The curious case of Mugabe’s misplaced, unrequited fondness for Britain’s Conservative Party

Oct 14, 2011

President Robert Mugabe has long been stuck on the idea that Britain’s Conservative party is somehow intrinsically better to deal with than the Labour Party. He has expressed this sentiment on a number of occasions over several years. However, the Conservatives at the head of Britain's current coalition government do not seem to hold Mugabe in the high regard he has for them.

This nostalgia for the Conservatives apparently has its origins in the fact that the final negotiations that led to Zimbabwean independence in 1980 too place under the government of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She was stereotypically old school British in a way many Africans of Mugabe’s generation admired. Mugabe is also said to have developed a strong liking for Load Soames, the Conservative appointed to serve as independence handover governor.

His antipathy for the Labour party was cemented when one of then prime minister Tony Blair’s ministers in the 1990s absolved the British government of any obligation to further fund land reform. Doing so had been part of the package of deals that had been negotiated by Mugabe and other nationalists with the Thatcher government on the eve of independence. Mugabe never forgave Blair and the Labour party for this, and has not hesitated to say so at any opportunity.

Recently he expressed the hope that under the current David Cameron-led UK coalition government, the Conservative party leader might be more open to ending the bitter cold war that has played out between Britain and Zimbabwe for several years now. Speaking to the new British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mugabe went so far as to ‘plead’ for a warming of relations. He said he saw no reason why those relations should be as poor under a Conservative prime minister as under a Labour one, particularly that of the Mugabe-despised Tony Blair.

The bitter name calling between the two governments has greatly been toned down in recent times, and vaguely conciliatory noises have been made from both sides. However, there are also signs that even under Conservative prime minister Cameron, Mugabe is not going to get the warm and fuzzy relations he would like to have with the British.

The Church of England’s head, Rowan Martin, has just been on a trip to Zimbabwe. Chief amongst his aims was to try to negotiate some relief for a faction of the deeply divided Zimbabwean church that claims persecution by the other faction. The faction Martin went to offer moral support to says the police are the instruments of their persecution, and Martin met Mugabe to ask him to intervene.

Some read Martin’s meeting with Mugabe as a possible sign of British government sanction of the visit, and wondered whether it signaled a willingness to warm up to Mugabe. That notion was quickly squashed, with the Cameron government saying it would ‘facilitate’ Martin’s visit through its Harare embassy, but that he was strictly on church business and that nothing more should be read into the visit about Zim-UK relations.

Then Commonwealth Advisory Bureau mooted the idea of inviting Zimbabwe to rejoin the grouping of mostly former British colonies. Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in a huff in 2003 after the body questioned the legitimacy and fairness of an election he officially was declared as having won.

The British minister responsible for matters to do with the Commonwealth, David Howell, was quick to shoot down the idea of re-admitting Zimbabwe, although it must also be said there has been no clamor in Harare to rejoin either.

Said the British minister, ‘‘Certainly Britain isn't going to encourage olive branches or anything else to a Mr. Mugabe who is showing no sign of recanting, standing down or removing some of his ZANU thugs from the scene. But I think the Commonwealth certainly sees itself -- when the time comes, which is not yet -- also being a leading force in helping the recovery of Zimbabwe, the restoration of credible and properly monitored elections and the revival of its whole economy and its role in the world."

No sign of any thawing of relations any time soon then, as Mr. Mugabe was hoping would happen under the British administration of his ‘freinds’ the Conservatives.

Mr. Mugabe’s love-hate relationship with the British and his slavish faith in the Conservatives over Labour are both awkward and embarrassing. But there are stark contemporary markers of how out of touch Mr. Mugabe is with the degree of his differences with Cameron.

Mugabe is bitterly hostile to homosexuality. That in itself is not unusual in Africa, where it is a deep taboo even as it goes increasingly mainstream in many western societies. But Mugabe is sharply, provocatively vocal about his hostility to homosexuality, raising even more western hackles than he already does on many other accounts. The amount of attention he has quite un-necessarily paid to bluntly, publicly stating his opinions on the issue suggests an element of goading his western opponents about it, which Mugabe is brilliant at doing. He knows just how to get a rise out of the many westerners who he knows already loathe him for one or another reason.

Yet in Britain and many other western countries, a politician increasingly has more to lose than to gain by opposing homosexuality. Just last week Cameron came out in support of gay marriage, discomforting some within his own party. With this position on an emotive issue Mugabe has spoken so passionately and bluntly about, it is difficult to imagine he and Cameron being ideological soul mates on many other issues.

Mugabe has also spoken out bitterly against what he sees as the utterly cynical western bombing of Libya to remove Mugabe’s friend Muammar Gaddafi and gain preferential access to the country’s oil wealth. In typically blunt terms, but whose basic veracity are hard to argue against, Mugabe has accused the West of having more of self-serving regime-change intent from the start, rather than a primary concern for the welfare of Libyans against their oppressive government as claimed justification for the relentless carpet bombing.

David Cameron was one of the main instigators of the plastering of Libya with bombs, using that ‘campaign’ to earn his stripes as a warrior. There probably is no aspect of the still evolving Libyan situation on which Mugabe and Cameron would see eye to eye.

Mugabe expresses nostalgia for the days when he was once a welcome visitor in London. But in many ways the Conservative prime minister David Cameron has very little in common with the Conservatives of Mugabe’s 30 year old memory. For better or for worse, the Conservatives have radically evolved to keep up with the changing sentiments of the British electorate. But Mr. Mugabe still has in his mind the fond memory of a very different Conservative to that which people like Cameron now actually represents.

The Zimbabwe Review


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