HC Deb 11 March 1958 vol 584 cc229-32
49. Mr. Beswick

asked the Prime Minister what progress he has made towards his declared objective of a Summit Conference.

54. Mr. Mellish

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the present position of the negotiations for a Summit Conference.

The Prime Minister

Considerable progress has been made. But I would point out that a Summit Conference is not an end in itself. The end which we pursue is agreement. As hon. Members will know, there has been a recent further exchange of correspondence between the Soviet and United States Governments. The purpose of this correspondence is to try to reach agreement on the conditions under which preparations for a Summit Conference should take place—what President Eisenhower has called really decent preparation that would appeal to reasonable men". I am anxious that preparations should start soon, but until certain basic issues in the Soviet position have been clarified, namely, on the Soviet attitude towards the composition of the agenda and towards the purpose of the preparatory talks, this is unfortunately not possible.

Mr. Beswick

Is the Prime Minister aware that the interest of the public in this matter is equalled only by its mystification as to what is happening? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? First, is it a fact that the preparatory discussions concerning the Summit Conference are by-passing the United Kingdom at present and taking place between Washington and Moscow, and if so, why? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that, for our part, we shall not insist as a prior requisite that there should be agreement on the reunification of Germany?

The Prime Minister

On the first supplementary question, leaving out the preliminary trimmings to which no doubt the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to reply, there has, of course, been a large number of communications by the Soviet Government to such a large number of countries that the correspondence has become somewhat complicated. What we are trying to do is always to consult each other in the alliance, and I am trying to keep the Commonwealth fully informed before answering the particular communications that happen to be addressed to us. I agree that nothing would be more desirable than if we could get further clarification and positive results. I have made my position clear both in this House and outside.

The second supplementary question helps me to clear up a point which is important. It is a very important matter and in doubt. We have never asked that there should be agreement on any question before it is included in the agenda. We have said that if we are to make an agenda likely to lead to an ultimate agreement it is wise that the items should at least be discussed and agreement reached to see which ones seem the most hopeful and which ones can lead only to a general discusssion. We have never made any agreement that in any prior discussion there should be agreement, but only preparation likely to lead to a good conference.

Mr. Bevan

Has the right hon. Gentleman any even approximate idea of the timetable—or is it intended to have the Summit Conference when the West is in the lowest reaches of a trade slump?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that question is very relevant to the one to which it was a supplementary.

Mr. Bevan

The original Question was To ask the Prime Minister what progress he has made towards his declared objective of a Summit Conference. I asked whether the right hon. Gentleman had formed even an approximate idea of the timetable.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has not been fair to himself. He has not restated what he said. The purpose of his supplementary question was to drag in this matter of the economic situation. I would regard this as a political matter which ought to be proceeded with as soon as possible without regard to the economic situation.

Mr. Fell

In view of the initiative which was taken by a former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), will the Prime Minister consider relieving the Foreign Offices—which perhaps have not got the complete confidence of the people in every country concerned—from the burden of deciding on the agenda and have a conference between himself, President Eisenhower and whoever is to represent the Soviet Union, initially without any agenda, to try to come to some agreement, without any agenda, and to try to formulate their ideas and tell their Foreign Offices what to put on the agenda?

The Prime Minister

I would of course consider that, but I should not have thought that a Summit Conference of three, four, or whatever is to be the number of participants to try to fix an agenda would be a good way of proceeding. There are tragic precedents in this matter.

Mr. Mellish

Last week, in an exchange between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, there was some doubt about Russian proposals for a conference of Foreign Secretaries. It was stated that a Note had been received from Russia saying that Russia was prepared to have a meeting of Foreign Secretaries to discuss the question. My right hon. Friend asked whether, if a Question was put on the subject, it could be answered? May I ask where we have got from that?

The Prime Minister

There were really two questions and I want to be quite frank about them. These are very important matters in which there is great public interest and in which I personally take the deepest possible interest. One question is, what should be the machinery? Whether it is a case of ambassadors starting discussions and Foreign Secretaries going on with them, or of the Foreign Ministers doing the whole thing without previous ambassadorial discussion, I do not think is very important. Either form of machinery would suit us if we could make progress. The real point is whether the meeting is to be limited to fixing the time and date. There is, perhaps, the question of composition, which is important. Having an agenda, not selected with the purpose I have in mind, but by writing down everything one can think of on a bit of paper and perhaps each side trying to veto the other—I do not call that a real meeting. What we want to do in that form of meeting, whether it is of ambassadors or Foreign Secretaries, or both, is to get some work done which will make the work of the Conference, when it meets, have a good chance, a reasonable chance, of achieving something.

Mr. A. Henderson

Would the Prime Minister agree that some of these basic matters, which apparently are holding up preparation for the Conference, might be discussed through diplomatic channels rather than by public correspondence?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. This is always the difficulty. It is one we find in our own affairs. When someone writes a letter, who is to write the reply? There has been a great interchange of letters and at no stage has it been possible to stop the letter writing, but I observed that the President himself expressed the view that some more rapid system could be devised.

Mr. Grimond

When the Prime Minister said earlier that we were not insisting on agreement about an agenda, by "we" was he referring to the West as a whole or to Her Majesty's Government? Will he make it clear whether there is any discrepancy between the American attitude and ours, that urgent steps are being taken to clear it up, even to the extent of going to Washington itself?

The Prime Minister

When I said "we" I meant that we have to consult all the countries of N.A.T.O. which are involved. Those who perhaps will not be directly represented at the summit meeting have an almost greater right to be consulted. This is a process in which we try to reach an approximate view, but I should have thought on the main principle that the character of the preparations should be such as to make a fruitful conference. On that we are all agreed.