HC Deb 21 July 1959 vol 609 cc1072-84
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement. This will, I hope, meet the general convenience of the House, since there is to be a debate tomorrow on Central Africa.

One of the subjects with which that debate will no doubt be concerned will be the question of what machinery, if any, should be set up to prepare the ground for the review of the Federal Constitution of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which is to take place towards the end of 1960.

As is generally known, I have had a number of private talks with the Leader of the Opposition and some of his colleagues on this matter. My right hon. Friends and I have had the advantage of personal discussions with Sir Roy Welensky, the Federal Prime Minister, and we have also been in consultation with the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia and the Governors of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It is now the duty of Her Majesty's Government to put forward definite proposals, which I have communicated to the Leader of the Opposition.

The 1960 review will be of major importance in determining the future of Central Africa. Great issues, human and political, will be at stake—issues of constitutional evolution, economic development and inter-racial harmony. The Government are convinced that careful preparation for this conference is essential. Officials of the five Governments are already engaged in assembling the necessary material. Nevertheless, we are convinced that some additional constructive preparation is desirable. Accordingly, we propose that an Advisory Commission be appointed for this purpose, with the following terms of reference: In the light of the information provided by the Committee of Officials and of any additional information the Commission may require, to advise the five Governments, in preparation for the 1960 review, on the constitutional programme and framework best suited to the achievement of the objects contained in the Constitution of 1953, including the Preamble. The membership of the Commission will be as follows:

The Chairman—from the United Kingdom.

Six Privy Councillors—Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, including three from opposition parties.

Six independent members, of whom four will be chosen from the United Kingdom and two, we hope, from other Commonwealth countries having experience of the working of a federal Constitution.

Four to come from the Federation as a whole, to be proposed by the Federal Government.

Three from Southern Rhodesia, to be proposed by the Southern Rhodesian Government.

Three each from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Of the 13 members drawn from Central Africa, five will be Africans and Done will be members of their respective Governments or Legislatures.

We think that a comprehensive Commission of this knd will enable Governments to approach the conference with the best possible advice at their disposal; promote greater public understanding of the issues involved; and do something to create a common approach to these very difficult problems among all concerned. Our paramount object, in considering this matter, has been to try to create, both here and in Africa a common mind on the next stages of the political evolution of the Federation. This seems to us the imaginative and creative course.

We have thought it right that Europeans and Africans who live in Rhodesia and Nyasaland should have a part in the consideration of matters so vital to their future. For this is not an academic exercise. It concerns the lives and homes of all the population of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, of whatever race. At the same time, we are anxious to have a broad cross-section of opinion and knowledge from this country, and some entirely independent advice from elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

The Commission will be expected to hold its first meeting in London in the autumn to plan its programme of work. By that time material will also be becoming available to it from the Committee of Officials of the five Governments which, as I have said, will, in any case, be carrying out an official factual survey and analysis in advance of the 1960 conference.

The proposal which I have outlined has been worked out in consultation with the Government of the Federation and the other authorities concerned, all of whom are determined to make their best possible contribution to the work of the Commission, to designate for it people of distinction and independent mind, and to give all the necessary facilities.

Where so much is at stake the Government have felt that a comprehensive and creative approach is needed. The work of the Commission will be onerous, but will, I hope, be fruitful.

I am sure that this hope will be shared by everyone in this country, of whatever party or political opinion. I therefore trust that hon. Members on both sides of the House will give this Advisory Commission their support and good will.

Mr. Gaitskell

We can, I am sure, all agree that the conference to review the Constitution of the Federation is certainly one of the very greatest importance for Central Africa, and, indeed, for us all. I think that we can further agree that there is much to be said for some preparatory work being done before that conference meets. If this preparatory work can create, to quote the Prime Minister's words, "both here and in Africa a common mind on the next stages of the political evolution of the Federation "that will certainly be all to the good.

However, I am bound to say that I see very serious objections to the particular form of Commission proposed by the Government. I do not propose to go into this in detail this afternoon, because we shall have an opportunity of doing so tomorrow, but I should like briefly to say that it seems to me of paramount importance at this moment that anything that we do in this matter should command the assent of the African peoples as a whole. I have the gravest doubts about whether the Commission so formed, with half its membership nominated by the Governments of the Central Federation, Southern Rhodesia, and, I gather, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, is likely to do just that.

