HC Deb 01 July 1958 vol 590 cc1287-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Legh.]

1.53 a.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I rise to draw the attention of the House to a matter very different from that with which it has been dealing in the course of this evening's debate. The rather obscure subject, which, on the face of it, calls for some initial explanation, is the guarantees entered into by this country in respect of the sovereignty of Portugal and her colonies during the war and the political consequences which flow from that and other commitments which bind us.

I should explain what it was that first put me on to this subject, because we have some lessons which we can draw from it. Along with perhaps every other hon. Member, in February I received a pamphlet issued by the Portuguese Embassy and consisting of reprints from a series of editorials in Portuguese newspapers dealing with relations between Britain and Portugal during the war. In the course of these articles, I read an account of the Azores Base Agreements, under which Portugal made certain bases available to this country. In commenting, the editorial said, … in addition, guarantees were given jointly with the Government of the Union of South Africa concerning the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty over all the Portuguese overseas Provinces …. I had never heard of such an agreement, and I made inquiries therefore to see whether it was correct. I first wrote to the Portuguese Embassy, who replied most courteously, gave me the text of the agreement and said that as far as they knew it had been published in this country. I naturally looked to the White Paper published just after the war dealing with the agreements covering the Azores, Cmd. 6854 of 1946, but I found no reference whatever to any guarantees given by Britain to Portugal or her colonies. In desperation, I turned to the Foreign Office. Without desperation, I should never have dared to do so.

I found them very helpful, for they conveyed to me the text of the correspondence between the British Ambassador in Lisbon and the Portuguese Prime Minister, which they admitted had never been published at the time. I should like briefly to deal with the text of these agreements. The Foreign Office made it quite clear—and the Under-Secretary of State pointed it out in writing to me—that these agreements had been published in Portugal but not in the United Kingdom.

In the exchange of letters which the Foreign Office sent me, I came across the passage for which I had been searching. It appeared in a letter dated 16th June, 1943, signed by Sir Ronald Campbell, our Ambassador, and addressed to Dr. Salazar. In paragraph 14 of that letter occur the operative words, I am authorised to inform Your Excellency that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom are prepared, not only to guarantee the withdrawal of their forces from the Azores at the end of hostilities but also to give assurances regarding the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty over all the Portuguese Colonies. In acknowledging this letter—in a letter dated 23rd June—Dr. Salazar expressed his gratitude and included the following passage: The Portuguese Government take note of the formal undertaking that, at the close of hostilities, the British troops in the Azores will be withdrawn; and, though they consider such guarantees to be unnecessary in view of the appeal made to the Treaties of Alliance which expressly provide them, they thank His Majesty's Government for repeating the guarantees…. This promise of guarantees was formally conveyed by Mr. Hopkinson, as he was then—Lord Colyton as he is now—who was in charge in the Ambassador's absence, on 14th September. He conveyed officially the British Government's guarantee on the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty in all Portugal's colonial possessions after the war. It was in that letter, sent by Mr. Hopkinson, that there appeared for the first time the suggestion that these guarantees extended beyond the period of hostilities and into the past-war period. It was this which encouraged me to write further to the Foreign Office to find out what was the position.

I wrote on 14th April to the Under-Secretary of State, who, I think, is now in hospital; I send him my good wishes. No doubt he would have liked to take part in this debate. I have his permission to make use of the exchange of letters between us. I thanked him for making available the correspondence and asked him whether he could answer certain questions.

The first was, did the assurances have a permanent validity or were they valid only for the duration of the Allied use of the Azores?

The Under-Secretary of State, in dealing with that question, said: Our assurance had no time limit written into it, but it was circumscribed by the words 'in the event of any threat to Portugal and the Portuguese Empire developing in consequence of an affirmative response by the Portuguese Government to the appeal now made ….' This in practice does provide a time limit, since no threat now to Portugal or the Portuguese Empire could seriously be held to arise from the granting of facilities in the Azores in 1943. I asked my second question, whether if these were held to be of permanent validity Her Majesty's Government still felt bound by the assurances they had given. The Under-Secretary of State went on in his letter to say: The main intention of our guarantee was to assure the Portuguese that we ourselves had no designs on their colonies. In these circumstances an exchange of notes has no relevance or validity today, except that we still have no designs on the Portuguese colonies. I was very satisfied with that reply, and I ventured to put down a Parliamentary Question in order to get the words repeated on the record so that they might be generally known. But when I put down a Question on 12th May the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs failed to give me an answer in the same words and created in my mind some doubt as to what the position really was. He said: The assurances to which the hon. Member refers, which were in keeping with the tradition of the Alliance, were by their terms concerned with a particular period and particular circumstances and have not been the subject of discussions between our two Governments since the war. And later, when I pressed him further, the right hon. Gentleman said: I have not entered into the wider aspects of the matters at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1958; Vol. 588, c. 22.] This placed in my mind the fear that this country was still bound to the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty by other engagements. I continued to question the right hon. Gentleman the following week, and I again thought that his answer was not as clear as it should have been. Therefore, I engaged in a certain amount of elementary detective work, and the hon. Gentleman who is to answer this debate tonight will no doubt tell me whether the results of my work were correct or not.

