HC Deb 22 November 1956 vol 560 cc1941-52
Mr. R. A. Butler

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement on the situation in the Middle East.

The House will understand that a debate is taking place in the General Assembly of the United Nations and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has not yet spoken. Under these circumstances, hon. Members will understand that I can do no more than make an interim report on the position. I hope that the length of this statement will be excused

This may best be done by giving an account of the replies which are being sent to certain questions put to us by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. His first question was: Has any withdrawal taken place and, if so, to what extent? Her Majesty's Government, as an earnest of their intention to withdraw from Egypt as soon as the conditions they have specified are completed, have welcomed the arrival of United Nations troops in Port Said and have stated that they are prepared to withdraw a British battalion.

Her Majesty's Government are assisting and co-operating with the United Nations Command in the discharge of its task. In particular, they have arranged for the main body of the Yugoslav contingent to disembark at Port Said and to be assisted in transit. They are undertaking to provide the necessary vehicles for the Norwegian medical company and military transport for the Indian infantry battalion which will form part of the United Nations force. Detailed arrangements for meeting these and other United Nations requirements are being concerted by the Anglo-French and the United Nations Commands. So much for the first question.

The Secretary-General's second question is this: Can anything be said concerning the plans for withdrawal? On this point, I would recall the statement made by the Prime Minister to the House on 6th November, in which he said that: If the Secretary-General can confirm that the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have accepted an unconditional cease-fire and that the international force to be set up will be competent to secure and supervise the attainment of the objectives set out in the operative paragraphs of the Resolution passed by the General Assembly on 2nd November, Her Majesty's Government will agree to stop further military operations.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1956; Vol. 559, c. 76.] As a consequence of the steps taken to establish the United Nations force in pursuance of the Assembly's Resolution on 7th November, Her Majesty's Government ordered the cessation of military operations. We have made it clear that we are ready to hand over to a United Nations force which will be competent to discharge effectively the tasks assigned to it by the Assembly.

On a number of issues progress has been and will be made. But here I must say that the unsatisfactory element in the Secretary-General's reports which were published last night related to the clearance of the Suez Canal that is outside the area of our control.

As the House will be aware, the Egyptians deliberately and systematically sabotaged the Canal, sinking 47 ships and destroying two bridges. Colonel Nasser has suggested that this was because of the military action we took. This is obviously a fabrication. There can be no excuse for this act of wanton folly.

I am glad to report that we have made excellent progress in clearing the part of the Canal which is under our control. Clearance vessels were attached to the Allied Naval Task Force and they began work as soon as we occupied Port Said. We are also moving up or preparing a large fleet of salvage reinforcements amounting to about twenty-eight vessels.

We expect that by the end of this week we shall have cleared a channel of 25 ft. draught and 65 ft. beam, which will allow the passage of ships of 10,000 tons. The way is now clear for salvage forces to go forward beyond the limit of allied occupation.

The House should know that the Secretary-General's report does not seem to take full account of the Assembly's resolution of 2nd November urging that, upon the cease-fire being effective, steps be taken to reopen the Suez Canal and to restore secure freedom of navigation; although he does, it is true, envisage assistance from sources not directly approached by the United Nations. For all concerned the clearance of the Canal is vital and urgent. This is the view underlined yesterday in an impressive statement by the International Chamber of Shipping.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has been asked to urge most strongly that, in view of world interest in expediting the clearance of the Canal, in view of our undertaking to begin the withdrawal of our troops, and in view of the fact that the stretch of the Canal under our control will very shortly be cleared, there should be no unnecessary delay in starting the work in the Egyptian-held area.

Finally, the Secretary-General asked: What, in your view, is the state of affairs as to compliance with the cease-fire? The cease-fire has, and is being, strictly observed by the Anglo-French forces. Egyptian troops and civilians, who have been supplied with arms, have on several occasions opened fire without provocation on Anglo-French units. The House will have heard with indignation that the Egyptian Government have seen fit to publish the most reckless charges against the conduct of British troops.

The House should give no credence to reports made by the present Egyptian Government. Last week, for example, the Egyptian Government formally complained to the Secretary-General of the United Nations that British armoured cars, in violation of the cease-fire agreement, had driven south of the demarcation line. It was at once established and confirmed by the United Nations observers that not only was the allegation untrue, but that no armoured cars whatsoever had been disembarked at Port Said.

