HC Deb 19 July 1966 vol 732 cc382-90

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

13. Mr. BLAKER: To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his discussions in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his visit to Russia.

15. Mr. WALL

To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about his visit to Moscow.


To ask the Prime Minister whether, during his forthcoming visit to Moscow, he will discuss with representatives of the Soviet Government the possibility of their granting to Great Britain credits and loans, if need be of gold, to strengthen the £ sterling, on terms and conditions which would be economically and politically advantageous to the Governments and peoples of both countries.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would now like to answer Questions Nos. Q13, 014, Q15 and Q17.

As the House knows, I visited Moscow to attend the British Trade Fair, which I toured on Sunday with the Soviet Prime Minister.

In common with other hon. Members who have seen the Fair, I was greatly impressed by the range, quality and up-to-date character of the exhibits, reflecting a wide area of British industry and concentrated particularly on capital goods of the types most likely to be in demand by the Soviet purchasing agents.

Equally impressive was the large number of serious inquiries both by Soviet import organisations and potential users from the Ministries and factories concerned. British exports to the Soviet Union so far this year have been running at a rate 26 per cent. above the figures for the first half of 1965 and I am confident, both from the progress of the Fair and from what I was told by Soviet Ministers, that there is every prospect of further substantial orders.

Briefly on Saturday, again on Sunday and for some nine hours yesterday, including working meals, I had detailed and searching discussions with Mr. Kosygin and his colleagues on world affairs. For the greater part of the time the talks were confined to Mr. Kosygin and myself alone, except for interpreters.

Most of our discussion was devoted to Vietnam—I believe the most detailed discussion which has been held directly and privately between any two Heads of Government from East and West. No attempts were made to disguise the gravity, even the dangers, of the situation, and of particular possible developments. I have, however, to report to the House that there was no change at all in the general position of the Soviet Union, or of course, in our own, and no signs of an early move towards a conference or other forms of negotiation.

The position remains exactly as I described it in the recent debate in this House, but I am convinced that the very deep and detailed discussions, personally very friendly, but very firm, of all aspects of this problem—some of which have never been so frankly discussed before—was valuable. There is in my view, when matters of this gravity and importance are at issue, no substitute for direct talks of this kind at Prime Minister level.

Mr. Blaker

Did the Prime Minister convey to Mr. Kosygin the very strong feelings in the House and the country about the treatment of Mr. Gerald Brooke? If so, can he give the House any ground for optimism about his case?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I raised not only this question with Mr. Kosygin, but explained exactly, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the strength of feeling in this country, which, I believe, is harmful to Anglo-Soviet relations. I am not in a position as yet, at any rate, to say whether this request, which I repeated again this morning as we got to the airport, will have any fruitful results.

Mr. Rankin

When discussing Vietnam with the Russian Prime Minister, did my right hon. Friend point out the importance of having free elections in South Vietnam at the earliest possible opportunity, and did he also confirm that if elections had to be free the United States forces must be withdrawn?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. That was not the burden of my representations to the Soviet Prime Minister. However, I can say that we discussed every aspect of the Vietnam situation and everything which I considered and which he considered relevant in very great depth indeed.

Mr. Grimond

As the Prime Minister has said that he considers the conversations to have been valuable, can he tell the House where his optimism lies? Is there any possibility of a new initiative being taken, or, if as he told us, the Russians have not changed their position, is there any possibility in his view of reconvening the Geneva Conference or getting in any way nearer the conference table?

The Prime Minister

It has been the policy of the British Government for 15 months or more to get the Geneva Conference reconvened by the two Co-Chairmen, and I felt it right to press that very hard. What I said is that, unfortunately, there still seems no willingness on the part of the Soviet Government to agree to that. I raised other types of negotiations which might have led to the kind of result which we all have in mind and, as I have said, there is no reason for optimism about any immediate reconvening of a conference. I feel that, for the first time, we have a very clear picture of the Soviet position is great detail and a fuller understanding of the problem, so that some of the ideas which might be considered, and are considered in speeches from different parts of the House, can be evaluated. Many of those which I have heard suggested would not be fruitful.

