HC Deb 16 May 1966 vol 728 cc928-34
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on South Arabia.

Hon. Members will have seen reports of the statement made by the Government of the Federation of South Arabia on 13th May that they have decided to accept the United Nations resolutions on South Arabia and intend to convene a conference, open to all State Governments and political groups in South Arabia, to consider the ways and means whereby the United Nations resolutions can be implemented.

I have now received the full texts of the Federal Government's statement and I am arranging for a copy to be placed in the Library of the House.

Her Majesty's Government have always made it clear that they will accept any solution of the constitutional problem in South Arabia which is capable of achieving a wide measure of agreement in the territory. We accordingly warmly welcome the Federal Government's intention to hold a representative conference and we share their hope that all South Arabians who have the interests of their country at heart will find it possible to participate.

Other political groups in South Arabia have also called for acceptance of the United Nations resolutions. There thus now exists a wide area of common ground between them and the Federal Government about their future objectives. This should enable them to co-operate in working out the practical implications of their policy.

Some of the recommendations in the United Nations resolutions raise problems of timing which will call for careful consideration. Those relating to the Aden base are already covered by Her Majesty's Government's announcement in the Defence White Paper that British troops will be withdrawn from the base when South Arabia achieves its independence not later than 1968. There are others, such as the requirements that the emergency should be brought to an end and that all detainees should be released, which we should be prepared to implement provided that satisfactory evidence was forthcoming that terrorism in Aden had ended.

I have today learned that the Federal Government have handed to the High Commissioner, for transmission to the United Nations Secretary-General, a letter inviting him to appoint a United Nations observer to attend the proposed conference. I am asking my noble Friend Lord Caradon to inform the United Nations of the Federal Government's announcement and invitation and to take an early opportunity to discuss these generally welcome developments with the Secretary-General.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have no quarrel, of course, with the intention of the Federal Government to call such a conference and we hope very much, as does the right hon. Gentleman, that it will be successful. But the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are gravely concerned about Her Majesty's Government's general policy since the declaration on Aden. Colonel Nasser has reversed his policy of withdrawal from the Yemen and the Soviet Union, for the first time for years, is now interfering actively in the politics of the Middle East. That is on the detrimental side.

The question we are concerned with in this statement is that in which the right hon. Gentleman indicates that Her Majesty's Government will not lift the emergency regulations in Aden until the Government are quite satisfied that there is no danger to British subjects. May I ask him to confirm that absolutely?

Mr. Stewart

I can certainly confirm that. I cannot accept the comments which the right hon. Gentleman made about Her Majesty's Government's policy towards Aden. Indeed, I think that this development must be welcomed as a step in the right direction, one which, we hope, will lead to the emergence of a firm Government in South Arabia which can give that country an assured future.

Mr. W. T. Williams

Will the Foreign Secretary, in the changed circumstances, now seek urgently the release of those trade unionists who are in prison, but who, in fact, have never been guilty of any terrorism or any acts other than their trade union duties?

Mr. Stewart

The only persons detained at present are those whose activities were a danger to security. It would not be the desire of the Government to carry out measures of this kind beyond what is required for the safety of the ordinary inhabitants of Aden.

Mr. Sandys

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, notwithstanding anything he has said today, the Federal Government continue to be extremely worried about the dangers of invasion which will face them when Britain leaves them defenceless in 1968 and that they have accused Britain of breaking her word over the question of the defence agreement? If that is so, can the right hon. Gentleman say why it was that the Prime Minister did not reveal this to the House last Tuesday?

Mr. Stewart

It is true that the Federal Rulers expressed concern and, naturally, felt anxiety about the announcement of the Government's policy; but I think that the step they have taken now shows that they realise the course of action which is necessary for the future of their country.

There is no foundation at all for the accusation just made by the right hon. Gentleman against my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend referred to a statement made by one of the Federal Ministers in which he said, explicitly and publicly, that the retention of a British base marred their relations with other countries and was like an iron curtain between them and others.

The right hon. Gentleman has recently seen fit to give publicity to a statement made by that Federal Minister which was his first response to the British Government's statement of policy and which was not representative, either of the whole proceedings in the discussion between my noble Friend, Lord Beswick, and the Federal Supreme Council, or of the final considered view of the Federal Government. It seems to me that by doing that it is the right hon. Gentleman who has been trying to mislead.

I am bound to say that, if the right hon. Gentleman's action in making such a statement at the time when this helpful move was being made by the Federal Government were to have any results at all, they would be mischievous.

