HC Deb 23 October 1956 vol 558 cc491-6
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the Suez Canal question.

Since the House last met on 13th September, there have been, as hon. Members know, some important developments.

The Foreign Ministers of the 18 Powers which supported the proposals endorsed at the first London Conference met at a second Conference in London to consider the situation caused by the Egyptian Government's refusal to negotiate on the basis of those proposals. They, that is to say, the 18 countries, decided unanimously that certain observations made by Colonel Nasser after Mr. Menzies' departure were too imprecise to afford a useful basis for discussion. This Conference further decided to establish a Suez Canal Users' Association, to function in accordance with the principles laid down in the Declaration agreed on 21st September.

Fifteen of the 18 nations have now become members of the Association, which was officially inaugurated on 1st October. The remaining three have reserved their decision, but have continued to be represented at meetings of the Association as observers. The Users' Association has held a number of meetings, in which the problems of organisation, finance and operation have been thoroughly examined. Some progress has been made, and an Administrator has been appointed. It is our hope that the work of building up the Association will proceed rapidly.

These developments, including the discussions with our friends at the second London Conference, satisfied us that the moment had come to place this question before the Security Council. We had, a fortnight earlier, foreshadowed this move by our preliminary letter to the Security Council. On 23rd September the representatives of the United Kingdom and France in New York addressed a joint letter to the President of the Security Council and requested him to summon a meeting of the Council to consider the situation caused by the unilateral action of the Egyptian Government.

The Security Council met between 5th October and 13th October. I will not pretend to the House that Her Majesty's Government are fully satisfied with the results of these discussions. Once again, attempts to achieve a just settlement of a problem have been frustrated by a veto—the seventy-eighth—cast by the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, certain solid advantages were gained. The most significant feature was that the case which the French Foreign Minister and I laid before the Security Council received overwhelming endorsement. Nine of the 11 members of the Council, specifically approved the proposals of the 18 Powers and called upon Egypt either to accept them, or to put forward promptly an alternative system with no less effective guarantees.

Similarly, the non-Communist Powers also endorsed the Suez Canal Users' Association, recognised its competence to receive dues payable by ships of its members, and expressed the opinion that the competent Egyptian authorities should cooperate with the Association to ensure the satisfactory operation of the Canal, and free and open transit through it, pending a definitive settlement.

The position then, at the end of the Security Council meeting, was, and still is, that the Egyptian Government have been called on to put forward promptly their proposals. They have not done so. Part of the resolution at the Security Council was unanimously approved. That part set out six principles which must govern any solution of Suez Canal problems.

We are told that the Government of Egypt accept those principles. Their representative at the Security Council said so. But there seems to be a gap between Egypt's acceptance of the principles and definition of her part of the means to apply them. What has to be done is to construct a system to provide the users of the Canal with adequate guarantees of efficiency and nondiscrimination to replace the system which has been destroyed by the Egyptian Government. For this we need proposals, not the mere acceptance of principles. We still await these proposals.

Throughout the negotiations Her Majesty's Government have kept in close touch with the other members of the 18-Power group who represent over 90 per cent. of the user interest in the Canal from all five continents. It is our determination to continue to work for a solution under which there will be guarantees to the users not less effective than those sought by the proposals of the 18 Powers.

Mr. Robens

As the six principles advocated by the users have been accepted by the Egyptian Government, is it not right that the next step should be the opening of direct negotiations by the representatives of the Users' Association with the Egyptian Government? Does not the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has indicated that the proposals made by Colonel Nasser after Mr. Menzies' departure were too imprecise seem to argue that it would be as well for there now to be direct talks rather than that both sides should be sitting and waiting for each other to act?

Mr. Lloyd

I spent four days in New York with the French Foreign Minister and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, having precisely those direct talks to see whether it was possible to achieve a basis for negotiation. Definite proposals must be put forward which can constitute a basis for negotiation.

Mr. Bowles

As perhaps the only hon. Member who has been through the Suez Canal twice during the Recess—I went to see what hon. Members opposite were talking about—I found that the position was that there was no difficulty at all about transit south or north.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Member can couch what he has to say in an interrogative form.

Mr. Bowles

Why is the Foreign Secretary assuming that transit is not being given completely indiscriminately and efficiently? Does he not realise that by withdrawing the European pilots and now threatening to withhold Canal dues the Government are giving a lead in the stoppage of transit through the Canal?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not at all agree with the hon. Member. There are two aspects, technical and political, of free and open transit through the Canal. Any Government—and, I should have thought, even an Opposition, too—would be very wise to require guarantees for observance under both aspects.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. William Yates.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Yates

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will not pay attention to the empty compliments which I have just received from the benches opposite.

