HC Deb 07 November 1967 vol 753 cc838-44
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Aden.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

Severe interfactional fighting has been taking place in the Sheikh Othman, Mansura, and Tawahi areas of Aden over the past few days. British troops have not been involved, but casualties among Arabs have been heavy.

It is a tragedy that Arabs, who are inevitably shortly to take charge of their own affairs, should be killing each other.

Several previous attempts to call a ceasefire had only a temporary effect. The National Liberation Front appears to have gained the upper hand. On Sunday, the National Liberation Front High Command sent a message to its delegation in Cairo calling for a suspension of its talks with the Front for the Liberation of occupied South Yemen.

Yesterday, the South Arabian Army, which, up to now, has been using all its influence to bring the two factions to agreement on the formation of a Government, issued a statement siding unreservedly with the National Liberation Front.

The latest reports I have received indicate that the situation is now quiet. Shooting has stopped in both Sheikh Othman and Mansura. The markets have reopened.

Our prime interest on the South Arabian political front since September has been to see the emergence of a Government who would be able to take over from us and with whom we could negotiate. That remains our position.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that it is clear to the House how immensely serious this situation is. As the Secretary of State has told us, there is no Government and there is very little prospect of a Government in Aden to succeed us when we go.

I have to ask the Foreign Secretary certain questions. How many British subjects are there in Aden and South Arabia now? How many will remain after the evacuation, and who will be responsible then for their protection? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that there is a plan, that one has been worked out in great detail, to protect the evacuation?

Lastly, what arrangements have Her Majesty's Government made for compensation for those dispossessed of property when they leave? If the right hon. Gentleman could amplify those questions I think that it would be a more adequate answer than that which he has just seen fit to make.

Mr. Brown

If the right hon. Gentleman had put those questions down, I could have picked the answer he wanted. However, he did not put them down and I answered the Question that he tabled.

I do not carry in my head the total number of British subjects at present in Aden. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] There are no British military or civil servants outside of Aden itself in the territory. It would be very difficult to say that there are no British subjects outside of Aden. So far as Aden itself is concerned, the areas for which we are still carrying military authority we are still responsible for.

The question of what happens when we leave would, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, have arisen whenever we left. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we were planning to leave at some date. When we have gone, those who remain will be like the British citizens in any other foreign country. Her Majesty's Government, through the High Commissioner, will negotiate an arrangement with whatever successor Government emerge. [Laughter.] The imperialist aura which right hon. and hon. Members opposite still have is symptomatic.

South Arabia will be like any other independent territory. We will give, we have given, and we are giving, the best advice we can to those who might decide to stay or who might now be considering whether to stay. When we have left, we hope that there will be—we intend that there shall be—a British Embassy there. We will do our best to protect our citizens who stay. However, the decision to stay will be theirs and they will be in exactly the same situation as British citizens who stay in any other foreign country.

We will make the best arrangement we can with the successor Government on the matter of compensation, but I want to make it quite clear that, as regards our employees, civilian and military alike, it is Her Majesty's Government's firm intention that in any event no officer shall go without the compensation to which he is entitled. Compensation for employees of commercial firms is a matter between them and their employers.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I find it almost incredible that the Foreign Secretary does not know the number of British citizens in Aden. Is it not the fact that the whole evacuation programme must be related to the numbers that have to be taken out—and, what is more, in a very short time? The House will realise that it is a matter of days now and there is no Government in Aden or South Arabia to whom we can hand over responsibility. I must ask the Secretary of State to be prepared to come back to the House in two days' time or so to give us further news, because this is a situation so serious that it cannot be left where it is.

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman knows better than that and in private he talks better than that. He knows very well that this is now the critical period. The last fortnight before we left, whether it had been on his time-table or on ours, was bound to be the critical one. With very great respect, I advise the Opposition that it was not a useful operation to table this Question today, because our people there matter more than going through the motions in this House.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are discussing a grave matter. Noise does not help.

Mr. Brown

The plans are made—I do not want to go further than I need to carry the House with me into this—for all the eventualities that we can foresee. On the other hand, I think it is right that we show to South Arabia and to Aden and to other places that we are assuming an orderly normal withdrawal.

Mr. Sandys

Normal? Nonsense.

