Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Wind of Change (speech)

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Wind of Change (speech)

The "Wind of Change" speech was a historically significant address made by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa, on 3 February 1960 in Cape Town. He had spent a month in Africa visiting a number of what were then British colonies. The speech signalled clearly that the Conservative-led British Government intended to grant independence to many of these territories, which indeed happened subsequently, with most of the British possessions in Africa becoming independent nations in the 1960s. The Labour governments of 1945–51 had started a process of decolonisation but this policy had been halted by the Conservative governments from 1951 onwards.


The speech acquired its name from a now-famous quotation embedded in it. Macmillan said:

The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

The occasion was in fact the second time on which Macmillan had given this speech: he was repeating an address already made in Accra, Ghana (formerly the British colony of the Gold Coast) on 10 January 1960. This time it received press attention, at least partly because of the stony reception that greeted it.

Macmillan's Cape Town speech also made it clear that Macmillan included South Africa in his comments and indicated a shift in British policy in regard to Apartheid with Macmillan saying:

As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won't mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.


Harold Macmillan was the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1957 to 1963. He presided over a time of prosperity and the easing of Cold War tensions. The dissolution of the British Empire was quite rapid in comparison to others in history, such as the Roman and Ottoman Empires. At the time of the collapse the Empire embodied the direct rule of foreign territories as an integral part of a supra-national enterprise, called the British Empire. Britain, as the colonizing power, directly controlled territories, in the partial, or complete, disregard to the will of the indigenous peoples of those territories, to rule themselves. This was especially true in the British Empire of Africa, which was falling apart in the years 1957–1965, during the time when the United Kingdom was under Macmillan's leadership.

The Empire had begun its dissolution after the end of the Second World War. Many had come to the conclusion that running the empire had become more trouble than it was worth. There were many international fears contributing to this conclusion. For example, the fear of Soviet penetration into Africa and the Cold War politics was an international concern that helped initiate the dismantling of the British Empire. The independence of British Somaliland in 1960, along with the "Wind of Change" speech that Macmillan delivered in South Africa earlier in the same year, is what started the decade when the dismantling of the British Empire reached its climax, as no fewer than twenty-seven former colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean left the empire and started their independence. At the same time the African nationalists were becoming increasingly demanding in their initiative for self-rule. The path to independence in the Southern African states proved more problematic because the white settler population became hostile towards the majority rule.

Gold Coast

The British West African colony of the Gold Coast was, upon independence, renamed Ghana after the ancient African Empire in the area. This had become a place of great promise for the African independence movement in the 1950s. The education levels were highest in all of Sub-Saharan Africa there and the individuals were putting their weight behind the independence movement. The Gold Coast nationalists had campaigned for home rule even before the Second World War, and before the majority of the decolonization of the British Colonies had begun. Under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah the colony became the first to achieve independence in 1957.

Cold War politics and the fear of communism

The United States was also putting pressure on the United Kingdom at this time. The American government both wanted Britain to decolonize so that they could gain access to new markets and resources, and believed that decolonization was a necessity to prevent communism becoming an attractive option to African nationalist movements of the day.

African nationalism

African nationalism escalated during the Second World War. The British needed secure control over their African colonies for resources to fight the Axis powers. For their help throughout the war, the African colonies wanted to receive rewards in the form of political and economical opportunity. They became bitter when these rewards were not presented to them and they started rioting. The colonies stood on the edge of a revolution. In the West African colony of Gold Coast, political leader Kwame Nkrumah's Convention People's Party (CPP) orchestrated a campaign of civil disobedience in support of self-government. In the 1951 election, the CPP won thirty-four of thirty-eight seats and Nkrumah became prime minister, resulting in the colony's independence under Nkrumah's leadership as the state of Ghana in 1957.

Although this was a significant victory, there were many parts of Africa which desired a self-ruling nation but faced opposition from white settlers. These white settlers dominated the economic and political powers of the region at this time. They asserted this dominance by denying universal suffrage to Africans and through efforts to persuade the British government to consolidate colonial territories into federations. However, this minority of white settlers could not contain the sense of African nationalism. There were warnings that without a quick transfer of power that African nationalism would undermine British rule. In order to obtain cooperation from the new African governments, the British government would need to decolonise and leave them to self-rule, which was thought to be a good substitute for direct and total control of the area.

