HC Deb 20 May 1960 vol 623 cc1641-52

11.5 a.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

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

I must, first, thank the House for its forbearance, which enabled me to remain in Paris for a number of discussions, the last of which was with President de Gaulle yesterday afternoon. Remembering the feelings which were expressed in our debate on 12th May, I realise that the events of the past few days must have come as a great shock and disappointment to the House, and, indeed, to the whole country.

I will not detain the House by recounting all the details of these somewhat hectic days. A White Paper is being laid, which contains the relevant documents and which shows the sequence of what has happened. I will, however, briefly mention the main points.

Before I went to Paris on Sunday last, I knew from a letter which I had received from Mr. Khrushchev on 9th May that he had certain apprehensions about the successful outcome of the Summit negotiations. These were based, among other things, on the American aircraft incident. Mr. Khrushchev had also expressed to President de Gaulle some doubts about how far it would be possible for the proceedings of the conference to be kept confidential. But, at that time, there was no suggestion that Mr. Khrushchev would decline to take part in constructive negotiations about the subjects which were to be discussed at the Summit.

It was, therefore, a surprise to me when, at a meeting which my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and I had with him and others of the Russian delegation at his request on the afternoon of Sunday, Mr. Khrushchev read to us the terms of a strongly worded document which he had handed a little earlier to President de Gaulle. This said that the Soviet Government were not prepared to negotiate under threat of further flights of United States aircraft over Soviet territory, and that they saw no possibility for productive negotiations unless the United States Government were first prepared to condemn the action that had been taken, to undertake not to repeat it, and to call those responsible to account.

At the first meeting of the four Heads of Government, on the Monday morning, Mr. Khrushchev began by reiterating these terms. He added that it would be better for the Summit to be adjourned for six to eight months, and that in the circumstances it would not be possible for President Eisenhower to make his proposed visit to Russia. President Eisenhower then made his reply. I was aware of what he was going to say, since I had had a long meeting with him earlier that morning. His statement contained a categorical assurance that the aircraft flights had already been suspended and were not to be resumed.

I should, perhaps, say here that Mr. Khrushchev subsequently made some play with the fact that this assurance was limited to the President's own tenure of office. It was, however, made clear that this assurance was the most categorical and definite which any President of the United States could constitutionally give.

I then made some comments, in which I pointed out that, in view of the President's assurance, there was now no kind, of threat overhanging the negotiations and I urged that the Summit meeting, so long awaited by the world, should proceed with its work. In spite of the plea of President de Gaulle and myself that our discussions should remain confidential, Mr. Khrushchev insisted on publishing his declaration in full. As a result, the declarations which the other Heads of Government had made were published. These are all reproduced in the White Paper. I must say that I myself had hoped that it might be possible to agree on a joint communiqué which would have given the gist of these statements, without introducing the element of controversy which publication of the full texts must inevitably arouse.

Since Mr. Khrushchev, while refusing to begin the Summit negotiations, had stated that he was willing to engage in contacts outside the conference, I thought it right, later that day, the Monday, to have separate talks with President de Gaulle, President Eisenhower, and, finally, with Mr. Khrushchev. This last interview took place in the evening at the Soviet Embassy. My purpose was to ascertain whether a basis could be found on which the Summit could begin. I pointed out to Mr. Khrushchev that his apprehensions and conditions had been largely met. He had obtained a categorical assurance and this categorical assurance had, in fact, been made public. I urged that it was unreasonable to expect more, and I appealed to him not to make impossible the negotiations on which all our hopes depended. We both spoke very frankly, and I was not without some hope that the situation might take a more favourable turn.

However, on the following morning, the Tuesday, Mr. Khrushchev very early took an opportunity of reaffirming all the conditions which he had laid down as necessary before the Summit negotiations could begin. Coming after my talk with him the previous evening, this seemed to me to make it doubtful, to say the least, whether the Soviet Government now wished to engage in real negotiations at this time. After a meeting that morning between the Western Governments, President de Gaulle invited all four Heads of Government to begin the Summit discussions at a meeting that afternoon. Mr. Khrushchev did not come to that meeting; he later replied in writing to President de Gaulle's invitaion and again reiterated the conditions which he had laid down at the meeting on the previous day.

