HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc189-200
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. James Callaghan)

I will with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make a statement.

From Monday 30th December to Saturday 11th January I paid official visits to Zambia, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria. In each I had full and useful discussions with the Heads of Government and with many of their Ministers. I am most grateful for the hospitality shown to me. In every country I was renewing contacts with friends of long standing, but I am conscious that the warm welcome given to me was an expression of the friendship felt by these African members of the Commonwealth for the people of the United Kingdom. The feeling for the Commonwealth is strong in all the countries I visited, even though nowadays it forms only one part—but an important part—of their international and regional relationships.

World inflation has hit the African people hard, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, and despite our own domestic difficulties we should be ready to give what aid we can to those who are much worse off than we are. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development agreed to my making offers of small additional loans on favourable terms to these two countries.

Nigeria is in a special position because of her exploitation of her oil resources and the opportunities for expanded trade between Britain and Nigeria are very great. I am glad to say that I found many young and energetic representatives of British firms pushing our exports, but the general cry from them all was that we could do even better in this favourable and important market if higher priority could be given to it here at home. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade hopes to visit Nigeria next month and will be looking into these matters.

My talks with the Heads of Government in all countries covered the impact of world inflation, the prospects for the forthcoming meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers, relations between the African countries and the EEC, together with a number of bilateral issues. As regards the EEC, there have been protracted negotiations in recent months and I found a general disposition to sign an association agreement with the Community although some points still remained to be settled. We were agreed that such an association would be beneficial to them.

The main topic throughout my tour was the problem of Rhodesia. My first purpose, before setting out, was to obtain a clear idea of the views of the countries I visited. This I have done. My second aim was to work out, to the greatest degree possible, a common policy with the African Governments in order to take advantage of the recent important initiatives of Presidents Kaunda, Nyerere and Seretse Khama, as well as those of the Prime Minister of South Africa.

I am glad to tell the House that in President Nyerere's own words—and I do not think he will mind my using them—our policies are now converging. I believe there is today a greater degree of understanding between Britain and the African Governments than at any time since the unilateral declaration of independence.

In my talks I found it necessary to repeat in every country that Britain accepts and will discharge her constitutional responsibilities to Rhodesia. The three Presidents urged me strongly to call a constitutional conference. In the joint communiqué issued after my visit to Zambia it was agreed that Britain and Zambia would work in close collaboration in determining the stages which should be followed in negotiations to bring about an acceptable solution to the Rhodesia problem, including the holding of a constitutional conference. I am now in the process of considering what these stages should be. There are complicated issues to be resolved like the timing, venue and participation in any conference to ensure that if and when one does take place it has the best chance of success. I must emphasise that confidence in Southern Africa is very fragile, and some of the events of the last few days have shown how easily the beginnings of mutual trust can be destroyed. Nevertheless, the alternative to a peaceful settlement is an escalation of violence and guerrilla war, and the attitude among the Governments I visited was that we must make every effort to overcome the obstacles and setbacks.

The House will know that following my talks in Zambia I decided also to pay a visit to Port Elizabeth for talks with the South African Prime Minister, Mr. Vorster. This meeting was welcomed as a useful step by the Governments of the African countries which I visited. I believe that it is Mr. Vorster's desire to see an agreed settlement between Europeans and Africans in Rhodesia and that he will lend his efforts to this end. I discussed with him ways of achieving this.

The Rhodesia problem can only be finally settled by a constitutional conference. Meantime unless our efforts in this direction are to be wasted, there are two essential requirements. First, early progress must be made towards securing the observance of all the provisions of the agreement worked out in Lusaka last month between the representatives of the three Presidents, the South African Government, Mr. Smith and the ANC. The differences of view about these provisions which have emerged in the last few days must be resolved quickly.

Second—and this is the other essential requirement—to keep the momentum going in order to pave the way for a successful constitutional conference the now united ANC and Mr. Smith should undertake direct exploratory talks. There is every advantage in the people of Rhodesia themselves—African and European meeting together on equal terms—getting down to working out what sort of constitutional settlement would be acceptable. The British Government will be ready to do anything which would contribute to a settlement consistent with the principles that we have laid down. Both communities in Rhodesia now have the difficult task of rethinking their roles. If there is to be substantial change, the leaders of the ANC need to allay the fears and to win the confidence of the European population so that they can look forward to a secure future in the new Rhodesia.

