HC Deb 10 December 1958 vol 597 cc443-69

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) expressed some fears about the reputation of "this institution," by which I imagine he meant the House of Commons. Does he really believe that the performance to which we have been subjected during the last two-and-a-half hours has increased the reputation of the House of Commons in the eyes of those who watch us and read about our proceedings?

Mr. Bence

There has been no Minister here.

Mr. Nicolson

We know very well that it is part of our procedure that if the debate which is allotted for the day ends unnaturally early and the subject put down for debate on the Adjournment is one which is of purely local interest and does not attract a great many other speeches, it is then possible for any other hon. Members to fill the hours between the end of the official Adjournment debate and the rising of the House by making speeches on any subject they wish. [HON. MEMBERS; "Why not?"] It is also the tradition of the House to give as long notice as possible to the Minister concerned that one intends to raise such and such a subject. But this privilege can be abused, and it is being abused tonight.

Mr. Swingler

On a point of order. My hon. Friend the Member for Yardley (Mr. Usborne), who commenced this part of the debate, is not here now. He has been accused of abusing the rules of the House. I should like to repeat to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, what my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley said to the House, and I believe that at that time the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) was in his place. My hon. Friend told the House that, seeing that the previous debate on the Adjournment Motion was going to finish, he rapidly gave notice to the Foreign Office that he wished to start a debate on Foreign Office questions. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that that is a perfectly legitimate thing, which has been done many times in the history of the House. My hon. Friend did a perfectly correct thing. He notified the Department and then made a perfectly legitimate speech. I submit to you, with the greatest respect, that it is entirely disorderly that my hon. Friend should be accused of abusing the rules of the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) is perfectly entitled to state his views.

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. With respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I submit another point arising out of what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) has said. I understand that this debate has been going on now for about two-and-a-half hours. I have been here most of the time, though not all. If there has been any abuse of the procedure of the House for the past two-and-a-half hours it must have been a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Chair, and the comment by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) is grossly disorderly, because it cannot be understood except as being an attack upon the conduct of the proceedings of the House by the Chair, an attack which would be wholly unjustified and wholly improper.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not think that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch made any attack on the Chair at all.

Mr. S. Silverman

Of course he did.

Mr. Swingler

You appear to have upheld, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the assertion by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch that there has been for two-and-a-half hours an abuse of the rules of the House, over which you have been presiding.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I said that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch was entitled to express his views.

Mr. Silverman

Further to the point of order. I respectfully say that although any hon. Member, on either side of the House, is entitled to express his views, there are some things which he is not entitled to say under our rules, otherwise our debates here would be impossible. One of them is that he must not impugn the conduct of debate or proceedings by the Chair, except on a positive Motion placed on the Order Paper. I make a perfectly serious point. It seems to me that if there had been an abuse of the rules of the House for two-and-a-half hours that could have happened only if the conduct of the proceedings by the Chair had been lax, negligent and improper, and I suggest that the charge of abuse ought to be withdrawn immediately.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Mr. Speaker has already deprecated speeches made without giving notice to the Minister. There has been a breach of that convention in the House and the hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch is entitled to express his views.

Mr. Silverman

As far as I know, no speech has been made without adequate notice given to the Minister concerned, and I suggest to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it is just possible to allow a certain amount of impatience and irritation at not being able to go home early to go over the border to positive partisanship.

Mr. Swingler

Further to that point of order. When Mr. Speaker was in the Chair, and you were not here, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, when my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley rose, Mr. Speaker said that it was the convention of the House that notice should be given, whereupon my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley rose and pointed out that he had been able to give only very short notice to the Department concerned, and did not, therefore, expect that immediately it would be able to send any representative. He had endeavoured to conform with the conventions of the House and give notice, and he was making his speech and introducing this discussion on that basis. For a considerable time after that, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch was sitting there, and at no time did he care to rise and say that the rules of the House were being abused. He waits this long period of time, during which he alleges that there has been an abuse of the rules of the House, in order to make this assertion when my hon. Friend is not present.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

There is no charge by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch that there has been an abuse of the rules of the House, and I do not think that is what he said.

Mr. S. Silverman

That is exactly what he said.

Mr. Nicolson

May I make clear the point I would have made if I had been allowed to get a word in edgeways in the last three or four minutes. I was not accusing hon. Members of a breach of the rules of the House. I was accusing hon. Members of using one of the traditions of the House in an improper manner, and bringing the House of Commons into disrepute by this particular use of the gap which happens to have occurred between the end of the day's allotted business and the rising of the House.

Mr. Short

On a point of order. The hon. Member is saying precisely the same thing, but in other words. What he said is within the recollection of the whole House, and it is that what has been going on for the past two and a half hours was not an abuse of the conventions of the House but an abuse of the rules of order, which is a very different thing. He now says that it is improper. I suggest to you. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the conventions of the House are not binding on anybody. They are purely permissive, and we may obey them if we wish. The rules of order, however, are binding, and they are, therefore, a matter for the Chair. If an hon. Gentleman alleges that there has been a breach of the rules of order, it is surely a reflection on the conduct of the Chair?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not think the hon. Member suggested that there has been a breach of the Standing Orders.