Nevertheless, the three Western Heads of Government decided that they would wait until 9.30 that night before issuing any statement. We did this in the hope that there might be some final change of mood. In the interval, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary invited the Soviet Foreign Minister to the British Embassy and had a further long talk with him. By 9.30 it was clear that there was no change in the Soviet attitude and that in the circumstances the conference could not take place. The three Western Heads of Government therefore issued a joint declaration that evening. This ended in the words: We remain unshaken in our conviction that all outstanding international questions should be settled, not by the use or threat of force, but by peaceful means through negotiations. We remain ready to take part in such negotiations at any suitable time in the future. On Wednesday, 18th May, Mr. Khrushchev and his colleagues called on my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and me for a short talk before taking leave of President de Gaulle. Subsequently, the three Western Foreign Ministers and the Heads of Government had most useful discussions. On Thursday, I was able to have further discussions with Prime Minister Debré as well as with President de Gaulle.

It is not easy to assess the exact significance of these events, still less to guess the course of the future. Mr. Khrushchev and his colleagues, in the meetings which my right hon. and learned Friend and I have had with them, have declared that it is still their policy to try to secure constructive solutions of the many difficult problems which face us by means of real negotiations.

Mr. Khrushchev's statement envisaged the resumption of Summit discussions after some months. The period he mentioned may or may not be realistic; but that, we were assured, was still their policy. If so, I find it hard to account for the Soviet attitude in Paris. President Eisenhower's assurance, made public, removed the grounds for any suggestion that the Summit negotiations would be held under a threat. I cannot help being disappointed by Mr. Khrushchev's reiteration, without any amendment, of further conditions which it was hardly possible for a Head of Government to accept. Despite Mr. Khrushchev's attitude, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and I continued to do our best, by maintaining the necessary contacts and by engaging in our separate discussions, to work for some satisfactory way of getting the Summit negotiations to begin. In the end, all that we and our United States and French allies could do was to pledge ourselves to be ready to take part in peaceful negotiations of all outstanding international questions at any suitable time in the future.

I cannot conceal from the House that there may be grave implications in what has happened. During recent months, I have had some reason to hope that there was a real desire, on both sides, to try to negotiate mutually satisfactory solutions to the problems which divided us. I had not expected, nor had any of us, that these solutions could be found quickly or easily. I have not given up this hope. It would be wrong to do that; and we will try, as opportunity develops, to seize it. The path to the Summit has been, as I said here a week ago, slow, painful and subject to many disappointments. There is no doubt that what has happened is a serious setback. But in our final declaration we and our allies have made it clear that we are ready to continue our efforts. I am sure that that is right.

On the other hand, we must face the fact that the immediate future is bound to be difficult, and the period ahead may be one of retrogression, instead of progress. We must be prepared for the international outlook to become more stern. We may have to meet new threats and new dangers. Is this rupture an isolated episode, or does it indicate a deliberate change in Russian policy? It is too early to say. In either case, we must be ready.

There are two other matters to which I should, perhaps, refer. The first is the question of nuclear tests. As the House is aware, I had hoped that it would have been possible, during the Summit meeting, to have tripartite discussions, and then to carry negotiations for an agreement on this matter very near to a conclusion. In the event, this was clearly impossible. However, in private discussions, it appeared that both the United States and the Soviet Governments were ready to continue discussions in Geneva, and we shall certainly press on to try to get this agreement. But I must not conceal from the House that this process may be somewhat less rapid that I had hoped.

We had hoped, also, to make some progress about disarmament. Here, the position is less satisfactory, since the Soviet leaders did not show in Paris any feeling or hope that the Ten Power group was going to make progress. For the moment, all that we can do is to continue with the Geneva talks in an effort for some advance.

I recognise that hon. Members will desire an early debate on all these issues. I feel that our discussions may be more valuable if we let a few days pass, when it may be possible to assess the situation more accurately. I would, therefore, propose, if the House agrees, that the debate should take place on Monday, 30th May.

Mr. Gaitskell

The House will be grateful to the Prime Minister for his full statement on the tragic events of these last days. Whatever may be obscure, I must say that one thing is plain: the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary clearly did all in their power to prevent the breakdown of the negotiations. We are grateful, too, for the promise of the White Paper, and the date for the debate is quite acceptable to the Opposition.

