HC Deb 23 October 1953 vol 518 cc2393-404

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I wish to raise the question of the sending of British soldiers to British Guiana. I am sorry if the Secretary of State for the Colonies has been inconvenienced in any way by having to come to the House, but I was here yesterday and I thought my advice might have been added to the advice of others from this side of the House, which, unfortunately, he did not take. I hope that when I have finished he will agree to take my advice and that it will be possible for the British troops who are being sent out to British Guiana to be returned at the earliest possible moment.

It will be a mistake to think that with the closing of yesterday's debate and the adoption of the Motion yesterday this business has ended. What I am going to say is not even a postscript to the situation; I believe it is a preface. Unfortunately, we shall hear a great deal more about British Guiana in the coming months than we have heard for centuries.

I admit that until recently, like very many more hon. Members, I was completely ignorant about British Guiana and that, as a result of listening to yesterday's debate, I am now very much wiser. No doubt we all are. When I first heard about events in British Guiana on the wireless in the Recess, I knew very little about the Colony, and when I heard that Welsh and Scottish soldiers were getting ready to be sent to British Guiana I tried to discover something of what it was all about. If the Secretary of State to the Colonies were so anxious about democracy and the constitution and so much opposed to totalitarianism and all the other things we heard about yesterday, I think he might at least have seen that Parliament was called together before he made an important decision of this kind and became the Oliver Cromwell of the suppression of the constitution in British Guiana.

When constituents asked me, "What is this about British troops going to British Guiana? What is going on there?," I had to reply," I do not know. The British Constitution has been suspended and British Members of Parliament do not know." Only at this stage, when British soldiers are in Guiana, are we able to tell the soldiers what the position is. Perhaps we shall have a simplified version of the White Paper for the benefit of the soldiers, illustrated with photographs of all the leading participants, with details about the dividends of the sugar companies and the gold companies and a frontispiece of a photograph of the gentleman who is chairman of the West Indies Committee of the Conservative Party, who yesterday told us that he was a leading shareholder in one of the gold companies. I believe British soldiers ought to know what they are going to fight for and what they are going to defend; and I think what they are going to defend is a classic example of British imperialism, the squalor and the poverty and the sight of the exploiting classes in this country, represented by the Conservative Government, carrying on a traditional policy of British political imperialism when an issue of this kind arises.

I want to produce for the Secretary of State a quotation about British Guiana from what I regard as an independent witness. I am sure the Secretary of State for the Colonies will not scoff at an important American paper, that is regarded as a rather good American review, called "Newsweek." This is what I read about British Guiana in "Newsweek": All but a handful of the people of British Guiana are underpaid and undernourished. An incredible rural slum lines the 25-mile narrow dirt road between Atkinson Field, a U.S. military base during the war, and Georgetown, the capital. People and animals live together in thatched huts or rotted wooden shanties. I hope British soldiers are not going to be billeted there. It would be far better if they were billeted in the homes of the settlers to protect the homes we were told were to be burned down. It says: The stench is overpowering. Georgetown itself represents a Bret Harte Camp in the U.S. frontier. The colonial economy complex mixture of races and dismal poverty, the slowed progress towards self-government, have provided ideal ground for Communists. There was an ideal ground for Communists before ever Moscow heard of British Guiana or before ever we heard of Dr. Jagan. If this is an impartial American point of view we can imagine a very large section of American public opinion are reading this, and I assume they will say, "British imperialism is up to its old tricks again." Because although America has its own brand of imperialism there are a large number of Americans and influential American newspaper people who do not like our British imperialism.

Of course, America is bound to take a little interest in the struggle of an American State for independence. I remember, on one of the first days of this news, seeing in the paper, "Washington approves of the Colonial Secretary." [Interruption.] Who is Washington? I am surprised an hon. Gentleman opposite asks that because if he had been living in the time of Washington he would not have called him a Communist; he would have called him a rebel, and all the Tory Members and all the reactionary, capitalist Press of this country would have been saying worse things about George Washington than they have said about Dr. Jagan.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Oliver Lyttelton)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether the last American opinion he has quoted he also regards as independent an American opinion, as well as "Newsweek"? Or is one independent and one not?