Mr. Nicolson

Let me say once again that I accuse no hon. Member, let alone the Chair, of a breach of the rules of order. I was merely asking the hon. Member, as one back-bencher to another, whether it is in the interests of the House of Commons that this practice which we have experienced tonight should become a standard practice. Personally, and I am expressing only a personal opinion, I think that it is unfortunate, and that it can do very little good to the hon. Members themselves.

What is the point of making a long speech about Scottish industry, as did the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), who spoke last, and who certainly had not notified, and could not notify, the Minister, that he would speak on this subject? It may be that his speech will earn a few lines in his local newspaper, but it will receive no answer from the Minister concerned, and could not do so. As for the earlier debate, if one can give it that name, upon foreign affairs, which ranged over a very wide field under that heading, it cannot be easy, perhaps it is not even possible, for any of the limited number of Ministers at the Foreign Office to come here at very short notice to answer a debate of which they have had no previous notice at all, and when, by the circumstances of the events tonight, they would have come into the debate halfway through the opening, and presumably the most important, speech.

Mr. Swingler

May I interrupt on that point?

Mr. Nicolson

I am sorry, I cannot give way. I have not even begun what I wished to say. I wish to give a personal answer to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes).

Mr. S. Silverman

Will not that be improper.

Mr. Nicolson

For the reasons I have given there can be no member of the Foreign Office here. I certainly do not speak on behalf of the Government or of the Foreign Office, but it could be asked by those who perhaps will read in the papers tomorrow that the hon. Gentleman attacked the Foreign Office, why there was not a single Member on the other side of the House who could give him the simplest answer. So, although perhaps it might have been wiser to let the hon. Gentleman's speech dissipate itself in thin air, nevertheless, as I was the only Member on this side of the House who was present during his speech, perhaps I should say something on my own behalf in reply to him.

The hon. Gentleman has made several suggestions and several charges. They were very confused. They were delivered, both just now and on earlier occasions, in a manner which seemed to combine levity with gravity. We do not know, as we seldom do know, whether the hon. Gentleman is serious or not, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he seriously proposes to the Government that they should give in great detail their answers to these articles which have appeared under the name of Randolph Churchill.

Mr. Silverman

My hon. Friend did not ask that at all.

Mr. Nicolson

He spoke almost entirely on that point.

Mr. Silverman

As I understood my hon. Friend, he did not suggest that the Government should debate with Mr. Randolph Churchill and give answers to what Mr. Randolph Churchill said. What my hon. Friend suggested was that the Government should appoint an official historian so that the real story could be told, or, alternatively, that they should appoint a Select Committee to which the evidence could be produced. That is a very different thing.

Mr. Nicolson

The hon. Gentleman will also recall that his hon. Friend said it was wrong for the Foreign Office spokesman to accuse Randolph Churchill of having committed certain grave inaccuracies in his account of those events without specifying what the inaccuracies were. To my mind, if the Government took up his suggestion it would involve them engaging in a form of debate—because their reply would certainly be answered—with a journalist. I cannot recall any other instance in recent history when any Government has felt that to be the right thing to do. That is my first answer.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

As the hon. Gentleman has referred to me, may I ask on that point if he is aware that it was the Foreign Office which started this attack on Mr. Randolph Churchill by making a statement at its Press conference?

Mr. Nicolson

It is precisely in that attitude that I see evidence of the hon. Gentleman's levity. We all enjoyed his witticism at Question Time yesterday. It was a very good joke, but it exposed his motives. We all knew very well, and he intended us to know, that he was not seriously accusing the Foreign Office of grave indiscretion by attacking Randolph Churchill, because we all also know that Randolph Churchill is a person who constantly exposes himself to attack, who actually enjoys it, and who would have regretted it very much if his articles had not created the furore which they did. That is not to Randolph Churchill's discredit.

I now come to a further suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman just now. He said that there should be a full inquiry. He confused us—at any rate he confused me—by failing to specify whether he meant an inquiry into the military operations or an inquiry into the political and diplomatic events which preceded them.

Mr. Emrys Hughes


Mr. Nicolson

He read out a long list of official war historians and suggested that one of them might be turned on to writing the official history of the Suez War. That may be done in time. The war histories now appearing refer to events that happened some twenty years ago, and I feel certain that one day the full history of the Suez operation will be written, as the history has been written of every operation in which British arms have ever been employed.

Perhaps the time is not yet to write that history. Following precedent, very soon after the events we had the official dispatch of the commander-in-chief responsible. General Keightley's dispatch was not a formal, empty document. It was an occasion for a renewal of political controversy. It was a very lengthy dispatch. It revealed a great deal that was not known, and I believe there is very little about the military operation to startle the hon. Member which could now be revealed by any official historian.

We all know why it was—the whole world knows—that the military side of the Suez operation was not a complete success. The main reason—it was known to the world before the operation started— was that there was no deep water port in Cyprus. There is not much more to be told. When the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East says that the failure of the operation—I will not say it was a terrible military failure—was due to shortages of arms and ammunition which could have been produced in his factories in Scotland, that is complete nonsense.

Mr. Bence

I did not say that. I referred to L.C.Ts and L.S.Ts.

