HC Deb 24 May 1966 vol 729 cc284-91

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about South Arabia.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. Q19.

Yes, Sir. Following the letters exchanged between the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and myself last week talks have been held between Government and Opposition representatives.

I welcome the opportunity given by the right hon. Gentleman's Question to clarify the position.

On 10th May I answered two Questions about the attitude of the South Arabian Government to the decisions announced in the Defence Review. I quoted, correctly, the statement of Sultan Saleh about the decision to leave the Aden base in 1968. That statement made on 10th March represented, I believe, the considered view of the South Arabian Government.

Subsequently, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), whose inability to be present today, for very good reasons, he has explained to me in a letter, published a document he had obtained which gave the text of the statement made by Sultan Saleh at an earlier meeting with my noble Friend Lord Beswick, following my noble Friend's statement to the Federal Supreme Council informing them of the decision which was to be published in the Defence White Paper. The strong reaction of the Supreme Council embodied in that statement was much qualified in the course of the meeting, and I am satisfied that the words I quoted from Sultan Saleh's public statement fairly represented their considered position on the decision to withdraw from the base.

My Answers did not deal with another question on which the South Arabian Government have expressed deep concern—and are still concerned—namely, the decision not to offer a new defence treaty, for the reasons that I have explained to the House. The representations of the Federal Government on this question had already been given to the House by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies on 7th March. In the supplementary questions I answered on 10th May I was dealing with their reaction to the decision to leave the base, and, certainly, if I had been asked, would not have withheld from the House the fact that the South Arabian Government were distressed about the question of the defence agreement. I believe that part of the confusion has been caused by the fact that the statement published by the right hon. Gentleman covered both issues.

As the House knows, representatives of the South Arabian Government are now in London for discussions about the extent to which we can help them to strengthen their own defence forces.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that the House will have listened with interest to that explanation and to the distinction which the Prime Minister has drawn be- tween the base and the defence treaty. Is not the Prime Minister aware that the only interpretation which the whole House could put upon his words of 10th May was that the Federal Government of South Arabia had readily acquiesced in the British withdrawal from Aden? There was no other possible interpretation. Why, when the true position was so easily ascertainable, did he, and then, even worse, the Foreign Secretary three days later, give the House an account which was neither accurate nor balanced?

The Prime Minister

The House was given a fully accurate statement. The right hon. Gentleman stressed just now the decision to leave the base, not the question of the future defence agreement. On that point, the House was told that this was the considered view of the Federal Government.

Perhaps it might help the right hon. Gentleman to follow what happened if I tell him that after my noble Friend made the statement which provoked the reaction which occurred in the document published by the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), the members of the Federal Supreme Council, in that same meeting, asked us if, when we published the Defence Review, we would make it clear that we were leaving the base after consultation with the Federal Council.

That, I believe, is full support for my correct statement—and I quoted Sultan Saleh in this connection—that the members accepted our decision to leave the base. They were, in fact, trying to get virtue from that decision by the quotation I have just given the House.

The other question, about the unwillingness of the Government to agree to a defence agreement, was not the question put to me in the supplementaries. It had already been frankly conceded to the House by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 7th March.

Mr. Shinwell

In this controversy reference has been made to a document published by the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys). Can my right hon. Friend clear up the mystery? Has he any information as to how this document got into the hands of the right hon. Gentleman?

The Prime Minister

No, I have no information at all; but I do know that over the last 18 months, when we have had this extremely difficult situation in Aden, where we have had to deal with the feelings not only of the Federal members, but also of the Aden population itself, which some right hon. Gentlemen seem to dismiss out of the reckoning altogether, we have had the clear fact that certain right hon. Gentlemen have been in very close touch with certain groups and individuals in South Arabia and have done nothing but harm to what we have been trying to do.

Mr. Heath

If the Prime Minister will refer to the Written Answer given by his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies on 9th March, 1966, he will find that the hon. Lady made no reference whatever to the question of a defence agreement. She referred only to the question of the Aden base in the same words that the Prime Minister declares that he did. Therefore, were it not for the issue of the statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) the whole House would never have known the real circumstances of this case.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend said, amongst other things, that the Federal Supreme Council asked for an assurance that the British Government would continue to defend the Federation against external aggression and internal subversion until it was ready to do so itself".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1966; Vol. 725, c. 436.] This was on 7th March. The right hon. Gentleman just said that my hon. Friend made no such reference. I said earlier that she had made such a reference. The right hon. Gentleman said that she did not. I have just read out the reference in that statement.

Hon Members


Mr. Heath

I immediately withdraw that, because I thought that the Prime Minister said 9th March, and it was that statement to which I was referring. Of course I withdraw.

