HC Deb 30 April 1964 vol 694 cc583-6
Q1. Mr. Wall

asked the Prime Minister what communication he has received from the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia about the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference.

The Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

The meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers are by tradition convened by the British Prime Minister, who, in making the arrangements, seeks to meet the wishes of his Commonwealth colleagues.

It has long been recognised that the only persons who attend these meetings, as of right, are the Prime Ministers of the fully independent countries of the Commonwealth. Therefore, before issuing invitations to the Prime Minister of any other country which is not independent, the British Government have always thought it right to satisfy themselves that this would be generally acceptable to the other members.

In accordance with this practice, we told the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia that if he so wished, we were ready to consult the Prime Ministers of the independent member countries about the question of an invitation to him.

The Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia replied that he considered that he was entitled, as of right, to receive an invitation to the meeting and that he did not therefore wish the British Government to consult the other Commonwealth Governments about it. We have asked him to consider the matter further, since we would not feel it right to depart from the usual practice.

Mr. Wall

While my right hon. Friend has made it quite clear that Southern Rhodesia has no direct legal right to attend the conference, may I ask whether he does not agree that there are strong traditional precedents for its participation? Is he aware of the danger of increasing the support of the more reactionary type of European opinion in Central Africa? Will he do his best to reach some compromise—for example, the attendance of both the Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia Prime Ministers as legatees of the old Federation?

The Prime Minister

We must leave as a matter of consultation between partners in the Commonwealth as to how this meeting should be handled and whether any other Commonwealth countries should attend. I think that the aim of the whole House would be that Southern Rhodesia should proceed towards independence with the consent and approval of the Commonwealth. In the shorter term we are bound to have difficulties ahead, but I hope that we shall bear this long-term goal in mind.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is the Prime Minister aware that whatever the differences have been in the House about Southern Rhodesia, and they have been very deep at times, the line which he has taken this afternoon in relation to this very difficult question which he has to decide is almost certainly one that will command support in all parts of the House? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that what we understand to be the position in this very difficult situation—that any unilateral request for independence would be met by the line which he has taken—has our full support, namely, that independence should not be agreed by the United Kingdom without provision for democratic rule in Southern Rhodesia? Is he aware that this policy will receive the very fullest support from this side of the House?

The Prime Minister

I should not like to go into the latter part of that question, but I think that the line which I have taken on my hon. Friend's Question is the only one that I could take in the circumstances.

Mr. Turton

Could my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no discussion of Southern Rhodesia in the absence of representatives of Southern Rhodesia from the conference?

The Prime Minister

We do not, and it has not been the practice, to use Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meetings to discuss the internal affairs of other countries. Of course, outside the conference, or at informal discussions, these matters are very often raised.

Mr. Wade

While I agree with the principle laid down by the Prime Minister, may I ask whether there are any insuperable difficulties in trying to arrange a private and unofficial meeting between the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia and other Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth who are particularly interested in the future development of Southern Rhodesia, at some time and place convenient to those concerned?

The Prime Minister

This, of course, is a matter that could be considered. I do not think that if the meeting took place it would be either private or unofficial.

Mr. Bottomley

Has the Prime Minister given further consideration to the earlier suggestion which I made, that, at the time of the Prime Ministers' meeting, Mr. Smith, Mr. Nkomo and the Rev. Sithole might be invited to this country?

The Prime Minister

It would be for Mr. Smith to say whether he would wish to accept an invitation of that kind.

Q4. Mr. Brockway

asked the Prime Minister if, in view of the situation in Southern Rhodesia following the resignation of Mr. Winston Field and the arrest of Mr. Joshua Nkomo, he will propose to the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth that they should jointly propose to the Government of Southern Rhodesia that a conference representing all political parties be held to prepare an acceptable constitution for the territory.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Mr. Brockway

Would not this proposal contribute both to the solution of the difficulties in Southern Rhodesia, where there is the danger of violence and, as the Prime Minister indicated in his earlier answers, to co-operation among Commonwealth countries to maintain their unity which is imperilled by the very strong feelings of Asian and African Governments on this issue?

The Prime Minister

If any meetings are to be arranged, they must be arranged with the consent of the different parties. I do not think that that consent would be forthcoming.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Do not we all desire that Southern Rhodesia should advance towards independence in harmony between the races? Since the Commonwealth can, in Mr. Nehru's words, bring "a touch of healing", will my right hon. Friend consider with his colleagues in the Commonwealth whether, as a first stage, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia should not be in attendance at the Prime Minister's conference, in accordance with a precedent which Southern Rhodesia has honoured by great sacrifices to the Commonwealth in peace and war?

The Prime Minister

I think that I answered that supplementary question by my hon. Friend when answering Question No. Q1. I have no reason to believe that an invitation to discuss the future of Southern Rhodesia would be acceptable to Mr. Smith.

Mr. Bellenger

Does not this question illustrate the desirability, in a family like the Commonwealth, of Commonwealth Prime Ministers confronting one another to try to resolve these difficulties face to face rather than washing dirty linen in public?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, this would have been very desirable, but, in the circumstances, I am not sure that it is practicable to arrange any such meeting.