Mr. Nicolson

Those are naval and military craft which are produced on the Clyde. The reason why the operation failed was not a shortage of those craft. It was because of the distance of the bases from the point of attack. These are things which we all know. What could be added to these basic strategic facts by any military inquiry of the type the hon. Member had in mind?

Mr. Emrys Hughes

If I remember rightly, the hon. Member opposed Suez. Is that right?

Mr. Nicolson

I come now to the more delicate question of the history of the political and diplomatic events which preceded the military operation. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire has just reminded the House that I was an opponent of the Suez policy. I have never unsaid anything I said at that time, although I am not going to say it all over again on this occasion, but perhaps to that extent it was a good thing that I happened to be the only Conservative Member in the House, because I am able to speak with less party bias than almost any one of my colleagues. For that reason I believe that my words might carry more weight with the hon. Gentleman than those of hon. Friends of mine whom the hon. Gentleman might think were rather prejudiced in what they had to say.

At the time of the crisis two years ago many rumours were current. The newspapers of the world were full of innuendoes against the honour of individual members of the Conservative Government. The facts were debated over and over again in the House. At the conclusion of the main block of debates a book called "Secrets of Suez" was written, and published in France, by the brothers Bromberger, and in that book the most wild, fantastic and harmful allegations were made against Sir Anthony Eden personally and against many members of the present Government.

I am surprised, incidentally, if it was thought by the Opposition so necessary to investigate the details of what happened in October and November, 1956, that they should not have seized as an excuse upon the Bromberger's book which went very much further than Randolph Churchill's did some eighteen months later. Why is there this sudden renewal of interest in the events of two years ago?

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Because the Foreign Office has started it.

Mr. Nicolson

If we were to hold an inquiry of the sort suggested, by definition it would be composed of hon. Members. Does the hon. Member for South Ayrshire think that a Select Committee of the House of Commons could assemble and call before it witnesses, who would presumably include the leading statesmen of the day, and, having interrogated them, come to a fair conclusion which would be the unanimous report of the Committee? Even if the Committee could do all that, do hon. Members opposite think that such a report would be accepted equally by everybody in all parts of the country? On the contrary, it would simply revive the controversy, which would do nobody any good, but would add more petrol to an already burning fire.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the hon. Member allow me, as an old Member of the House, to suggest to him that there is no fairer or more judicially minded tribunal in this country than a Select Committee of the House of Commons, doing its best with the evidence to establish the facts?

Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)

Where would the Committee get the evidence from the American side?

Mr. Nicolson

My hon. Friend has just reminded the House that this is not purely a domestic affair, and that in order to sift the truth from the untruth and to get at the facts of what happened two years ago, it would be necessary to call evidence from half a dozen other Governments, from the United States of America, from France, Israel and the Governments of the Commonwealth, because without evidence of that sort, the Select Committee could not tell for certain that it had got to the bottom of the truth.

Mr. H. Hynd

Surely the Select Committee could accept documents from British Government sources.

Mr. Nicolson

This was an international affair, and it can be sorted out only by historians, by people not concerned with and not influenced by the passions which those events aroused and still arouse, men who in the future will be able to read the documents and sift all the evidence from all sides, and thus bring a balanced, historical judgment to bear upon those events, and, in the end, present their version of the affair for subsequent generations to read.

However, we will not have to wait all that time. Randolph Churchill has written a series of articles. It is open to anybody to answer those articles and to write other articles. For instance, M. Mollet can do so, if he so wishes, for he is now a private citizen. So can my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head), who was Minister of Defence at the time of the Suez operation and who is now an ordinary back bencher. Those and any others can contribute their evidence to refute, or, if they wish, to confirm, what has been written by Randolph Churchill.

Perhaps the most important witness of all, Sir Anthony Eden, is to publish his account of what happened. It is fairly general knowledge—it has been published many times in the Press—that he is engaged upon writing his own memoirs and that the Suez chapters form a very large part of the volume which he has written first. We are told that it will be published next year. He will take into account the accusations which have been made by Randolph Churchill and others as he is in the process of writing those chapters. Then we will have another version. That is the way history is made. That is the way public opinion is formed.

When the Prime Minister said yesterday that he left it to the judgment of the nation at the General Election to decide whether we were right or wrong to do what we did two years ago he was quite right. Never, on any issue, do the public have the full evidence on which to judge. Every hon. Member knows something about practically every political event which is not known to the public at large. Exactly the same is true of the Suez operation. I did not know everything about it; I still do not know everything, by a long measure. But I felt that I knew enough to make up my mind whether what we did then was right or wrong, and I came to a personal conclusion, which I asked none of my hon. Friends to share. Very few of them did. I found myself in a tiny minority in this House and in my own constituency. But I did not ask for a public inquiry into the details of what Sir Anthony Eden said to M. Mollet on 16th October in Paris. I did not need to know this. The facts which were published were self-evident enough, and, cumulatively, gave us enough upon which to base a sound judgment. The same is true today.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I am sorry that in opening his speech the hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) was abusing the customs of the House in raising this matter on the Adjournment. The hon. Member will be aware that since my hon. Friend had already exercised his opportunity to raise this matter at Question Time there was no further opportunity to raise it except by taking advantage of the occasion which presented itself tonight. It is not my hon. Friend who is abusing the rules of procedure, or the customs of the House; the people who are doing so are those who, having been elected as Members, visit the House as rarely as they can.

