HC Deb 14 November 1967 vol 754 cc231-9
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about my recent visit to Africa.

I began by attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference at Kampala, where I had the honour to lead the United Kingdom Branch delegation. Thereafter I met the leaders of the eight Commonwealth countries in East, Central and Southern Africa. In addition, I met the South African Foreign Minister in Pretoria.

In the talks which I had with African leaders I laid particular stress on three things. First, that Her Majesty's Government were certainly not going to be parties to any sell-out in Rhodesia. Secondly, that we remained convinced that force or violence were not means that could be employed to achieve an honourable and peaceful solution. And, thirdly, that we were not prepared to embark on economic confrontation with South Africa.

I must not pretend to speak on behalf of the African leaders to whom I was speaking, but I believe I can safely say that, even if they did not always agree with my arguments, they did recognise that what I said represented firm British policy.

I then went to Salisbury for talks with the Governor. On his recommendation, and under his aegis, I had talks also with Mr. Smith and a number of other Rhodesians. Mr. Smith and I met on four occasions—privately together, or with only the Governor and the Chief Justice present, or with Mr. Lardner Burke accompanying Mr. Smith and official advisers on both sides. Our talks lasted altogether about 10 hours.

I am sorry to have to tell the House that the differences between our position and Mr. Smith's proved even greater than earlier discussions had indicated. I am not here referring to our differences over the very important questions of Nibmar or the return to legality, but to the constitutional proposals contained in Part One of the "Tiger" Working Document.

Last December Mr. Smith informed us that those proposals were acceptable to him. Subsequently, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House on 25th July, Mr. Smith told Lord Alport that there were one or two details that needed looking at again, and that one or two other points had occurred to him which he believed were reasonable and would improve the Constitution.

At our talks last week it became apparent that, in fact, the changes which Mr. Smith wished to make in the "Tiger" constitutional proposals were of a kind that would fundamentally affect their nature. I made it clear to Mr. Smith that these changes could not be reconciled with the principles established by successive British Governments.

With regard to procedure, at the close of our talks Mr. Smith and I agreed that each of us would reflect on what had been said and would consult our respective colleagues before decisions on the next steps were taken. Her Majesty's Government are now considering all aspects of the matter in the light of my talks.

This is a sombre report. I have not returned with any short-cut to a settlement. But I believe that my visit was worth making. It enabled me to explain our policies at first hand to Commonwealth African leaders in East, Central and Southern Africa, and to learn their views. It enabled me to meet for the first time that devoted servant of his Queen and his country, Sir Humphrey Gibbs. And it has given me the clarifications of Mr. Smith's position which we have been seeking since Lord Alport's return.

I cannot pretend that as a result I feel hopeful of an early settlement. But the door remains open if, after reflection upon our discussions, Mr. Smith and his colleagues conclude that the true interests of Rhodesia and all its peoples, including the Europeans, require that a settlement should be reached which could honourably be commended to Parliament.

Mr. Braine

As one who also attended the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Kampala, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would agree with me that it achieved quite outstanding success in promoting better understanding on a great many issues affecting the Commonwealth relationship?

As regards the right hon. Gentleman's talks in Salisbury, are we to understand that the situation is that both sides are considering their position? If so, can he tell the House when the Government will be able to announce when and whether talks will be resumed?

Finally, could the right hon. Gentleman tell us a little more about his talks with other African leaders?

Mr. Thomson

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am grateful for what he has said, and I was grateful for the backing of what I thought was a very good British delegation at that conference. The vigorous debates at the conference on Rhodesia and on the implications for the Commonwealth of our application for entry to the Common Market were excellent and useful.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, about whether and when talks will be resumed, I should not like to prejudge at this stage the results of the deliberations which my colleagues and I are undertaking, but I will inform the House as soon as possible.

My talks with the leaders of various African Governments did, I hope, help to improve understanding in these Governments of the British point of view. I took care to return by way of a number of African capitals after my visit in Salisbury. I hope that all this has helped to create a greater mood of mutual understanding, although there are admitted differences of view.

