HC Deb 25 November 1964 vol 702 cc1281-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

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

A week ago, I announced the decision of the Government to impose an embargo on the shipment of arms to South Africa. I said that no further export licences would be issued, but that existing contracts would be honoured, with the exceptions that sporting guns and ammunition would be stopped forthwith and that the contract to supply 16 Buccaneer aircraft was still being considered.

This further consideration was undertaken in the context of the Government's comprehensive review of our defence policies. As a result of that review, the Government have decided to adhere to the principle I repeated last week that, with the one exception I have referred to, firm contracts will be honoured.

The shipment of the 16 Buccaneers will, therefore, be sanctioned, but no further South African contracts will be entered into.

Her Majesty's Government will, of course, allow the shipment of spares for the 16 Buccaneers as and when required.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The feeling of the greater part of the House will be one of relief that, at least as far as this statement goes, the right hon. Gentleman has listened to the very powerful arguments for maintaining this contract which we advanced only a week ago. Also, I am particularly glad that he has listened to the argument that, if the contract is to be maintained, spares should be a part of it. This seems to be very sensible.

I cannot agree with the conclusion that we should not in future export arms for the external defence of South Africa, which is perfectly consistent with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, but we are thankful for small mercies when the Government maintain one contract which has been entered into.

The Prime Minister

No one expects the Leader of the Opposition to be impressed by the need to carry out a United Nations resolution, which is what we are doing. The reason for the review I have described, and for the decision, owes nothing whatever to the arguments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman last week. As far as I could see, he seemed to be producing good reasons why the Simonstown Agreement should be denounced, and this we were unwilling to support.

Sir G. Nicholson

May I put to the Prime Minister the question which I asked him last week? Is he still convinced that the soundest and wisest way to influence the policy of apartheid, which we all detest, is to force South Africa increasingly into isolation?

The Prime Minister

This is a specific decision within the field of arms shipments. It does not in any way affect our position on general trade with South Africa, as I have explained several times in the past. We on this side have always taken the view, even when we were on the Opposition side of the House, that, except in war or near-war conditions, one does not use trade as a means of expressing one's detestation of particular policies. That was our position as regards Spain. Frigates happen to be arms. This is our position on South Africa.

As regards trade, we are taking the same line as was taken by the Leader of the Opposition in co-operating with the committee set up by the United Nations to examine the whole question of trade sanctions, but, as he did, we are approaching this without any commitment whatever as to ultimate policy. The question of a trade boycott or embargo would, of course, need to be considered if a war or a near-war situation were to arise. In present circumstances, we believe that it is our duty to conform with the United Nations resolution in the matter of arms, but this does not of itself have the effect which the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Blenkinsop

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with other Commonwealth countries on this matter?

The Prime Minister

We have, of course, been in touch with a number of them. In many respects, we are following the lead set by the Commonwealth countries, and I am glad to feel that, at long last, we are coming into line with some of them.

The particular decision announced today was a difficult one, and I am glad to say that there has been some real understanding on the part of certain of our Commonwealth colleagues, who would have wanted us to go further, about the reasons why we have taken it.

Commander Courtney

Is the Prime Minister aware that the present policy of his party towards South Africa and the Simonstown Agreement, following on its attitude towards the Egyptian seizure of the Suez Canal eight years ago, shows a complete disregard for the security of British forces operating east of Suez in any future war?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and gallant Gentleman seems to be a little confused on his history. It was the party opposite which was supplying arms to President Nasser immediately before the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

Mr. Wall

First, can the right hon. Gentleman say why it was necessary to delay this announcement for a week? Secondly, is the Prime Minister aware that the present order for 16 aircraft will not be completed until 1966, so that there will be plenty of time for a Conservative Government to reverse this decision? Thirdly, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the normal training facilities will be made available in this country?

The Prime Minister

In referring to the delay till 1966, the hon. Gentleman describes a hypothetical situation, as he will realise, but it is interesting to note that hon. Members opposite are still maintaining that the Conservative Party would break the United Nations resolution in this matter.

On the question of why it was necessary to defer the matter for a week, I can say now—it was difficult to say it a week ago—that this had nothing to do with the considerations raised earlier about the Simonstown Agreement and nothing to do with the particular arguments about the Simonstown Agreement which, of course, is an agreement which continues. The reason was that it was felt right that we should ourselves, as part of our defence review and a review of defence requirements for particular weapons, look at the question and consider whether there was an overriding need for these aircraft. We have decided that there was not, and, therefore, this decision was made.

As regards employment in the factory about which, I know, the hon. Gentleman is concerned—I think that it is in his constituency—this seems likely to be fully maintained for a considerable time ahead, as he knows. I should not at this stage like to anticipate future defence programmes, but, if there is a requirement for an extension of the Buccaneer contract entered into by the Ministry of Defence, this, of course, would also be of assistance in that matter.