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman may be trying to provoke a disorderly withdrawal. My business is exactly the opposite. All the necessary plans have been made and I hope that the House will accept that and not try to go beyond it.

So far as the number is concerned, I said that I did not carry it in my head, and there is no reason why I should, but I have now obtained it. The number is 300.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home rose

Mr. Speaker

I called the right hon. Member for Devon. North (Mr. Thorpe).

Mr. Thorpe

Is it not without precedent for this country to grant independence to a territory when, within days of the date of independence, there is no Government and the country is in a state of virtual civil war? May I ask two questions? First, since the Federal Army apparently decided which group to recognise and which group it would not recognise, do I take it that we have lost all political initiative in the territory? Secondly, if, in the next few days, a Government is not formed, do I take it that we shall hand over to a military junta?

Mr. Brown

We hand over to whatever authority exists there when we go. May I say that it would be very extraordinary Liberal doctrine to say that we conceded independence only when we had satisfied ourselves about the Government that took over afterwards. If I may say so, there are very many more distinguished predecessors then the right hon. Gentleman who would not have stood up for that doctrine.

Mr. Orme

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread support on this side of the House for the orderly manner in which he is planning to withdraw British forces and save British lives in Aden and South Arabia? May I ask him whether he has any more information about the political set-up in relation to F.L.O.S.Y. and the N.L.F. and what part the Federal Army is playing in this at the moment?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to one thing at the beginning of his question. I should have thought that right hon. and hon. Members opposite would have been impressed by the fact that, whatever else is happening, British lives are not at this moment being lost, which must in some ways have to do with the policy that we are pursuing.

As to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I have done my very best to avoid Britain being involved in the argument as to which nationalist group or groups should form the Government. But my present information is that the N.L.F. is clearly proving to be the stronger of the two major contending groups.

Mr. Tapsell

Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that after 130 years of British rule in this area it is a totally immoral proposition to say that at this point our only responsibility, important as it undoubtedly is, is to get British troops out safely? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that we have a responsibility to the Arabs whom we are leaving behind to the mercy of two rival gangs of gangsters? Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that all this was predictable, stemming from the announcement made long in advance that we were to give independence to these territories and—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief.

Mr. Brown

Not only, I submit, reasonably brief, but also reasonably expressed. When the hon. Gentleman refers to "two rival gangs of gangsters" he is by definition identifying those who will form the Government of South Arabia in an area where we have great commercial and other interests. If I may suggest it to the Opposition, they are making awful fools of themselves in talking in this way.

Mr. Maxwell

Could my right hon. Friend tell the House, under the disturbed conditions now prevailing in Aden, with whom are the Egyptians negotiating for the refining of crude in the B.P. refinery at Aden, and what advice the Government have to give to British Petroleum in this matter?

Mr. Brown

We are, of course, very anxious that the operations of the refinery in Aden should continue. We are very anxious that whatever authority emerges should see that it is in the interests of Aden that they should continue. This is one of the reasons why I am trying to resist the intemperate language from the other side of the House.

Mr. Sandys

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement is the most ignominious and cynically irresponsible statement that I have ever heard made in this House? Is it not quite clear that he has no plans whatsoever for safeguarding the lives of the British civilians?

Mr. Brown

On the contrary, the great difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself is that he put them at jeopardy, whereas I am trying to save them.

Viscount Lambton

Would the right hon. Gentleman make something perfectly clear? He talks about a successor Government. What happens if no Government emerges? In his answer to the Leader of the Liberal Opposition he was emphatic that we would hand over. Will he answer this question? Will we hand over to a military junta if they are in power?

Mr. Brown

Hon. Members opposite have done that before, as a matter of fact. I told the House when I spoke last week that I would be making up my mind, with the advice of the High Commissioner and the Commander-in-Chief, as to the precise date of leaving about the middle of this month. As soon as I have, I will come to the House and explain in what terms we are leaving and to whom it is we are handing over. I do not propose to be drawn on it today.

Just in case there is any misunderstanding, let me make it quite plain that there has been no disagreement between the High Commissioner, the Commander-in-Chief and myself at any stage about what ought to be done to rescue us from the mess that hon. Members opposite left us in.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have an important debate ahead.

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