In conclusion, I would say this to the House, that we are witnessing an attempt by the United Nations to organise an effective intervention in an area which has long threatened the peace of the world. This intervention has been made possible by Franco-British action. If this United Nations intervention succeeds—and we intend to sustain the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to make it succeed—a precedent will have been set which will give mankind hope for the future.

Mr. Gaitskell

We are obliged to the Lord Privy Seal for at last giving us some further information about Her Majesty's Government's attitude in this vital matter.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, whether he is aware that not one but several Resolutions have been passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, by overwhelming majorities, calling upon us to withdraw from Egypt unconditionally? Is he aware that those Resolutions did not specify that there were any conditions about the clearance of the Canal before France and Britain withdrew their forces?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the United Nations has been invited by Egypt to undertake the task of clearing the Canal and that the Secretary-General has made a report on this subject, indicating considerable progress? Is it not now perfectly clear that the major obstacle to the clearance of the Canal, which is so desperately important, is—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nasser."] Hon. Members opposite should try to control the hysterical condition of their minds a little better.

Is it not quite clear that the major obstacle in the way of getting on with the job of clearing the Canal is the presence of British and French forces in Egypt, in clear defiance of the United Nations?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary-General's report states that the initial activities of the international force are determined by the fact that as yet no withdrawals have taken place in compliance with the United Nations Resolutions? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in all these circumstances, and in view of the very dangerous economic prospect that lies ahead, he will swallow his pride and withdraw the British troops?

Mr. Butler

I should have thought that the manner in which, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, I have given our replies to the questions of the Secretary-General, pending the speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend in the United Nations itself, indicates that we have done our utmost to date to show that we are intending to work with the United Nations. If not, I do not quite understand why the United Nations has asked us for facilities for the units to which I have made reference, namely, the Norwegian medical company and the Indian infantry battalion. I believe that we can be of great assistance in helping them to come into Port Said.

Secondly, why is it that on the arrival of the first United Nations troops, Great Britain immediately, in a statement made early this morning by my right hon. and learned Friend, indicated our decision to withdraw a battalion?

I think it very important to make it quite clear to the House and to the country that we are ready to hand over, to quote my words again: … to a United Nations force which will be competent to discharge effectively the tasks assigned to it by the Assembly. Those tasks are of first-class importance. They are of importance not only to British interests, but to the whole world.

That leads me, lastly, to answer the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the clearance of the Canal. We understand, of course, that the rest of the clearance of the Canal must be done under United Nations auspices. We are equally aware that we have perhaps the best gear and the best kit, and, in some cases, excellent personnel, available for this task. What is important is that the task should be carried out and that there should be as little quibbling about it as possible.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I press the Lord Privy Seal on the last point? As I understood his statement, he was really saying that we were not going to withdraw our forces further until and unless we were allowed ourselves to get on with clearing further parts of the Canal. Now the Leader of the House seems to imply that we accept the fact that the United Nations should do this job. If that is the case, what conceivable reason can there be for maintaining our forces there? The United Nations has already accepted the responsibility, and the only difficulty in the way of its getting on with the job is the presence of our troops in Egypt.

Mr. Butler

The answer is quite clear. We took an exceptional step—we did it animated, I believe, by great courage and with the right motives—in going into Egypt at all. Statements have been made by the Prime Minister, on the occasion of the cease-fire, that we would withdraw when the United Nations force was effective to carry out the purposes set out in the Assembly Resolutions—the Assembly Resolutions of 2nd, 5th and 7th November, in particular. Those are important objectives, and it is most important, I think, that British policy in this matter should be consecutive and that we should see some hope of those objectives being achieved.

Mr. Bevan

Would not it be very much better if the right hon. Gentleman were able to be perfectly frank, and say that the Government are prepared to accept the United Nations' definition of what is an effective force in Egypt; and that they should not claim to themselves the right of deciding what is an effective force? If they do that, it casts doubt upon the authority of the United Nations. Is it not a fact that, in view of the Egyptian Government's acceptance of a United Nations force in Egypt, the size of the force is no longer a relative consideration?

