HC Deb 14 May 1964 vol 695 cc610-5
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I have returned this morning after three days in the South Arabian Federation, where I had extensive discussions about the problems of the area. I also went to see the British and Federal troops who are engaged in restoring peace in the Radfan territory.

On the military side, the main objective, namely, the reopening of the Dhala road, has been achieved. A substantial area to the east, from which the attacks on the road had been directed, is now controlled by British and Federal forces, who occupy dominating mountain positions. The tribesmen have evacuated this area, which includes two of the most fertile valleys in this desolate country. Our forces are at present engaged in consolidating and securing their positions.

We shall shortly be sending an additional battalion to Aden. Two considerations have led us to decide to do this. First, it is our normal practice to maintain one battalion in Aden available for any contingency which may arise east of Suez, and since this battalion has now been allocated to the Radfan operations it is necessary to replace it. Secondly, an additional battalion will enable units employed in these operations to be brought out for rest at adequate intervals. The climate and nature of the country make this essential.

Our troops and airmen have undoubtedly done a magnificent job under extremely strenuous conditions; and all whom I met in the mountains were in very good heart. During my tour I visited a battalion of the Federal Army, which is holding important positions. The Arab units are playing their full part in the operations, and I was glad to observe the close and effective cooperation which exists between our forces.

During my visit I had valuable discussions with Federal and Aden Ministers and with delegations representing the opposition parties, the Aden Trades Union Congress and other sections of opinion in Aden. All emphasised their desire to see South Arabia advance towards independence, though there were differences among them regarding the timing and the circumstances under which this should be achieved.

I had talks about economic development which must go hand in hand with political progress. Officials from the Treasury and the Colonial Office are at present in the Federation and are examining with the authorities on the spot their development programmes with a view to seeing what further assistance we could provide.

On the political side, my consultation confirmed that there is growing recognition on all sides of the need for contitutional advance.

All were agreed that there would be advantage now in holding the constitutional conference which was to have taken place last winter, but which had to be postponed owing to the bomb incident and the tense situation which followed.

I propose, accordingly, to convene this conference in London in the middle of June. Its purpose will be to discuss the constitutional progress of the Federation towards independence and other related matters. The conference will be composed of Ministers of the Federal Cabinet, Ministers of Aden State and delegates of other State Governments which are not represented in this way.

In the interval before the conference, a meeting will be held in Aden under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State so as to provide all sections of political opinion there the opportunity to express their views on the special constitutional problems affecting Aden and its relations with the Federation.

It was not to be expected that the union between Aden and the Federation could be accomplished without strains and anxieties. I was, however, encouraged to find that nobody expressed any desire to see Aden separated from the Federation. It now seems generally accepted that the peoples of Aden and of the rest of South Arabia belong together and that the well-being of all depends upon close and effective co-operation.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House wish to express our admiration for the splendid way in which our troops have been behaving in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances? Is he aware that we strongly support his decision to reassemble or call the constitutional conference? Is he aware that this is in conflict with what his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said the other day, when he said, "You have to fight first before you have anything to do with politics"? He said it with emphasis and repeated it several times.

Is the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations further aware that we agree with him that fighting and political objectives cannot be separated in this way? They are not separable things and we therefore support his decision. Would he agree, also, that it is extremely important that all representative opinion in the Aden Federation should be present at this conference so that there should be no doubt about whether or not it is representative? We will want to come back to these particular questions in greater detail on a later occasion, no doubt when we are debating foreign affairs.

Mr. Sandys

Although I was not present in the House, as I was away at the time, I did read the HANSARD report of what was said the other day. I think that when the right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) rereads it—

Mr. Gordon Walker

I have done so.

Mr. Sandys

If he will re-read it once more, he will see that he has misrepresented what my right hon. Friend said.

With regard to representation at the London conference, I naturally considered whether we could make it an even wider and more representative gathering than it is to be. But I came to the conclusion that, as there are 16 State Governments to be represented, if, in addition, we were to invite representatives of all different shades of opinion in all those different States—and the political parties in Aden would, of course, be some of the more important—it would become an unmanageable gathering, and I do not think that it could do any useful business.

Sir W. Teeling

Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether there are still many people in Aden who would like to join up with the Republic of the Yemen?

Mr. Sandys

That was one of the things which struck me during my visit. I was in Aden about 18 months ago. There was then widespread evidence of some enthusiasm for joining up with the Yemeni Republic. But that, so far as I could see, has almost completely evaporated, and even the one party which put on its programme union with the Yemeni Republic has obviously become completely disillusioned.

Mr. Grimond

May I join in what has been said about the conduct of our troops and also say how glad we are to hear that in the view of the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations what was said by the Secretary of State for Defence has been misrepresented? Certainly, the tone of his answer to questions was totally different from the tone of the statement which has been made this afternoon.

May I ask about the fighting? First, has any progress been made in demarcating the frontier? Until this is done and there is some control over the flow of arms into the Aden Protectorate, does the right hon. Gentleman see any hope of putting an end to the guerrilla warfare, or is it likely to drag on almost indefinitely?

Mr. Sandys

We have for a number of years made it clear, and have repeated it several times recently, that we should be only too glad to take part in the demarcation of the frontier. But it is no good our demarcating it ourselves. To demarcate a frontier one must have both sides taking part and, at the moment, there is no sign that the Yemeni authorities wish to demarcate the frontier.

As for stopping the further supplies of men and arms to the rebels in the Radfan area, naturally this is a matter very much in our minds. It is not easy in this mountainous territory, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a matter of great importance.

Mr. F. M. Bennett

Will my right hon, Friend accept the fact that most of us understood that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence made it clear in his statement that what he meant was that no political advance could take place until the military position had been stabilised? In fact, it is because this has taken place, and is taking place, that the advance which my right hon. Friend has just proposed is possible. Is it not clear that this interpretation was perfectly clear to everyone except the malevolent or the woolly-minded?

Mr. Sandys

I am glad that my hon. Friend has confirmed my reading.

Mr. Monslow

It is true that the Secretary of State for Defence said that the prerequisite was military control before a political solution could be found. He repeated that statement in by-election speeches. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations on arranging a political conference which, I hope, will be successful. I also congratulate him on the work which he has done, but I suggest—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."]—Is he not aware that not everyone is so naive as not to know exactly what his right hon. Friend meant when he made that statement?

Mr. Tapsell

Did my right hon. Friend encounter any enthusiasm for political development within the 16 States to be represented at the conference, apart from a movement towards independence under their existing internal constitution?

Mr. Sandys

I did not quite hear my hon. Friend.

Mr. M. Foot

He means, are the sheikhs in favour of democracy?

Mr. Sandys

I am glad that the hon. Member puts it that way. I said in my statement that I found that there was a general recognition that political advance was necessary. Of course, different emphasis is placed upon it in different quarters, but undoubtedly there is a growing recognition that South Arabia must move with the rest of the world.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he considers a political solution desirable? Is he aware that the Minister of Defence, when he was asked recently by the Leader of the Liberal Party and myself to consider a political solution, described it as "waffle"? May I ask the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations whether he agrees with that?

Mr. Sandys

I do not know what is meant by a political solution. What I am talking about is a conference to discuss further political progress. That is not a solution to the fighting in the Radfan area. No conference such as we are to have in London, believe me, will make the slightest difference to the attitude of the tribesmen in this area, who have not been administered for as long as anybody can remember, and who will not read or hear anything about a conference except what they hear on the radio from Cairo.

Several Hon. Membersrose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter without a Question before the House.