HC Deb 01 April 1958 vol 585 cc1025-30

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister, if, in view of the lack of progress towards a meeting of the heads of the principal major Powers, he will take the opportunity of the appointment of the new Prime Minister of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to propose a cessation of nuclear bomb tests by the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with appropriate international enforcement machinery.

61. Mr. LEWIS:

To ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the Soviet Government have officially declared that they are to stop all nuclear bomb tests; and whether he will make a similar declaration on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 59 and 61.

No formal communication has been received from the Soviet Government; but the text of the statement made by the Soviet Foreign Minister in his speech yesterday is being carefully studied. Any formal statement of Her Majesty's Government's position must wait until we have had the opportunity of consultation with our allies and partners. Meanwhile, I note that the Russian announcement was timed to come after the completion of an extensive and accelerated series of Russian tests and just before a series of American tests already announced by the United States Government and when the current series of British tests is not completed.

We have long been anxious, as our proposals have shown, to negotiate an agreement on disarmament which will include arrangements for the ending or suspension of tests under proper conditions, at a suitable date and with agreement on an inspection system. Her Majesty's Government, with other Western Powers, suggested as long ago as July the setting up of an expert Committee to work out the inspection system. That offer has been frequently repeated since and still stands.

Meanwhile, I hope that the communication delivered to the Soviet Government yesterday on behalf of the British, French and American Governments will result in early preparation for a Summit Conference, at which this whole question can be brought to a conclusion.

Mr. Beswick

Is the Prime Minister aware that, now that both sides can blast each other off the face of the earth, it is irrelevant to ask whether one side or the other is a little ahead in the testing of these instruments? Does he appreciate that the one thing which the people of these islands will not tolerate is the sort of attitude stated in the column headings of The Times, reporting American reaction, as follows: Frigid reaction in Washington No verification system U.N. the proper agency"? If the Americans will not take the lead, can we have it from the Prime Minister that we will not drive the new Prime Minister of the Soviet Union into the pathological extreme into which Stalin was driven? Will he talk to Mr. Khrushchev on this now, to see whether an agreement can be reached?

The Prime Minister

The House will not wish me to be drawn into the history of these affairs, or into saying anything which could injure the likelihood of an agreement, which, I hope, will be reached. I am not responsible for what The Times or any other newspaper says about unnamed opinion in America. I am responsible for the policy and security of this country. It is quite a heavy burden. I intend to carry it to the best of my ability, and I think that on the whole, as matters are proceeding, I have the general sympathy of the House.

Mr. Lewis

Is the Prime Minister saying, when he refers to what he said last July, that the statement made yesterday by the Russian Foreign Minister makes no difference to the present position? Will he not agree that if the Russians are genuinely sincere in this offer—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—which goes a long way forward with their proposals [Interruption.] We are still getting bickering from the Suez war people, Mr. Speaker. I wish they would go back to Suez.

Would it not be better if the Prime Minister were at least to say that we welcome the statement of the Russians and that he will do everything possible to bring matters to a successful conclusion so that we have agreement on the suspension and, we hope, the abolition of this form of nuclear warfare?

The Prime Minister

I made a carefully thought out statement, which I hope the hon. Member will study. I think that it is very fairly put. I will certainly repeat what is my hope, that the fact that we were able to make this communication on Monday to the Soviet Government will bring very much nearer the work which will lead to the Summit Conference.

Naturally, when a large number of countries have to be considered, and all brought to agree, the processes of diplomacy take a little longer than in the case of a Government which is in sole control of its affairs. Nevertheless, I am very happy that we were able to agree on that communication. I believe that it was a practical proposal and one which should lead to the arrangements for the Summit Conference.

I say again that I hope that at such a conference reference will be made to this whole question and that it can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is it not a fact that many months ago, during the disarmament discussions, the Soviet Union itself proposed a multilateral suspension of tests with proper control and that had that offer been accepted by the Western Powers, the tests in the Soviet Union, of which the Prime Minister has spoken, would never have been carried out?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a widespread desire in this country that we in Britain should make an effective response to what the Russians have said and that there is a very general feeling that we, for our part, should also indicate our willingness to suspend tests and propose immediate talks with the Russians on the controls needed to check them?