Secondly it seems to me a danger that a Commission of this kind, with these terms of reference, may well be anticipating too much the 1960 conference itself. That, again, seems to me a mistake, because it is of immense importance that at that conference African opinion should be properly represented through the Governments of the territories concerned.

Thirdly, we do not feel that six Members from this Parliament out of 26 adequately represents the great responsibilities of the British Parliament in this matter.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister certain questions which will help to elucidate the proposals of the Government in preparation for tomorrow's debate.

First, the Prime Minister has referred to consultations with Sir Roy Welensky, the Governors of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, and the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia. He also mentioned the private talks that we have had. Did the Governors of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia consult other persons in those territories, and were any Africans whatsoever consulted before this decision was taken?

Secondly, who, if it is not the Governors, will appoint the members of the Commission to come from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland?

Thirdly, who is to appoint the five Africans, and from which territories are they to come?

Fourthly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] These are all very straightforward questions, to which I would have thought the Prime Minister would have ready answers. Fourthly, which Commonwealth countries are, as it were, those from which Commonwealth representatives will be nominated? For instance, do those countries include India, the West Indies and Malaya? I have mentioned those three specifically, but if the Prime Minister can say precisely which countries are involved in that respect it would be a help to us all.

Finally, was it necessary to limit even the small representation from this Parlia- ment to Privy Councillors? Is it not desirable that the House should be more widely represented from among those who have not yet attained that rank?

The Prime Minister

As the Leader of the Opposition has said, this matter will be debated at length tomorrow. I rather regret that he thought it necessary to take so firm a position at this stage. I would have hoped that the importance of the question, which we all recognise, would have made us try to see whether we could not reach at any rate a great degree of harmony in the House upon so vital a matter. However, we will go into the detail of that tomorrow. The right hon. Gentleman has his responsibilities and he alone can carry them.

The right hon. Gentleman's first question concerned the matter of consultations. The consultations took place with the Governments or Governors. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether, in forming their views, the Governors had any formal consultations with the Africans in their territories. I do not think that they had any formal consultation, but they are always in informal touch, and they took this matter fully into consideration.

The right hon. Gentleman's third question concerned the distribution of African representatives. The final appointments will be made by the United Kingdom Government, on the advice of the Governors or Governments. As for distribution, we had in mind that from each of the four territories there should be one African, except in respect of Nyasaland, where we thought there should be two. That would seem to be more in proportion, having regard to the relations of the different populations. There are four Governments, including the Federation, and we had in mind one African from each of the territories, including the Federation as such, and two in the case of Nyasaland, for the reason that the ratio between the European population and the African population there is so very different from that in the other territories.

Mr. Bevan

Who picks the Africans?

The Prime Minister

I have answered that. They will be appointed by the United Kingdom on the advice of the Governors or Governments. The Federal appointee will be appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, because they are an independent Government, not responsible to us.

The last question concerned the six Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, and whether they should all be Privy Councillors. There will be 13 members from what one might call the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and I thought that six Members of the United Kingdom Parliament who were Privy Councillors would be best and right—[H0N. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—because I think that there is a good deal to be said for that. This is a very serious affair. We must bear in mind that of the other ones directly appointed from the United Kingdom side we wanted four independents, who might be economists, or professors of constitutional law, or sociologists, and we wanted two from the Commonwealth. With the chairman, that makes up the 13 who will definitely come from the United Kingdom.

As for which countries of the Commonwealth will be involved, we have not absolutely decided that, but we all felt that it would be valuable to draw rather from those countries which are federally organised and have this problem of federation, such as Australia, Canada, the West Indian Federation or even Malaya, rather than those which are of a unitary character. [HON. MEMBERS: "India?"] I do not rule that out. We want those who have had particular knowledge of the problem of the federal organisation of their system.

Mr. Gaitskell

I was surprised to hear the opening remarks of the Prime Minister in his reply to me. He was well aware, from the private talks which took place, of our objections to this form of Commission. We have considered this question very seriously and at great length and, with the best will in the world, although we would have liked to reach agreement on such an important matter, we found that it was impossible, for the reasons I have given.