There would have been no difficulty in this matter if those who had been notified that the debate was to take place had been courteous enough to take their appointed places on the Front Bench. They have not done so. The two hours' notice which was given was in no way unreal. We had an Adjournment debate about three weeks ago when an hon. Member opposite changed the subject of the debate. He had given notice that he would raise a certain subject and, at the last moment, without the rest of the House knowing it, he changed his subject. No hon. Member opposite felt on that occasion that that hon. Member was in any way abusing the rights of back benchers or the privileges of the House.

My hon. Friend is completely justified in raising this matter, because the accusations or disclosures of Mr. Randolph Churchill have reawakened public interest in a subject about which the public has always been confused because it has never been clearly explained. It is useless for hon. Members opposite to dismiss Mr. Randolph Churchill as an irresponsible journalist. Not only is he a former Member of this House, but he is the son of a very distinguished former Prime Minister. Presumably father and son occasionally have little "conflabs" and, while no one would pretend that in voicing the opinions that he has the distinguished journalist is giving any other opinions than his own, his family connections are such that no one can completely disregard his opinions and suggest that they do not count for anything.

The hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch said that the reason why the Suez invasion failed was that there was no deep-water port. I should have thought that the reason why it failed was that it closed the Suez Canal, the purpose of the invasion being to keep it open. It seemed to me that once they had succeeded in blocking the Canal, whatever other achievement they could have claimed credit for, they had failed dismally in their objective.

The hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch said we had no evidence. Of course we had no evidence and the public will always argue about whether we went in, as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary claimed, to separate combatant forces. That has always been the reason which has been advanced. Always the claim has been put forward from the benches opposite that we went to war to prevent a war; that we went in to separate two opposing armies which had not contacted one another by some hundreds of miles.

I refer the hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch to what Mr. Dulles himself was saying, not in October and November of that year, but in August. He gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, in January. He recalled that he had left for the first London conference at two hours' notice without even taking time to pack a bag, after an urgent conference at the White House. He said there were "very strong forces" at the London conference which had believed that a solution could be found only in terms of an armed attack. These opinions had not proved "dominant" at the conference. But, Mr. Dulles added grimly, the world could have no doubt now of their reality, in view of the later conduct of Britain and France in Egypt.

In other words, three months before Israel had attacked Egypt, Mr. Dulles gained that impression at the conference of the maritime nations which was called immediately after Nasser had nationalised the Canal. He went away from that conference believing that there were certain forces which wanted to settle this issue by force. He was not referring to Israel. Because of the subsequent events, it is obvious that the two nations to whom he was then referring were Great Britain and France.

At the secret conference of the maritime nations Mr. Dulles gave the impression that Britain and France wanted to settle this issue by force in August, long before Israel had marched. In the testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee Mr. Dulles said: The path to a peaceful solution could have been found if Britain and France had not invaded Egypt. At the end of October, the Security Council had unanimously adopted six principles for the future regulation of the Suez Canal. The optimism then shown by the Eisenhower Administration was an accurate portrayal of the situation as it then existed. Then, Britain and France moved in Egypt. In view of the disclosures and opinions now being published by Mr. Randolph Churchill, it seems to me highly desirable that the British people should be told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The honour and integrity of Her Majesty's Ministers is being challenged.

What Mr. Randolph Churchill is saying, in essence, is that the country was misled and deceived. When the hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch speaks about the reputation of the House, I would remind him that nothing is more damaging to that reputation than that an opinion should get abroad that Her Majesty's Ministers are not honourable, truthful, or frank. We shall never get to know, will never unfathom this mystery, this hiding and covering up, until we can have an inquiry on the lines suggested by my hon. Friends.

Who will lose anything? If Mr. Randolph Churchill's charges are wrong, pointless and untruthful, his reputation will suffer in the event of an inquiry and the character and honour of the Ministers against whom he directed his charges will be vindicated. In view of his charges, unless the Government get up and say openly, "This man is wrong, and the charges he makes are completely unjustified", and agree to the setting up of an inquiry, we must assume that silence gives consent. If they are not prepared to submit themselves and the papers at their disposal to cross-examination by independent authority the charges will still hang over them. There will always be people who will doubt the honesty of the statesmen who represented them on that occasion and who represent them today.

Let us not minimise what happened. The country, as one of my hon. Friends has said, has spent since 1950 perhaps £10,000 million or £12,000 million, the vast proportion of which has been expended to keep Communism at bay in the world and to defend ourselves against Communist aggression. Because of suicidal decisions made during this period. Soviet Communism was given an opportunity which could never otherwise have fallen to it.

What senseless body advised the Suez Canal Company to withdraw the pilots? Nobody will ever tell me that the Suez Canal Company made that decision without considering the opinions and advice of the British and French Governments. It was a decision which the men in authority thought would inevitably result in the closing of the Canal. But these wise, all-knowing people thought that there was nobody in the world who could pilot a ship through the Suez Canal except a British or French pilot, and that if the pilots were withdrawn the Canal would close. Within 48 hours of our pilots and the French pilots being withdrawn, the Soviet pilots arrived.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

They are there yet.

