HC Deb 17 January 1979 vol 960 cc1711-25
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement.

The Government are releasing today the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who visited Africa before Christmas for private talks with all concerned in the Rhodesia dispute in order to advise me, in the light of his discussions, whether the right climate existed for an all-party conference on Rhodesia. I had told the House on 7th November that I would be prepared to convene such a meeting if the conditions seemed right.

My right hon. Friend left for Africa on 27th November. Accompanied by President Carter's representative, Ambassador Low, he visited Rhodesia and seven other African countries in the course of his mission, returning to this country on 14th December. He had consultations with the front-line Presidents, the leaders of the Patriotic Front and members of the Executive Council in Salisbury. He met representatives of other political groups and organisations in Rhodesia. He also had talks with Mr. R. F. Botha, Foreign Minister of South Africa, and General Obasanjo, Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria.

On his return to London, my right hon. Friend gave me a full account of his findings. I am most grateful for the way in which he has carried out this task. I have given the most careful consideration to his conclusions and I have also discussed them with President Carter. My right hon. Friend's principal conclusion, which he reached with great regret, was that no good purpose would be served by convening a meeting of the parties to the conflict in the immediate future, since there would be virtually no likelihood of a successful outcome. I have decided that I must accept this advice.

My right hon. Friend's discussions with the Patriotic Front and with the Executive Council in Salisbury made it clear that the positions of the parties on the key issues are very far apart and that there is at present no possibility of their moving sufficiently close to each other in the course of a negotiation to allow hone that agreement might be reached. My right hon. Friend concluded that a conference called now would end in failure and that this would inhibit any new attempt to promote a settlement for a period of several months at least. He nevertheless recommended that I should be ready to call a conference at once if developments should indicate a better prospect of success than would be the case today. I accept this advice also.

We shall not give up our attempts to achieve a peaceful solution. President Carter and I reaffirmed our commitment at Guadeloupe to do all in our power to promote a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia and bring the human suffering there to an end. We were in full agreement that the Anglo-American proposals remain the best basis for a peaceful solution. We will continue to work closely together to improve the prospects for a successful negotiation and to take advantage of any opportunity to promote a peaceful solution to the present conflict.

Mrs. Thatcher

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, perhaps I, too, may say "Thank you" to the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who undertook this mission. I know that he will be as sorry as we are that he had to bring back such disappointing findings.

I note that the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to do all in our power to promote a negotiated settlement What worries us a little, however, is that the statement contains no initiative to do that. May I, therefore, ask the Prime Minister three questions?

First, I should like to press the Prime Minister just a little to give more details on the attitude of the Patriotic Front. What he has said is susceptible of two interpretations. The first is that the Patriotic Front is not prepared to negotiate at all because it thinks that it can achieve its objectives by other means. The second is that, although the parties are very far apart, there is a possibility of negotiation in the end. If the second is the correct interpretation—I trust that it is—would it not be advisable now to have some kind of group of people making contact with all the parties regularly, to try to narrow the differences between them?

The second point is that there are to be elections in Rhodesia towards the end of April. All of us have agreed that six principles would have to be fulfilled before there could be any possibility of independence to Rhodesia, and most of us think that five of them have been fulfilled but that the last one, acceptance by the Rhodesian people, has yet to be tested. It would seem that those democratic elections are a way of testing that. I should like to know from the Prime Minister what we are doing to see that those elections can be held, not under perfect circumstances—that is not possible—but under the best possible circumstances that we can manage, and whether we are joining with other countries to try to have observers there to see that those elections are held as well as possible.

The third point arises from my question yesterday. The Anglo-American proposals have been on the table for quite a long time. They have not got anywhere. It seems that they are really not the right proposals. I hope that they will not be treated as the only basis, or a rigid basis, for negotiation.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady asked whether any initiative was to be taken at present. The answer, I think, is that I took up at once the suggestion made by the spokesman for the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), on the prospects of calling a conference, and that initiative, alas, does not seem likely to bear fruit.

I have no immediate plans for further action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and representatives of the United States and other countries which are deeply concerned about the effects of this dispute are constantly in personal contact and will take any further steps that they think are appropriate, but I myself have no immediate plans to do anything.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady asked me about the attitude of the Patriotic Front. As I understand it, after Mr. Nkomo's conversations with my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey, Mr. Nkomo made it clear that he is no longer interested in talking to Mr. Smith about a political settlement on the basis of the Anglo-American proposals. He described the proposal for an all-party conference as a non-starter, and he said that the war has reached such a stage that there can only be a settlement by military means. If there are to be talks, they will have to be carried out by generals meeting on the battlefield. I think that that will give the right hon. Lady sufficient flavour of the attitude of Mr. Nkomo to show that there is no likelihood of her second proposition, which she hoped might be true, being in fact the case.

