HC Deb 17 July 1963 vol 681 cc525-31
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I returned yesterday from a short visit to British Guiana, and I think that the House would like to hear my frank impressions of the situation in that unhappy country.

Wherever I went, in town and village, I received a warm and openhearted welcome from crowds of all races. In one place after another simple people expressed a touching belief that I would beable to lift from them the shadow which overhangs all their lives—the shadow of fear and suspicion. From one end of the country to the other, from the highest to the lowest, the people of British Guiana are gripped with fear and cleft in two by mutual suspicion.

The Africans fear the Indians and the Indians fear the Africans. They live in constant dread of assault, murder and arson; and this has got to the point where even neighbours of long standing in the same village no longer trust each other. The police, who are mainly African, are doing a fine job, despite the fact that their impartiality is, quite unjustifiably, questioned by the Indian community, including, I am afraid, Ministers.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the Britishsoldier is universally welcome among all sections of the population. His calm and cheerful presence has undoubtedly had a steadying effect and has done much to prevent the situation from getting completely out of hand.

In addition to the immediate fear of violence, each race has a deep-rooted fear of the prospect of living under a Government controlled by the other, after independence. On this aspect of the problem, I received much advice from many quarters. The Government and the predominantly Indian party expressed the view that the trouble would cease at once if I would fix an early date for independence. The remedy of the Opposition, whose members are predominantly African, was the introduction of proportional representation.

I made it clear to both leaders that I was not prepared to discuss independence or constitutional changes under present conditions. I told them that it was their duty temporarily to join together to stop the bloodshed between their supporters. I urged them temporarily to put aside party politics and to form an emergency Government of all parties for the single purpose of restoring peace.

The leader of the main Opposition party, Mr. Burnham, and the leader of the smaller multi-racial party, Mr. D'Aguiar, both declared themselves willing, in principle, to participate in such a Government. But Dr. Jagan, the Premier and leader of the predominantly Indian party, did not feel that an all-party Government with this limited objective would be practicable. However, he offered to consider the formation of a coalition with Mr. Burnham's party, provided that they could first agree a joint programme covering the main aspects of political and economic policy. They held their first meeting on Sunday and will be resuming the talks tomorrow.

I was, naturally, disappointed not to be able to secure the formation at once of a joint administration to call an immediate halt to racial violence, all the more so because I am well aware of the difficulties which the two leaders will have in reaching agreement on basic political and economic policies. Nevertheless, I hope that the very fact that they are meeting and talking may help to some extent to reduce tension between their supporters.

The restoration of law and order is, of course, not the whole problem. When that has been done we shall still be left with the acute political differences which led to the break-down of the conference in London last autumn. I am convinced that the constitutional future of British Guiana must now be decided without much further delay.

I think that it is right to give the party leaders a further short period in which to make a last effort to reach agreement among themselves. But, in any case, I intend to reconvene the conference not later than October. If, in the meantime, they are able to resolve their differences, that will greatly ease my task. Failing agreement, I think that it is now generally accepted that the British Government will have to settle the outstanding issues on their own authority; and that is what we propose to do.

Before ending, I am sure that the House would wish to join with me in paying tribute to the Governor, Sir Ralph Grey, whose wisdom and impartiality has won the respect and admiration of all fair-minded people in the Colony and outside.

Mr. Bottomley

In welcoming that statement, may I say that I am sure that we would all wish to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman—as we last week congratulated Mr. Willis, of the T.U.C.—on the part that he has played in bringing a peaceful atmosphere, for the present, to British Guiana. We should also like to be associated with the remarks about the Governor and about the troops. We should like to express our sympathy with the relatives of the young soldier who lost his life in the territory.

I would emphasise, however, that this is only the beginning of a solution and not the solution itself. We are aware of the obligations placed upon us, but I am sure that the Colonial Secretary himself would say that it would be wrong to suspend the Constitution. If he has this in mind, I am sure that it would settle nothing and would only lead, in due course, to bitterness and hatred being directed against the United Kingdom. Let us hope that the conference which is to be convened tomorrow will show that bothsides are determined to work together to bring peace and harmony to the territory.

Could the Colonial Secretary tell me something about the allegations which are being made that whilst he was in British Guiana he did not see African organisations, but found time to see four Indian organisations?

Finally, may I join with the right hon. Gentleman in hoping that those who have the power to bring peace to British Guiana will speedily do so?

Mr. Sandys

I saw numerous delegations and of those who came to see me I think that there were more Africans than Indians. As for there being a particular organisation which I was not able to see, there was quite a number that I was unable to see while I was there.