The Prime Minister

I would not have made any reference to our private talks except that they took place, and I referred to them in my statement only after consultation with the right hon. Gentleman, and sending the text of the reference to him. I wish to make it quite clear that I asked him. I would have preferred not to refer to them, but I think that the talks were well known and had somehow got into the Press. I therefore thought it courteous to send the right hon. Gentleman the precise form in which I would make my statement. But I am not prepared to discuss—nor, I believe, is the right hon. Gentleman—what we said to each other, nor am I prepared to discuss the points of agreement or disagreement. I still appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the position and see whether he cannot make this a united approach.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I say merely that the Prime Minister is being extremely disingenuous in appearing to give the impression that we were hearing these proposals for the first time, and were rushing in to make up our minds without considering them?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman says that, I shall have to go into the details of what we discussed.

Mr. Gaitskell

So far as we are concerned I have no objection whatever to the Prime Minister doing that. Indeed, I think that it would enormously simplify the debate tomorrow if we agree upon that.

There are two other questions I should like to put to the Prime Minister. First, can he tell us anything about the timing of the opening of this Commission, when it is proposed that the Privy Councillors shall be selected? There are rumours of an early General Election. Is it intended that they should be chosen before the election or after the election? Secondly, on the terms of reference, may I ask him—this is a rather important question—do they imply that the Commission must assume that in all circumstances federation continues?

The Prime Minister

I will try to answer those questions immediately and, I hope, clearly. With regard to the timing of the Commission, we should like the Commission to start its operations in the autumn. With regard to the General Election, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is necessary that it should take place before May of next year. Having that in view, we shall try to get on with the nomination of the Commission as soon as may be and it will be formed as soon as we can get it into being. But if there was a way in which I could still get some support—if I could help to get a greater measure of support in naming the independent chairman or matters of that kind—I should be ready to consult with the right hon. Gentleman.

In reply to the second question, the terms of reference, I think that it will be clear to us—the review is laid down in the Act—but if questions were put about the possibility of secession being within the purview of the Advisory Commission, I would say that it was clear to me that the Commission would be free, in practice, to hear all points of view from whatever quarter on whatever subject, although, of course, we thought it right to give it terms of reference which accord with what we regard as the object of the 1960 review.

Mr. Turton

As the terms of reference refer to the Preamble of the Constitution, and as that Preamble refers to consulting the wishes of the inhabitants, can my right hon. Friend say whether these wishes will be ascertained by consulting the Legislatures?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, the machinery for carrying out the very important obligation that lies upon us all in the Preamble must be both by the Commission and by the review, and I would say that while the Legislatures of the Northern Territories are constituted in their present stage to conduct their ordinary affairs they would not be more than one element in the machinery which might be devised for the purpose of obtaining the views of the inhabitants.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that I have a certain amount of sympathy with the point made by the Leader of the Opposition about Privy Councillors? I have not had an opportunity of consulting my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), but should there be any difficulty this might be a point.

I am sure that there is a wide measure of agreement that a Commission would be valuable if it could gain the confidence of the Africans. That is the great point. In that connection, it seems at first sight that possibly the terms of reference of the Commission might be reconsidered. They would appear to tie the Commission somewhat to assuming the future. It is obviously of the greatest importance who is appointed to represent Africans on the Commission. May I put this specific point? When it comes to the Commonwealth representation there are, apparently, to be only two representatives. Without asking the right hon. Gentleman to make any specific announcement now, may I say that it seems of the greatest importance that one should come from what might be broadly called the non-white Commonwealth. If the right hon. Gentleman could give an assurance that that would be so, it would be valuable.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and the spirit in which he has approached this matter. [Laughter.] I hope that it will not do him any harm.

Regarding the hon. Gentleman's point about Privy Councillors, time marches on, and one never knows.

On the second point regarding the terms of reference, I think that they must be attuned to the 1960 review which is statutory, because that is the object. I have just said that, in practice, I am quite sure the widest discussions will be taking place with a Commission of this character.

I will bear the hon. Gentleman's third point in mind. I particularly wanted that they should be territories from parts of the Commonwealth which have experience of federation and it is true that that would include nominated representatives and non-Europeans.

Mr. Stonehouse

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be general dissatisfaction in the country about the composition of this Commission? Why has he decided to undermine the authority of this House, which is primarily responsible for the constitutional review? Why has he not agreed to the suggestion that there should be a genuine Parliamentary Commission from this House? Is he aware that Africans in Central Africa will have no confidence in the African representatives on this Commission, as they will be appointed by Governments which they do not recognise, and as the Commission will be operating at a time when African organisations in Southern Rhodesia are all unlawful and during the period of a state of emergency in Nyasaland, and while there are hundreds of Africans in detention for political reasons? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear all that in mind?