As for the Rhodesian elections, the nature of the constitution on which the campaign is now being conducted is such that it seems to hold little prospect of being acceptable to those who are fighting, certainly outside the country. In those circumstances, the elections that will be held on this matter are not likely to bring a peaceful solution. This is the tragedy of the matter.

Therefore, either we have to say that we shall desert the sixth principle—which the right hon. Lady does not say—because the conditions under which the elections are likely to be held are simply not tolerable in the sense of being likely to give a fair result, or we have to continue to work to bring these two groups together for the future of Southern Africa. That is certainly my view, and it is the view of President Carter. I do not wish to speak for the South African Government, but I believe that it would be not unfair to say that their view is that there must be an attempt to reconcile, even at this stage, those who are fighting outside and those who have formed the Government inside.

Thirdly, the Anglo-American proposals are the ones that hold the field. We have made it clear that if there were such a thing as an all-party conference, that is what we ourselves would put forward. But we have not been dogmatic in saying that. If in the course of a conference there were general agreement on modifications of those proposals, or on alternative proposals, since our main desire is to see that the principles are observed, and not any particular plan, we should be willing to modify it. But nobody has yet come forward with a more likely plan. This is the closest plan yet to anything that would be likely to reconcile the diametrically opposed interests there.

Mr. Speaker

Those who were here at Question Time will know that, on Question No. 3, when five Questions were answered together on this subject, I undertook to call the hon. Members who had tabled those Questions because they had no supplementary questions; they were awaiting the statement. I shall call them in due course.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Prime Minister aware that I returned only yesterday from a smaller but similar visit to that of the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) and that I sadly came to the same conclusion—that a peace conference of the kind proposed was unlikely to succeed? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I found general appreciation of the visit of the right hon. Member? Will he accept, though, that the security situation has deteriorated even in the four weeks since his visit, with the extension of martial law and the extension of the call-up to the age of 59, and that the suffering of the civilian population, which was pointed out to me, has considerably increased in the past few weeks?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is within the country a growing demand for some United Kingdom initiative simply because of a growing recognition that the internal settlement itself is not likely to succeed? Is he aware that I have passed on a number of proposals that were put to me? I am not canvassing them openly at the moment, but will the right hon. Gentleman not rule out the possibility of appointing a special representative who can permanently go around the parties in the hope of securing an opening in order to seek a reconciliation between these warring forces?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for confirming the conclusions of my right hon. Friend and for what he said about the appreciation of my right hon. Friend's visit. I do not wish to load encomiums on my right hon. Friend, but the independent reports that I have received since his return show that, as our envoy and the envoy of this House to all those countries, my right hon. Friend is regarded as a friend by those whom he visited and as a man whom they can trust. This in some ways applies to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. I would not hesitate to ask my right hon. Friend whether he would make his services available in certain circumstances to repeat such a visit or, indeed, to go there on a different basis. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We shall have to see what he has to say about that.

As for fresh initiatives, I accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said. There are clearly a number of areas to probe. The fact that nothing is announced publicly does not mean that nothing will take place. My right hon. Friend is probing a number of areas and will continue to do so. We do not intend just to sit and wait for this situation to develop, if there is anything that we can do, but there is no point in taking an initiative just for the sake of being able to say that one is doing something.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Since the compromises offered by Mr. Smith in the so-called internal settlement are now being broken, does my right hon. Friend agree that his and the Foreign Secretary's refusal to recognise the internal settlement has been fully justified by events?

The Prime Minister

I fear that it has been justified. The fears that we expressed at the time, I think, would not have been removed if that settlement had been recognised by the British Government. The situation would have continued to deteriorate, in our view, but that is a matter of judgment. However, rather than justifying ourselves before the bar of history, I prefer to look forward. I promise my hon. Friend and every other hon. Member that we shall not hesitate to intervene, privately or publicly, if the opportunity arises.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

As it is several weeks since the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) returned, will the Prime Minister explain why his Government have delayed so long in making a public statement, bearing in mind the fact that there has been considerable misunderstanding and uncertainty about British policy on Rhodesia in that country?

