HC Deb 13 June 1961 vol 642 cc203-11
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

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

I have informed the House on a number of occasions that we have been in touch for some time in the normal way with other Commonwealth Governments about the problems of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Economic Community and the possible arrangements which might meet the needs of ourselves and our partners in the Commonwealth as well as in the European Free Trade Association.

Her Majesty's Government have not yet reached decisions on this important question. Before doing so, we regard it as essential for there to be further discussions with all the Commonwealth countries. For this purpose I have proposed to the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth countries that I should arrange for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and two other senior Ministers between them to visit Commonwealth capitals in the near future. In the light of these consultations and of the discussions which we shall be having with European Free Trade Association Ministers, Her Majesty's Government will further consider their policy.

So far, my proposal has been generally welcomed. Arangements for these visits are in hand and an announcement about the dates will be made as soon as possible. I hope that it will be possible for a start to be made towards the end of this month.

Mr. Gaitskell

While recognising the value of the proposed visits, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he does not think that there is a good deal to be said for Mr. Diefenbaker's proposal of a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference? Will he at least invite the views of other Commonwealth Prime Ministers on this conference, which might take place following the visits which the Prime Minister mentioned in his statement?

The Prime Minister

I have been in close touch with the Prime Minister of Canada throughout. There is no divergence between us. He is very happy that the visits should take place. He said, and I use his words, that It might be necessary to have a collective discussion of Ministers"— not Prime Ministers. That takes place very easily, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, at the time of the International Bank meeting between Finance Ministers. He said that it might be necessary at another stage to have a meeting of Prime Ministers if it can be arranged.

All that I do not exclude, but I still think it of great importance, having regard to the very divergent character of the problem as between, let us say, some of the West African members of the Commonwealth and some of the other members, that we should start with really careful and more detailed discussions than we have ever been able to have up to now and then decide at a later stage what should be the next method of consultation.

Mr. Gaitskell

Nevertheless, would not the Prime Minister agree that, whatever views may be reached as a result of these talks, it is desirable that before any decisions are taken there should be nothing less than a Prime Ministers' conference, since this obviously involves political as well as economic and financial issues?

The Prime Minister

It is because it involves political issues that I am so anxious that senior Ministers should go, able to discuss the political as well as the purely technical questions involved. I should not like to lay down now—I think that it would be foolish to do so—the precise procedure, but I do not exclude that.

The question is exactly what is meant by "before decisions are taken". There is first a decision to negotiate, and then, much later, a decision, as a result of negotiations, to see whether any satisfactory arrangements can be made.

Mr. Gaitskell

Arising out of that, may I ask another question? What is the relationship, so far as time is concerned, between the proposed visits and the further negotiations with members of the Common Market, which are also mentioned in the Prime Minister's statement?

The Prime Minister

The first thing is to get these Commonwealth discussions before any further discussions between ourselves and the members of the Six. All that procedure must be gone through, as well as the meeting which is to take place at the end of this month with the E.F.T.A. Ministers.

I emphasise, because I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are in a great deal of agreement about how this matter should be handled, that what we are really discussing is not whether to agree to some arrangement immediately, but whether to enter a negotiation. To decide that, it is important to decide what would be the necessary derogation from the precise working of the Rome Treaty as it stands from the Commonwealth point of view and from the British agricultural point of view on the economic side. Then there are even larger questions of the broad political future of the world—the free world—and how best this country can make its contribution.

All those questions must be discussed, and, therefore, I think that it would be far too crude to say that we must just sign it or not sign it. This is a great issue which we must handle carefully and effectively.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Will the Prime Minister answer a rather narrower and more concrete question? Does he think that this question of the attitude of the Commonwealth can be settled solely by bilateral conversations between us and each other member? As the whole future of the Commonwealth may be at stake, is it not essential that there should be a collective discussion between all the Prime Ministers before any serious steps are taken, even of negotiation?

The Prime Minister

I should like to consider that. I think that the most important things for negotiation are the economic aspects. I am bound to say that a collective meeting—which, in my experience, can never be got together, with all the work the Prime Ministers have, for more than three or four days—is not likely to be able to deal in great detail with economic problems. It is far better to do it in the way I propose. When it comes to the broader question, there I agree that a collective meeting may be valuable.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his answers to Questions and his statement today have been timely, and will revive a confidence that was beginning to wane? Members of the Conservative Party had feelings that were expressed by the hon. Member for Cannock (Miss Lee). There was a feeling abroad now seen obviously to be without foundation—that a decision had been taken and that it was now a matter of producing evidence to support that decision. The answers that my right hon. Friend has given today will, if pursued further, revive confidence.

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the nation at home is alerted to the fact that a vital decision must be taken and that further details should be placed in front of it as soon as possible? If that is done, it will be of assistance not only to the nation, but to my right hon. Friend's Government.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I still think that we are apt to over-simplify the matter when we refer to a "vital decision". The decision does not rest entirely with us. The only decision now is whether or not to enter into negotiations which may or may not be successful.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the objection to an immediate Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference coming from the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth or from the right hon. Gentleman? Does not he appreciate that the circumstances are most exceptional, and that the whole future of the Commonwealth is at stake? Some of us will not allow the right hon. Member or anybody else to sell the Commonwealth down the river.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has been through so many moods in his life, and has displayed so many facets in public affairs, that I regard the last part of his supplementary question as one which I can altogether rebut—and I think that I have the right to do so, for my record is better than his.