The reason why I entered into this research was because Dr. Salazar himself has made the constant claim since the war that the treaty of 23rd June, 1661, which gave a guarantee to Portugal at that time, was still in force. This is not an academic matter that we are discussing. We are discussing the controversy which has developed between Portugal and India over the future of Goa, and Dr. Salazar, who is a great campaigner for his country's cause in Goa, in a broadcast on 12th April, 1954, and on other occasions also, firmly claimed that the old treaty still applied in its entirety and gave him British support in his controversy with India about Goa. The phrase in the treaty of 23rd June, 1661, is as follows: To defend and protect all conquests or colonies belonging to the Crown of Portugal against all his enemies"— that is, his faithful Majesty the King of Portugal— as well in the future as at present. I wonder whether, in fact, this agreement is still in force. I must say that I have no doubt in my mind that it is regarded as being still fully operative, and I would cite a number of sources in support of this view. First of all, in the book published by Lord McNair on the law of treaties, he gives an extract from an opinion given by the Queen's Advocate in 1843 when this point was put to him with regard to the British guarantees for Portuguese sovereignty as they applied to the Portuguese control of Macao.

In a letter addressed by the Queen's Advocate to their lordships, he states quite clearly that in his opinion, although Macao cannot be considered as part of the Portuguese dominions inasmuch as the sovereignty thereof appears to remain in the Empire of China, yet the Portuguese are possessed of such an interest therein as to bring it within the true meaning of the treaty. That opinion was confirmed in 1898 when the House of Commons Parliamentary Paper, Cmd. 9088, was published in which all the treaties between England and Portugal going right back from 1373 to 1703 were reprinted as being still in force. Indeed, a year later in 1899 the British Government had an additional practical reason why they wished to reaffirm the validity of these treaties. At that time the war with the South African Boer Republics was boiling up and the British Government were anxious that Lourenco Marques should be open to the British for the supply of arms and troops, and that Portugal should not declare her neutrality in the war that was about to take place because this would gravely inconvenience the Admiralty in coaling our ships in Delagoa Bay. The treaty was reaffirmed specifically in an exchange of notes between Lord Salisbury and the Portuguese Ambassador.

Much more recently than that, in 1930, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs specifically reaffirmed the validity of these treaties. Looking through some HANSARDS which happened to be left on the bench while I was listening to the debate on the Finance Bill, I came across a Question put by my father on this subject in 1937 asking the same question, and he was told—the subject was then important because of the Spanish war—that these treaties were still held to be in force. Undoubtedly the exchange in 1943 to which I referred with regard to the Azores agreement gave life to these agreements, and undoubtedly Salazar is right in the sense that the British Government hold these agreements to be in force.

Up to now I have only explained what I took the position to be, and I am open to correction, of course. The Secretary of State took a somewhat cautious line in dealing with the possibility that these treaties might be invoked when he said that it would be up to the Portuguese to establish the case for the implementation of the treaties, and he suggested that that might not be a very easy thing for Portugal to do.

My only complaint now is against the Labour Government that the secret agreements entered into by the Coalition Government during the war were not published in the White Paper at the end of the war. It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs that a Member of this House should receive a publicity hand-out from a foreign Government acquainting him for the first time of an obligation entered into by his own Government which might at some time have to be invoked. But I do not make a great deal of this because this is not a complaint against the present Administration.

What I want to do in the remaining few moments is to take this state of affairs as a fact and consider what it actually means and what its political implications are. The Portuguese overseas provinces are very numerous. Macao is, I suppose, the most vulnerable in that it lies under the guns of the Chinese Communists and there are also Cabo Verde, Timor, Mosambique and, of course, Goa.