The Prime Minister

I was not aware that there had been any uncertainty, but the reason why I delayed publishing my right hon. Friend's report was that I wished to discuss it with President Carter first, as his ambassador had been party to the visit. We had that discussion in Guadeloupe and reached certain conclusions there. A report has been published as soon as the House reassembled. In certain circumstances, I would have made this statement on Monday.

Mr. Faulds

As the military situation worsens for the regime in Southern Rhodesia, and as military victory is likely for the Patriotic Front before many more months have passed, what contingency plans have the Government made for the time when Smith throws in the towel and returns responsibility to Her Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister

I do not want to go too far into the whole matter here, because that is more proper for the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, but my hon. Friend may take it that the mere surrender of sovereignty would not of itself alter the situation unless those who assumed the positions which are now held by Mr. Smith and his colleagues were willing to come to talks with the Patriotic Front and all those concerned, including, naturally, the British Government, to see whether a solution could be reached.

Mr. Tebbit

In view of the views of Mr. Nkomo that the Prime Minister quoted, what will Her Majesty's Government do to bring pressure to bear upon the Patriotic Front to change their minds and come to the negotiating table? In the event—which the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) foresaw—that the Rhodesian Government should ask for the inception of direct rule from Westminster over Rhodesia, what would the Government's reaction be?

The Prime Minister

The second question is hypothetical. I ought to go as far as I can to satisfy the House, but I do not think that I can add to the answer that I gave to the previous question. It would depend, obviously, upon the attitude of those who took over the internal responsibilities that have been exercised in Rhodesia. [Interruption.] No, Sir, with respect, this country has not exercised internal responsibilities for Rhodesia, I regret to say—certainly for 50 years, if ever. Perhaps if we had this situation would not have arisen, but it is no use treading that ground again. I must therefore adhere to my reply to the last question, that it would depend on the attitude of those who assumed internal responsibility from Mr. Smith.

Secondly, as regards the pressure that we put on the Patriotic Front, a number of neighbouring countries are directly affected by this struggle. The territory of Zambia is occupied in some ways—although I suppose that they would say that they were giving hospitality to the forces of Mr. Nkomo. That country clearly has a strong desire—and would therefore want, I believe—to see talks if they were possible. There are other countries, including South Africa, which in certain circumstances would want to see talks. The pressure, such as it is, will have to continue to be diplomatic.

Mr. Anderson

Have the Government made any appraisal of the effects on Rhodesia of the disruption of oil supplies from Iran to South Africa, in terms of the economic viability and hence of the negotiating strength of the present illegal regime in Rhodesia?

The Prime Minister

South Africa is continuing to supply oil to Rhodesia. It represents a very small percentage of the total use of South Africa's oil. If that were to be cut off, it would transform the situation.

Mr. Jessel

As the purpose of sanctions is to bring about majority rule and as Mr. Smith has accepted the principle of majority rule, what is the point of continuing the sanctions, which do not work anyway?

The Prime Minister

We had a debate on this immediately before Christmas. The House reached a conclusion and the Government have not any different advice to offer than the advice that was accepted by the House then.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

We must face the reality, however much some people may dislike it, that Mr. Smith has lost his gamble, that the internal settlement has failed and that the Patriotic Front will win. Since a great many people in Rhodesia—indeed, the majority, in my view—want the Patriotic Front to win, is it not a fact that the only serious option open to us is how we may make that transition as swift and painless as possible? Surely we should be putting all the pressure we can on Mr. Smith and his regime, and upon South Africa to put pressure on Smith, in order to convince him to surrender.

The Prime Minister

I take note of my hon. Friend's views on this matter, and the fact that I do not comment on them should not lead him to draw any particular conclusions. Mr. Smith himself has dismissed as "moonshine" suggestions that the regime should fight the guerrillas until it wins. Therefore he is coming to the conclusion, as many of us have done, that it will be a long, drawn-out struggle before either side eventually can say that it is the master of Rhodesia. The whole of British policy has been directed to ensuring that the country should not be reduced to a desert while the two sides struggle with each other.

Mr. Charles Morrison

In the end, surely there will have to be some sort of conference. Indeed, the Prime Minister said that a conference would be called if developments demanded it. Is it not the case that it would be easier to judge and influence the course of developments if we had a permanent representative in Rhodesia? Will the Prime Minister give further consideration to this?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly continue, with the Foreign Secretary, to give this matter consideration. The visit by my right hon. Friend has shown the advantages that can ensue. I ask the hon. Member to accept the assurance that, if it seems helpful, I shall have no doubts about asking that someone should go to Rhodesia.

