HC Deb 17 November 1964 vol 702 cc199-208
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The Government have decided to impose an embargo on the export of arms to South Africa.

Since the Government took office no licences for the export of arms to South Africa have been issued. It has now been decided that all outstanding licences should be revoked except where these are known to relate to current contracts with the South African Government. The contract to supply 16 Buccaneer aircraft is still under review.

Outstanding commitments by the Ministry of Defence will be fulfilled, but, as from today, no new contracts will be accepted for the supply of military equipment. The Ministry of Defence will proceed with manufacturing agreements that have already been concluded, but not yet executed.

Licences for the export of sporting weapons and ammunition will be revoked and shipment will be stopped forthwith. In other cases, when licences are revoked, fresh licences will be issued to the extent necessary to permit the execution of current contracts.

These decisions bring the Government's policy into line with United Nations resolutions on this question, the latest of which was the Security Council resolution of 18th June.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

The Prime Minister has made a statement which could have far-reaching implications, and I wish to ask him several questions, since it is important to elicit exactly what it means.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be no further export of arms to South Africa. Is this, in effect, a unilateral denunciation of the Simonstown Agreement, because, if it were so interpreted by either party, there would be an immediate need for a debate in this House, and we should request it.

To turn to the statement itself, what is the meaning of the sentence: The contract to supply 16 Buccaneer aircraft is … under review"? There is a contract for 16. There is the prospect of a good many more aircraft of the same kind being supplied for the South African Government. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether progress payments have been made in respect of some of these additional aircraft which were to be supplied? It is fairly common knowledge that the South African Government would, in the years to come, have ordered submarines and other naval aircraft from this country. Are these to be cancelled? Is the Prime Minister saying the same in respect of South Africa as he said in respect of Spain, and denying the export markets for these?

There is then the question of the strategic implications if this is, in effect, the encl of the Simonstown Agreement. There are not only the communications centre, which is enormously valuable to the Royal Navy and to the allies, and the over-flying rights which the South Africans give us to be considered. If the Suez Canal were closed in any future war, which might relate to an attack by Indonesia upon Malaysia or an attack by China upon India, how could Her Majesty's Government fulfil the commitments which they have undertaken?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman said that this statement had far-reaching implications. Not to have made it would have had far-reaching implications—[HON. MEMBERS: "0h."]—for our relationships with and membership of the United Nations and for our relations with a large number of Commonwealth countries in Africa and elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the statement I have made amounted to the unilateral denunciation of the Simonstown Agreement. No, of course it does not, because nothing I have said in any way involves a breach of the Agreement. Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, the Agreement is not capable of unilateral denunciation.

As regards the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the importance of the Simonstown base in the hypothetical circumstances of a future war—he mentioned Suez—I can tell the House that the Government have no intention whatever of embarking on a Suez adventure. I should have thought that that was clear.

With reference to the statement last Saturday by the South African Prime Minister, which was made after these decisions had been reached among us, though before the announcement, I am sure that the whole House will feel that it would be utterly wrong and a complete breach of our relations if there were to be a denunciation of an agreement which can be broken only by mutual agreement.

But I must add that, if the Leader of the Opposition thinks, or if Dr. Verwoerd thinks, that the Simonstown Agreement can be broken off by the South African Government in this way because they are annoyed about some action we have taken in conformity with our obligations to the United Nations, it will cast doubts in the minds of many hon. Members on what the value of this base would, after all, be in a war if South Africa disapproved of Britain's action in entering that war. It is important, therefore, that the whole House should be thinking about this question of the Simonstown Agreement.

As regards the Buccaneer aircraft, I said that this contract was under review. That is what I meant. No decision has been reached on it. It is true that certain progress payments have been made, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested.

I am sorry to take so long, but the right hon. Gentleman asked a lot of important questions.