Mr. Fernyhough

And they are there yet.

Mr. Hughes

They will stay.

Mr. Fernyhough

And they will stay. We have spent tens of millions of pounds in trying to keep Soviet influence out of the Middle East, yet by a disastrous, suicidal, senseless decision we make it possible for the Russians to go in without any trouble, and, as my hon. Friend has just said, they are not only there but are likely to remain there and their influence is likely to grow.

These events, for which the nation is now paying the price, should be thoroughly investigated. The charges which Mr. Randolph Churchill has made should be answered, but they cannot be answered by men whom half the nation thinks are guilty. They can be answered only by putting at the disposal of a commission all the relevant papers and all the relevant witnesses. The honour of certain Ministers is involved. If they treasure their honour, I think that they would agree with my hon. Friend's request that the Government should institute an inquiry.

9.18 p.m.

Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)

I had not intended to invade the debate; after all, it will be within the recollection of hon. Members that originally we were talking about petrol pumps at Frinton. There is nothing in the world in which I am less interested than the situation of petrol pumps at Frinton, but this House has remembered its old right of being entitled during an Adjournment debate to raise any question that occurs to any Member. I welcome this uprising of back bench Members in the absence of Members of both Front Benches. We have been too complacent in the past, and I welcome the re-establishment of back bench control of the House.

At the same time, I disapprove most vehemently of the argument that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) put forward that a Select Committee Should be set up to go into the allegations made in Mr. Randolph Churchill's articles in the Evening Standard quite recently that impute certain errors on the part of some Ministers or former Ministers of the Government. I think that that request should be strongly resisted, not because I want to keep anything under a particular hat, but because a Select Committee simply could not establish the truth. We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) point out that a Select Committee would not be able to summon to its presence people from America, Israel, France, Egypt or Russia to give evidence.

Mr. S. Silverman

The hon. Member made this point in an intervention earlier. Nobody suggests that a Select Committee or any authority in this country is entitled to investigate and to pass judgment upon the action of any other country—America, France, Israel or anybody else. What has been suggested is that the Government of this country are responsible to the House. The suggestion is that they have been misleading us and not telling us the facts. All that is being suggested, as I under stand it, is that there should be an officially appointed historian or a Select Committee or some other kind of tribunal which the Government could select or appoint, and that all the evidence as to the conduct of our own Government—no one else—should be placed before it and judgment arrived at.

Sir F. Markham

I welcome that intervention, but it still does not answer the question of how we are to prove or disprove charges of collusion, which have been made frequently from the other side of the House, without the evidence from those other countries.

Mr. Silverman

There are documents.

Sir F. Markham

There may not even be documents on this matter. Personal evidence may be required from people on both sides. The House cannot obtain that. It has not the power.

When it comes to the second part of the charge—that there may have been some unpreparedness of our own Forces and an inadequacy of preparation for the operation—then, as hon. Members know, the Opposition have the right to demand Parliamentary time for a discussion and to demand a White Paper in advance of it. They have made no such demand. It is no good hon. Members on an Adjournment debate saying that these things should be done by a Select Committee when they could be done in normal Parliamentary time. Why have they not done it? The only conclusion we can reach is that they do not believe their own story.

The difficulty of getting at the truth of some of these things is well known. I have had full experience of this in writing official biographies, and I know that even 40 years after events still further evidence is coming forward which leads one to modify the views which one reached at the time. We all know how in recent years the books written by American generals about the last World War and those written by our own generals tend to disagree on vital points of who won which battle and by how much and where.

It is ridiculous to suggest that the House has the divine power of being able to see the truth by a Select Committee when the evidence will probably not be available in our lifetime. It is preposterous. As for the question of the preparedness of our own Services, the answer is clear and obvious; the Opposition could have taken formal Parliamentary time and asked for a White Paper and the Government would have been bound to produce it.

May I come to my own part in the Suez events, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch stated his opinion very honourably. My own opinion is known to the House. It was in favour of the Government. This was so without knowing the full facts. How do we take decisions on these grave issues when we not only do not know the full facts but realise that they will probably not be known in our generation? This is a most awful question which we as hon. Members have to pose for ourselves. We have to make judgments on matters of great moral and historical value when we know that the full facts will not be available to us or possibly even to the historians for a generation.

Mr. Emrys Hughes rose

Sir F. Markham

I prefer not to give way just now.

In such matters we have to act on faith, and my faith at that time was placed in the honour of Sir Anthony Eden. I have seen no cause in the years which have passed to diminish by one jot or iota my very profound admiration for that man. If he took a wrong decision at the time, it may be that the information was not available to him. But I took my decision on faith, with the best information which was available to me. It was not, of course, complete information, and I doubt whether we shall have all the information for a very long time.

On the question of military preparedness, all the keys are in your pocket; you can take them out and start the operation next week if you wish to do so. You are not doing so. Why not?

Mr. Silverman

We have asked the questions.

Sir F. Markham

After holding back for two years. Why have you taken two years?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member should remember that he is addressing the Chair.

Sir F. Markham

There is nothing I love better than addressing you personally, Mr. Speaker. It gives me great pleasure.