Mr. Paget

Does what my right hon. Friend says amount to this, that no negotiations are to be opened to relieve us from the terribly heavy burden which is imposed upon us by the obstruction of Southern African trade?

Mr. Thomson

I think that the burden which we bear is related to maintaining principles which are accepted on both sides of the House. I am not sure whether my hon. and learned Friend is urging this Government to betray those principles.

Mr. Sandys

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most people in this country are glad that he has re-established contact with the Rhodesian Prime Minister? [An HON. MEMBER: "The Rhodesian what? "] The Rhodesian Prime Minister. I had not used that expression in the House until I heard the Prime Minister use it the other day. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a general desire in this country that he should make the most strenuous efforts to overcome the present difficulties, since this is about the last possible chance of reaching a settlement?

Mr. Thomson

I think that we all share the desire to overcome the present difficulties, but one must not shirk the fact that the difficulties are now greater than they were, and the fact that they are greater than they were is due to changes in Mr. Smith's position and not in ours.

Mr. Richard

Can my right hon. Friend tell us something about the changes in Mr. Smith's position, precisely what they are and how they affect the British Government's standpoint?

Mr. Thomson

I prefer not to go into details at this stage, but to wait until we have had time to consider all the implications.

Mr. Turton

Would the right hon. Gentleman clarify the position further by telling us the new differences on the constitutional issue, realising that the continuance of the present ineffective sanctions policy is not only damaging our economy but retarding development in the whole of Central Africa?

Mr. Thomson

That is the question which I was reluctant to answer a moment ago. I would merely content myself by saying that perhaps the seriousness of the changes which Mr. Smith proposes can be measured by the fact that they go directly against at least three of the six principles which were accepted by both sides of the House.

Mr. Kelley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while the House appreciates that his visit to Salisbury was largely concerned with trying to bring the illegal régime back to legality, there are large political influences in Rhodesia other than the illegal régime who are desirous to live a normal life in Rhodesia? What consideration has the Government given to consulting these people in any future settlement?

Mr. Thomson

All our endeavours are related to trying to bring Rhodesia back to legality so that the great mass of the population of Rhodesia, of all groups, can enjoy a return to the economic expansion which was theirs before they took the path of rebellion.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is not this situation rather ridiculous? Would not the right hon. Gentleman approach this problem with some of the pragmatism and lack of legalism with which his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has approached the problem of Aden?

Mr. Thomson

I utterly repudiate the premise on which the hon. Gentleman asks that question. As far as my approach is concerned, I told Mr. Smith at the start of our talks that what I was interested in was progress and not protocol. I tried to be pragmatic, and I have reported to the House the difficulties which I faced.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Would my right hon. Friend tell us how we can trust a man who pushes through an Act of racial discrimination one day, shakes hands with my right hon. Friend the next day and roundly abuses Britain the day after that? What is more important, how can the Zambian people and the people who are most affected—the 4 million Africans in Rhodesia—trust any settlement with a man such as that?

Mr. Thomson

On my hon. Friend's main point, I told Mr. Smith very plainly that the kind of legislation which is at present being passed through the so-called Parliament of Rhodesia is directly contrary to the fourth principle which we laid down.

Mr. Doughty

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the vast majority of people in this country are anxious that a settlement in Rhodesia should be arrived at? It can be arrived at only by negotiation. Would he therefore give an undertaking to the House that negotiations will continue in the hope that in the end they will be successful?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. I am sure that everybody in this country wishes to see a settlement. But I am equally sure that the vast majority of people in this country wish to see an honourable settlement. This is what we have been seeking to bring about. I have said very deliberately that, despite the difficulties which have been created, I am not seeking to slam the door. But one cannot deny that these difficulties are there, and I think that we must give very earnest consideration to what is the best way of solving them.

Mr. Wyatt

Could my right hon. Friend say what is the cost in foreign exchange to us of maintaining the sanctions which we are maintaining against Rhodesia? Could he say for how long we propose to continue with them, as most other nations are putting a coach and horses through the arrangement? In view of today's trade returns, should not we stop the economic sanctions irrespective of a settlement?