As regards the general decision, we are doing exactly what the United States did in conformity with the United Nations Resolution. We are allowing most of the existing contracts to run out. The only exceptions are the one relating to sporting arms and ammunition, which can be used, and have been used, for internal purposes, and the other one on which no decision has been reached, that is, the Buccaneer aircraft contract.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to export markets. It is unusual, as he knows, for the actual figures of these shipments to be given in the House, but he will know, as I do, that, in terms of our total export trade, the arms shipments to South Africa are an extremely small proportion. If I were to feel, or if the whole House were to feel, that the future of our export trade depended on maintaining exports of this kind, then right hon. Gentleman opposite must have left us in an even worse mess than I thought.

Mr. Thorneyeroft

First, on the question of transit and communications facilities which might be put in jeopardy if the Simonstown Agreement or overflying rights failed, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this goes much deeper than Suez, that we have about one-third of our Forces at present east of Suez, and that the ability rapidly to reinforce them at a moment's notice is something upon which the lives of British soldiers, sailors and airmen depend? Has the Prime Minister really entered into full consultation with the Ministry of Defence on a matter so deeply affecting the defence of this area of the world, our allies and the safety of our troops?

Secondly, as to the Buccaneer aircraft, the Prime Minister said that there would be a review. What does that mean? Does it mean that the right hon. Gentleman is contemplating the possibility of a contract honourably entered into being unilaterally broken? Is that a possibility which he has in mind?

Thirdly, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that the contract for the Buccaneer aircraft has to be regarded as a whole. That is to say, it is not only a question of the production order of 16. There is also the option on the further 14 and the supply of spares. Would he make it clear beyond peradventure that if the contract is to be proceeded with it is to be honourably proceeded with, and all its implications are to be followed through?

The Prime Minister

First of all, with regard to the question of communications and the Simonstown Agreement, the right hon. Gentleman is making a very strong case with which I agree against the denunciation of the Agreement by either side. But I am bound to say that if he thinks that one consequence of the arms embargo that we have announced would be that the South Africans would or should denounce the Agreement, then I come back to what I said earlier, that it would mean that all the dependence that we have on this communications equipment would be highly vulnerable in conditions of war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]Certainly it would, because it would mean that we could take only those actions in wartime which had the approval of the South African Government. We are certainly not prepared to feel that the security of this country should be so dependent on the attitude of a Government who do not see eye to eye with us on so many international questions.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Ministry of Defence had been fully consulted. Of course it was. There were very full discussions. Without my revealing the nature of them, the right hon. Gentleman will know the kind of discussions that they were. Of course that was done.

I said that the question of the Buccaneers was under review. That is what I meant. It is under review, and we shall announce a decision to the House when the review is completed.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that in the statement which he has just made he has the unanimous support of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen behind him and the overwhelming support of the people of this country?

Is it not the case that under the Simonstown Agreement this country handed over the base to South Africa on certain terms, and that if the South African Government repudiate one of those terms, and thus repudiate the Agreement unilaterally, the base will revert to United Kingdom ownership?

The Prime Minister

All I am aware of is that, whatever opinions may be expressed about this, in this connection we are discharging our responsibilities to the United Nations, and hon. Gentlemen opposite are against our doing it.

Mr. Grimond

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, although Sir Patrick Dean referred in his speech in the debate in the United Nations which led to the resolution of 18th June to a previous speech in which he made some distinction between arms used for different purposes, he, as our representative, voted for the resolution and that he presumably did this on the instructions of the late Government? So it is not only a resolution by which we are bound, but a resolution for which we voted. We should be in most serious breach of our obligations to the United Nations and in breach of undertakings given by the late Government and not the present Government.

Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman a detailed question about the Buccaneer? I understand that the review of the 16 Buccaneer aircraft is an exception to the general rule that contracts already concluded will be honoured. Is this because there is some doubt about the purposes for which the Buccaneers might be used, because there seems to be some doubt whether they would be an effective weapon, for instance, in maintaining internal security? The House would be grateful for a little more information about why this contract is excepted from the general rule.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's account of the voting in the United Nations accords with my own recollection, though it is fair to say, as he did, that Sir Patrick Dean made this verbal reservation at the time, though as to how the Government voted I think there can be no doubt.