By 1960, Macmillan's Conservative government was becoming worried about the effects of violent confrontations with the African nationalists in the Belgian Congo and French Algeria. The Conservatives were fearful of this violent activity spilling over into British colonies. This is when Macmillan went to Africa to circulate and deliver his famous speech "Wind of Change", which is named for its famous line: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it." Following this speech with surprising speed, Iain Macleod, Colonial Secretary in 1959-1961, increased the original timetable for independence in East Africa by an entire decade. Independence was granted to Tanganyika in 1961, Uganda in 1962 and Kenya in 1963.


Besides restating the policy of decolonisation, the speech marked political shifts that were to occur within the next year or so, in the Union of South Africa and the United Kingdom. The formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961 and the country's departure from the Commonwealth of Nations were the result of a number of factors, but the change in the UK's attitude to African self-government is usually considered to have been significant.

There was an extended backlash against the speech from the right of the Conservative Party, which wished Britain to retain its imperial possessions. The speech led directly to the formation of the Conservative Monday Club pressure group.

The speech is also popularly known as the "winds of change" speech. Macmillan himself, in titling the first volume of his memoirs Winds of Change (1966), misquoted the original text.

The Portuguese Colonial War started in 1961 in Angola, and extended to other Portuguese overseas territories at the time, namely Portuguese Guinea in 1963 and Mozambique in 1964. By refusing to grant independence to its overseas territories in Africa, the Portuguese ruling regime of Estado Novo was criticized by most of the international community, and its leaders Salazar and Caetano were accused of being blind to the so-called "winds of change". After the Carnation Revolution in 1974 and the fall of the incumbent Portuguese authoritarian regime, almost all the Portugal-ruled territories outside Europe became independent. Several historians have described the stubbornness of the regime as a lack of sensibility to the "winds of change". For the regime those overseas possessions were a matter of national interest.

The original delivery and its impact in South Africa

The year 1960 was rife with change. Starting with the surprising announcement by Prime Minister Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd that a referendum would be held in regards to whether South Africa should become a republic; After that were Macmillan’s speech on 3 February, an attempt was made on Verwoerd’s life on 9 April, and the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned in a state of emergency, along with other controversies. Harold Macmillan did not solely compose the speech commonly known as the "Winds of Change"; he had input from numerous friends and colleagues who helped derive the perfect wording for the delicate situation. The Prime Minister wanted to separate the British nation, but also inspire the black nationalists there to pursue their freedom and equality subtly. The other hidden motive is that during this period there was much dissent amongst the powerful western nations over the level of involvement and the continued interference of Britain in her colonies. By separating themselves from the archaic practices that were condemned by their powerful allies they opened themselves up to more political opportunity. This was a bold attempt to address multiple parties and interests at once.

Before he delivered the speech, Macmillan went on a six-week tour of Africa that began on 5 January. He began with Ghana, Nigeria, Rhodesia & Nyasaland and then South Africa where the meeting finally happened with Prime Minister Verwoerd. Macmillan tried to explain the necessity of change brought upon them by the two world wars.

When Harold Macmillan delivered his speech, it was done for multiple reasons. Although the main subject matter of the speech is relating to the separation of Britain from its South African colonies, it also made reference to their discontent with the Apartheid and it held positive political results for the British nation. The speech held promise of major policy change on the topic of their decolonization, and was actually delivered twice in two different locations. First it was done in Ghana, but there was no press coverage and few people even attended the event in Accra. The second, more famous, telling was on 3 February in Cape Town and was met with very mixed reviews.

If the speech would be judged on its quality of deliverance and content it would be considered a success. When considering if this speech was successful one must place it next to its objectives. The speech did lay down a relatively clear understanding of Britain’s intended exit as a colonial power in Africa, so in the larger scheme it achieved its purpose. However, when considering there is indication that Macmillan’s intent was to sway white South African’s to abandon Verwoerd's apartheid dogma, that part of the speech was a failure. It was an important moment to have such a distinguished, powerful figure from the western world admonishing the practices and encouraging the black nationalists the achieve equality, but it still was not as ground breaking or immediately effective as was the implied intent. There was some belief that the policy outlined in the speech was seen as ‘British abdication in Africa’ and ‘the cynical abandonment of white settlers’. Not everyone felt that it was the right move for the nation to make. However, there was a slightly ambiguous reaction from some of the Black Nationalists; they had been prevented from meeting Macmillan – assumingly by Verwoerd – over the course of his visit and were skeptical about his speech at first. Small groups of ANC supporters gathered in both Johannesburg and Cape Town and stood in silence while holding placards with urgings directed at Macmillan. They wanted him to talk with Congress leaders, and reached out to him with banners saying: ‘Mac, Verwoerd is not our leader.’ It is even said that Mandela thought the speech was ‘terrific’ and he even made a speech in 1996 that specifically recalled this very address when he spoke to the British parliament in Westminster Hall. Albert Luthuli noted that in his speech, Macmillan gave African people ‘some inspiration and hope.’