Mr. Hughes

I do not understand what the right hon. Gentleman is asking.

Mr. Lyttelton

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will come to it later.

Mr. Hughes

Yes. What the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise is that he is a lineal descendant of Lord North. This combination of the iron hand and the wooden head is one that has stalked through British history through hundreds of years and is now doing the same thing again. He does not realise he is the reincarnation of Lord North. He is talking about Communists. He is a Communist plot. He is the greatest asset to Communism in the world today. He does not realise this. It is a peculiar thing that he does not. He has created more Communism in a few days than Dr. Jagan could do in 20 years, and it is not only in the West Indies. It is right throughout the whole colonial world.

The view now is this. The Communists say, "We do not believe in Parliamentary democracy because at the appropriate moment they will use Parliamentary democracy against us," and the result is today that they can show not only in the West Indies but throughout the world that British imperialism is at its old game and suppresing a British constitution.

In America, not only the people who think in terms of George Washington, but the people who think in terms of Ireland, will recognise this phenomena, and so will the people of India, because Dr. Jagan is an Indian. I remember that when Pandit Nehru was here he was entertained in the House of Commons, and I had the privilege of having a few minutes' conversation with him. He said to me, "How long were you in gaol?" I said, "Only three years." He said I was lucky, and added, "I was in for seven."

I remember the time, and we all remember the time, when they sneered and laughed at Nehru and put him in gaol for seven years. I remember when the Prime Minister talked about Gandhi as the half-naked figure striding up the Vice-regal Lodge in Delhi. Unfortunately, the Conservatives do not learn anything from history, and here they are trying on a small scale exactly the same old policy of repression, which will ultimately end in disaster so far as this country as an imperial power is concerned.

What are these soldiers likely to see there? I should like to know if the Colonial Secretary can tell us where they are to be placed and what are to be their duties. Are they to be allowed to fraternise with the civil population? It is very dangerous for British troops to fraternise with a civil population which is so violently Communist. A report was circulated from the Colonial Office, during the Recess, that 75 per cent. of the police were already unreliable. When the Berlin police were declared unreliable, our capitalist Press said, "Hurrah, it is a very good thing." They were delighted to see that the police in Berlin were unreliable. When Russian tanks were brought into Berlin and the German Government in Berlin was suppressed, the Press said that this was a great victory for European democracy. What is to happen now?

One of the great planks in our foreign policy is the demanding of free elections for East Germany. Now, at the appropriate moment when free elections are coming along, we, who are supposed to be the greatest champions of democracy in the world, have suppressed free elections in a British Colony. What the Colonial Secretary has done is to give Mr. Vyshinsky a few more effective arguments which will be listened to in the outside world.

I have tried to find out who owns British Guiana. There is nothing about that in the White Paper. It is very natural that Scottish soldiers will be saying, "Who owns this place?" So far as I can ascertain, a big slice of British Guiana is owned by British capitalist interests. We had, for example, the hon. Gentleman who spoke yesterday, who is chairman of the Gold Company and chairman of the West Indies committee of the Conservative Party. I find that his company owns 35,000 acres in British Guiana. The Colonial Secretary may doubt that, but that information was obtained from a book which he regards as his Bible—the "Stock Exchange Handbook," and I do not think that it can be wrong. The soldiers will want to know what this is all about.

What I think is likely to happen is that when the soldiers have had time to look round—if they are not to be kept imprisoned in their barracks—the smelly, poverty-stricken areas of Georgetown and round about, they will be far more liable to become Communists than if they had been kept at home. This will be the Colonial Secretary's dilemma. The soldiers will look around and, presumably, they will talk to the people, some of whom are earning £1, £2 or £2 10s. in a week, and they will find very much the same social conditions as those under which they are exploited at home.