Mr. Heath

While we welcome the display at the British Trade Fair, may I ask whether the Prime Minister was able to obtain any undertaking from the Soviet Government, or Mr. Patolichev, that our trade would now be brought into balance? Is he aware that the House and the whole country will be deeply disappointed at the statement which he has made on his return from Moscow? Is he really saying to the House that, despite all the talks, he has not succeeded in making any impact or securing any response in reply to a request for reconvening the Geneva Conference, or as far as freeing Mr. Brooke is concerned, or as far as a possible trial of American airman in Hanoi is concerned?

The Prime Minister

Trade and the trade balance have been a problem which successive Presidents of the Board of Trade, including myself, have urged on the Soviet Union for many years. I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows the kinds of replies that he, his right hon. Friends and we have secured, including their pledge to do what they could to get us more into balance in the future. With the latest figures, the gap is narrowing at the present time. There is slightly more tolerance now on the subject of quotas, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Soviet Union takes a different view about its sterling area earnings as a result of its exports to this country than we take, because we want a more bilateral balance.

All of us share the disappointment that so far our Co-Chairman does not feel willing to call a conference. But I still think that it was well worth while going to Moscow and discussing this matter in depth. I think that it was also very important to present to the Head of the Soviet Government many of our anxieties and to be able to discuss together, even if we could not reach agreement on any practical plan, what must be avoided by both sides if we are to prevent a dangerous escalation of this war. Both of us agreed about the dangers here. I am sorry that we were not able to carry it further than that.

With regard to the American pilots in Hanoi, obviously I would not want to say anything this afternoon to put in greater jeopardy their liberty, and even their lives, but the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that this subject was, inevitably, one of the most important to be discussed.

Mr. Blenkinsop

is my right hon. Friend aware that the anxieties about the dangers of the escalation of the war in Vietnam are widely shared in the United States, where it is widely hoped that he will be able to stress this anxiety vigorously when he visits America and meets the President?

The Prime r*1;nister

I am aware of the various feelings which are held in the United States by leaders of opinion there in the Senate and Congress, for example, and the position of the Administration. My hon. Friend can be certain that nothing that has ever been in his mind on this question failed to be raised by one side or the other in the Moscow talks.

Sir D. Renton

Did the Prime Minister make it clear to Mr. Kosygin that unless the North Vietnamese can be pursuached to come to the conference table the best hope of preventing escalation, and putting an end to misery in that part of the world, is for our allies to bring the operations to a successful and early military conclusion?

The Prime Minister

Obviously, I stressed, as I always have, that the answer to this problem is for all parties to come to the conference table, and so far it is Hanoi which has refused to come to the conference table. This was very much stressed. but Mr. Kosygin and I both felt that, as I have said often in the House, and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have said, that this problem is not capable of a purely military solution. This is why negotiations are urgent.

Mr. Bidwell

Did my right hon. Friend have any oportunity of discussing with the Russians their differences with the Chinese Communists?

The Prime Minister

There are some subjects which one discusses when one is a visiting Prime Minister, and others which one does not. I am satisfied that I had a full discussion on every aspect bearing on the Vietnam war.

Sir F. MacLean

When the Prime Minister said that there had been no change in the attitude of Her Majesty's Government, was not he rather underrating the importance of his decision to withhold support for the American bombing of key military targets, and also the withholding of arms supplies to our American allies?

The Prime Minister

I was referring to the fact that there was no apparent change in the Soviet position, and in our own, from the last time when I met Mr. Kosygin, which was in February. The question of the bombing of targets within populated areas, and our attitude to any such bombing, was made clear in this House on 21st December of last year, and to the American Government much earlier than that.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there are many hon, Members, and many people in the country, who think that, despite all the difficulties in this country, he was right to fro to 114o=cow, particularly in view of the crave and increasing danger to the whole world as a result of the situation in North Vietnam? Nobody with any sense will blame him for that.

