HC Deb 18 November 1957 vol 578 cc33-40

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what representations he has received from the French Government on the question of arms for Tunisia; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now answer Question No. 68.

I deeply regret the differences of opinion which have arisen with the French Government over this matter, the circumstances of which I will briefly describe. I wish to emphasise the following points to the House.

Tunisia, as an independent sovereign State, is entitled to arms for the purposes of legitimate self-defence and internal security, particularly in view of the need to ensure effective control of her frontiers.

Secondly, there has been no dispute whatever with the French Government on the principle that any delivery of arms by any Western country must be subject to satisfactory undertakings by the Tunisian Government that those arms would only be used for legitimate self-defence and internal security and would not under any circumstances be allowed to fall into unlawful hands.

On that point, the Tunisian Government gave assurances which both Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government regarded as satisfactory. No suggestion was made to us by the French Government that the Tunisian assurances on this point were not adequate. On the contrary, the French Government were themselves prepared to send arms to Tunisia and although, in the event, they did not do so, this was not because of any lack of assurances on the point which I have just mentioned, but rather because certain other assurances relating to the source of future supplies to Tunisia were not forthcoming.

Thirdly, France is the traditional supplier of arms to Tunisia and, as we made clear to both the French and Tunisian Governments, we believe that France should continue by agreement with Tunisia to be the main supplier.

Fourthly, it would be most unfortunate if the Tunisian Government should be forced to rely upon arms coming indirectly or directly from the Soviet bloc.

In the light of those four considerations, we have been discussing this matter with the United States, French and Tunisian Governments for a considerable time. At the end of September the Tunisian Government approached Her Majesty's Government about the supply of arms. This followed a similar approach to the United States Government. We informed the Tunisian Government and the French Government of our hope that Tunisian requirements could, as in the past, be supplied by France. If this were not possible, however, Her Majesty's Government, in concert with the United States Government, would supply some arms subject to the assurance as to their use.

At every point we have consulted the French authorities fully and informed them of our communications with the Tunisian Government and with the United States Government. We urged and secured several postponements of the delivery of the United Kingdom and United States arms in order to meet French difficulties. But on 14th November the French and Tunisian Governments informed us that they had been unable to agree on the basis upon which French arms might have been supplied. Her Majesty's Government accordingly carried out their undertaking to the Tunisian Government by sending a small consignment of arms.

The United States and United Kingdom Governments, in agreeing to supply these arms, have been particularly concerned to prevent a situation arising in Tunisia like that which has arisen in certain other countries where, by their readiness to supply arms, the Communist bloc have acquired a dominant position. Far from being "contrary to the principles of Atlantic solidarity", this action by the United States and United Kingdom Governments is designed to protect the interests of the West as a whole. There is nothing in it which would prevent France from supplying the main arms requirements of the Tunisian Government.

May I repeat what I have already said? It is a great source of sorrow that we should have a difference of opinion with France. Our feelings for France, our close and intimate friendship and alliance with France, is something very special for most of us in this House. I hope that this difference of opinion will be kept in proper perspective; it does not at all affect our view of the great position which France must hold in the Western Alliance and in the world.

Mr. Hughes

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us why there was need for this haste in sending the arms to Tunis? Can he confirm or deny the report that Tunis is getting arms from Nasser as well? Is he transferring the entente cordiale to President Nasser? Did not he anticipate in any way that this action was bound to create a great outcry in France? How can this be said to be cementing the Western Alliance?

Mr. Lloyd

All I can say is that this is a matter which has been under discussion for a considerable time—two months or more—with the French Government, the Tunisian Government, and the Government of the United States. As I said, we have sought to act in accordance with the four principles which I have indicated to the House.

Mr. Waller Elliot

Would it not be possible, in view of the great repercussions which these matters have upon the N.A.T.O. alliance, for them to be discussed by the representatives in the N.A.T.O. Council before matters reach an acute stage rather than after?

Mr. Lloyd

I think that my right hon. Friend has made a very legitimate point. I would simply say that there has never been any indication on the part of the French Government that they wished this matter to be discussed in N.A.T.O.

Mr. Gaitskell

While regretting, with the Foreign Secretary, that this situation has arisen, may I ask whether it is not clear that had the British and American Governments refused the request of Tunisia we should, in effect, have been lining ourselves firmly behind the French Algerian policy. Further, would it not also have led to a very grave worsening of the relations between the N.A.T.O. Powers and the Arab States generally? May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman, however, whether he would not agree that the concept of interdependence cannot mean the complete acceptance of a policy carried out by one member of N.A.T.O. by all the rest unless there has been proper and full discussion in N.A.T.O. itself? Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman not also agree that the competition in the supply of arms between the Western Powers and the Soviet bloc constitutes a source of grave danger to the peace of the world? Does not all this point to the desirability of trying to reach some agreement to control the supply of arms to other territories?

Mr. Lloyd

So far as the last question is concerned, we have always sought to see that the supply of arms to countries should be done with a definite restriction upon quantity and in such a way as not to lead to an arms race. As to the wider aspects of the Algerian question and relationships with the Arab States, and so on, I think it would be quite wrong for me to be drawn into that this afternoon. It would be right, however, that the House should know something of what the President of Tunisia has said about these matters. He said that the provision of arms by a Western country would in no way damage Tunisia's solidarity with the Western world.