Mr. Shinwell

The right hon. Gentleman cannot talk to me like that.

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Shinwell

I can take it and I can also dish it out.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There has been so much noise that it was not possible for hon. Members to hear me calling Mr. Turton.

Mr. Turton

As the Montreal Conference set up the Commonwealth Economic Consultative Council for purposes such as those which we are now discussing, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that its machinery will be used before, during or after the projected visits?

The Prime Minister

We have been in constant touch through the official machinery. Then there is the possibility of using the machinery to which my right hon. Friend calls attention. All that has been considered. But we feel that these visits would be valuable now, because it is very difficult to call a meeting of all the Prime Ministers at short notice. I had the greatest difficulty in arranging the last one, even three or four months ahead. I think that these visits, which the Prime Minister of Canada greatly welcomed in his last communication to me, will be useful. We can then see how best to proceed.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

As it has been said that a precondition to any negotiation is the acceptance of the political objectives of the Rome Treaty, which would mean closer political union with the Six than with the Commonwealth, does not the Prime Minister consider that he should immediately have a meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in order to consider whether or not to accept this political precondition before dealing with questions of detail about economics—or has the Prime Minister already made up his mind to accept that precondition?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and learned Member is over-simplifying the question. There are in the Rome Treaty certain questions of economic, trade and other arrangements. As the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, there are divergent views in Europe as to how the ultimate solution may be arrived at. There is the federalist movement, and the confederalist movement. None of those questions is inherent in the Rome Treaty. There are those who think that there should be a broad federal institution. Others, such as the French Government, think that the confederalist way is the best way to proceed. We cannot over-simplify matters to the extent that the hon. and learned Member has attempted to do.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Having regard to what Mr. Diefenbaker and other leading Commonwealth statesmen have said since my right hon. Friend last replied to me on this point, can we at least have an assurance that the Prime Minister will not close his mind to the possibility of a conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers and whatever other Ministers may be appropriate before the United Kingdom enters into negotiations?

The Prime Minister

That is another question. I do not exclude such a meeting, if it is thought desirable, but these meetings are difficult to arrange, as I have said. The first question is whether we should try out the ground and see whether negotiations on terms anything like what the Commonwealth, Britain and our E.F.T.A. partners think reasonable are possible. Having seen that—and it will take quite a long time—we can then proceed to see whether effective negotiations can be made on such a basis. I do not exclude any particular method. I welcome them all. But this is by far the most practical in the immediate situation.

Mr. A. Henderson

Is the Prime Minister aware that some hon. Members on this side of the House take the view that it is quite possible to maintain the Commonwealth as it is today and yet facilitate the entry of this country into the Common Market, if a decision is so taken?

The Prime Minister

I do not often take it upon myself to speak for the whole House. I know that there are different moods and different points of view in the House on most occasions, but this is not a party question. I think that both parties are broadly agreed that these are very grave issues for the future of our country and the world, and that we must try to think about them objectively to see if we can find a solution. We may fail, but that will be the aim.

Mr. Shinwell

The Prime Minister has already made up his mind.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Member has become very patriotic in his old age. It is curious how jingoism grows upon people.

I think that the mood of the House as a whole is that this is a very serious and almost solemn question that we have to consider. All I am trying to do is to obtain the right machinery and to see that we consider the question among ourselves and with our partners in the Commonwealth, above all, together with our partners in Europe and in E.F.T.A., having regard to the interests of our agriculture and industry, and then to decide whether or not it is in our interests to see whether we can find a basis on which to have this unity with Europe.

We may decide otherwise, but we must decide. But we must surely seek out the ground very carefully before coming to a decision. I have no doubt that when we do come to a decision it will divide parties in the House. It will be one of the gravest decisions Britain has taken. We will try to do what is best for our country and for the free world.

Mr. Longden

Does my right hon. Friend recall that about three years ago there was a conference at Palmerston, in New Zealand, which was attended by the present Minister of Aviation, among others? Does he further recall that the suggestion was then made that a common approach should be made by the whole Commonwealth to the Six? As it must be in all our interests that some arrangement should be arrived at, can my right hon. Friend say why nothing has been done ever since, and why only now he is considering a discussion of the matter with Commonwealth Prime Ministers?

The Prime Minister

The concept then put forward was totally unrealistic, having regard to the economic interests of the various Commonwealth countries and of Europe.

Mr. Monslow

In the light of the present controversy, will not the Prime Minister agree to accept the request made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and let us have a White Paper setting out the economic facts, and also the likely political implications?

The Prime Minister

I should like to consider that suggestion. In fairness, perhaps the hon. Member would consider my problem. Let us suppose that we put into the White Paper everything that we tended to gain from one set of proposals and, also, what we stood to lose. Let us suppose that we set out all the figures, with all the advantages and disadvantages from our point of view. Does the hon. Member think that that would make it easier for us to enter effectively into negotiations, if we decided to do so?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is impossible to debate this matter without a Question being before the House.