What rights will the soldiers have about the length of time they are to remain there? They were not consulted before they were sent to British Guiana. They were not even given a White Paper. They were just told, "Go." They did not even have the opportunities which are given to repatriated prisoners. They have to stay. They have to do the dirty work of the British exploiter and the incompetent British Government.

I have a challenge to make to the Secretary of State. Will he give these soldiers the option of coming home after they have spent a fortnight looking around this piece of smelly Empire? Of course he will not. When the soldiers see the people working in the plantations, they will say, "We are British soldiers." The people working in the plantations will reply, "Oh, yes, you are the slaves in uniform. Shake hands."

The trouble with the Colonial Secretary is that he is hopelessly ignorant of the elementary facts about Communism. He does not understand what this movement which is spreading over the world is about, and if he thinks he can stop Communism by this kind of action in the 20th century, all I can say is that he is only at the beginning of his disillusionment.

We heard a great deal in the debate yesterday about the prospect of the whole place being set on fire. That was one of the reasons why the soldiers were sent to British Guiana. What is happening in relation to the Scottish soldiers? I understand that 600 of them—a quarter of whom are conscripts—were sent from Edinburgh barracks and placed on an aircraft carrier which made its slow progress to British Guiana. If the Colonial Secretary was really perturbed about the possibility of a campaign of arson, why did he not fly the troops out?

These troops were, presumably, on the high seas for a fortnight, and although the Government were apparently so anxious to prevent fire-raising during that period, nobody appears to have struck a match. What are those troops now there for? What are they going to do there? How long will they be there? Are they to act as potential members of the fire brigade, or what? All I know is that after seven days they will be cursing the Colonial Secretary and the people who sent them.

Here we are, faced with something which is not going to be a small affair. I understand that Dr. Jagan has made a very alarming statement, that he is in favour of non-violence and a campaign of non-co-operation. That is not arson, but it is a very dangerous thing for the people who make profits out of the goldfields and the sugar plantations of British Guiana. Here we have the possibility of a campaign of non-co-operation which would paralyse military preparations. On behalf of the relatives and friends of British soldiers, our forced labour, shoved out to the West Indies, I want an explanation of what is the position and what the Minister is to say to them.

Is British Guiana to be one other trouble spot in the world? We have British conscripts in Malaya and in the Suez Canal and in all the other trouble spots of the world and here is another one, created as a result of the ineptitude of the Colonial Secretary. We should remember that every time these blunders take place in some part of the world—and goodness knows where it will happen next—another lot of soldiers are sent away.

The barrel is being scraped. Competent military authorities tell me they are alarmed because there are no British soldiers here to protect us at all. We have been told that the argument for conscripting soldiers, the argument for a great British Army, is that it is needed to protect us. I say they are not being used to protect us; they are being used in the interests of British imperialism and British capitalism, and that if they had a chance to come home they would do so. I ask the Colonial Secretary to give them a chance, and they will be home by the next boat.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) is always very consistent in the approach he makes to problems of this sort, at any rate when a Conservative Government are in power. But as I look through the records of the experiences of the late Socialist Government it strikes me that he showed certain inconsistencies in his approach to matters of this sort in precisely similar circumstances.

When there was trouble in Grenada, about two years ago, there is no evidence in HANSARD that the hon. Member rose to protest against the action which was taken. May I draw the attention of the House to the facts of the case? In February, 1951, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, in order to deal with trouble in the island—in precisely the same circumstances in some ways as we are facing in British Guiana at the moment—sent H.M.S. "Devonshire," and in the first place, a landing party of Royal Marines. I see no evidence in the records of the House that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire rose to protest against that action.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

If the hon. Member cares to continue his researches into the Questions I put down—perhaps not in this matter, because this particular escapade must have escaped me—but regarding Malaya and every other British Colony, he will find that I was a persistent critic.

Mr. Alport

The hon. Member has been a persistent critic, but in this case, when there was precisely the same action taken by the Government of which he was a supporter, and when four weeks later it was necessary to send further troops from Jamaica to Grenada to prevent a further breakdown of law and order, he made no protest at all.