I could not find much, if anything, to disagree with in the general tone and balance of the Prime Minister's statement. As he says, it is too early to estimate the precise significance of these events. It may be that we are now faced with an important change in Soviet policy. It may be, on the other hand, that this is an isolated incident explained by internal circumstances within the Soviet Union and bearing no particular implications for the future.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is right in implying in his statement that we should not make any change in our general approach and policy. Our policy must surely remain as before—always ready and anxious to secure and negotiate agreements, while, at the same time, maintaining our defences and our alliances.

At this stage I should like to put only two questions to the Prime Minister, because we shall have opportunities to consider the statement, and, of course, to debate it later.

The first question relates to the ban on nuclear tests. I agree with the Prime Minister that this is probably the most important and hopeful conference which still exists, and it is reassuring that Mr. Khrushchev, as well as, of course, the Western Heads of Government, have given a clear assurance that negotiations will continue. It would, of course, be enormously important if, despite everything, we could forge ahead towards that agreement, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister, with the Foreign Secretary, would consider whether some fresh initiative should be taken from the side of the West. It would be wrong to press for an answer on that this morning, but I ask them to consider that very seriously.

My second question is rather different. Although most of us, at any rate, feel that, after President Eisenhower's assurance that the flights would be stopped, the persistence of MR. Khrushchev in putting forward conditions which he must have known would be impossible for the President to accept indicates a deliberate decision on his part to wreck the conference, nevertheless we cannot altogether ignore the U2 episode and the judgments made by the American Government and by the officials of the American Government which preceded the conference.

It seems to me that the lesson of this is that we must have a much closer co-ordination of policy and tactics within N.A.T.O. I believe that this will be necessary either way. If the Prime Minister's worst forebodings are justified, and we are moving into a more difficult phase, then it is important that we should have the greatest solidarity in the West. But either way it is also important that no individual member of the alliance should take action which might jeopardise the fate of the rest.

I would, therefore, like to ask the Prime Minister, as my second question, whether he has as yet had any talks with the other Heads of Government on how better co-ordination and unity in N.A.T.O. may be achieved?

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for the things that he was kind enough to say about me and about the Foreign Secretary, and for the modera- tion, if I might be allowed to say so, and the wisdom with which he has approached our difficulties.

The two questions, which he did not press me to answer immediately, are both very relevant. On the tests, curiously enough, while all these troubles and excitements were going on in Paris, rather good meetings were being held by the experts in Geneva. Quite a lot of progress was made on the scientific front, and everything was going along very nicely. Perhaps the lesson is that the experts are better than the politicians. We had talks on this matter with both the Russians and the Americans, and the feeling that I think we had was, let us move along on this basis for the moment. I will certainly consider whether what we had hoped to do in Paris might be brought to a head at the appropriate moment by some other means.

On the second question, I agree, of course, that there are many lessons to be learned. I am glad that the Leader of the Opposition felt as I did, that Mr. Khrushchev was pressing this too hard in asking the Head of a great Government to go beyond a statement which, I am bound to say, showed on the part of President Eisenhower, in the circumstances, great wisdom and great courage. Mr. Khrushchev may have wished to wreck the conference. He must certainly not be allowed to wreck the alliance, and I shall never say anything that could lead to that result. Closer co-ordination of its work, both between the greatest Powers and all the Powers of N.A.T.O. is, of course, a thing which we must consider, and about which we had—and that is partly why I stayed on in the days remaining— very useful preliminary conversations.

Sir T. Moore

In his grievous disappointment, will my right hon. Friend take comfort from the knowledge that he has earned and gained the gratitude and admiration of us all, and, indeed, of the free world generally, for his tireless efforts to bring this conference about and to make it a success? Will he also perhaps recall the words of another great and gallant Scot: If at first you don't succeed, Try, try, try again"?

Mr. Grimond

While we sympathise with the Prime Minister for his ordeal in Paris, does this not show that there is something to be said for the older, more conventional and more private methods of diplomacy? Since the road to the Summit started from the possibility of difficulties in Germany, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he has anything to say about Berlin, or whether he gathered anything on that subject from Mr. Khruschev?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first question, I am not aware that that view has been part of the policy of the hon. Gentleman in the past, but I take note of it all the same.

With regard to the second, I would prefer not to enter now into prophecies or prognostications.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Was not the most acceptable statement by Mr. Khrushchev in Paris the tribute he paid to the Prime Minister's patient diplomacy and efforts for peace? Does my right hon. Friend recall the words uttered by President de Gaulle, in Westminster Hall, that "giants sometimes lose their head"? Does not the safety of the West, and of the world, depend on the utmost British effort for the unity of the Commonwealth and the solidarity of Europe?