The Prime Minister

As I have reminded the House, as long ago as July we asked for the setting up of an expert committee for control. We have never had any response to that. That was refused, but that offer remains. As I have said, I hope that the House and the country—will feel that, with the very great responsibility which we have as a country, this approach to this problem is the one most likely to obtain satisfactory results.

Mr. Gaitskell

Everybody realises the responsibilities falling upon the Prime Minister. Does he not agree, however, that the reason the Soviet Union did not accept the offer he mentioned was that the Western Powers insisted on attaching to the multilateral suspension of tests conditions relating to other parts of a disarmament agreement?

Is the Prime Minister further aware that there is widespread anxiety that if we delay in taking advantage of this offer, and if we or the Americans say that we must carry out further tests, then this difficulty will always arise, that some country or other will always say, "No, we cannot have suspension because we have to make some tests."? May I beg the right hon. Gentleman to do everything he can to see that a positive and not a negative response is made to this Russian proposal?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, that is certainly true. One tries to judge these matters fairly. I do not think that it would be cynical to say, as I have said, that the precise timing of this offer is a matter that cannot altogether be disregarded. At the same time, I still believe that if, as I hope, we have a satisfactory response to the Note which, with two other Governments, we deposited on Monday, we shall make the best progress by that means.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Contrary to the view of the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend give the earliest possible assurance to the country that the current series of British nuclear tests will be continued to completion? After that, we shall at least be on all fours with the Russians, should it then he deemed expedient to propose the suspension of further tests.

The Prime Minister

As I said, this matter arose yesterday. Any formal statement of Her Majesty's Government's position must wait until we have had an opportunity for consultation with our allies and our partners in the Commonwealth. I shall bear all these questions in mind; they must all be kept in mind. But the purpose must also be kept in mind, namely, to make some advance in this field of disarmament and in the general field of disarmament while, at the same time, preserving the security of this country.

Mr. Bevan

Is it not correct that the statement by Mr. Gromyko has been expected for some time, and that many newspapers in various parts of the world anticipated his speech? Was it not possible, therefore, for Her Majesty's Government to have had consultations in anticipation of that statement being made?

Secondly, is it not correct that President Eisenhower stated, a fortnight ago, at a Press conference in the White House, that he was satisfied, upon expert advice, that it was possible to detect whether nuclear explosions of any importance were taking place?

Thirdly, did not the Prime Minister himself a few days ago, in the House, make a statement which was universally applauded, namely, that he was very anxious to see any progress, no matter how humble it might be, so long as something could be done, because one small advance might make other advances easier? Is not this a very important advance in itself? Why, therefore, does not he now act with a great deal more moral courage and accept the offer?

The Prime Minister

It would be very unwise to proceed upon newspaper anticipations as to what foreign statements were likely to be made. I have not got the full text of the speech; nor has any formal communication been made by the Soviet Government to Her Majesty's Government or any of the allied Governments. A speech was made at a meeting, which speech we are studying.

I am as anxious for advance as any other hon. Member, but I am also anxious that it should be properly negotiated, properly tied up, and effective, without endangering our own security.

As for moral courage, the House must judge.

Mr. Bevan

The Prime Minister has not answered one question which was put by my right hon. Friend. If the series of tests now being decided upon by Her Majesty's Government and by the United States are carried out, what answer will he have if France wants to do the same thing? What answer will he have if the Russians say, "We made our offer. You did not accept it, so we will go on with more tests"? Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that there is a very, very deep desire in this country that a real attempt should be made to lift this shadow off men's lives? This is his opportunity. Why does he not take it?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is somewhat over-simplifying the problem. I do not propose to add to the statement that I have made today. I must stand by it, and I am quite prepared to do so. But I am sure that the House and the country realise that the important thing for us to do is, as I say, to reach a satisfactory agreement without endangering our security. I believe that that should be our guiding principle.

Mr. Strachey

Can the Prime Minister tell us what his objection is to Her Majesty's Government using this opportunity to propose that a proper system for the inspection and control of tests throughout the world should now be established? Such a system could make unnecessary the resumption of tests by the Russians or by other Governments in a position to carry them out. Surely this is the opportunity to propose something of that sort.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. That is why, in my reply to the Questions, I said that we are anxious to negotiate an agreement on disarmament which will include arrangements for the ending or suspension of tests under proper conditions, at a suitable date and with agreement on an inspection system.