Will he say whether he was able to discuss with Mr. Kosygin the proposals put forward by U Thant for a settlement of this dispute? Can he now say whether Her Majesty's Government would be prepared, privately or publicly, in the United Nations and elsewhere, to support the proposal which U Thant has put forward as an approach to the settlement of the problem, seeing that the American approach to this problem has utterly failed to produce any situation which can lead to any possible settlement?

The Prime Minister

I think that the proposals of U Thant will be as unacceptable to Hanoi as all the other proposals which have been turned down. I am satisfied that that is the position.

With regard to raising in the United Nations either the latest specific proposals of U Thant, or our own much more detailed proposals—and we have two or three possible proposals—I have made clear on a number of occasions why it would not be profitable to do so. It is partly because both Peking and Hanoi utterly refuse to accept the standing of the United Nations in this matter, or any advice from the United Nations, and also because, for the reason which I have mentioned about relations between the Soviet Union and China, that it would, I think, be counter-productive rather than productive to raise this matter, as we would all like to do, in the Security Council.

Mr. Marten

In view of the rather disappointing results of the Prime Minister's visit, will he, when he goes to America, express to President Johnson his firm determination, for what that is worth, to be a better and more loyal ally of the Americans?

Mr. Murray

Notwithstanding the unwillingness of the Russians to reconvene the Geneva Conference, can my right hon. Friend say whether he discussed with Mr. Kosygin the longer-term prospects of a summit conference?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, not on this occasion, because we spent practically the whole of our time on the question of Vietnam. We had some discussions on the problems of European security, and a brief discussion on non-proliferation and disarmament. I think that the position, whether in respect of a summit conference, or in respect of some other conference such as a European security conference, which the Bucharest Powers have suggested, is that we need to do a great deal more hard work bilaterally to try to reach agreement before we air these questions at these further levels. What we need in some of these matters is a détente before we get an entente.

Mr. Ridsdale

In view of the influence of Peking on Vietnam and South-East Asia, can the Prime Minister say whether he was able to get any information about the recent Government changes in Peking? Is he optimistic or pessimistic?

The Prime Minister

I did not put that question to Mr. Kosygin. There are many rumours going around. I did not think it proper to widen our discussions quite as far as that.

Mr. Kelley

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity now to dissociate himself from references from the other side of the House to the fact that we arc the allies of certain nations in the Vietnam war'?

The Prime Minister

I thought that by remaining seated I was dissociating myself from the particular but not unrepresentative tone adopted by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). Our position in regard to the United States operations in Vietnam, where we are not allies—we are not fighting there has been clearly stated in every debate that we have had on this tragic situation for the last two years.

Sir C. Osborne

As the real key to peace in Vietnam lies in Peking, did the Prime Minister discuss with the Russian leaders the possibility of his visiting Peking? Is there any hope of success through that method?

The Prime Minister

I think that the real key to the situation lies in Hanoi. I know that the hon. Gentleman has his own views about the pressures on Hanoi, and I think that he feels that Peking may be decisive in this connection, though I am not sure that everyone else who studies the subject is fully in agreement with him.

Mr. James Davidson

Did Mr. Kosygin express any view on elections in Vietnam? If so, was he in favour of elections in South Vietnam, or in the whole of Vietnam, and what was the Prime Minister's reaction to this view?

The Prime Minister

I think that Mr. Kosygin takes a rather jaundiced view about South Vietnam, so I did not go into that question.

Mr. Heifer

As the discussions took place over a long period, can my right hon. Friend say whether, during those discussions, the Soviet leaders explained the conditions which they would accept for a recall of the Geneva Conference? Secondly, would not my right hon. Friend agree that the answer to the problem lies not in Hanoi, but in Washington?

The Prime Minister

There is no change in the Soviet position in respect of the conditions for negotiations, namely, support of the four or, rather, now the five conditions laid down by Premier Phan Van Dong, of North Vietnam. Since North Vietnam still refuses to come to the conference table except in return for the prior acceptance of all their five conditions, and since the United States has repeatedly stated its willingness to enter into discussions without conditions, I cannot accept the concluding words of my hon. Friend's question.