Some people indicated that the British Prime Minister was very nervous for the entire speech. He would turn the pages with obvious struggle. This could be because he was knowingly presenting a speech that he had intentionally withheld from the South African Prime Minister before. Macmillan had declined giving Verwoerd an advance copy, and merely summed up the main content to him. When the speech was complete there was visible shock on Verwoerd’s face. He apparently leapt up from his seat and immediately responded to the British Prime Minister. He was reportedly calm, and collected when he gave his response – something that was widely admired by the public. He had to save face when Macmillan had dropped a ticking time bomb into speech, yet he managed to respond quickly and well in a game of words he was not accustomed to. He famously responded by saying: "There must not only be justice to the Black man in Africa, but also to the White man". He said that for these Europeans there had no real other home, for Africa was their home now too, and that they also were a strong stance against communism, for their ways were grounded in Christian values. Saul Dubow stated that "The unintended effect of the speech was to help empower Verwoerd by reinforcing his dominance over domestic politics and by assisting him make two hitherto separate strands of his political career seem mutually reinforcing: republican nationalism on the one hand and apartheid ideology on the other."

Today, the draft and final copies of the speech itself are housed in Oxford University's Bodleian Library.

British reactions and attitudes at home

Most of the reaction following the speech can be seen as a direct response from conservatives within the British government at the time. Although Macmillan's speech can officially be seen as a declaration of a change in policy regarding British imperialism, prior government actions had already moved towards a slow process of decolonization in Africa. However, this gradual policy of relinquishing Federation-owned colonies was originally intended to only target areas within West Africa. Areas outside of this particular confinement, with British and European inhabitants, were not seen as threatened at first by the gradual decolonization initiated by the British government. As such, the aftermath of Macmillan's speech brought not only great surprise but a feeling of betrayal and distrust by British conservatives at the time. Lord Kilmuir, a member of Macmillan's cabinet at the time of the speech went on to regard that:

Few utterances in recent history have had more grievous Kenya the settlers spoke bitterly of a betrayal, and the ministers of the Federation approached the British government with equal suspicion

These feelings not only resounded with European settlers in the African colonies, but were shared by British conservatives who felt that Macmillan had misled British interests. This was illustrated through the speed and scale with which decolonization occurred. Following this speech therefore, the British government felt pressure from within due to economic and political interests surrounding the colonies. Lord Salisbury, another member of the Conservative Party at the time of this speech, felt that European settlers in Kenya, alongside the African populace, would prefer to be under imperial rule regardless.

Prior to the speech, Federation government had dismissed suggestions that African majority rule would be the best action in the colonies of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Because the copperbelt ran through Northern Rhodesia, British interests would not as easily give up certain colonies. This example can help to illustrate some of the feelings of resentment and betrayal felt by British conservatives following Macmillan's speech. Additionally, the fear that Britain would appear weak or unstable following a mass decolonization of territory was of great concern to many conservatives at the time of the speech. Although Macmillan argued in his oration that Britain's power had not faded, the economic effects if the empire was seen as weak would prove worrisome.

On the other hand, other British sentiment was concerned with whether the speech truly carried an authentic tone. Although in the speech Macmillan addressed British notions of apartheid, the fact that the address was officially made in South Africa left media outlets in Britain to question whether there would be any sort of immediate change in policy. Alongside the issue of apartheid, the process of decolonization as indicated by Macmillan greatly challenged sentiments of British imperialism and brought forth questions as for the legitimacy and responsibilities of colonial powers abroad. Many felt that countries like Ghana, which were among the first to be relinquished from British rule, were only decolonized so quickly due to a lack of economic assets or British settlers. These factors not only created a clash of ideals at home between conservative forces and those who wished to relinquish colonial power, but worked to complicate relations between Britain and other colonial powers.

The Conservative Monday Club

As a result of the 'Wind of Change' speech, British members of government formed the Conservative Monday Club in attempts to debate party policy change and protect and generate new imperial interests. In addition, the motivation behind the group also was founded on the notion that Macmillan had not accurately represented the party's original aims and goals. As a result, the members of this organization rigidly opposed decolonization in all forms and represented the feelings of betrayal and distrust following foreign policy changes after the 'Wind of Change' speech. Many conservatives saw the speech as another step towards a complete loss of empire. The Conservative Monday Club was formed as a direct result of Macmillan's address and as such the British conservative reaction at home can be seen as both resentful and mistrusted.


Wind of Change (speech) Wikipedia