HC Deb 11 December 1957 vol 579 cc1262-6
Mr. J. Griffiths

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he will now give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not, at the forthcoming N.A.T.O. Conference, enter into any commitment involving a fundamental change in the structure of N.A.T.O. and the surrender of any degree of national sovereignty without the prior approval of Parliament.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

There is about to be held in Paris an important meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Powers. Its purpose is, by calling the heads of Governments as well as the Foreign Secretaries into counsel, to reaffirm the broad purposes which brought the Treaty into being and to discuss what practical adjustments should be made to make it more effective as an instrument to resist aggression.

The purpose of the conference is to confer and I would certainly not think it right to publish in advance any proposals which we might put forward for discussion with our colleagues and allies.

With regard to the assurance that I am asked to give, I would only say this. Any agreement or treaty in a sense impinges on national sovereignty. The making of agreements or modifications to existing agreements is historically and constitutionally a duty laid upon the Executive.

The Government's authority depends upon their ability to command the confidence of Parliament.

Mr. Griffiths

While fully recognising what the Prime Minister has said about the right of the Government in this matter, will he remember the words he himself used in the debate on the Address, when he said: Nevertheless, whatever may be the outcome of these discussions at N.A.T.O. I feel that in the near future—perhaps the comparatively near future—the nations of the free world must make an even more significant contribution of their national severeignty to the common cause than hitherto."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November, 1957; Vol. 577, c. 39.] The Prime Minister himself described that as constituting a turning point in our history.

In view of the fundamental changes involved, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be desirable, before any such commital of that character is made, that Parliament itself should give prior consent?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. This is a matter not of fundamental change, but of degree. I am bound to say—and I believe that it is the view of hon. Members on both sides of the House—that in the modern world, and in view of the problems with which we are confronted in the next generation, if we are to try to deal with the immense pressures which may be brought upon the free world, countries have to get together and work together in a way which was not necessary perhaps one hundred years ago. Anybody who does not take that view seems to me to be closing his mind to the realities of the situation.

Mr. Griffiths

I am not dissenting from what the Prime Minister says about the merits or demerits of the proposals. What I am saying is that a commitment of this kind, which is obviously a committal of the whole country and not only of the Government but of future Governments, is of such an important and fundamental character that, having regard to the important which the Prime Minister himself attached to it in the speech to which I have referred, it is desirable that Parliament should give its prior approval to any such change.

The Prime Minister

If one looks back, the forming of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and our adherence to that Treaty was in itself a tremendous step. It was taken by the Government of the day on their own authority, resting upon the hope and belief that they would have the support of Parliament. To abandon that doctrine would indeed be a fundamental change in our constitution.

Mr. Griffiths

I must press the Prime Minister. I am not discussing the abandonment of the doctrine. I am discussing a change contemplated in the right hon. Gentleman's own speech. I put the question again. Will not the proposal be a tremendous commitment for our country? I am not asking that that commitment should not be undertaken I am asking that the voice of the nation, through Parliament, should be heard.

The Prime Minister

Nothing more than it states must be read into my Answer. I wish to stand on the sound constitutional doctrine. So far as I know, nothing is contemplated in the possible changes, modifications or adaptations of our N.A.T.O. arrangements, which may be necessary with the passing of years and with new situations, comparable with the importance of first entering N.A.T.O. ten years ago.

Mr. Shinwell

Does not the right hon. Gentleman distinguish between the integration of forces under the control of the Supreme Commander and the N.A.T.O. Council of Ministers—which implies some renunciation of sovereignty and with which I agree, having had something to do with the formation of N.A.T.O.—and the decision about when and how those forces should be used? Does not the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that distinction?

The Prime Minister

Oh, yes; but I did not think that it was in that respect that the Question was asked. I remind the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) that the rule of N.A.T.O. is, of course, still the unanimity rule.

Mr. Braine

On a point of order. While recognising the rights of Privy Councillors in these matters, would it not be fairer if hon. Members on this side of the House who, after all, have as deep an interest in this matter as hon. Members opposite, were given an opportunity to speak on it, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member had had a little patience, I was about to call an hon. Member on his side of the House.

Mr. Cooper

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that at this important meeting in Paris he will carry with him the best wishes of all thinking people in this country who are interested in the cause of freedom?

Mr. Wade

Does not the Prime Minister agree that if we are to make any progress towards the maintenance of peace, either on a world or a regional basis, we must not be chary about forgoing some of our national sovereignty?

May I ask the Prime Minister whether, in the discussions in Paris, the political structure of N.A.T.O. will be considered, or will consideration be limited to defence matters?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. The discussions will cover a very wide range. We are one of 15 members and, as I said, we go not only to talk ourselves but, I hope, to listen to our 14 colleagues. That is why it is much better to have the conference, to see what comes out of it. If something does come out of it, I suppose that every Government will have to rest upon the support they can get in their own Parliaments to make it effective.

Mr. G. Brown

If that is the Prime Minister's position, is it not curious that every newspaper this morning carries a story of the four principles which the Government are known, through hints dropped by official spokesmen, now to favour for inclusion in the agenda? A month ago we had the same story, which I challenged at the Box, but which was then held by an official spokesman to be the Prime Minister "flying a kite".

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that the difference between now and the setting up of N.A.T.O. is that so many kites are being flown by official spokesmen that we are entitled to ask him to be at least as specific as are the official spokesmen with the Press outside the House?

The Prime Minister

I know nothing about official or unofficial spokesmen. I read a great many suggestions in the Press and some of them are about things which have never entered my mind. Some are very interesting and valuable suggestions, but I am not responsible for what the Press does. I am only trying to state what I and most hon. Members opposite, I think, believe to be the true doctrine, that, of course, the Executive of the day—how else can it live?—must have full consideration for the support it can get in the House, but it must not abandon its duty and enter a conference of this kind tied, for such a conference would then not be a true conference or a true meeting of minds, a true meeting of the heads of Governments.

Major Legge-Bourke

In joining with my hon. Friend who has wished the Prime Minister well at the forthcoming conference, and entirely agreeing with him that the signing of a treaty to some extent restricts sovereignty, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the very important difference between signing a treaty which one is later free to seek to amend, and joining a supranational authority from which there can be no extrication later, should one so desire it? Can my right hon. Friend give some assurances on those lines?

The Prime Minister

I will bear that point in mind, but I would remind my hon. and gallant Friend that the whole basis of N.A.T.O. is the unanimity rule.

Mr. Royle

Does not all this prove that it would have been very desirable to have had a debate in this House before the N.A.T.O. conference?

The Prime Minister

I think that others of us might have drawn the opposite deduction.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have a short statement to make to the House.