HC Deb 11 March 1958 vol 584 cc232-4
52. Sir J. Duncan

asked the Prime Minister what steps he has taken within the last fortnight to arrange that talks shall take place between him and the Opposition from time to time on defence matters, with a view to forming a national bi-partisan policy on this matter.

The Prime Minister

None, Sir; but I would wish to keep the possibility in mind. Indeed, I should give most sympathetic consideration to any approach which the Leader of the Opposition might wish to make.

Sir J. Duncan

Arising out of that reply, and while recognising that the time may not be appropriate, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend will take advantage of any approach that may be made, as many of us were very impressed by the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) in the defence debate a fortnight ago?

The Prime Minister

I also was very much impressed, but these are matters on which—perhaps I might be allowed to say this, very sincerely—there are tremendous disagreements in some parts of the House. I should have thought there was a great deal more agreement between the two sides than sometimes people think. I thought that as a result of the defence debate a fairly wide measure of agreement, on some propositions at any rate, was reached. If I can be of any service in making that sense of national agreement greater, of course it must strengthen our position as a country.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he appreciates that, speaking personally, I do not suggest it is possible in the present state of feeling on defence matters to obtain a bi-partisan policy? I think that is not realism at present, but nevertheless, would not it be useful from the standpoint of hon. Members in all parts of the House if the Minister of Defence from time to time asked a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House interested in defence projects to come to talk with him, without impinging on security, so that they might know the facts about defence, although of course decisions about defence must obviously be left to the Government? Is not that possible?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly sympathetically convey that to my right hon. Friend. In regard to the original Question, I think I remember such discussions in the Parliament of 1945. I think they arose on the initiative of the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill).

Mr. Bellenger

Does the Prime Minister recollect that some years before the war certain Members of Parliament belonged to the Committee on Imperial Defence, or appeared before that body from time to time? Might not that be one way of resuscitating the desire which is evident on both sides of the House, not for a bi-partisan approach, but for collaboration in defence matters?

The Prime Minister

That, of course, is a somewhat different question. It is true that Lord Balfour, who was one of those who originated the idea of the Committee on Imperial Defence, was invited in 1916, although he was out of office, to remain a member of it. That is not the operating structure, but the principle remains. I am sure all wish to try to concentrate on the highest common factor of agreement, which is to our national interest, rather than always to concentrate on the points on which we disagree, leaving out, of course, a certain amount of agreement which takes a wholly different philosophical approach to the whole problem.

Mr. McAdden

Would my right hon. Friend agree that if in this House we can prove by application of a study of these problems that we can arrive at an agreement to defend ourselves, that might hold out greater hopes of reaching an agreement on a Summit Conference to consider how we might defend the world?

The Prime Minister

That certainly is by no means to be neglected.