May I turn to quite another point. A week before the Suez incident brake out I was in Israel. Hon. Members may recall that I have had quite a long experience in the Army—eleven or twelve years—and a great part of that time I spent on the staff. When anyone has had that length of experience in the Army it is very easy to see whether any war preparations are afoot. May I point out, for the information of the House, that during the time I was in Israel I was accompanied by an hon. Member from the benches opposite, Mr. Granville West, now translated to a higher but I doubt a happier sphere.

During the time that Mr. West and I were in Israel, we saw the movement of not a single military lorry, tank, or column of men which would give rise to the slightest suspicion of preparations for war. It is perfectly true that on the Jordan side there were watch posts and sporadic firing, but on the Egyptian side there was no activity whatsoever. There was not even the movement of reconnaissance parties. That has been borne out in all events of the time.

Hon. Members opposite think that the Israeli attack was prepared possibly six months, or at least six weeks, before it took place. If so, all I can say is that I met some of the Israeli generals at the time, and even these generals were not aware of what was about to happen. I believe that it was one of those events which we so often see in politics here— a sudden boiling over of the pot and a sudden concatination of circumstances which no one could control.

I believe Sir Anthony Eden when he said in the House that there was no collusion between Britain and Israel. I had the opportunities of seeing on the Israel side whether there were preparations for this operation or not. I saw nothing of the kind.

These are excitable things to talk about and the Opposition think that they have a point when a charge of bad faith is made against Conservative Ministers. I say to them: Think again; look at your own record in 1956 and be ashamed of it!

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I should not have taken part in this debate except for the very remarkable speech of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson). I hope that he will not think that I am in the least seeking to be patronising in any way when I say that most of us on this side of the House have a very great respect for him. I again apologise for any apparent atmosphere of patronage that may creep in, but I want to say this in view of what I am going to say next?

We have that respect for the hon. Gentleman because we have a great respect for his intelligence, for his independence and, most of all, for his integrity. He has recently written a book which is of great interest to all hon. Members of the House, irrespective of any party affiliations, and of interest to all Members of Parliament who are interested in this great historical institution of ours and in the ways of making it most effective, most useful and a really proper instrument of the working of representative democracy. It is for those reasons that I heard his speech with the utmost astonishment.

What is the great difficulty that private back benchers have in making themselves as effective as they would wish to be in debates of the House of Commons? Is it not this? The increasing complexity of our affairs and the crowding in at an accelerating pace of a number of things with which the House of Commons is compelled to deal means that more and more the time of the House is taken up by the Government of the day and that the exceptions, such as they are, are taken up more and more by the official Opposition.

Debates in our House become more and more a kind of official tournament, with the lists set in advance, with everybody knowing in advance what everybody else will say, and with, at the end, a vote in the Division Lobby the result of which every single one of us can forecast before ever the Division bells ring. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as any Member of the House.

What is our remedy? We cannot interfere, we do not want to interfere, with the effective conduct of government. All we can do is to take such opportunities as the accident of the Order Paper may present us with from time to time for making our own voices heard on matters on which we feel strongly. One of the most important of those occasions is precisely debate on the Adjournment, when, so long as one deals with matters which do not require legislation, one can raise any matter under the sun that seems to one to be important for the House of Commons to debate.

Of course, we get the most beneficial results of such debates if we have the responsible Minister sitting on the Government Front Bench ready to listen to the debate, ready to intervene, ready, at the end, to answer it. That is why we devised this convention. My hon. Friend was perfectly right, in my opinion, when he said it was no more than that, but, nevertheless, it is a most useful one, that if we wish to have a debate of that kind and to get the best and most fruitful result out of it, one should give adequate notice of the debate to the Minister concerned, because then he can come and answer it.

But one cannot always give very long notice. When one can one gives it. A predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker, assented to the device, the totally new procedure compared with what existed before the war. We never used to have to sign a book, or to take part in a ballot, or specify the subject. As long as the Adjournment time had come and one caught Mr. Speaker's eye one took one's own chance whether one got an answer from the Minister or not.

I am not suggesting that that procedure could continue, because since the end of the war there have been and there still are today very many more back benchers wishing to take advantage of these Adjournment debates than there ever used to be, and, therefore, there is competition between them and the competition has to be settled in some way; and I know of no fairer or more reasonable way of settling the competition than the one Mr. Speaker then devised and which we have followed since.

But it is not exhaustive. It is not conclusive. What does the hon. Member suggest? If, as on an occasion of this kind, the ordinary business of the day comes to an end at about 6.30 or 6.40, is he suggesting that he and I, who are both, as back benchers, anxious to make our own contributions, should go home, or go to the pictures, or go to the theatre, because the Government have no more business for us? Would not that be a real dereliction of our public duty as the hon. Member and I understand it?

Mr. N. Nicolson

I think that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) is making rather too much of this. He knows very well that I was referring, in my opening remarks, to the atmosphere of the House, which has changed during the last one and half hours into something rather more worthy of the House. I should say that the hon. Member's own speech contributes to that atmosphere at the moment. But I do not think that it can do any good to the reputation of the House if we have a string of kaleidoscopic, unconnected, ill-thought-out, ill-digested and unheard speeches.

