From Empire to Europe

Patrick Wintour

Harold Macmillan visiting Nigeria in January 1960. ©  The National Archives

Harold Macmillan visiting Nigeria in January 1960. © The National Archives

Harold Macmillan’s 'Winds of Change' speech is primarily remembered as the moment British elite acknowledged it was time to start the decolonisation of its African white settler empire. It was also an opportunity, in the politest terms, and with little practical effect, for Macmillan to tell his South African hosts in the Cape Town parliament that it was time for apartheid to end, and for an era of national self-rule to start across the continent.

But Macmillan's supporters regard the speech as even more visionary. It was not in this view just about timely divestment and retreat, but also about renewal and modernisation. It marked the moment a liberal Britain decided to pivot away from empire towards Europe, and seek security in a new economic partnership with France and Germany. 

It was a direction that many, mainly older, Conservative MPs fiercely opposed at the time, and now 60 years later the dogged resistance has, possibly to the Tory Party’s own surprise, proved effective. The winds identified by Macmillan in 1960 proved strong enough to dismantle the British empire within a decade, but not, as he had hoped, to carry Britain across the channel and into Europe in an irreversible way.  

Instead at some point in the 1980s, those winds petered out and then, suddenly re-gaining strength, reversed direction and blew the UK out of Europe.

Britain, without an empire, is now to leave European Union, and go in search of a new as yet unidentified role in which the old spurned Commonwealth may yet play a larger part. As such, the 'Winds of Change' now reads like a speech heralding the start of a new epoch that is itself coming to a close.

But first some oddities.  

That speech on 3 February 1960 also came near the end of a carefully six-week tour of Africa. It is of course now inconceivable for a contemporary British prime minister to leave the UK for six days, let alone six weeks. 

Macmillan had already used the 'winds of change' phrase well before his famous address in Cape Town. In a speech at a State Banquet in Accra Ghana two months earlier he used the same phrase, but by happenstance reporters never bothered to file his remarks to any newspaper, partly because they regarded it as a statement of the obvious. The phrase was only reintroduced into his Cape Town speech at the last minute. Finally Macmillan knew that a speech as challenging to his hosts as his was momentous. He was violently sick immediately before delivering his remarks - a nervous habit more common in politicians than recognised.   

The speech was the culmination of a great deal of Conservative and Whitehall thinking. The Conservatives had been re-elected in October 1959, and Macmillan was convinced that Africa was “the greatest problem” facing his administration, even though he had not previously shown much interest in African nationalism, or the gathering calls for independence. But he could see in French Northern Africa how empire could lead to violence, and called for a profit and loss account for each of the African colonies to be drawn up. In the UK's African colonies (notably Kenya and the Central African Republic) rebellions were underway, and tensions between the white settler community and African nationalists was stirring.


The idea of the Africa tour was his own, seeing it as a repeat of his successful extended visit to Asia in 1958.  Macmillan said “it might just get things moving in what seems to be a log jam of ideas”.  It would be “a chance to launch himself as the prophet of multi-racial Commonwealth”. If Britain held back from granting its colonies independence, there was a danger they would swing away from the West and towards its Cold War rival Russia. Washington also feared that Russia was being given a route into Africa as resistance to British colonial rule grew. Washington was nudging Britain to speed up decolonisation.

In South Africa itself there was an expectation Macmillan’s speech, coming near the end of the tour, would be largely celebratory. On arrival, he had been cordial with his hosts and made no effort to meet the real African leadership in the ANC, contenting himself to be taken to Bantustans. 

Yet the speech, of which no advance copy was supplied to his hosts, had been in preparation since December with some of Whitehall’s finest minds, all opposed to apartheid and Afrikaners, at work. These patrician London figures who drafted the speech, and oversaw the decolonisation of Africa, were well described as "rather like plants which point on their finest display as a herald of death.”

Some of the speech's strength lies in the absence of a full frontal assault. Even so some members of the British press corps including Peregrine Worsthorne regarded the speech as something of an anti-climax complaining "the underlying message was so wrapped up with polite waffle that few in the audience got it”.

It is all the more devastating for its subtlety. No mention is made of apartheid in the speech, and talks of sanctions explicitly deprecated. Diplomatic references to common histories and dilemmas litter the speech, and the force of African nationalism is largely recognised simply as a political fact, rather than of intrinsic value. But the blow was unmistakable. The UK always tried to give support to South Africa but “I hope you don't mind me saying frankly there are some aspects of policies which makes it impossible for us to do this without a being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men”. 

South Africa did of course mind, and the sense of rebuff was immediate.

Within months, it was clear the speech has only spurred South Africa’s isolation leading to its departure from the Commonwealth. The British also sped up its program of decolonisation, and within two years Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda had followed Ghana into independence. Worse still within two years the UK had applied for membership of the EU. Macmillan of course argued this decision implied no slight on the commonwealth, or loss of its rights to trade with the UK.

But a very British political alliance of left and right saw this decision to face towards Europe as a betrayal. Harold Wilson, then on Labour's left complained “If there is to be a choice we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Dusseldorf”. Then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell saw it not just as a rebuff to the Commonwealth, but as the end of a thousand years of history. Little was he to know how British history is never so definitive, and winds can so violently and unexpectedly change direction.

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Patrick Wintour is a British journalist and Diplomatic Editor of The Guardian.