He quoted, as an example of his Western policy, the fact that no mention by Tunisia of arms aid had been made during the recent visit of the Czechoslovak Economic Mission to Tunis, although the fact that arms were available had been indicated by the Czechs. This was on 26th September, and he said this publicly. He said that he believed that the French Government were favourably disposed in the matter of arms for Tunisia, and in his broadcast on 7th November he said that Tunisia had, in his own words, … chosen the West because our convictions, our geographical situation and our interests require it. He said in his broadcast on 15th November that the arms deliveries had reinforced his confidence in the Western camp, with whom Tunisian solidarity was now total. That was an important statement of policy by the President of Tunisia, to which one must have regard in deciding this matter.

Sir J. Hutchison

In view of what my right hon. and learned Friend has just read as having fallen from the lips of President Bourguiba, and in view of the fact that the purpose of our sending this consignment of arms was to avoid arms being sent by Egypt, has my right hon. and learned Friend had any undertaking from President Bourguiba that the weapons offered by Egypt will be refused or, if they have arrived, will be returned?

Mr. Lloyd

The point that I was seeking to make in the fourth principle that I laid down was that the Government of Tunisia should not be forced to have regard to the Communist bloc either directly or indirectly. It has been well known for some time that there was a gift of arms to be furnished by Egypt and Mr. Bourguiba said about that, on 26th September—some considerable time ago—that he regarded this as no more than a symbolic gesture of brotherly friendship and that in those circumstances he could not refuse it; but his determination to orientate himself with the Western world has, I think, been abundantly proved by the other quotations that I have made.

Mr. Bellenger

Could the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House to what extent the United Kingdom and the United States will supply arms to Tunisia? Is this merely a token delivery? Now that Tunisia has rejected a monopoly by France, are the United States and Britain to be the only countries in the Western orbit to supply Tunisia?

Mr. Lloyd

We would not regard anything of the sort as desirable. As I said, and I repeat, we think that, as the traditional supplier, France should be the main supplier. As far as future supplies are concerned, I am personally prepared to take part in any discussions which may help to secure agreement as to the future.

Mr. Turton

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Tunisia has been asking for arms ever since she became independent in March, 1956, that she directed that request to France, and that she has had no reply to this day in arms or equipment?

Mr. Lloyd

This question has certainly been outstanding for a considerable time.

Mr. A. Henderson

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether his reference to his willingness to enter into discussions refers to willingness to enter into discussions with the French Government, or whether Her Majesty's Government are now willing to enter into discussions with other Governments, including the Soviet Union, in order to attempt, at any rate, to secure an international agreement, under the aegis of the United Nations, regulating in future the supply of arms to other countries?

Mr. Lloyd

I must say quite frankly that I do not think that discussions with the Soviet Union of this particular matter would have any fruitful results at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not try?"] It is performance that counts; it is deeds. The attitude in the past of the Soviet Union has been such as not to give any confidence at all that it wishes to exercise control over this matter or to avoid arousing tension.

As regards the other question, I am prepared to take part in any discussions about this matter.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Was a specific communication made to the French Government of the intention of Her Majesty's Government to supply arms to Tunisia? If not, would it not have been better to have done so and then allowed sufficient time to elapse to enable the French to decide for themselves, in the light of that communication, whether they would supply arms to Tunisia? Has full regard been had to the spirit of the entente cordiale in these negotiations?

Mr. Lloyd

In reply to the second part of that question, I can certainly say "Yes, Sir." Notice was given. At every stage we have informed the French Government of our discussions with the Tunisian Government and the United States Government. Our intentions have been made abundantly clear.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

May I follow up what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson)? Is it not now plain that attempts to deal with recurring difficulties in the Mediterranean, whether East or West, by a competitive supply of arms have failed and that they lead only to new difficulties? Is it not now time to take up proposals made by Mr. Khrushchev, on the lines put forward by the Prime Minister of Australia on 21st October?

Mr. Lloyd

I think that the right hon. Member has the whole matter completely out of perspective. What caused the tension in the Middle East was the supply of £180 million worth of arms to Egypt. This is a question of the supply of arms for one battalion.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Is it not a fact that this is competition between the Soviet side and ourselves, and is it not time that such competition was ended?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not accept for a moment that this is a competition. This is a case of whether or not an independent country, which has clearly expressed its desire to remain with the West, should be able to get arms from the West.

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. I do not know, Mr. Speaker, whether you regard this as a matter which will come under the rules about a special Adjournment of the House. If you do, I should like to move such a Motion.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member. There is another Private Notice Question to come, but I can tell the hon. Member straight away that I would not regard this as coming under Standing Order No. 9 on the point of urgency.

Mr. Silverman

In that event, I beg to give notice that, owing to the very unsatisfactory nature of the Foreign Secretary's reply, I shall seek an opportunity to raise the matter on the Adjournment in the ordinary way.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. I do not know whether it has escaped your notice, Mr. Speaker, but I do not think that any hon. Member on this side of the House, except Privy Councillors, was called to ask a question. Would you bear in mind that there are other points of view which, up to the moment, have not been expressed.

Mr. Speaker

This has been a longstanding difficulty, but there is nothing that I can add to what I have already said on the matter.