The Prime Minister

Of course, I will bear in mind all the contributions made by the hon. Gentleman. On the major point that he made, the responsibility of the United Kingdom Parliament, that responsibility, of course, remains unchanged by any Advisory Commission which may sit. When we come to the review it is all laid down in the Act. There will be a review of Governments and the United Kingdom's Parliamentary responsibility remains unchanged.

The purpose here seems to me—we shall debate it tomorrow—to be a perfectly simple one and not an ignoble one: simply to try to get, from as wide a number of people as we possibly and conveniently can, help to analyse the contributions to the thought on this matter. The second matter, which I think of considerable importance, is that in this very process there may be work of education and conciliation which this Commission can itself do.

Mr. Shinwell

Do I understand from the right hon. Gentleman that the proposals cannot be altered, that it is not possible to consider alternative proposals? Is not this to a substantial extent not essentially a Government matter, but a House of Commons matter, a matter for Parliament? Surely the right hon. Gentleman will consider proposals which are not altogether in line with those which he has presented to the House.

Suppose that during the debate tomorrow, for example, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends—not myself, because I am not an expert on the subject—venture to offer alternative proposals. Are we to understand that the right hon. Gentleman will not give them consideration at all?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I thought that it would be convenient—the Government carries the responsibility, they must do so long as they have the support of the House of Commons—for the very purpose which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind, to make a statement today, hoping that hon. Members would consider it when it was more clearly set out. We have the debate tomorrow and if there were points on which it were thought that changes might be made I will consult with those who have taken some responsibility with me, and bear all that in mind. But to have gone on to the end of the summer without any Government proposals, or without making any reference to this matter, which has been so much discussed in so many quarters, would have been shirking our duty. In the light of tomorrow's debate, we shall have to make our final decisions.

Mr. Wall

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's imaginative proposal, particularly the inclusion of Commonwealth representatives, may I ask him whether, out of the 13 representatives of Central Africa, it may be possible to find at least one from each of the three Federal political parties which, between them, represent large sections of African opinion?

The Prime Minister

The Commission will take evidence from everybody—that is one thing—and ascertain the views of all kinds of different people.

Then there is the membership. On the membership, I found—it may be right or wrong—exactly the opposite point of view presented by the Prime Minister of the Federation and his friends on representation. They are particularly anxious not to have members of their own Government in—not even Members of their own Parliaments or Legislatures. They wish to choose people of independent mind and experience, whether European or African, without regard to the party position.

Mr. Callaghan

The Prime Minister has said that the 1960 conference was necessary statutorily. He made the point that it must be held by 1962. In these circumstances, if there is general agreement on the means of getting African assent and carrying them with the Government in any report that is made, would the Prime Minister be open to consider the suggestion that the date of the conference should not be 1960, but, in fact, that the conference may be put back until the Legislatures in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland are more representative of African opinion through reforms in those two territories?

The Prime Minister

Of course, what is statutory is that it must be within seven or nine years. I have heard the proposal that, in spite of the agreement in the Declaration of 1957, the review should be postponed. I have thought a great deal about it, and there are arguments on both sides, but I would prefer to deploy them in debate. In my view, it would be a mistake, and would add to, rather than reduce, the uncertainty.

Mr. Bevan

I do not want to anticipate the debate, but two questions arise at this stage. First, if it turns out that the five African representatives will not command sufficient support among Africans, would it not be wise for the Prime Minister to keep an open mind about the number of Commonwealth representatives who might serve there? He might be able to correct that by increasing the number of Commonwealth representatives, particularly from those who can command African support.

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman proposing to allow those in detention to give evidence before the Commission?

The Prime Minister

On the first point, I take note of that, but I am very anxious that we should find—and I believe that it will be possible to find—five Africans to sit upon the Commission who will command the respect of their fellow-countrymen—not necessarily the political support, but the respect.

With regard to ascertaining the views of those who, at the moment the Com- mission is operating, are in detention, that, of course, can and will be arranged.

Mr. Foot

May we ask the Prime Minister for an assurance that those African leaders of opinion who command of a very wide measure of public support, but who are at the moment detained without trial, will not necessarily be ruled out from membership of the Commission?

The Prime Minister

In appointing the Commission, I do not think that it would be possible for me to make appointments from organisations which are at present illegal. At the same time, it is quite possible that progress may have been made by the time the Commission is finally appointed. I will bear in mind the point which the hon. and learned Member has made.