The only conclusion we can come to is that the present Government are wrong if they do a particular thing, but a Socialist Government are right if they do precisely the same thing in a similar set of circumstances. Indeed, the whole approach of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and the Leader of the Opposition to the debate of yesterday showed they were conscious that they were escaping skating on extremely thin ice. Indeed, that applies to all the hon. Members opposite who spoke. Some fell through, and emerged even wetter than they were before they started.

Other hon. Members, the more experienced ones, were able to get to the safety of the bank before they found themselves floundering in the history of their own record of administration. The difference between the action of my right hon. Friend and the action which the Socialist Government took, or failed to take, in the past, is that the action in sending forces to maintain law and order has been taken by my right hon. Friend before lives were lost and before there were outrages and damage to property, whereas the Socialist Government have sent it afterwards when it was too late. They sent it, as the records of the Grenada incident show after people have been killed, people have been shot by the police and others have lost their livelihood, their houses and all the rest.

On this occasion it is right and proper that hon. Members who criticise the Government in the decision about British Guiana should try to recognise that even their own Government in attempting to carry on the administration of the Colonial Empire were compelled to take similar steps from time to time, but in their case it was too often too late.

4.26 p.m.

The Secretary o£ State for the Colonies (Mr. Oliver Lyttelton)

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has, over the years, earned the affectionate disregard of this House. I was, therefore, very glad to come down here this afternoon to hear his speech, but I was sorry to find him on an off day. Really, it was almost impossible to discern any thread that went through his remarks other than that I should have taken the advice of his hon. Friends yesterday and not landed troops in Georgetown.

That would have been quite a good point, but, unfortunately, his hon. Friends had taken exactly the opposite view. He will probably remember, if he was attending at the time, that I put the question to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) whether, if he had been in power, he would have sent troops to Georgetown, and he replied unequivocally, "Yes." So we are driven to the conclusion that if that had happened in the days of a Labour Government it would have received the support of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, because they said themselves that they would have done it. But as this had been done by a Conservative Government that, of course, alters the whole ideological balance and obliges the hon. Member to come here to indulge in his farrago of rather disagreeable nonsense the day after the debate concluded.

I cannot take up many points. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Labour Party, to which I imagine he still belongs, endorsed the policy of sending troops to Georgetown. The hon. Gentleman asked what they were there for. That, of course, is very difficult to explain. They are there to preserve law and order. Is that a motive which finds any response in the hon. Member's heart? Of course it is. In his own constituency he will find some very efficient Scottish police trying to keep law and order, and if they are insufficient no doubt they might have to be supported by troops from other parts of Scotland. It is all quite simple.

It has nothing to do with Lord North, George Washington or anybody else. It is a very simple proposition in order to preserve law and order. The hon. Member also quoted with evident disgust some reports from Washington which supported the action which the Government took in Georgetown. I think that was where he made a plunge into Debrett and said that I was descended from Lord North, When he discovered some adverse opinion in an American paper on the subject of British Guiana, that he applauded as an entirely independent and impartial observation.

If he asks me to take the "Newsletter," or whatever he quoted from as an impartial observer in America, I will accept it; but, on the other side, he must equally accept as an entirely impartial observation another American newspaper who said they entirely supported the action of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. So, if we add the two up, the answer comes to nought which, on the whole, is not a very bad summary of all that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire said this afternoon.

Finally, he asked whether the troops were going to fraternise with the population. I can give him an answer that they are now fraternising—not Scottish troops because they have not arrived yet, but the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. They are, somebody said—and I agree—some of the best ambassadors that we could have in this part of the world. The Band of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers plays every night and its concerts are widely attended.

I do not think that the hon. Member need worry quite so much. It is always agreeable to find a Scotsman complaining that Welsh troops have been sent or a Welshman complaining that Scottish troops are to be sent.

My message to the hon. Gentleman is that he can go away for the weekend secure that democratic principles will not be violated and that troops have been sent to Georgetown not to impose an ideological objective but—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock. and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.