May I also ask whether, if we are to judge—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is a very serious matter. May I ask whether, if we are to judge the effectiveness of a United Nations force not by the acceptance of its authority by every nation, but by its physical size, all that we shall be doing is building up a new, huge war machine under the United Nations? Is it not, therefore, desirable that the Government should say. "We accept what the United Nations says will be effective," and in addition—I finish with this—should say to them, quite clearly, that if they desire Anglo-French assistance in clearing the Canal we are prepared to do all we can to give it? If we said those two things, it would be consistent with our honour and our interest.

Mr. Butler

I will endeavour to reply to the right hon. Gentleman in the spirit in which he has put his questions. We are on the edge of achieving a great act of international constructive statesmanship, and it is most important that any words used by a representative of any Government involved in this—and, indeed, any words used by a representative of the Opposition party in this House—should be as responsible as they possibly can be.

The decision about our own forces in this matter must be taken in company with the French Government, to begin with; and, secondly, as I said in answer to a supplementary question, two days ago, this decision must be taken by us as sovereign States in company with the United Nations itself, because it is our desire to work with the United Nations.

There is no question of flaunting the United Nations. It is our desire to work with the United Nations. But we must reserve to ourselves the element of judgment, in that these are our own forces.

Mr. H. A. Price

Can my right hon. Friend say to what extent the United Nations has taken into account the breaches of the cease-fire by Egypt, the sabotaging of the Canal following the cease-fire, the firing on British troops and positions, and what damage and casualties have thereby been caused?

Mr. Butler

I cannot give a detailed reply to the latter part of the hon. Member's question, because I have not the figures with me. There have been complaints by the Egyptian Government which we think grossly exaggerated, and we have rebutted them and put in our own reply. We have, at the same time, put forward our own case on such questions as those to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Bellenger

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is considered by the United Nations to be an effective force? We have heard that various offers have been made by various Governments, including the Canadian Government, but so far only small forces from various nations have gone in. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether any opposition is being raised by Egypt to some of the offers which have been made to send in forces to help?

Mr. Butler

As we all know, there has been a certain amount of discussion about certain contingents, but I should be wrong if, in this House, I attempted to answer on behalf of the Egyptian Government, or on behalf of any other Government, even within the Commonwealth. I would rather restrict myself to answering questions on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

The question of the size of the force is difficult, at present, to ascertain. All I can tell the House is that it is envisaged by the United Nations that a figure of about 4,000 will be reached in the next 10 days. The question whether that is an effective one is bound up with the question of the major tasks referred to in the Assembly Resolutions. As was said by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), it is not a question of the physical size of the force; it is a question of outlook in achieving our objective.

Mr. Stokes

While supporting all that is asked by my right hon. Friends further along the Front Bench, may I ask the Lord Privy Seal a purely practical question? He says that 47 craft have been sunk in the Canal. Will he tell us how many of those craft are in the Canal south of Kantara, then we can judge the extent to which the Canal has been cleared?

Mr. Butler

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence says that he thinks the answer would be about half. We know there are about 20 in Port Said itself. That would be the answer to the right hon. Gentleman.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Arthur Henderson.

Mr. Nabarro

On a point of order. Can you, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. No point of order arises. If I was looking in the wrong direction, that is my fault. Mr. Arthur Henderson.

Mr. Henderson

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether we are to understand from his statement that the Foreign Secretary is actually discussing with the United Nations authorities the question of the effectiveness of the United Nations police force?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. One of our difficulties today is that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is not likely to get back to this country until the end of the week. I cannot tell the House whether he will be speaking today or tomorrow. It depends, as in this House, on the nature of the debate. He is having these discussions all the time with members of the United Nations who are now in New York. I think it more probable that he will speak tomorrow rather than today.

Mr. Speaker

Captain Waterhouse.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Captain Waterhouse

I hope that that cheer makes everyone realise, Mr. Speaker, that this time you did not look in the wrong direction.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware of the repeated reports in the newspapers stating that the Secretary-General of the United Nations is modifying his views and, therefore, presumably modifying the instructions that he has had from the United Nations at the request of Colonel Nasser? Is he aware that under its Charter the General Assembly of the United Nations has power to recommend, but not to give orders? Therefore, is it not only right and proper that Her Majesty's Government should insist on having a definite say in the conditions under which our troops are withdrawing?