It is primarily on the question of Goa that I want to refer to the situation which confronts us. I want the House to consider whether it is desirable that these agreements which give us an interest in Portugal's control over her colonies should be allowed to continue in their present form. I must raise it as a political point to some extent, because it has the effect of putting us on the side of Portugal, which is not a democratic country in the sense that we understand it. It has not got those freedoms which we revere and value. It has not got the freedom of the Press, or habeas corpus. We may be put in the position of having to defend Portugal in her colonial interests in Goa against a country which is a member of the Commonwealth, and which, in statistical terms, is the largest democratic country in the world. India, with her 400 million people going peacefully and democratically to the polls, is the greatest example of the victory of the ideas for which this House has stood throughout the many years of its history.

I regard it as very unattractive and undesirable that we should put ourselves in the position of having to defend, or being bound to defend, the interests of Portugal in Goa. Goa, of course, was only one of the smaller of the foreign settlements in the Indian sub-continent. Nobody, least of all the Indian or the British leaders, imagined that when the British decided to leave India there would be any question of the French or the Portugese remaining. Indeed, I understand that when the late Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Pethick-Lawrence were in India with the Government Mission which negotiated the transfer of power the question was publicly put to them as to what would be the position of the other settlements. I think it was Sir Stafford Cripps—my predecessor in my constituency—who answered by saying that, of course, once India was free this would be a matter for the Indian Government only.

It is certainly held by the Indian Government to be a matter of legitimate concern to them. They believe, quite rightly, that the people of Goa, given the chance, would opt for India. They cite the fact that they are Indian people. By race, by language, and even by religion, although there are many Catholics there, and by trading interests, Goa is part of India. They cite the fact that, since the conquest by Albuquerque in 1510, there have been no fewer than forty major revolts by the people of Goa against the Portugese. Since 1946, of course, there has been constant peaceful protest inside Goa most cruelly repressed. In the colony of Goa itself, there are none of the democratic rights enjoyed by the people of India.

In a practical sense, these engagements which the Government entered into during the war, which gave life to the old treaties, have produced a very undesirable situation. In the eyes of the world, we are put on the side of Portugal and her policy in Goa against free elections and self-determination. This is not an academic point; it is a very practical matter of immediate concern to the Indian Government. Dr. Salazar leans very heavily upon the British connection not only to support his own régime internally but also in his attempt to bring pressure to bear upon India. In Notes that he has himself addressed to the Indian Government, he has pointed out—wrongly, in my judgment—that N.A.T.O. offers some protection to the Portugese interests in Goa.

It is true to say that we in Britain, along with other N.A.T.O. member countries, have agreed to support the application of Portugal to discuss the Goan question in N.A.T.O. This is by no means acceptable to the Indians, as can be readily imagined. I suppose that what gave the greatest offence to the Indian Government was the fact that they had regularly tried for some time to get the Portuguese Government to discuss Goa but had been met with refusal. Then, in 1954, the British Government warned India not to take any action, without giving a similar warning, as far as one can make out, to the Portuguese Government. In 1955, of course, Mr. Dulles, speaking for another N.A.T.O. member, joined with Dr. Cunha in warning India.

It is an old treaty. I should like to try to sum up what can usefully be done about it. First, I think the Government ought to make clear the strict limits under which the treaty operates. It is a negotiated agreement entered into, which cannot be repudiated, but the limits can be set strictly to exclude any suggestion that the sovereignty of Portugal can be protected in an endeavour to deny the people of Goa the freedom they desire. Secondly, and much more important and constructive, is the need for us, because of our position as an old ally of Portugal and a comrade of India within the Commonwealth, to use our good offices in trying to bring about a peaceful settlement. Nobody wants to see this settled by force, but if we are not willing to see it settled by force we should use our influence to try to persuade the Portuguese Government to do something they have never agreed to do: that is, to negotiate the matter with India. If the United Nations were in the last resort the court to which one took this matter, there is no doubt where the feeling of the General Assembly would lie.

My reason for raising tonight this detailed point, which has such a rare and limited interest in the United Kingdom, is my belief that if this country is to hold its position, if it is to justify the claims it makes for itself in its propaganda abroad, it must surely care about freedom for Goa just as it did about freedom for India. I deeply resent the suggestion that the civilising mission of the West, a phrase which Dr. Salazar often uses, should be used to justify oppression in India when, if the Western civilisation has any meaning at all, it means a liberalising influence carrying out free institutions for them to enjoy. It is because I think that freedom is indivisible and that the British Government in their policy should recognise this, that I feel that this debate, although limited in scope and at this late hour, has had some importance.