Mr. Silverman

I am quite prepared to agree, and I think that the hon. Member, on reflection, perhaps tomorrow morning, must come to the same opinion that the opening passages of the speech to which I refer were themselves ill-considered and ill-conceived.

That is what I am trying to persuade him to think in the speech that I am making now. He will remember that he used the words, "abuse of the processes of the House", and, when he was challenged on that, on the possible ground that it might be a reflection on the Chair, he withdrew the word "abuse" and substituted the word "improper". Does the hon. Member now, after all that has taken place, think that what my hon. Friends were doing was an abuse of the House, or was improper?

Mr. Nicolson

I should like to correct the hon. Member. I said that it was an abuse of the convention or custom of the House. I never suggested that it was an abuse of the rules of order.

Mr. Silverman

I say that it is neither an abuse of anything nor in any way improper, whether we consider Standing Orders or conventions. I am the more astonished that after an opportunity for reflection the hon. Member does not now candidly admit that what he said was quite wrong and in diametric conflict with the very wise principles and ideas to advocate which he has written a most interesting book.

What have my hon. Friends been doing? They have used the opportunity of there being unexpectedly three or three and a half hours free from official Opposition questions, free from Government questions, available to any one of us to raise questions that he may never again, certainly in this Parliament, have an opportunity of raising. Is that an abuse? Is that improper? Would it not have been an abuse or improper if my hon. Friends had not done it rather than that they have?

The hon. Member has himself made a most distinguished contribution to the debate. I do not agree with it altogether. I am glad to see that he still remains of the same opinion on the Suez operation that he expressed so courageously at the time, and I do not know why he found it necessary to make the kind of speech he did. But perhaps I do. Up to that moment he was the sole occupant of the benches opposite and he felt it his duty, as a loyal member of his party, even though he is from time to time in dissent from its majority, as I am myself from mine from time to time.

I would guess, if it were not an impertinence to try to guess, that his real motive was that this side of the House, attacking the Government in speech after speech, should not get away with it and that a voice should be raised on that side. The hon. Member did that most effectively. He made the very best of what he knows himself to be a very bad case. Why not? Was that an abuse? Was his speech improper? Or does he think that it is an abuse and improper for my hon. Friends to attack the Government but perfectly proper for hon. Members opposite to defend them, even when they do not mean what they say?

It will not do. If one is to talk, as the hon. Member did, about the prestige of the House, then for heaven's sake let any private Member take every opportunity that may present itself, with or without notice as the case may be. Let him give all the notice he can, but do not let the difficulty of giving notice, if it occurs, or any other matter ever prevent or intimidate any Member, on either side, from using such opportunity as the procedure may make available to raise any question he likes and say anything that he thinks fit.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

I was interested in the observations of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), because it seems to me important that, when there is time in which Members can raise matters of foreign affairs, colonial affairs or concerning their constituencies they should take the Floor of the House and do so. Are Members of the House of Commons suggesting that the Government are not able to read HANSARD in the morning, or that we are not able to follow up any speech we make here tonight about our constituents, about our forces serving abroad, because there is not a Minister of the Government sitting on that Front Bench? I understand that that point has been put in the debate. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] I am glad to hear that nobody, in fact, has put that point.

So far as I am concerned, I speak entirely as a House of Commons man on an occasion like this, and when I heard that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) was speaking I was very interested in what was going on. I made further inquiries about exactly what was happening, and I understand that the hon. Member was trying again to raise the whole terrible and ghastly issue of the Suez crisis. I simply cannot at this stage today honestly believe as a back bench Member that the majority of our countrymen, when they see already the Soviet intervention in the Middle East and our friends withering, will be interested in the re-hashing-up of some past events.

I do not expect hon. Members opposite to alter their opinions, and I am sure that hon. Members on that side of the House do not expect people like myself to alter what I said at the time. Indeed, I would withdraw no word of what I said on 1st November, 1956. I respect the opinions of others who choose to differ. I may still be wrong and they may still be right; but that does not at the moment concern either myself as a hack bencher or the country. What we really must look to is the future, and I am now definitely going to raise, whether I have given notice or not, the problem of British businessmen who over the years have built up British assets in Egypt and, during the time of that Suez calamity and up to the present, have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their future.

A very important debate indeed, if there are important debates in another place, took place on 12th November, in which a great number of those who took part were very much worried whether we are going to do honour and justice to the people whom, we said at the time, we were setting out to protect. We said we were definitely going to protect their interests. Now, have their interests been protected? Let us not be churlish about the matter, for the Government have given a great deal of help to the Committee looking after those who are facing unfortunate circumstances because they were forced to leave Egypt. I would not he ungrateful for the work that Committee is doing, with Government help, but let us have regard to the passage of time and examine the facts as they are and see what has happened.

The majority of these businessmen are not very wealthy men. The big companies, like I.C.I., Shell, Mitchell Cotts or any other of the big companies, can write off their losses in that part of the world, but can the ordinary British subject, who has been following his grandfather and father in business. recover his assets in Egypt? I doubt it very much.