Mr. James Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he has said today will be received with much satisfaction by the workers in Hull, who have been caused great anxiety by scare-mongering tales on the other side of the House about their jobs at the Blackburn works?

Mr. Peter Thomas

In what way does the right hon. Gentleman consider that the Conservative Party is bound by a United Nations resolution relating to arms for South Africa? Is he referring to the resolution of 18th June, and, if so, will he look at that resolution again and its 13 operative paragraphs? Will he look at it as a whole and read the explanation of vote given by Her Majesty's representative, Sir Patrick Dean, and will he tell the House in what way the Conservative Party is bound by the resolution?

The Prime Minister

I was trying to suggest that one did not really think that the Conservative Party or the last Conservative Government considered themselves bound by United Nations resolutions. The question of that particular resolution was raised last week by the Leader of the Liberal Party. Her Majesty's Government voted for it. They could have voted against it, but they voted for it. Whatever explanation might have been given, on the instructions of right hon. Members opposite—Sir Patrick Dean does not speak for himself in these matters; his instructions were clear—the resolution was passed, and it has been adhered to by most Commonwealth countries and by the United States, but not, I regret to say, by Her Majesty's Government until now.

Mr. Owen

Prior to the statement made this afternoon, had my right hon. Friend received any protests from the United States in connection with this matter?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir; there has been no protest from the United States on this matter, to my knowledge. I think that they were convinced that we were going to move quickly to put ourselves in conformity with the United Nations resolution.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Following the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Peter Thomas), I think that the Prime Minister is quite aware that over the resolution that he refers to he is constantly misleading the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] There were 11 points in the resolution with which Her Majesty's Government agreed, because we did not want to hamper United Nations' activities. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We voted for the resolution so that the United Nations could proceed with its work.

However, on the twelfth point, about arms for external use, Sir Patrick Dean, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, made a specific exception and made it quite clear that we always have made an exception, and did at that time, in the case of arms for South Africa for external defence.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. That statement was well known, and we have debated it on occasions in the House. Up to now the right hon. Gentleman has always made rather a point of the fact that he and his right hon. Friends were not carrying out the resolution. Now he tells us that the plain fact is that the previous Government voted for it and then proceeded to disobey it.

Mr. Tiley

As the Prime Minister has stated that general trade with South Africa is important and that there must be no general boycott, which is important because many of our industrial cities have large numbers of coloured immigrants who are dependent on trade with South Africa for their jobs—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, I live amongst it—can the Prime Minister tell the House that the Wilson family henceforth will not boycott South African oranges, because we were advised by the Sunday Times a few weeks ago that they were doing so?

The Prime Minister

I am not responsible, in this House at any rate, though I may be outside, for the activities of what the hon. Gentleman calls "the Wilson family". As I have said before, they are not in this Government. I think that the private reaction of any individual member of one's family or any member of the public about what they want to buy or consume of South African origin is an entirely private matter. I do not myself eat South African paw-paw in the House of Commons come to that, but I do not think that it is really a matter for Government policy.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the supplementary question put by the Leader of the Opposition, would the Prime Minister make it clear to the House that the terms of the material resolution finally passed by the Security Council called upon all members of the United Nations forthwith to cease the sale and shipment of all arms, and that the resolution was passed after our permanent representative had made the qualification to which the Leader of the Opposition has referred but it was passed un-amended and, therefore, it is binding upon Her Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that it would have been better if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition had stuck to the posture in relation to the United Nations that he once adopted in a speech in Berwick—it would have been more straightforward—rather than wriggle in the undignified way that he has done.

Mr. Thorpe

May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? First, are we to take it the original Buccaneer aircraft contract contained no option for subsequent purchases? Secondly, now that Her Majesty's Government are implementing the pledge which, with however many qualifications, the previous Government firmly entered into on behalf of this country, can our representative at United Nations use his good offices to ensure that no other country tries to take advantage of the situation and that other countries, too, will honour the pledge that we gave in the United Nations this summer?

The Prime Minister

I am advised that there is nothing in that contract which involves an extension of the contract for the further 14—that is a separate matter—and, therefore, no contracts are being broken by the decision which I have announced.

With regard to the United Nations resolution, I am certain that my right hon. and noble Friend who represents us at United Nations will do what he can in this direction. I am sure that this decision will be very popular in the United Nations. As to the possibility of other countries which are not conforming with the resolution trying to get any of the orders, I said last week that we have to take our decisions for ourselves and not be bound by the lowest common denominator of international morality.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. We have spent a long time on this. We must move on.

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