HC Deb 16 March 1961 vol 636 cc1748-53
Mr. Gaitskell

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on the decision of the Union Government to withdraw its application for South Africa's continued membership of the Commonwealth as a Republic.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The House will know that the Prime Minister of South Africa yesterday decided to withdraw his application for the Union of South Africa to remain a member of the Commonwealth after that country becomes a Republic on 31st May next. Until then, South Africa will remain a member of the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister of South Africa will, therefore, continue to take part in the deliberations of the present Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

I am sure that I speak for many of us on both sides of the House when I express our deep regret that the Commonwealth ties with South Africa, which have endured for fifty years, are shortly to be severed, and our regret, also, for the circumstances which have made this unavoidable. Remembering that the Commonwealth is an association of peoples of all races, colours and creeds, we must hope that, in the years to come, it will be possible for South Africa once more to play her part in the Commonwealth.

The Prime Minister of South Africa has said that he hopes to co-operate in all possible ways with all those members of the Commonwealth who are willing to maintain good relations with South Africa. He has also said that South Africa will remain a member of the sterling area. We, for our part, welcome these statements, and intend to cooperate fully in matters of common interest.

The House will wish to debate the various implications of the situation with which we are now faced. No doubt arrangements can be made through the usual channels for a debate next week.

The House will appreciate that I do not feel free to go into further details until the Conference is over, and the final communique has been agreed.

Mr. Gaitskell

We welcome the Prime Minister's suggestion that there should be a debate next week. I think that it is clear to all of us that the Commonwealth, in the last few days, has passed through a great crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis in its history, whose impact was bound to be very great, very decisive, not only in the Commonwealth itself, but far beyond it.

I realise that some take the view that what has happened is a step towards the dissolution and decay of the Commonwealth. For our part, on these benches, we take the contrary view. To us, the outcome, bearing in mind all the circumstances, strengthens our faith that the Commonwealth is an institution of great potential value for humanity.

I hope that I may be permitted to put my remarks in the form of a statement—I think that that is usual on such occasions—and not simply as questions. It can hardly be denied—can it?—that the theory and practice of apartheid—the advocacy of a permanent division of men according to the colour of their skin, and involving, in practice, different rights, opportunities and status—is a continuous affront to the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth.

Sir K. Pickthorn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be glad to know what rights other hon. Members may have to express their opinions on this occasion.

Mr. Speaker

At present, I shall have to see. Strictly speaking, what I am allowed to permit on these occasions is some questions, but I do not wish to complicate the situation. I confess, having heard what the Prime Minister has said, that I think that the House might think we should not, perhaps, be as long about this as on another occasion.

Mr. Gaitskell

I fully agree with what you say, Mr. Speaker, but I think that you would agree that it is usual on such occasions to allow a few preliminary observations before one puts the questions to the Prime Minister.

Hon. Members


Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is the very point that I raised with you yesterday—that is, that there are many precedents for the course which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition claims to follow. This was particularly so when the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) was Leader of the Opposition, in the 1945–50 Parliament, in which the then Speaker ruled in his favour. I am sure that you would not wish my right hon. Friend to be treated with less advantage than his predecessors.

Mr. Speaker

I have not treated him in any such way. If the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) agrees with what I am doing about it, I hope that we can now get on.

Mr. Gaitskell

I regret that hon. Members should have misunderstood my intentions in this matter. I will confine myself simply to saying this: we wish profoundly that the dilemma thus created had been resolved by a change in the attitude of the South African Government, but, as this apparently proved to be impossible, it was perhaps best that the Prime Minister of South Africa should recognise the hopeless contradiction of South Africa's staying in the Commonwealth under his Government.

I should like to join with the Prime Minister, if I may, in saying to the people of South Africa, whatever colour they may be, that we hope that, in time, the racial theories and policies adopted by the Union today may be changed and brought into line with those practised in the rest of the Commonwealth, and that they will then return as welcome friends to the Commonwealth.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

On a point of order. Has it not been recognised, from time immemorial, Mr. Speaker, that the Leader of the Opposition has the perfect right to put a question arising out of a Private Notice Question, but not to indulge in moralising on debatable propositions at Question Time? Is he not exceeding the rights usually accorded to him?