The Prime Minister

I think that there are always advantages to be gained from a setback, and I think that we all had the feeling that perhaps some of the differences that had been allowed to develop fell to a lower level of importance in the necessity to rally the forces of the free world to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity, if it comes, and to be ready to do their duty in any situation in which they might find themselves.

Mr. Healey

Has the Prime Minister's attention been drawn to an important statement made yesterday by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Hammarskjoeld, stressing the dangers that some war might develop out of miscalculation? Would he not agree that the tragedy in Paris was due at least in part to a series of miscalculations by both the American and Soviet Governments about one another's reactions, and that this has produced a widespread loss of confidence throughout the world in the fitness of the great Powers to carry alone responsibility for the future of the human race?

Will he, therefore, consider associating representatives of neutral nations, through the United Nations or otherwise, in certain future negotiations between the two sides in the cold war?

The Prime Minister

I will consider that. Of course, any meetings that are arranged must be arranged by those who are ready to come to them. While it might be useful to have some wider representation, we must remember that the Powers which were to have met at the Summit do not arrogate to themselves the power of being the greatest Powers in the world. They are really meeting in relation to the events following the end of the last war, and primarily because they are responsible, as the victorious Powers, for this situation arising out of the defeat of Germany. They cannot arrogate to themselves a sort of supranational power to run the whole world. I agree that those functions must be associated with the United Nations.

Mr. C. Osborne

In view of the rather more moderate statement made by Mr. Khrushchev in East Berlin yesterday, expressing the hope that Summit talks might be resumed, will my right hon. Friend tell the Russian Government that the best thing they can do towards this would be, first, to stop the jamming of the B.B.C. Russian-language broadcasts and allow the Russian people to hear something of our point of view? Secondly, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether there is any hope of his giving a T.V. broadcast that could be linked to Eurovision, so that everyone could see and hear him?

The Prime Minister

I regret—indeed, I am sure that we all regret—the jamming of information going throughout the world. There has been a good deal of progress in reducing that interruption. I would not be surprised if we were to lose a little ground in the first few weeks, but I hope that we may make it up again.

With regard to my hon. Friend's second supplementary question, I have considered this, but I hope to be excused from making any broadcasts either here or through the Eurovision link. I do not think that we want to deal with this as a matter of great crisis. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, "hear."] I think that we want to keep quite calm and to look, as I have said, for anything good if it comes our way, and to be prepared for anything bad if we have to meet it.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the Prime Minister refuse to be discouraged by recent events, and continue his efforts, whether public or private, in the diplomatic field to promote peace for the world? Is he aware that he will have the universal backing of the whole country in his efforts? May I also ask him whether he will ensure that, unlike the statement recently made by the American Secretary for Defence—which appeared to me be an unnecessary, irrelevant and bellicose utterance—no similar statement, either in the political or the military sphere, will be made in this country?

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) for his kindness—this is not the first occasion on which he has shown me kindness in times of difficulty. I hope that we can all take some satisfaction from the tone, as well as the actual phrases, of the statement issued on behalf of the three allies at the end of these disappointments. I think that it is exactly that point that is made in the White Paper, printed today. That is the tone throughout, and I will read the last part again. They said that they regretted that ‖ these discussions, so important for world peace, could not take place but that they remained unshaken in their conviction that international questions should be settled ‖ not by the use or threat of force, but by peaceful means through negotiations. In the final sentence they pledge themselves to be ready to take part in such negotiations at any suitable time. I think that that is the note in which we have a reason to take some satisfaction; that we ended on a note very different, I am afraid, from that sounded by Mr. Khrushchev in his final Press conference.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I think that most statements, on the whole, do harm. The difficulty is that one has to try to make them and do the least possible harm in doing so.

Mr. A. Henderson

Will the Prime Minister make it clear that he intends personally to ensure that contacts and discussions are maintained with the Soviet Government, if necessary through diplomatic channels, with the primary purpose of securing a more favourable atmosphere for the resumption of the Summit talks?

The Prime Minister

I think that the answer is " Yes," and it is the intention of all the Powers concerned.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We shall have a later opportunity of discussing these matters.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that, once again, only right hon. Members have been called—all, I think, from this side—what guidance can you give us as to the future conduct about the rights of the back benchers?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member wants to criticise the selections of the Chair, he must put down a substantive Motion.