We went very carefully through every one of the existing contracts to see whether any one of them could be involved in breaking the spirit of the United Nations resolution if allowed to run on. There was a very minimal amount of spares for certain equipment sent there. This was perhaps arguable, but we decided that the contracts should he fulfilled.

So far as the Buccaneers are concerned, the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned one exception that is appropriate to review, but there are others into which it would not perhaps be helpful to go at this stage but they will be gone into when we make an announcement.

Sir G. Nicholson

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a very large volume of opinion among people who detest apartheid as much as he does to the effect that to force the South African Government into a position of increasing isolation is the very worst method of influencing their policy?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I do not doubt that there is a very great volume of sincere opposition to apartheid among those who take a different view from ourselves about the arms embargo, but we believe—it is our view, although we do not expect all hon. Gentlemen to share it—that if one holds that view one must back it with deeds.

Mr. Wall

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that other European countries are already negotiating to complete the contracts that we are giving up? Will he make clear whether the review of the Buccaneer refers to the initial order of 16 and the second order, or only to the first order? This is a matter of great importance to my constituency. Can the right hon. Gentleman say how he will redeem the pledge he gave during the General Election to ensure that no unemployment results from the cancellation of these contracts?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the attitude of other European countries, we are proposing to fufil our obligations under the United Nations, and I trust that they will as well. The philosophy that if we do not do it someone else will has always been throughout the ages the traditional apologia for doing things which are known to be wrong. I say quite categorically that the basis of the lowest common denominator of international morality will not be the basis of this Government's actions.

The whole order for the Buccaneers is under review, and I will make a statement when I can, but we have very much in mind—I certainly have—what has been said before the General Election and at other times on the question of employment.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman's replies to the questions that I asked earlier and the ones that he has subsequently given to my right hon. and hon. Friends raise in my mind the question whether he has thought out the strategic consequences of the matter. He gave a flippant and, I thought, rather cheap retort about the Suez operation. The fact is, and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite must realise this, that it is quite likely that over-flying will be stopped and it is quite likely that the Suez Canal could be closed, and that we could not, therefore, reach and reinforce our Forces in the Far East if the Simonstown Agreement were lost to us.

I should like to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will provide a very urgent debate on this in the Government's time. I must give him notice, because I fear the consequences of what he has said today, that if tomorrow or on subsequent days the South African Government strongly react to this I shall ask for a debate in the House immediately under Standing Order No.9.

The Prime Minister

We on this side of the House have never taken the question of Suez flippantly in any way. We regard it as a very serious business, and it was important to repeat our attitude so far as that question is concerned.

Of course we have carefully considered all the stategic implications, just as fully as the right hon. Gentleman ever did. I am bound to say that when I hear the right hon. Gentleman making all sorts of suggestions about what might be the quite illegal consequences to this on the part of the South African Government, I wonder whom he thinks he is helping with that sort of question.

The question of over-flying rights is an important one. There are very many other questions of over-flying rights affecting other parts of Africa, as the right hon. Gentleman will be only too well aware. If he is saying or implying—I am sure that he did not intend to do this—that the South African Government would be within their rights in interfering with these over-flying rights or in denouncing the Simonstown Agreement because of their dislike of the United Nations resolution and our action under it—even if he is suggesting that by accident—then he is, by the same argument, implying that the Simonstown Agreement would be worthless in any war that the South Africans did not approve of.

Mr. Bellenger

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Is it in order for the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition to give deferred notice that he will raise this matter under Standing Order No.9? Surely that Order, amongst other things, raises a matter of urgency?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

I do not think that what the Leader of the Opposition said was out of order. He indicated that his intention might be to call the attention of the House to a matter of urgent public importance under Standing Order No. 9. When it comes before the Chair, the Chair will take notice of it. This is merely an indication of something that the right hon. Gentleman possibly had in his mind. Can we proceed now?