HC Deb 23 May 1978 vol 950 cc1310-2
4. Mr. Blaker

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has had discussions with the American Secretary of Defense and other Western Defence Ministers about the possible need for joint military operations to assist friendly countries in Africa.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Fred Mulley)

I have discussed with the American Secretary of Defense and with the Defence Ministers of other Western Governments many matters of common and general interest, including, on occasion, current developments in Africa; but I do not believe that any consideration of joint military operations in Africa is presently either desirable or necessary.

Mr. Blaker

Is not one of the lessons of Zaire that there should be joint contingency planning between various European Governments and the Americans, if they would join in, so that if a similar situation, unhappily, were to occur in future, a joint European rescue force could be sent at the request of an African Government?

Mr. Mulley

That is a point of view, but I think that it would be extremely difficult to foresee all the various different scenarios, and difficult to get one group of European countries to agree to a common plan. Last week we were asked to consult the other countries involved, and we did so. That, I think, is probably the best way in which to approach that kind of situation. We were asked on humanitarian grounds to provide airlift and medical facilities, and we did so.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Is there not an absolutely critical difference between intervention in order to protect our own nationals and their security, and intervention in order to assist foreign Governments, which is what the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) is suggesting? Is that not precisely the kind of thing that led the Americans into the morass of Vietnam?

Mr. Mulley

I certainly see a very clear distinction, as my hon. Friend indicates. Of course, it is open to sovereign Governments to ask other countries for military advice and assistance, but I think it would be right to judge each request on its merits as it arises.

Mr. Pattie

Does the Secretary of State think that if the Government had to engage in a rescue operation involving British subjects, we would have the capability to carry it out?

Mr. Mulley

It is very difficult to answer a question of that world-wide character, but I would think in most cases, certainly, yes.

Mr. Dalyell

May we take it that, on the very narrow issue of consultation with the British Government, the Secretary of State is wholly satisfied with what happened over Zaire?

Mr. Mulley

I do not know that it is for me to express views which are more properly within the field of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, but certainly I can say that from the time the Royal Air Force and the Army units concerned were requested, they were dispatched rapidly and did all that they were called upon to do.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is there not an obligation upon the right hon. Gentleman, as Secretary of State, to make contingency plans to protect British nationals and British interests, wherever they may be threatened, rather than giving the parliamentary reply that such operations are neither desirable nor necessary?

Mr. Mulley

I think that it is certainly my job to defend British interests, but the proposition that any British national in any part of the world can demand military assistance became outdated at the time when Palmerston was Foreign Secretary.