HC Deb 05 February 1959 vol 599 cc577-83
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement.

I have had in mind for a long time the possibility of a visit to the Soviet Union. As the House knows, when the Soviet leaders visited this country in 1956 they invited Sir Anthony Eden to pay a return visit to the Soviet Union. This invitation was subsequently extended to me by the Soviet Government.

Recent international developments have made me feel that a visit at the present time would be of value. On my instructions, therefore, Her Majesty's Ambassador in Moscow suggested to the Soviet Government some days ago that I should go to the Soviet Union on 21st February for a visit of a week or ten days accompanied by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am glad to tell the House that on 2nd February—that is, last Monday—the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires in London informed us that his Government welcomed this proposal. Our friends and Allies have been informed.

We are, of course, in close consultation with our Allies about how best to handle the serious issues which at present face us in Europe. On all these we act together. My right hon. and learned Friend and I will not be going to Moscow to conduct a negotiation on behalf of the West. Nevertheless, we hope that our conversations with the Soviet leaders will give them a better knowledge of our point of view and make it easier for us to understand what is in their minds. Thus, we and our Allies may be better able to judge what our policies and actions should be. Personal contacts do not in themselves solve international problems, but there are times when they may make a contribution to their solution.

There are, of course, other important aspects of this visit. There are many matters such as trade, information and cultural relations which we should hope to discuss. I shall also look forward to seeing something of the Soviet Union and the Soviet people. But my principal purpose will be to try to dispel misconceptions and to establish some basis for better understanding.

An agreed communiqué announcing the visit is being issued this afternoon in London and Moscow.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister aware that if this visit which he and the Foreign Secretary are to make can break the deadlock between East and West, lead to a relaxation of tension, prepare the way for a settlement of the European security problem and help to speed on settlements in all other directions, it will be warmly welcomed by the whole of the British people?

May I ask the Prime Minister, however, since he refers to putting, as I understood it, the point of view of the West, whether there is, in fact, a clear point of view of the West on, for example, the problem of European security? Will he be having further discussions on that question with Mr. Dulles and the French and German Governments?

May I also ask in exactly what way this visit will be related to a Summit Conference? Has the Prime Minister, for example, changed his view that a Summit Conference should not take place without very full preparation and some kind of guarantee that it will succeed? When he returns from Moscow, does he anticipate reporting to our Allies? Has anything been settled in the way of further conferences arising out of this visit?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for the opening observations of the right hon. Gentleman. I would, however, like to make it quite clear that I could not hope that a visit of this kind could do more than inform me and, perhaps, enable me to give some impression to my hosts of some of the problems which confront us. I am not to conduct a negotiation, but something, perhaps, of the nature of a reconnaissance.

What we have to do is, with our Allies, to work out positions which might lead to the solution of the very difficult and, indeed, almost dangerous situation which may develop in Europe. I thought that it was a suitable moment to take this initiative and see whether I could be of help in that. Afterwards, I should hope to consult either in Bonn or in Paris or in Washington. Then there will be joint discussions and arrangements with a view to forming a joint policy on which we could hope to make progress in official discussions with the Russian Government.

Mr. Gaitskell

I have already made plain our general support for this visit, but may I press the Prime Minister a little further on this specific issue of Germany and European security, which is in all our minds? If he is going to Moscow to discuss these matters, is it not a rather serious disadvantage if there is not a common point of view on the side of the West and is it not liable to be rather embarrassing to him if he cannot answer for Germany, for France, for the United States as well as for ourselves? It will obviously be embarrassing for him if he is not able to give a broad indication of the Western point of view. Will the Prime Minister therefore say whether he intends to have further consultations on this subject before he leaves for Moscow?

The Prime Minister

It would be very embarrassing, if I were trying to negotiate on behalf of all these countries, not to have a perfectly clear and fixed view which I was authorised to put forward, but that is not my purpose. We have to work that out together. We are having continual consultations. We shall have them between now and the time when I go, and I hope we shall have them after I return.

My visit is more to try to fit myself for making a good contribution to the consultations and discussions with our Allies and thereby creating a position which may be helpful in the solving of these very difficult problems, both the immediate problem of Berlin and the wider problems to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred of Germany and of European security as a whole.