2.16 a.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. D. Ormsby-Gore)

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has referred to a number of ancient treaties. I should say at the outset that this brings home to us the extraordinary antiquity of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance. In the days of shifting alliances and rapid changes of side, this is a remarkable thing of which both countries should be proud.

In the first part of his speech, the hon. Member mentioned the exchange of Notes which took place in 1943 between Portugal and the United Kingdom. These Notes were intended to cover the provision of wartime facilities for British Armed Forces in Portuguese territories, in the Azores in particular. They contained a phrase about the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty over all the Portuguese colonies. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said in the House on 12th May in answer to a Question from the hon. Member, these assurances related to a particular period and particular circumstances.

I will give a slightly fuller quotation of the relevant portion of the Note, because it shows the full context in which this exchange of Notes, took place. It said: In the event of any threat to Portugal and the Portuguese Empire developing in consequence of an affirmative response by the Portuguese Government to the appeal now made … that was, during wartime— His Majesty's Government are prepared … to give assurances regarding the maintenance of Portuguese sovereignty over all the Portuguese colonies. I think it will be obvious to anyone that my right hon. and learned Friend summed up the situation correctly and that there is nothing much I can add this morning. Clearly, the Notes were dealing with particular circumstances which might arise during the war.

As regards the point made by the hon. Member concerning publication, after twelve years I cannot say exactly why these Notes were not published in England in 1946 at the time they were made public in Portugal. As, however, they were published in Portugal at that time, I do not think the question is of great importance and, as the hon. Member fairly said, the Government responsible for not publishing in this country were, in fact, the Labour Government of that time.

Turning to the treaties which, the hon. Member suggested, were the actual documents on which Dr. Salazar rested his case, the earliest was the one concluded in 1373, making Portugal our oldest ally. Several of these treaties contained clauses enjoining friendship and mutual assistance in general terms. For instance, Article 1 of the Treaty of 1373 provides that the two countries shall be friends to friends and enemies to enemies and shall assist, maintain, and uphold each other mutually by sea and by land against all men that may live or die, of whatever dignity, station, rank or condition they may be and against their lands, realms and dominions. In the Treaty of 1661, to which the hon. Member referred, there is an article which specifically covers Portuguese colonies. This Article was reinforced by the Declaration of 1889.

In addition to these bilateral treaties, there are, of course, certain multilateral treaties to which both the United Kingdom and Portugal are parties. There is, first of all, the general position under the United Nations Charter, and Portugal is a member of the United Nations. And I should say here that the actual treaties we have with Portugal are not inconsistent with our obligations under the Charter in that obligations to go to the assistance of victims of acts of aggression apply as much to dependent territories as to the metropolitan country. Then Portugal is also a member of N.A.T.O., and its metropolitan territory, which includes Madeira and the Azores, is covered by Article V of the N.A.T.O. Treaty.

It is not, I think, necessary for me to go further into the position under the United Nations Charter and N.A.T.O. which is exactly the same for Portugal as for any other member of those two organisations.

Can one, therefore, in summing up, define exactly the limits of those commitments? That is, I think, what the hon. Gentleman would like me to do tonight. It really is impossible to define them in any hypothetical case. I cannot really define our obligations more closely than they are already defined in the treaties themselves. As in the case of all treaties, it would be a question of the party invoking the treaty making out that the circumstances bringing into play the relevant obligations did in fact exist. I think that if the hon. Gentleman would consider that phrase he would see it covers very largely the case he was mentioning.

I do not know that it is very profitable for me to discuss in any detail the possibility of our having to defend the Portuguese position in Goa. As he suggested, there is no question of our expecting an armed attack on Goa, and the Indian Government have given repeated assurances that they do not intend to resort to force, and they are dealing with the matter in, if I may say so, an extremely statesmanlike way. Certainly the position there is entirely peaceful at the present time.

It may be said that these treaties were concluded in circumstances which bear no relation to the problem of the present day, but they do exist among this country's other treaty obligations, although neither I nor my right hon. and learned Friend was responsible for negotiating them. The Government respect these ancient treaties, and we certainly do not wish to set any example of repudiating treaties. I think they are a symbol of the close relationship between our two countries, and fortunately we do not foresee that either side intends to invoke the military clauses of the treaty. We do value these treaties, just as we value the old ties of friendship with Portugal, and I am glad to say those ties of friendship remain as strong as ever.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Two o'clock.