Let us consider what happened. These businessmen, who each owned about £15,000 or £25,000 of capital in that country, automatically had to leave, and when they left the country they left their money. Representations were made on what they should do, and they discussed the matter with the British Egyptian Chamber of Commerce here. They were told, "If you want to go back and recover your capital assets, as far as we are concerned go back and try to recover them, but it would be wiser if you did not go back and recover those assets because you might prejudice the hand of Her Majesty's Government in negotiating with the Egyptian Government."

That was a reasonable request to make to businessmen. Well, they waited a long time and their assets were sequestered. When assets are sequestered the company is managed by one of the Egyptian sequestrators, but of course wages must still be paid. The company offices are kept open but no business comes in. Where today is the capital of many of our loyal people who had their life savings and their life work in Egypt? I do not think many of them will be able to recover those assets. So what is the position today? I gather they will be told, "Return to Egypt and fight your case in the open law courts and get back whatever you can." Hon. Members really must think carefully and decide how much they think any British businessman can recover of his capital in Egypt after two years.

What is the solution? What should we recommend? We should recommend Her Majesty's Government to appoint a commission of arbitration and settlement so that these people can go to the commission to settle their claims. Out of what funds would the commission pay the claims? At present in this country there are £98 million of Egyptian assets blocked. I suggest that if the Government have promised to give every consideration and to do justice to these businessmen their claims should be met out of those blocked assets which the Government at present control. If the Government do not do this, is it really fair and right and just to ask these men to return to Egypt and fight for their assets in open court? I do not think this is the right way to tackle the problem.

Let us realise what we own in Egypt. For over 150 years we have given our time, our money, our administrators to build Egypt as she is today. The Egyptians know it, and we know it. If one asks any honest Egyptian he will admit that they are in their present position today thanks to our great British business companies and British administrators, who have given their livelihood to support them and to bring them forward to nationhood.

I had a discussion only two days ago with one of the directors of an African tobacco company. He as a businessman estimates that Britain owns in Egypt £100 million sterling. That is a lot of money. What is happening to it all? How are we to recover it? What has happened to the talks in Rome? Never a word is said about the negotiations which have been going on between the British and Egyptian Governments. What is it that is frustrating this agreement?

Mr. S. Silverman

A guilt complex.

Mr. Yates

I respect the hon. Member's feelings about this, but I would not put it like that at the moment.

Let us consider the matter carefully. The United States has already come to an agreement with Egypt, because it was sensible and logical to do so. France, a realist, interested in real politics, has arranged to do so. Why are we unable to come to an agreement with the Egyptian Government? Do we want to try to score the final point? Is that what is causing the delay? Do we want two years later to try to get one up?

Surely it would be much wiser to be realistic and say, "We will not go on any further in this ridiculous wrangle with you. We may have made mistakes, and you have made mistakes; but how, without diplomatic and business relations with Egypt, are we to combat the present activities of other interests in the Middle East who are working against us?"

How do we conduct foreign policy without having diplomatic relations with the leading country in the Arab world? How is it possible to do such a thing? We begin to worry because things are not going there as we would like them to. We have no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The Gracious Speech said that Her Majesty's Government were anxious to work with the United Nations and other Middle East countries and resolve their problems to make a better international atmosphere. How can this be done if we do not open diplomatic relations with the leading Arab country, which is the United Arab Republic?

So I do not in any way apologise at exercising my right as a back bencher and expressing these feelings. They are not just my feelings. They are the feelings of about a hundred of our businessmen and almost a million of our people who know anything about the Middle East or the Orient.

Let us analyse what is going on in Cairo at the moment. There is the meeting of the Afro-Asian Assembly; all the younger nations from the Middle East and from African Asia are sitting down together discussing their great futures in Africa and in Asia. Where are we? We are not there. The Soviet Union is there and other countries are there, but we are not. I suppose that when he said that he considered the Middle East and the Far East the most important places in the world Vice-President Nixon was speaking with the authority of the United States Government. If there is a conference of Afro-Asian nations in Cairo, one would have thought that Britain should be there as well. How long are we to leave this great field open, and how long are we to wait until we can take up diplomatic relations with a vitally important area of the world?

Tonight, in a Committee Room upstairs, with others I talked to students from the Middle East. They made three simple points. They asked when Britain would show her old initiative and realign her policy in the Middle East. They asked when would she recognise the facts of Middle Eastern policy today and appreciate that Arab nationalism was a great and vital counter, and when we would recognise the present ruler of Egypt and Syria. They asked, thirdly, who would supply the technical equipment and schools in the Middle East in the years to come. They asked whether those schools would be British or Soviet schools. The choice is as simple as that.

The general political situation in the Middle East can be summed up easily. The majority of Afro-Asian nations have based their foreign policies on absolute neutrality. Is there anything wrong with those people not wanting to be drawn into the conflicts of the great Powers? Is there something morally wrong with people wanting to be absolutely neutral in that part of the world, or is it impossible? If they want to be neutral, is it necessary for us to make them absolutely hostile?

I have spoken in the House about the Middle East many times. I intend to continue to speak about the Middle East so long as I remain a Member of the House. I am convinced that if Britain can take the political initiative in that part of the world, many of the people there will be happier for it and many people in our country will applaud the decision to make a completely fresh start. I have said that many times, but nobody has been very interested to hear me. I intend to continue to say it until such time as they care to hear me.