HC Deb 24 June 1965 vol 714 cc1941-5
Q5. Mr. Jackson

asked the Prime Minister what further steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take in order to assist in the obtaining of a peaceful settlement in Vietnam.

Q10. Mr. Ennals

asked the Prime Minister what proposals he has put before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers concerning a peaceful settlement in the Vietnam conflict.

Q12. Sir F. Bennett

asked the Prime Minister how many, and which, of the approved recipient countries of the proposed Commonwealth Peace Mission have intimated favourable and non-favourable reactions, respectively.

The Prime Minister

I have as yet nothing to add to the statement which I made in the House on 17th June.

Mr. Jackson

Would the Prime Minister consider whether we might not keep this Peace Mission in continuing committee during the summer, bearing in mind that negotiations are likely to be protracted? Secondly, would he again convey to the United States the immediate and urgent necessity of bringing this bombing to a close?

The Prime Minister

The Heads of Governments who were appointed by their colleagues to be members of the Mission issued a statement last Saturday asking for all sides to show the utmost restraint in military activities so as not to prejudice the work of the Mission. We are now waiting to see the result of the representations made in certain capitals—I am thinking of one in particular. It would be premature of me to say anything about this. I can say this, however. Even if it becomes impossible in the immediate situation to visit some of the key capitals concerned, it is certainly the intention of the Mission which has been established to remain in being and to be able to travel as soon as conditions are appropriate for us to exercise the mediatory activities that the whole Commonwealth wants.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about the Russian reply, but would he bear in mind the importance of the machinery of Co-chairmen, the British and Russian Co-chairmanship of the Conference, and also the fact that the Geneva Conference continues in session and that, therefore, it is the most likely forum at which this matter could be settled?

The Prime Minister

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman raised that question. The Russian reply is in terms that they have no responsibility for the fighting; they are not parties to the fighting and they believe it is a question of the Mission having discussions with the countries directly concerned. Of course, there are three involved and there is the Vietcong as well.

As far as Co-chairmen are concerned, it was the view of most of us at the Prime Ministers' Conference that we want to be able to establish the conditions in which, first, a conference can be held and, secondly, we hope a cease-fire can be organised. Certainly I agree, and most of my colleagues agree, that the right machinery for convening that conference would be the Co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference. This has a continuing responsibility, and we were very anxious as early as February or March, when Mr. Gromyko was here, to activate the two Co-chairmen into calling a conference themselves. This did not prove possible. I do not think we can stand aside. We believe there is agreement between the two Co-chairmen, and this is one of the most important reasons compelling us to take the action now.

Mr. Ennals

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the very mention of the Commonwealth Peace Mission has had an impact in that it has shown the united determination of the Commonwealth that the Vietnam problem must be settled by negotiation? Would my right hon. Friend further agree that it has a long-term job to do and that it must be flexible in its procedures in order that we may find a way of solving the problem?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend about this. The reason why the Commonwealth had to take action is that we are not only very representative of the world in general but we have so many different views amongst ourselves—I do not disguise it—[Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Members want to titter about the fact that this multi-racial Commonwealth, representing all points of view and alignments except Communist ones, inevitably has different views about responsibility for the situation in Vietnam. So far from being a weakness, this is a strength because a mission undertaken on behalf of the whole Commonwealth, aligned to no particular interpretation of the fighting in Vietnam, can be a very powerful force for securing mediation, particularly at a time when tragically it is not possible for the United Nations itself to intervene.

Sir F. Bennett

I do not ask the Prime Minister to make any sort of premature statement but simply to answer a question namely, how many have sent an official answer—not unofficial or secret—"Yes" or "No" and which countries those are.

The Prime Minister

I think the answer is that three have sent official answers. The Governments of South Vietnam and of the United States are prepared to receive the Mission and welcome its appointment. The Soviet Union have given an answer which is known to the House, that they feel it is not for them; but it is not in any sense a hostile answer. But the other two to whom messages have been sent, namely, China and North Vietnam, have not yet replied.

Sir F. Bennett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Is my right hon. Friend not impressed just a little bit by the remarkable change of front indicated by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech yesterday and in his Question today when he seems to have been recommending to my right hon. Friend that the use of the Geneva Conference might be a more hopeful means of bringing about a negotiation, the Leader of the Opposition having described that proposal a few months ago, when it was made by some of my hon. Friends and myself, as a cowardly proposal? May it not be, having changed his mind so remarkably, that there is something in the idea after all?

The Prime Minister

I think these issues are far too important to be made the subject of exchanges across the House. I think it has been the wish of all of us to secure the activation of the Co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, and all we have been doing—we have been working very hard on this as a Government—is to see how that can be achieved. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that at the end of the day this should be convened by the Co-chairmen. I have some little doubt about his speech yesterday when he referred to the Laos situation. As he knows, it took two years to get that settled in more favourable circumstances than we face today in Vietnam. I am sure that he and the House will agree that the dangers arising from the situation in Vietnam are so urgent that we had to make this highly unconventional approach, or any other approach that lies to hand, to try to get the parties together.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I agree with the Prime Minister as long as from now on he will make the necessary preparations—because one has to prepare these matters behind the scenes very carefullyx2014;before any real conference can take place on this kind of matter.

The Prime Minister

Yes, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. But we have been in the closest touch with the Soviet Government for many months now, and I am sorry to say that up to now this has not proved productive. Those preparations were going on all the time. The problem was how to get people to come round a table, and this is what we are trying to do. I agree that it was an unconventional approach. I think that when the right hon. Gentleman ponders about this he will realise that any other approach would not have been possible. There are so many difficulties that if we had given prior notice of this in certain countries or if there had been a lot of informal soundings in advance, I believe that certain things would have started up which would have made it still more difficult to get this Mission established.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Does the Prime Minister realise that very many people in this country and, I believe, throughout the world will rejoice that the Mission intends to pursue its task, and will he represent to those who may be concerned that any persons in China or elsewhere who seek to question the fact that the Mission will be acting in good faith and in the interests of humanity as a whole will only call in question their own good faith and will lose in the estimation of those who have tried to make good and friendly relations with them?

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon Friend. I made clear last Thursday evening that I did not underrate the enormous difficulties—none of us does—and if we are disappointed—I hope we shall not be—in terms of an immediate mission going out to the capitals concerned, we have decided that we shall stay in being to take advantage of a more favourable change in the climate or tide at any time and we shall be prepared to go. Certainly there is a widespread realisation now that the problem in South Vietnam, with all its dangers, will not be solved by military means alone. Those who think purely in terms of victory are, I think, facing a very difficult situation and there must be a move of people round the conference table. I know that this is realised in some parts of the world. I hope it will be realised by everyone who has any responsibility for the continuation of the fighting.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We must move on. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Business question.