Mr. Turton

While welcoming the initiative of my right hon. Friend, may I ask him to make one point clear? I understand from his statement that the acceptance of his proposal by the Soviet Government was notified on last Monday. Today is Thursday. Why was there that delay in making what is a very important and welcome announcement?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for asking that question, because it is something about which people might well have wondered. On Monday it was agreed with the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires that the communiqué had to be settled and that it should be issued on Thursday. In addition, I wished to inform a large number of my colleagues, all the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth and all the leaders of the Allied countries most closely working us—America, France, and so on. I had also to arrange to make a communication, which was made yesterday, to the N.A.T.O. Council.

All these are proper, correct, things to do, and they account for a rather embarrassing delay of a day or two between the thing becoming perhaps rather generally known and the time when a formal announcement could be made.

Mr. Grimond

May I wish the Prime Minister well on his journey? As I understand, this is a purely exploratory visit, but many of us may hope that it will lead to negotiations which may go on for some time. If that were to appear likely, might it not be advisable, in view of the political situation in this country and of past precedent, to associate the Leader of the Opposition with the visit?

The Prime Minister

On one occasion, on matters of defence, we have discussed relations between the Leader of the Opposition and the Head of the Government of the day. I think that they are well understood and that they work by mutual co-operation. Of course, if there were important considerations I should be only too ready and anxious to make information available to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Fell

Is the Prime Minister aware that this visit follows very closely, though not exactly, the suggestion put forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in, I think, 1954, and also follows very closely the suggestion I put to him about two years go, and pressed? May I ask him whether he realises that, in spite of whatever may be said from the opposite benches, the whole of the people of this country will send with him their hearts and wishes for success in this trip?

Mr. A. Henderson

Does the right hon. Gentleman propose to include in the subjects he is to discuss with the Soviet Prime Minister the urgent importance of ending the deadlock which has arisen at the two conferences in Geneva on the suspension of nuclear tests and on the provision of safeguards against surprise attack, and which is holding up any advance in this field.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. This, with other subjects, I have no doubt, will be a matter within the scope of our discussions.

I wish just to call attention once more to the character of the visit. It is partly a return visit for one which was made here, and that is why I must ask the permission of the House to be absent for seven to ten days. It will be their desire to treat us as their guests. It is partly, at the same time, to have what I hope may be useful discussions on a wide range of subjects, including the ones which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned.

Mr. Gaitskell

With respect to the question by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), may I say that while I appreciate his suggestion, and while I should be glad to go on a sightseeing tour of Moscow even with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, I think it might be a little embarrassing if we found ourselves trying to conduct negotiations on foreign policy at the same time. It is not really quite the way we do things in our Parliamentary system here.

The Prime Minister

I am sure that it might be embarrassing for the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Osborne

As the Russian people have such a wrong impression of our point of view, and of what we want in the West, will my right hon. Friend take every opportunity which comes to him to make an appearance on Moscow T.V. and to put the point of view of the West through the Russian Press, which, so far, no Westerner has been able to do?

The Prime Minister

I think that as guests we shall try to fall in with the entertainment which is provided for us.

Mr. H. Morrison

May we take it—I am not suggesting that it should be a condition—that if the Prime Minister should be invited to broadcast or appear on television, or to meet representative sections of Russian society, as Mr. Mikoyan met representative Americans in the United States, he would readily avail himself of any such invitation?

The Prime Minister

Of course, but, as is normal practice, they very kindly asked whether we had any particular places we wished to visit or any particular programme, and we replied that we should be very glad to leave the programme in the hands of our hosts. What I am particularly anxious for is that the programme, the sightseeing and other things, should allow plenty of time for wide discussions on those important subjects of which we must try to reach some closer knowledge at least of what our points of view are before we try to reconcile them.

Mr. Usborne

Reverting to the proposition made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), may I ask the Prime Minister whether he would not, in view of the precedent at Potsdam, reconsider the idea of that precedent, and, in view of what has recently happened at Southend, take the Leader of the Liberal Party with him, too?

The Prime Minister

I think, if I remember aright, that Potsdam was somehow mixed up with a General Election that was going on. None of those considerations seems to apply today.

Mr. Farey-Jones

As the common meeting ground between East and West is a matter of desperate search, would the Prime Minister endeavour, during his visit, to get complete co-operation between American, Russian and British scientists upon getting into outer space?

The Prime Minister

There are proposals which the President of the United States has made on that matter and which are now under discussion.

Mrs. Mann

May I, as a back bencher, thank the Prime Minister, wish him god-speed, and ask him the date of the General Election?

The Prime Minister

The first two the hon. Lady may certainly do, but not the third.