Mr. Thomson

I should not like to give my hon. Friend a considered figure without notice, but I would tell him that the kind of figures coming from Mr. Smith and the Rhodesians are grossly exaggerated. Our loss of trade with Rhodesia, although always regrettable, is a tiny proportion—about 0.6 of 1 per cent.—of our total export trade. I should have thought that that was a small price to pay for sticking to one's principles. I did not quite understand whether my hon. Friend was urging that we should surrender to Mr. Smith.

Sir G. Nabarro

But is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that since 11th November, 1965, two years and two days ago, the loss of British trade with Southern Africa on account of economic sanctions is about £170 million and that the gain to the French, Italians, Japanese and all the other nations breaking the economic sanctions is even larger, at our expense? Why not call off the rotten deal now?

Mr. Thomson

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman has the support of the House in wishing us to surrender our principles. I do not accept the figures he has given. I have given the proportion of our export trade to Rhodesia which has been lost. I should have thought that his references to other countries trading with Rhodesia were an argument for making sanctions more effective rather than for giving them up.

Mr. William Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend say what steps the Government are taking now to tighten up sanctions, with particular regard to the inflow of oil through Portuguese territory?

Mr. Thomson

Her Majesty's Government are considering ways of making sanctions more effective. This matter has been under active consideration for some weeks now by the Commonwealth Sanctions Committee, in which we are playing an active part.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.


Mr. Paget

I beg to ask leave, Mr. Speaker, to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of calling attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the failure of Her Majesty's Government to open negotiations to end obstructions to trade with Rhodesia. I must establish three things. First, there is the question of importance. Two years ago I told the Government that the sanctions would hang around their necks like a dead chicken that they could not get rid of.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must not, under an application under Standing Order No. 9, seek to debate the merits of the matter.

Mr. Paget

I fully apreciate that, Mr. Speaker. What I am establishing at the moment is the importance.

I said that the question of sanctions would hang around the neck of the Gov- ernment. It has indeed done so. A minimum estimate in the Economist is that it has cost us where it hurts—in the balance of payments—£300 million already, and is now costing us £120 million a year. That is some chicken, but, unfortunately, it is no longer some neck, for that neck is bowed and debilitated and can no longer carry this kind of burden.

For this, we find no results in Rhodesia, which has the support—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot, under the guise of an application for a debate under Standing Order No. 9, debate the whole issue of Rhodesia.

Mr. Paget

No, Mr. Speaker, and I am not seeking to do so. I am seeking only to establish that the continuance here and now of this kind of economic burden on us is a very serious matter, which we cannot sustain.

There is talk of principles, but the result in Rhodesia is obviously nil, and we have earned nothing but the contempt and hostility of black Africa and we are going on earning it.

On the question of urgency, surely £500,000 a day is urgent in the state of our finances?

My last point concerns novelty. We had the announcement, in answer to a question by me, that the opportunity to relieve this burden has been rejected and that this quite futile exercise to implement a power that we have not got is going on.

I ask you to rule, Mr. Speaker, that this is a matter that should be raised as definite, important, and urgent.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the failure of Her Majesty's Government to open negotiations to end obstructions to trade with Rhodesia. I need not remind the House that when anyone seeks to raise a matter under Standing Order No. 9 it is because he regards it as important, and I have no comment to make on that.

But I also need not remind the House, particularly today, that the interpretation of the terms of Standing Order No. 9 has been for some time strict, and that I am bound by precedents of the Chair's past Rulings in this case.

The application must also relate to a single specific matter and not, as in this case, to one of a series of related events. The House will recall that I was refusing applications to debate Rhodesia under Standing Order No. 9 as far back as 3rd November, 1965, as reported in HANSARD at c. 1036–7 of Volume 718. I can find no ground for changing that decision in favour of this latest application.

In these circumstances, I cannot allow the hon. and learned Gentleman's request for leave to move the Adjournment of the House.

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