile or ordinary South Africans living in the UK. When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president of the new, democratic South Africa on 10 May, a live video showing Mandela taking the oath of office was witnessed by the gathering at South Africa House, marking the close of a long chapter in international solidarity.

The AAM becomes ACTSA

At it last annual general conference, held on 29 October 1994, the AAM listened to an address by South Africa’s new justice minister, Dullah Omar, before the organisation was reborn as Action for Southern Africa, a body dedicated to supporting the eradication of the effects of apartheid and colonialism on the entire subcontinent.


Why did the UK allow India to be a republic rather than a democratic parliament under the British Monarch? - History



Elsewhere on this web site, I have outlined in some detail explanations of both the American political system [click here] and the British political system [click here]. As someone who is intensely interested in politics generally, and British and American politics most especially, I am fascinated by the many differences between the political scenes on the two sides of the Atlantic. Inevitably, I am oversimplifying somewhat, but the following differences strike me as instructive.

    Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the American and British political systems is the constitution - or the lack of one. The United States has a written constitution as does the vast majority of nation states. The UK does not have a single document called the constitution but instead its constitutional provisions are scattered over various Acts of Parliament.


The differences between UK and US governments: a brief guide

A maelstrom of events has brought both British and American governments into unprecedented political waters. Professor Adam I P Smith of the University of Oxford explains the historical differences and similarities between the two, including how much power US presidents, British monarchs and prime ministers have held through history, and how this has changed over time…

This competition is now closed

Published: October 1, 2019 at 2:04 pm

The day after the dramatic ruling of the UK Supreme Court that the prime minister could not ask the Queen to “prorogue” (ie suspend) parliament for as long as he liked whenever he liked, a newspaper columnist wrote a piece headlined “Britain has become a Republic with [House Speaker] Bercow at its head”.

Needless to say, the readers of the piece were not expected to approve of this development. But raising the question of whether the UK is, in effect, a constitutional republic with the House of Commons at its head highlights some of the ways in which the British and American constitutional orders have diverged – even while sharing common assumptions and histories.

At the heart of the American constitutional founding is an irony: although they railed against the overbearing executive power of the British monarch, they ended up creating an executive presidency with far more power than the king or queen of England was ever to have again. The US Constitution most closely resembles the British constitution of the early 17th century before parliament started asserting its sovereignty – a process that has continued right up to the Supreme Court’s decision on proroguing.

Republic v monarchy

The US is a republic with the form of a monarchy, while the UK is a monarchy with the form of a republic – and, to a greater or lesser extent, this has been true ever since the American Revolution.

The US has a chief executive who combines being head of government (the initiating and implementing policy bit) and head of state (the formal, ceremonial bit). A president has a similar constitutional function to that pre-18th century English kings – needing congressional (or parliamentary) approval for tax and spend, but with huge prerogative powers. Of course the American president, unlike the British monarch, is elected, and since 1796 has been elected in nationwide and often polarising contests – yet once in office they have the power and many of the trappings of an early modern monarch.

In the UK, by contrast, the formal executive is split. The head of state (the Queen) is unelected but supposed to have no political role at all, while the head of government (the prime minister) is in office not because the Queen wants them there but solely because he (or she) commands a majority in parliament.

Separation of powers

In the US, the principle of the separation of powers means that the executive branch – the president and cabinet – cannot also be members of the legislature. Nor can they be members of the judicial branch. In the UK all these functions are not only mixed up, they are inter-dependent. The prime minister and cabinet have to be members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords (the appointed upper house). Since the beginning of the 20th century prime ministers have almost always been MPs rather than Lords, since the Commons is by far the more important chamber. In 1963, parliament passed the Peerage Act allowing hereditary peers (i.e. Lords) to renounce their titles on accession.

Up until recently, the highest court of appeal was the House of Lords, though in practice only its judicial members heard cases. Since 2009 the judicial function of the House of Lords has been handed to a Supreme Court and Justices are directly appointed to the Supreme Court on the recommendation of a selection commission.

How much power does the British queen or king hold?