In the course of my exchanges with Mr. Vorster, I made clear that we do not recognise the right of South African police to be operating on the borders of Rhodesia and I urged him to withdraw them. I understand his position is that he will do so when he is satisfied that violence has ceased. I also informed Mr. Vorster of the changed policy of the British Government on Namibia and the Simonstown Agreement and we had a short discussion on the question of apartheid.

There is no doubt that following the dramatic changes now taking place in Mozambique and Angola a new situation is developing in other parts of Southern Africa. There is a better chance than for many years of achieving an honourable and peaceful settlement of the Rhodesia problem. But we must not be over-optimistic. There is a very long way to go. We have still to discover whether all concerned have made the mental leap that will be required to set Rhodesia on a new and peaceful path. If not, there will be growing violence in which the whole of Southern Africa could well be drawn. For its part the British Government, in co-operation with the African countries most closely involved, will give maximum support to the efforts that are being made to find an acceptable solution.

I shall of course continue to keep the House informed.

Mr. Heath

In thanking the Foreign Secretary for his long and detailed statement, may I also say that we on this side of the House are glad that he made this prolonged visit to the African countries. I agree about the opportunities open to us in Nigeria. This matter was drawn to the attention of the nation when General Gowan came here in 1973.

The right hon. Gentleman emphasised the general desire of the African countries to reach an association agreement with the Community. I have no doubt that the Foreign Secretary will do everything possible in Brussels to facilitate such an agreement. Will he confirm that he found no disposition on the part of the African countries that Britain should leave the Community because their desire is that we should play a prominent part in strengthening the position of countries with association status?

On the main part of the statement about Rhodesia, we are particularly glad that the Foreign Secretary went to South Africa for talks with the Prime Minister and accepted the suggestions which were put forward in the House just before Christmas when he made his last statement.

On the future of Rhodesia, the gap still seems to be as wide as ever. The right hon. Gentleman has emphasised that all the terms of the Lusaka agreement should be carried out. Will he tell us a little more about that? I agree that any differences must be resolved as soon as possible, but what precisely are the differences which cause the right hon. Gentleman concern at the moment? I understand that Mr. Smith has emphasised that all the terms should be carried out. Presumably this refers to what we understand to be the undertaking that there should be a cease-fire or truce at the same time as there should be the the release of detainees.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about Europeans in Rhodesia have greatly helped the situation, and he may now feel that this is so. Will he tell us what communication he has had with Mr. Smith about the proposed constitutional conference and future developments? The right hon. Gentleman emphasised the need for Europeans to be reassured. In what way does he propose to do this? Will he assure us that, if there is to be a constitutional conference, his contacts with Mr. Smith in future will be close and frequent so that the Europeans may feel that there is an equal relationship between all those sitting at the conference table?

Mr. Callaghan

There are still some negotiations to be concluded in Brussels on the association agreement. I have a feeling that they will be concluded successfully and that it will then be the intention that an agreement between the 45 countries involved—African, Caribbean and Pacific—will be signed probably next month.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether indications were given to me about our leaving the EEC. I think that most of the leaders of the States to whom I spoke believe that this matter should be left to the British people to decide. I certainly do not think that they believe it is to their advantage that we should be out, but neither do they think that it would be to their disadvantage, because they are now making their own arrangements with the Community through the association agreement.

Turning to the prospects for a constitutional conference, so far as I know there is no agreed statement on what was concluded in the discussions in Lusaka. Therefore, there are differences of interpretation. I have tried to put together the various statements that have been given to me. I think that there is general agreement between the statements, but there is obviously a great deal of difference about what the various statements meant and how they should be carried out. There is room for a great deal of disagreement here, but I believe that the attitude of Rhodesia's neighbours will be that the parties in Rhodesia should try to get together to hammer out their differences on these agreements to make sure that, through no misunderstanding, this delicate plant is nurtured.

I have not yet been in touch with Mr. Smith. As I told the House before I went to Southern Africa, I wanted to find out what the other countries concerned had to say about this situation. I think that I have now got a pretty clear idea of what they all feel. It was agreed when I was in Zambia, which was my first port of call, that I should consider establishing some kind of contact. Of course, that would be far short of diplomatic representation. But assuming, for example, that exploratory talks began between the Africans and the Smith régime, there could be a case for an observer from this country being present in Salisbury. That is the kind of consideration about which I want to think now and would consider getting in touch with Mr. Smith about. The constitutional conference would come at the end of that particular process.

Regarding my remarks about the Europeans and the ice floe, I can only feel that it was too true to be comfortable. I think that the ice is even thinner than I thought it was when I went there. There is not a great deal of time left if Rhodesia is to make the choice between guerrilla warfare and a peaceful settlement.