We have no plans to suspend the Constitution and we recognise that that of itself would provide no solution.

Mr. Russell

In view of the fact that before my right hon. Friend went to British Guiana there was criticism of his intention to go, is it not clear that his visit has been justified and has done a great deal of good?

If my right hon. Friend summons the conference to take place again, in October, can he say whether it will be held here or in British Guiana, and, if necessary, will he be willing to go there again if his visit would do as much good as it has done this time?

Mr. Sandys

I should like to leave open the question of where the conference would take place.

I can quite understand that doubts and anxieties were felt about the possibility of introducing controversy by my visit, so soon after the ending of the strike, but I can assure the House, as I said in my statement, that I was welcomed warmly on all sides, and that perhaps rather too much faith was placed in my capabilities to solve problems which, in the last resort, will have to be solved by the people themselves.

Miss Lee

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to confirm Press reports that he had attempted to advise his American colleagues not to interfere in British Guiana? Is he aware that political and racial hatreds were heightened by American influence and American money? Would he agree that it would be very much better if the Americans, either officially or unofficially, kept out of this very difficult situation?

Mr. Sandys

I have not seen that Press report. It is not usual to comment on Press reports. I do not understand what I was supposed to warn the Americans about. I certainly did not do so, and I did not have any reason to do so.

Mr. F. M. Bennett

While I applaud every word that my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary has said, including his statement that in the last resort we should have to make decisions ourselves, could he say whether, in that event, he rules out the seeking of information by referendum on precisely what the majority of that country do want as their future form of government?

Mr. Sandys

I do not think that it would be useful or helpful if I were to give the slightest indication of the sort of ideas which are in my mind at the moment, when the two leaders are meeting tomorrow to try to resolve their difficulties. Any solution that I were to impose would be a second best compared with an agreed solution put forward by the two parties.

Mr. Brockway

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most Members on this side of the House sincerely desire that he may be successful in the negotiations which are now taking place? We are very well aware of the seriousness of the situation.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, an incidental question—whether the Opposition parties made a condition of joining the Coalition the acceptance of proportional representation? Secondly, and much more important, does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that he might go a little further in trying to bring about an agreement between Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham? Is it the case that he has said that if they come to an agreement there will be a conference? Might he not say that if they will come to a temporary agreement for the transitional period it will be possible for him to introduce independence into British Guiana?

Mr. Sandys

I should like to see what they agreed about before fixing a date for independence.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In joining with my right hon. Friend in saying what he did about our own troops there, may I ask whether he can tell the House what steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for War regarding the Coldstream Guards, who are being relieved by the Grenadier Guards there? I understand that that is one of the reasons why the Green Jackets had to be sent. Could he say whether there is now going to be a suspension of the hand-over? Can we be assured that sufficient troops will remain to ensure as much law and order as possible?

Mr. Sandys

I think that "as much law and order as possible" is, perhaps, the right definition. The change-over is practically completed now. Naturally, the War Office and I considered whether it would be better merely to send out the Grenadiers and leave the Coldstream Guards there, which would have avoided the necessity to send out the Green Jackets. But, on the whole, we thought it better to adhere to the plan. We had had the Green Jackets in reserve for some little while, ready to be sent out there if the situation demanded it. On the whole, it is not a good thing for morale to keep troops in this sort of place longer than they are expecting. Two battalions, which is now what we have got there, we regard as adequate to meet the situation as it now is.

Mr. Lubbock

While appreciating that the primary purpose of the right hon. Gentleman's visit was to restore peace to this area, may I ask him whether he does not agree that it is rather difficult to do this while the primary causes of the strife remain? Will he tell us what answer he gave to representations by the Opposition that proportional representation should be introduced so that the representatives of a minority of the population should not hold the power in their own hands?

Secondly, may I ask whether the phrase in the right hon. Gentleman's statement, that the British Government "will have to settle the outstanding issues on their own authority", can have any other interpretation than the suspension of the constitution?

Mr. Sandys

I do not quite see the point of the last question. With regard to the first question, of course, I recognise that Liberals are always in favour of proportional representation.

Perhaps I could add something in reply to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway); I do not think that I fully answered his question about proportional representation. I can say to him that my original proposal to the three party leaders was that they should form an emergency Government, setting aside all party political issues, for the sole, limited and temporary purpose of stopping the bloodshed. There was no question of making conditions about proportional representation, or economic policy, or anything of that kind. It seemed to me that the first priority was to stop people killing each other.