John Baines Johnston

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Sir John Baines Johnston GCMG KCVO (13 May 1918 – 16 October 2005)[1] was a British diplomat. He is best known for being Britain's High Commissioner to Rhodesia when that colony made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965.[2]

Johnston was born on 13 May 1918, at Maryport, Cumberland, the son of a Church of England clergyman, and was educated at Banbury Grammar School and The Queen's College, Oxford. He served with the Gordon Highlanders in the Second World War.

In 1947 Johnston joined the British Colonial Office, and three years later was sent to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) for 18 months before returning to London, where he was appointed principal private secretary to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Oliver Lyttelton. His duties included working on the new Nigerian constitution and the future of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

In 1956–57, Johnston was head of the Far Eastern Department of the Colonial Office, concerned with delivering independence to Malaya and the future of Singapore. He then transferred to the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO), where he was head of the Defence and Western Department before being appointed deputy high commissioner in South Africa in 1959.

In 1961 he was appointed High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, then in 1963 he was appointed High Commissioner to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which was dissolved on December 31. He then became the high commissioner to (Southern) Rhodesia.

His tenure in Rhodesia[edit]

Johnston had to deal with what he described as "hardcore racialists" in the Rhodesian Front government (under Ian Smith), as well as with the African nationalists leaders Joshua Nkomo and the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole.

As far as Rhodesia was concerned, Johnston had to try to convince the Rhodesian Front that the British government could not allow independence without firm guarantees that the African population would make rapid progress to the management of their own affairs (whites made up only 7% of the population, but had control of the government). For a year he was the "middleman" as Britain and Rhodesia attempted to hammer out a constitutional basis for independence, with Britain insisting on eventual majority rule.

Johnston's view of Ian Smith (Rhodesia's prime minister), was uncompromising: "a dour, humourless man who could see no point of view but his own".[3] But for a time Johnston believed that, if negotiations continued, the threat of UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) might be averted.

So tense was the atmosphere in the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury, that Johnston found it impossible to establish relaxed friendships. For his part, Smith found Johnston a "strange man" to deal with.[4]

On 11 November 1965 Smith declared UDI, and Johnston was withdrawn the next day. In January 1966 he was appointed KCMG.

Career after UDI[edit]

Johnston had a period as Assistant Under-Secretary at the Commonwealth Office, in charge of information services and relations with India and Pakistan; he was then Deputy Under-Secretary in charge of Africa during the time of the Nigerian Civil War.

In 1971 he was appointed High Commissioner in Malaysia, whose independence constitution he had helped to negotiate earlier in his career; he had also represented the British government at the independence celebrations.

His final posting was as High Commissioner in Canada (1974–78). Johnston was appointed CMG in 1962;[5] knighted KCMG in 1966;[6] given the additional knighthood of KCVO by The Queen following her state visit to Malaysia in 1972;[7] and promoted to GCMG in 1978.[8]

From 1978 to 1985, he was a Governor of the BBC.

Johnston died on 16 October 2005.


  1. ^ JOHNSTON, Sir John (Baines), Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2016 (online edition, Oxford University Press, 2014)
  2. ^ "Obituary: Sir John Johnston". London: The Guardian. November 15, 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-04. 
  3. ^ Sir John Johnston, Daily Telegraph, October 25, 2005
  4. ^ Wood, J R T (2012). So Far and No Further!: Rhodesia's Bid for Independence During the Retreat from Empire 1959-1965. Trafford Publishing. p. 465. 
  5. ^ "No. 42552". The London Gazette. 29 December 1961. p. 4. 
  6. ^ "No. 43854". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1965. p. 4. 
  7. ^ "No. 45667". The London Gazette. 9 May 1972. p. 5535. 
  8. ^ "No. 47418". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1977. p. 4.