Mr. Butler

I would not like to comment upon the exceedingly difficult rôle of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, partly because we have not, even in the Government, been able to study in detail his report. We have seen the first version in the Press and later versions this morning. Therefore, I would rather not comment in detail upon his activities. I feel sure that he will wish, in his judgment and in his report, to give full weight to the point of view expressed to him by the British Government, which has been most strenuously and, I may say to the House, most ably put by the Foreign Secretary.

On the question of the Assembly I agree with my right hon. and gallant Friend's interpretation. On the question of judgment about our withdrawal, I think it absolutely reasonable, and, in fact, essential, as these are British and French troops, that the question of their withdrawal should be a judgment on behalf of the British and French Governments, provided that we work, as I said in my statement, with the United Nations and not against the United Nations.

Mr. Paget

When the right hon. Gentleman says that we must consult the French, may I ask: are we not also consulting Israel? Or is the Zionism which was apparent among hon. Members upon the Government benches a, few days ago already dead, now that Israel has served their purpose?

Mr. Butler

Zionism is an emotion which stirs many breasts and is itself eternal.

Mr. Amery

Now that the Leader of the Opposition and some of his right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken for Egypt, can the Leader of the House clarify British policy in one respect and confirm that the troops will not be withdrawn from Port Said until Her Majesty's Government are satisfied that the United Nations is willing, and its police force is able, to secure international control of the Canal?

Mr. Butler

We are not prepared to withdraw until we consider that this force is competent to discharge the tasks which the Assembly has given it to do. Those tasks are set out in the Resolutions, which are for all to read. For example, in the preamble to the Resolution of 2nd November there is a reference to Israeli-Arab peace. In other Resolutions there is a reference to the clearance of the Canal, which I included in my statement. In other Resolutions and discussions there is reference to the six-principles plan for the clearance of the Canal itself.

It is our desire that these matters shall be envisaged as those which are the objectives of the United Nations to settle. I think that it would be wrong to come to a final decision on this matter until we are clearer whether they are likely to be achieved. Therefore, it is impossible, until the Assembly's debate is finished, to carry the matter further today.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the Leader of the House make it clear to his hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. J. Amery) that international control of the Canal was not one of the objectives laid down in any Assembly resolution?

Mr. Butler

There was, I think, a reference to it in a Resolution submitted to the Assembly. I have made it my point to become not exactly an expert on, but au fait with, these matters. It is the six principles endorsed by the United Nations which, I think, make a suitable basis for the settlement of the Canal problem.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a very interesting discussion, but I have my eye on the clock. We have a very important Bill coming on. Does the right hon. Gentleman want to ask a question?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir. I want to ask the Lord Privy Seal another question about the withdrawal of our troops— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."]—which was asked for a fortnight ago by a United Nations Resolution adopted by 65 to one, against which we did not vote and to which we made no condition. The Lord Privy Seal this afternoon quoted the Prime Minister as saying—

Mr. Nabarro

On a point of order. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that since my right hon. Friend made his statement there have been twelve supplementary questions, of which nine have been from Privy Councillors and only three from private Members? Is there any limit to the abuse by Privy Councillors of the time available for supplementaries?

Mr. Speaker

It depends upon the number of Privy Councillors present. Mr. Noel-Baker. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be brief, because it is getting very late.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I will be, Mr. Speaker.

The Lord Privy Seal quoted the Prime Minister—I have, by his courtesy, a copy of what he said—saying: If the Secretary-General can confirm that the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have accepted an unconditional cease-fire and that the international force to be set up will be competent to …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November. 1956; Vol. 559, c. 76.] do its job, then we would withdraw our troops. On the following day, 7th November, the Secretary-General, in a Note to Her Majesty's Government and to France, gave that assurance. Why, therefore, do we not withdraw?

Mr. Butler

I do not think that I can add to the many answers I have given, namely, that the process of easing the arrival of United Nations troops is going on, with our help, that the objectives referred to in that statement have not yet been achieved, and that a degree of judgment must be reserved to the British and French Governments.