Up until the beginning of the 19th century, monarchs played an active role in the choice of their prime minister and cabinet and various corrupt strategies were used to ensure that, once in office, the prime minister would be able to get bills passed through the legislature. But for the last two centuries and more, the process has flowed exclusively the other way: whatever their personal views may be, the monarch has no choice but to invite whoever can command a majority in the House to form a government.

The bottom line is that the prime minister does not derive his or her authority from their party members or from the relatively tiny number of people who voted for him or her into parliament (he or she is, after all, only one of 650 MPs) but from the House of Commons. The moment he or she loses the “confidence” (ie the support) of the House, the convention has always been that they would resign and invite the Queen to either appoint an alternative prime minister or call a general election.

The prime minister and the confidence of the House

Britain is now in the midst of a greater constitutional crisis than at any time since at least the Edwardian period. At the heart of the current crisis is not Brexit per se but a constitutional system that is breaking down because the link between the prime minister and the legislature is no longer clear. Boris Johnson became prime minister after the resignation of Theresa May because the Conservative Party membership elected him leader and the Conservatives were the largest single party (though without an overall majority) in the House of Commons.

At the time of writing, the Johnson government has not yet faced a formal vote of confidence so it has not yet been formally established whether he has the support of a majority of MPs. The fact that his government has lost vote after vote in the Commons, including on its central Brexit policy, suggests that it does not.

So the government remains in office but not in power. It can’t pass any legislation, not even the legislation it would need to call an early general election. This is an unprecedented situation in British history. The old remedies now can’t be used – the prime minister can’t just ask the Queen for a dissolution and a general election because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, passed in 2011 which gave to parliament the royal prerogative power of dissolving parliament which previously had been exercised solely by the prime minister, theoretically on behalf of the monarch.

The opposition don’t want to call a vote of no confidence immediately, or support a general election, because of the peculiar circumstances of Britain’s highly fraught attempt to leave the EU. If there is no withdrawal agreement in place by the deadline of 31 October, Britain would “crash out” with devastating consequences (at least in the view of many commentators). If an election happened right now, there would be no way to prevent that outcome, thus prejudging the decision of the electorate on the most consequential issue in modern British history.

So, we have an impasse of a kind that is not supposed to happen in the UK parliamentary system in which the executive (the prime minister and his or her government) are at odds with the legislature (the House of Commons). Supporters of the government claim that parliament is “frustrating the will of the people” as expressed in the referendum of 2016, in which a slim majority voted to leave the EU. But to any previous generation, the notion that parliament could be frustrating the will of the people would have been an oxymoron – since “the people” have no singular voice in a plural nation parliament – the place to speak, to debate, to “parley” – is their forum. You can use referendums to provide legitimacy to decisions, or you can have a parliament that makes decisions on behalf of the people who elected it. But you can’t really have both because they are contradictory, not complementary, ways of determining popular legitimacy for a policy course.

The promise of those campaigning to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum was that leaving would restore parliamentary sovereignty. It appears to have done that even before the UK has left, though not, as the Brexiteers thought, through the repatriation of powers from the European Commission in Brussels, but by taking them from the executive. No previous British prime minister has as little formal power as Boris Johnson now has. Previous parliaments have already effectively claimed the right to determine the decision to go to war and when to call an early general election. Now parliament has been assured, by the Supreme Court, of the right not to be dissolved against its will.

The growth of American executive power

But while the executive in Britain has diminished in relation to the legislature, in the US executive power has grown over many decades. The US president is immune from prosecution while in office – the privilege of monarchs through the ages. Some legal theorists in the US think the president (whoever he or she is) should exert even more power than he or she already does.

In the 17th and 18 th centuries, British and American polities struggled with how to contain arbitrary executive power. The Americans thought they’d come up with the answer by separating the executive from the legislature. The British pursued an alternative strategy of making the executive dependent for his or her authority on the legislature. Both approaches have provided mostly stable government (with some dramatic exceptions) for over two centuries. Both now are undergoing a fiery trial that raises profound questions about their design.