Mr. Speaker

Owing to some noise, I did not myself hear the last sentence the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition uttered. My view about this is that it is wisely left to the discretion of the Chair to determine whether the occasion be one on which the right hon. Gentleman should be required strictly to adhere to questions, or whether it is of a more formal character, when some observations in a non-interrogatory form have been permitted.

Mr. Gaitskell

I will, then, repeat what I said before—that I trust that they will one day return, with different racial policies, as welcome friends to the Commonwealth.

Does the Prime Minister expect that the Prime Minister's Conference will, nevertheless, be issuing a statement on the question of racial policies? Secondly, in view of the decision of the Prime Minister of the Union Government, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that our attitude to the High Commission Territories remains unchanged, and will he reaffirm our responsibilities to those territories?

The Prime Minister

The communiqué will be settled tomorrow. Of course, I am in the hands of my colleagues as a whole as to how they wish the communiqué to be drawn.

It is the case that the withdrawal of the Union of South Africa from the Commonwealth will have no constitutional effects upon the relationship between the High Commission Territories and the United Kingdom, nor will the withdrawal of South Africa affect our responsibilities and obligations towards those Territories, which have repeatedly been made clear.

Sir J. Duncan

Without anticipating the debate next week, will my right hon. Friend say that the door remains wide open to the Union of South Africa to come back into the Commonwealth if there should be a change of heart?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I said that, and the Leader of the Opposition repeated it, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought it up again.

The tragedy of this event is that we are a comradeship of peoples. There will be very many sad people in South Africa, our friends, our relations, men who have lived there for several generations, others who have only recently gone out. There will be sad people of every kind and every race, and do not let us forget them. We are not a combination of Governments. We are a combination of peoples. Had it been possible to reach agreement, I think that it would have been reached, but it proved not to be so. This seemed the only dignified way out, and I hope that I may be allowed to pay a tribute to the dignity and courtesy of the Prime Minister of South Africa, which was appreciated by all his colleagues, in what was a very good discussion of a very high level. There we are; I agree that we must look to the future.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that there will be widespread agreement in this country with the feeling of sympathy which he has expressed with the people of all races in South Africa who, no doubt, regret this decision as much as anybody and also regret the policies which have made it inevitable?

May I ask two questions which the Prime Minister might consider before the debate? Will he consider giving us information, by a White Paper or in some other way, about his view of the position in the Mandated Territories and British citizenship as it affects South Africa? While I appreciate what he has said about the Protectorates, what will be the position of the High Commissionership of the Protectorates which is now situated in South Africa?

The Prime Minister

I have already dealt with the question of the High Commission Territories. A number of questions will have to be dealt with and some of them would have had to have been dealt with anyway, probably by legislation, owing to the change from a monarchy to a republic. There will now have to be another set of questions which are being studied by the Departments concerned. The change does not happen until 31st May, and I hope, in the course of the debate, to explain, at any rate in outline, what our major legislative and administrative problems are following from this event.

Sir H. Oakshott

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that there are many of us who fully share his sorrow at the outcome of this issue, and, if I may say so respectfully, who have watched with great admiration his tireless efforts to try to bring about an accommodation satisfactory to everybody? Is he further aware, as he has indicated, that there are many of us who see a distinction between Governments and peoples, and that if the effects of this decision can be mitigated in the way of trade and commerce, to the advantage of all the peoples of the Union, of all colours and races, that will be very much welcomed by many of us?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir.

Mr. M. Foot

In the light of this decision, will Her Majesty's Government review some of the votes which they have cast at the United Nations in recent weeks, in particular their vote this week about South West Africa, since we owe obligations to the people there as well as to those in other parts of Africa?

The Prime Minister

Certainly, but this is a very complicated question, part of which is a question of the interpretation of the legal position and the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, given in 1950. Apart from the substance, there are quite complicated legal questions which we are also studying.