Mr. Heath

I should like to press the Foreign Secretary further on one point. He emphasised the need for reassurance for Europeans in Rhodesia. There is no difference between us there. Therefore, is it not psychologically wrong to adopt the attitude that he has taken? When people have real and deep fears, surely they need reassurance, not comments of the kind made by the right hon. Gentleman.

We have all had experience over almost a decade now of Mr. Smith's psychological reactions to statements both in this House and outside. Therefore, may I press upon the Foreign Secretary the need to have direct communication with Mr. Smith—obviously not diplomatic representation; no Government since 1965 have had that—so that he with his colleagues does not feel that he has been left isolated, because the right hon. Gentleman has close relations with the other African countries, including South Africa?

Mr. Callaghan

It was open to Mr. Smith to contact me, if he had wished to do so, while I was in Southern Africa. I made that clear before I left. The ANC did so. It wished to come and see me, but there were difficulties in the way. I will not labour them at present. However, I had no approach from Mr. Smith. In order that there should not be any question of amour propre here, now that I have discovered the attitude of the African Presidents and of South Africa and others I am ready to make contact with Mr. Smith at some level to see how we can move forward to the next stage. I should press him, as I would press the ANC, to carry out his part of the agreements in so far as they can agree with each other. I should also press him to enter into preliminary talks with the Africans there. Finally, as I think the right hon. Gentleman agrees, there must be a constitutional conference at which Britain would be present in order that we may put our seal on whatever was being agreed, and that would have to come before this House. I do not know whether we shall get that. I am not sure yet whether both sides are ready to go to such a conference. We must keep that position open.

There is no difference between us about the Europeans. As I said in my statement, it is now for the ANC to allay the fears and to win the confidence of the European population. If I were present at any such conference, I would certainly do my best to ensure that there were guarantees for the minority, who would then become the Europeans—they have so far been the Africans—and to ensure that they were carried out.

As to the principles from which we start, there cannot be neutrality. We have laid down the principles from which we start relating to a solution of the problem from the beginning, and I must adhere to these and point them out to Mr. Smith.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that many of us feel that he should be congratulated on having undertaken this very important, extensive and what must have been quite arduous tour? Is he aware that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal Party is today seeing Mr. Smith and the ANC leaders in Salisbury and that he will be revisiting President Kaunda tomorrow? Does he accept that, in advance of a constitutional conference, the more informal contact between different sections of the community, whether within Rhodesia or wider even than Southern Africa, the better if we are to have the common aim of avoiding the alternative of a continuation of guerrilla warfare?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, I am aware that the Leader of the Liberal Party is in Salisbury today and has had conversations with President Kaunda. I was grateful, as I am sure the whole House will be, to the Leader of the Liberal Party for the doughty defence that he put up on the broadcasting network in Zambia recently about British policy on the issue. I think that the time has now come—I believe that this is generally agreed in Southern Africa; it would not have been agreed perhaps nine months ago—for the establishment of informal contacts at appropriate levels so that people can start talking to each other. But we must not underrate the difficulties which have still to be overcome if we are to achieve a settlement in accordance with the principles of the Government and of the Opposition.

Mr. Bottomley

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that it would be realistic to recognise that the Prime Minister of South Africa is likely to have the greatest influence on Mr. Smith and likewise the three African Presidents are likely to have the greatest influence on the Rhodesian Africans? In those circumstances, would it not be unwise to make contacts with Mr. Smith or even to open discussions at all at this stage? Should we not rather wait until the three Presidents and the Prime Minister of South Africa can say that substantial agreement has been reached and then consider calling the constitutional conference?

Mr. Callaghan

In the first part of that question, my right hon. Friend analyses the situation correctly. On the second part, I would remind him that I have been pressed by the three Presidents to call a constitutional conference straight away, so they apparently do not share that view. I am trying to steer an intermediate course between their desire for an early conference and the desire that the Africans and the Rhodesians should find one another in Rhodesia by encouraging preliminary talks between them, which would lead, as my right hon. Friend says, to a constitutional conference if things go well. But I must reserve the right to the British Government to decide whether and when such a conference would help things, as distinct from hindering progress.

Mr. Hastings

May we take it from what the right hon. Gentleman told the Leader of the Opposition that he does now intend to get in touch with Mr. Smith or Mr. Smith's Government? Would he not agree that the key to the situation may now lie with whoever really controls the terrorist movement along the Zambesi? Clearly, it is not Mr. Sithole or Mr. Nkomo. After all, seven South African policemen have been killed along the Zambesi since he was there, or in recent days. Can he give us any hope that some influence can be brought to bear on whoever is behind these people, since otherwise a cease-fire is meaningless?