Is he aware that I, too, have been to the Suez Canal? Will he please tell the British people and the Conservative Party that it is not a prerequisite of any negotiation or settlement that Britain and France should demand to use the right of force before consultation with the United Nations, remembering that we are signatories of the Briand-Kellogg Pact?

Mr. Lloyd

The position of Her Majesty's Government on this matter has been clearly stated. We will do everything we can to ensure a peaceful settlement. We have been to the Security Council in an endeavour to procure a peaceful settlement. Nevertheless, what is at stake here is the issue of the sanctity of international contracts. In such a matter, for the British people force will always be the last recourse. Of course we want a peaceful settlement, and we have done our best to work through the United Nations.

Mr. Brockway

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman two questions? The first is incidental to the broader picture. Will be confirm or deny a report in the Press today of serious differences between the American Government on the one hand and the British and French Governments on the other about the proportion of tolls to be paid to Egypt and whether, if our intention is to keep the Canal open, the proportion of tolls which Britain and France suggest would be inadequate for the purpose?

Secondly, and much more important, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, for the sake of bringing about a settlement of this issue, put technical formality on one side and accept the proposal that there should be a meeting at Geneva between representatives of Egypt and the other countries concerned, particularly to consider the proposals of the Indian Government, which go so far to meet the demands which have been made?

Mr. Lloyd

So far as the question affecting the Users' Association is concerned, the matter is rather complicated, and I would rather that a specific Question were put down. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can accuse us of being too technical, or standing on our dignity too much. At the United Nations I proposed, on behalf of the United Kingdom Government, that the Security Council should meet in private session. At the private session I proposed that we should have exploratory conversations direct with representatives of the Egyptian Government. We had those for four days, during which we did our best to try to find a basis for negotiation. I really think that now it rests with the Egyptian Government to define their position.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask two questions of the Foreign Secretary? First, is it the view of Her Majesty's Government that the necessary guarantees to users can be obtained only if there is an international board of management, day-to-day management, or can Her Majesty's Government conceive of the possibility of satisfactory guarantees by a different system? Secondly, has the right hon. and learned Gentleman received from the representative of the Indian Government the new proposals, which were reported in the Press two days ago, and which seem to many of us to offer a very reasonable half-way house solution to the whole problem?

Mr. Lloyd

I still think that international co-operation is the best method of achieving the necessary guarantees. I think it the best and, in fact, the simplest method, but we have never said that it is the only method. What the Security Council's resolution does is to cast upon Egypt the obligation to put forward proposals for guarantees. None the less, we should want to examine those proposals carefully to see whether they did give the same guarantees as international day-today operation.

It is quite true that I have received a copy of the Indian proposals. I think that the first question about them to be decided is whether they constitute the proposals of the Egyptian Government. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are certain matters on which they need clarification and precision.

Mr. Gaitskell

While welcoming, so far as it goes, the answer to my first question, may I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he thinks— in view of the reasonably favourable reply about the Indian Government's proposals—it really would be desirable if a move were made to bring the parties together with a view to agreement on the basis of those principles? Is it the case that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has offered his services in this connection, and has the Foreign Secretary any other idea about clarifying the Egyptian view of the Indian proposals?

Mr. Lloyd

I really think that if right hon. and hon. Members want progress in this matter, the best way to get it is for the Egyptian Government, as quickly as possible, to put forward their proposals for consideration.

Mr. Robens

Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman told us that he spent four days in direct negotiation with the Egyptian Government—as, obviously, the principles were not a matter for argument, having already been agreed, and as the imprecise nature of Colonel Nasser's words must have at that stage been made more precise—would he tell the House exactly what is the sticking point between Egypt and ourselves?

Mr. Lloyd

The sticking point is that we have no proposals to implement the principles which emerged at the end of the four days' discussion. The suggestion that those principles were agreed before we began is untrue ; those principles emerged as the result of the four days' discussion. But it was made quite clear that there must be means to implement them. We had some discussion on the means to implement them, but at the moment the position is that we have had no precise proposals, and the Security Council recognised that. It received a report in private session from the Secretary-General, and it recognised where, in its view, the obligation now lies. I think that we shall make more progress by stating firmly that we await those Egyptian proposals.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no Question before the House.