Mr. Thorpe

Would not the Prime Minister agree that the dismay of the Supreme Council at our refusal to grant a defence treaty must colour its opinion on our decision to withdraw troops?

The Prime Minister

As I have said, I think that part of the difficulty has arisen from the fact that the document published by the right hon. Member for Streatham covered both points. This was the Supreme Council's first reaction to my noble Friend's statement. Following a whole day of discussions, as I understand, it accepted the decision to leave the base. It asked, in a way, to be able to take some part of the credit for that decision, but that was impossible because the Defence Review had already gone to print; but the members continued to express deep concern about our decision not to give them a further defence agreement.

I explained to the House last week why we could not do that—because this would mean that we would have to set up a corresponding base a little further along and then this would be just as costly and damaging as if we stayed in the base itself.

Sir J. Eden

Is the Prime Minister aware that his dialectical posturing, though typical of him, is most unworthy of anyone holding the office of Prime Minister? Is he further aware that what concerns most people in the country is not so much the double-talk we have come to expect from him, but the fact that he has handed on a plate great advantages to President Nasser, of Egypt, at the expense of this country's interests?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman feels better after that, it is about worthy of him. If he cannot understand the difference between the two subjects with which I was dealing, the decision to leave the base and the defence agreement, then he is in no position to make comments on this matter.

If the hon. Gentleman is talking now about the general decision to leave the base, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a group of people around himself who put such pressure on his own Government in those years that they created a situation which made life intolerable for Britain in the Middle East for 10 years afterwards.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there is deep resentment on this side of the House against the efforts being made by certain hon. Members opposite to prevent a realistic agreement being reached?

The Prime Minister

All the problems which we have in that area today—no one on either side of the House will underrate them—go back a number of years. They go back to the decision some years ago, a debatable decision. to lump together the Federal territories and Aden itself. Our difficulty in the last 18 months, and that of our predecessors before then, has been to handle the situation in which there is such tremendous pressure in Aden itself. I believe that some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, including one who has left the House, have preoccupied themselves entirely with the interests of the Federal Rulers and have not paid enough attention to the problems of Aden itself.

Viscount Lambton

Will not the Prime Minister agree that the confusion which has arisen over this issue resulted from his not answering the question he was asked? On 10th May, the supplementary question I asked was whether there was not a changed set of circumstances in the Arabian Peninsula and could there not, as a result of this, be some form of guarantee for Aden? It was in reply to this that the Prime Minister quoted the opinion of Sultan Saleh and drew in the matter of the base which I had not myself mentioned. Is he now saying that Sultan Saleh did not want any sort of guarantee for Aden after independence?

The Prime Minister

I took the noble Lord's supplementary question—I think that I was justified, in view of the words he used on that occasion—to mean that there was a change in the circumstances there due to the announcement by President Nasser of his intention to stay in the Yemen. I took it that the noble Lord was saying: in view of that, would we now review our decision of two months earlier about the defence agreement?

Where the matter has, I think, led not only to confusion, but to controversy, has been in the fact that the document published by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham went right back to the first meeting and was not dealing with the change in circumstances since that meeting referred to by the noble Lord.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does my right hon. Friend think that it would be possible to have published a full White Paper giving the correspondence on this matter dating back over the last few years? Shall we be able to have that before the Opposition put down their Motion of censure, if, indeed, that Motion ever comes off?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend and the House are in a very historical mood this afternoon. To get a full account of the problems which we face in South Arabia would require going back certainly to 1958, and many would say back to 1956. No doubt, if we are to debate the merits of this issue as opposed to the exchange of questions on 10th May, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House will want to go back that far. If we are to have a debate on the particular subjects of 10th May, I agree that there will be some very interesting subjects which some of us will want to go into.

Mr. Heath

I have now had an opportunity to look at the reply of the Under-Secretary of State on 7th March as well as the one on 9th March. While it is true that she referred to the request for continuation of the defence agreement, she made no reference to the view of the Supreme Council that the British Government were dishonouring their obligations. This, in the light of the statement made last Saturday on behalf of the Supreme Council, is still its view, and it is this which the Prime Minister has tried to hide from the House.

The Prime Minister

I have not tried in any way to hide this from the House. My hon. Friend was asked what representations she had had. She gave the answer, and the representations made quite clear that they wanted a continuation of the defence agreement. It was only subsequently that, by means known only to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham, he received a partial statement of that meeting, and published it, which said that they considered that we had broken our agreement in not agreeing to a continued defence agreement.

This was an allegation which had been made several times in the House in March. It was fully debated in a two-day debate in March, it was fully rejected, and our case on it was fully stated from this side of the House. There has never been any suggestion that we were not prepared to reply to the allegation that we had broken the agreement. We made clear the circumstances in which that agreement had been made and the fact that the conditions made under it had not be fulfilled.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister. Statement.