Mr. Sandys

I cannot understand how the right hon. Gentleman can suggest that I have misled the House. If the right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the Federal Government have entirely changed their opinion, will he get up at the Box and tell us unequivocally that the Federal Government have withdrawn their charge that Britain has broken her word and that they no longer desire a defence agreement?

Mr. Stewart

The right hon. Gentleman must not put words into my mouth that I have not used. I did not suggest, nor do I suggest, that there was a complete change of view. What I said was that the part quoted by the right hon. Gentleman was not representative of the whole proceedings, nor of the final considered view of Federal Ministers. The statement by the Federal Minister to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred will give the present position on the matter.

Further, I think that we must notice that the task which faces the people of South Arabia is to fashion one State out of peoples who have, despite some similarities, many differences in their way of life and culture; that that will be a difficult task; that it will not be achieved if any of the parties seek to get 100 per cent. of everything that they want; nor will it be achieved if pressures are brought from outside, or if either side is believed to be dependent on an outside Government.

That is why the right hon. Gentleman's attitude in this matter has been, as I said, so mischievous.

Mr. Maudling

The Prime Minister was answering a Question of mine last week asking whether it was not a fact that the Government's announcement of their intention to withdraw from the Aden base had caused great distress to our friends in that part of the world. Is it not now clear that it did cause distress? Why did the Prime Minister imply the opposite?

Mr. Stewart

If the right hon. Gentleman will look at the Prime Minister's answers last Tuesday, he will see that my right hon. Friend accepted that there had been doubts and misgivings about the policy, but my right hon. Friend very rightly quoted an important public, on-the-record statement by a Federal Minister. I think that it must be accepted that in searching for a solution to this problem there will be among many of the parties concerned doubts and misgivings, but no useful purpose is served by trying to encourage any party in those misgiv-givings, particularly at a time when the Federal Government have shown their willingness to come forward and face the future.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if right hon. Members opposite are seeking to encourage the sheikhs of South Arabia to oppose the evident wishes of their people, in our view that can only lead to disaster?

Mr. Stewart

I am not quite sure how far one can say that there is a collective view among hon. Members opposite. I hope and believe that some of them are less anxious to make mischief than is the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys).

Mr. James Davidson

We welcome the statement by the Foreign Secretary about the proposed conference. Will the conference take place outside the Federation itself, possibly in London? Will it be in order at the conference to discuss the possibility of a U.N. presence in the proposed Federation after British troops are withdrawn from the base?

Mr. Stewart

I cannot speak with certainty as to the venue of the conference. I see no reason why the question of a U.N. presence should not be discussed there. As I mentioned in my statement, there will be a U.N. observer at the conference itself.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

How is it that the Foreign Secretary could say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) that it is not the case, because the whole world knows it to be the case, that the result of the Government's decision, announced in the Defence Review, has been to give new aggressive life to the Egyptian dictatorship and to facilitate further Soviet penetration of the Middle East?

Why did the Foreign Secretary seek to deny this? Does he not realise that the policy of the Government is without honour and contrary to British interests? Will the conference include at least the discussion of arrangements for the future defence of the integrity of the Federation?

Mr. Stewart

I deny the suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman, because I do not believe them to be supported by the facts. I believe, further, that, had the Government attempted to pursue a policy of retaining a base in Aden, this would have blocked any possibility of constitutional settlement. It would have saddled this country with a thankless and expensive responsibility from which no benefit, either to ourselves or to others, would have accrued.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman may be trying to draw a distinction between the retention of the base and the defence agreement, but he has to look at what would be involved by a defence agreement of that kind.

As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last Tuesday, such a policy would have put us literally back at first base. That is why I do not believe that the policy that the Government are adopting is one which increases tensions and dangers in the Middle East. Indeed, I believe it is the one which is necessary if we are ever to get a solution of this vexed problem.

Mr. Heath

Will the Foreign Secretary refresh his mind about the exchanges at Question Time last Tuesday between his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and right hon. and hon. Members, because I can find no suggestion from the Prime Minister referring to the anxieties which the Federal Government felt at the time such as the Foreign Secretary suggested was made? Secondly, if the right hon. Gentleman feels that the complete picture has not been presented, will he arrange for all the relevant papers to be published, including any later communication which he received from the Federal Government, even allowing that these will have been received in circumstances completely different, namely, those in which the British Government repudiated their obligations?

Mr. Stewart

If there is to be any suggestion of publication, of course that would have to be considered as part of a publication of documents concerning Arabia over a long period back into the past, and for a variety of reasons one would want to consider that very carefully.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Gunter, statement.