Mr. Callaghan

It would be appropriate now—I think that this would be the feeling of the House—that I should indeed begin making contacts at an appropriate level not only with Mr. Smith but with the ANC. In other words, future dealings cannot be just between Her Majesty's Government and Mr. Smith. The ANC will now have an important part to play in the talks and certainly in the final constitutional conference. As for the question of violence, all the three Presidents I spoke to—Nyerere, Kaunda and Seretse Khama—not only deplore it but disavow it. I am sure, in so far as these talks seem to have any continuing hope, that they will lend no countenance to violence but will do their best to ensure that it is arrested, but the hon. Gentleman knows the difficulties about this sort of matter.

Mr. Ogden

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his care and caution in this endeavour and on his personal stamina during that visit? Were the Presidents themselves pressing for a British representative to go to Salisbury to help contacts of any kind, either with Mr. Smith's Government or with the ANC? Second, what was their view on the question of whether all the neighbours of Rhodesia, not only the Commonwealth Governments, should be invited to a future constitutional conference?

Mr. Callaghan

On the first part of that question, the last sentence of the communiqué that I agreed with the Zambian Government was: It was agreed that it would also become necessary for the British Govenment to enter into more direct and frequent contact with the parties concerned in Rhodesia and elsewhere. It is that next stage on which I shall now embark. On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I do not envisage the neighbours of Rhodesia being present at any final constitutional conference, which would have to be between the parties in Rhodesia itself—all shades of opinion no doubt would need to be represented—plus Her Majesty's Government, on whom the final responsibility lies. But I have no doubt that Zambia in particular, the other countries concerned and South Africa will all be watching what takes place very carefully.

Mr. Kershaw

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that some of his remarks were rather unfortunate, in spite of the excuses that he has made today? Will he do whatever is necessary to establish the position of Her Majesty's Government as the honest broker in this matter—which I nevertheless agree the right hon. Gentleman has advanced during the course of his journey in Africa?

Mr. Callaghan

I am not sure to which remarks the hon. Gentleman is referring, but if it is the simple remark that the ice is breaking up all around Rhodesia, that seems to me to be a simple statement of fact when one looks at what is happening in Mozambique, in Angola and in Namibia. If people were not prepared to recognise that simple statement as altering the situation, there would not be much hope for progress. It is precisely because I believe that many people are ready to recognise this change, whatever may be the cheap currency of debating coinage, that I think that there is a prospect of making some advance.

Mr. Hooley

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the major obstacle to any constitutional settlement in Rhodesia will be Ian Smith himself? Was there any indication from the Prime Minister of South Africa as to when South Africa proposes to withdraw from Namibia?

Mr. Callaghan

On the first part of that question, I would not wish at this stage to enter into animadversions as to my personal feelings on the attitudes of particular people, so perhaps we could leave it at that. On the second question, I should prefer, again, not to go into any detail on my discussions with Mr. Vorster, which were conducted on a confidential basis, but his public statements, I think, indicate his position pretty clearly.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

As I happened to be in South Africa at the same time as the Foreign Secretary, may I confirm the impression which the House has, that his visit was highly valued, at least there, although some aspects of it were controversial?

I have two questions. First, did the right hon. Gentleman form any impression—I clearly did form such an impression in South Africa—that a considerable proportion of the momentum and impetus for this settlement arises from the fact that Zambia is in a considerable economic jam and is seeking opportunities to reopen normal relationships and trade with South Africa and Rhodesia, since her very survival might depend on that? That is not an inconsiderable factor. Second, although I would not expect the right hon. Gentleman to breach the confidence that he has described in his talks with Mr. Vorster, can he say whether the question of sanctions against Rhodesia was discussed and whether Mr. Vorster gave any impression of how he viewed that question?

Mr. Callaghan

On the second part of the question, I can say now, without giving any offence to Mr. Vorster I believe, that the question of sanctions was not discussed. As for the momentum of affairs, those of us who have known President Kaunda for many years would certainly take the view that he has sustained great economic difficulties as a result of sanctions against Rhodesia and that he has been prepared to withstand and to sustain them. President Kaunda is a good man in every sense of the word and I do not believe that his economic difficulties are leading him to any different course than that which he thinks right for the peace and advancement of the African people in Rhodesia.

Severaln Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.