Mr. Newens

What reports has my right hon. Friend had about recent incursions by the forces of the Smith regime into Mozambique? Does he agree that these incursions are to be deplored, not only because of the loss of life they cause or the fact that they make a settlement more difficult but because they will widen the area of conflict and are likely to increase tension between East and West?

The Prime Minister

I fear that incursions into other countries do have that result and, indeed, have influenced the lack of negotiation. These incursions should be called off—[HON. MEMBERS: "Both ways."] Yes, both ways. With respect, the question of who started these incursions is really rather less important than how we are going to end them. We are applying our minds to this. I hope that pressure can still be put on in due course—not necessarily next week—in order to bring the parties concerned not just to the conference table but to the conference table with a view to getting a settlement.

Mr. Amery

Does the Prime Minister agree that his statement today marks the end, for the time being at any rate, of the Anglo-American initiative? Does he further agree that the next concrete event to which we can look forward is the holding of elections in Rhodesia on 20th April? Will he consider discussing with the Executive Council in Salisbury ways by which those elections could be monitored by this country, so that this House can have some serious information about whether they are being freely and fairly conducted?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that this marks the end of the Anglo-American proposals. Mr. Nikomo said that, but others have not said it, and I would regret it if that were the considered judgment of the right hon. Member. There is nothing, so far, to take the place of those proposals that comes within a mile of meeting the views of those who are concerned.

On the monitoring of elections, I do not believe that that would assist us in the task of getting those who represent the Patriotic Front to the negotiating table. We must make up our minds which is our prime objective. Surely, in the interests of bringing peace to Rhodesia, it must be to get those representatives to the negotiating table.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Since Mr. Nkomo has declared that his intention is to get power in Rhodesia exclusively by military force, will the Government make it plain to him that they will not be his ally in any way in achieving that?

The Prime Minister

We are not the ally of Mr. Nkomo, or Mr. Mugabe, or Mr. Smith. We have a constitutional responsibility here which, alas, because of the history of this country, we have not carried out, and we are still in a position in which we must try to get the best results between them on the basis of the prin- ciples that have applied in bringing dependent territories to full independence. That is the attitude that we have adopted, and that does not make us anybody's ally. But, if we are to get a settlement, neither should it make us anybody's enemy if we want to negotiate.

Mr. Hooley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while the architect of the Rhodesia tragedy is Ian Smith, his indispensable accomplice throughout the whole rebellion has been South Africa, which has supplied oil and arms? Will he bring pressure upon South Africa, jointly with the five Western Powers, if necessary, to terminate the continued supply of arms, oil and economic aid to this illegal regime, because that is keeping the rebellion and the war going?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt that support from South Africa, and its modification from time to time, has produced changes in the attitude of Rhodesia. Therefore, South Africa carries a heavy responsibility in this matter because she has the power. What is taking place in Namibia shows that South Africa can be influenced and has been influenced by the work done by the five Commonwealth Foreign Secretaries, including my right hon. Friend, and it may be that a similar situation could arise in relation to Rhodesia. That is certainly one of the lines that we are keeping open.

Mr. Pym

The whole House is grateful to the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) for what he did, and it regrets very much that he had to report in the sense in which he did. Following that, it appears from the exchanges that have taken place today that the Government have no policy whatever towards Rhodesia at present. There appears to be a vacuum.

Are we not trying to secure the fulfilment of the fifth principle? Do we not require in Rhodesia free and fair elections? We agree, of course, that circumstances there have deteriorated to a point where that is very difficult. However, is it not still the objective? Is it not preliminary to a return to legality, international recognition and, therefore, independence? It does not appear from anything that the Prime Minister has said this afternoon that his Government have a policy or a plan to bring that about. Will the Prime Minister say whether that is so, and, if not, what his policy is and how he thinks he can achieve the objective that we share?

The Prime Minister

The position in Rhodesia now is that 90 per cent, of the country is lying under martial law. I really do not see how it is possible to talk about holding free, fair and unfettered elections in that kind of situation and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me on reflection. Although I am sure there will be a response, it is not for me to say what that response should be. Nevertheless, the right way to approach this is to persist with the basis of the Anglo-American plan. This still represents the policy that we believe should form the agenda when the parties concerned eventually all decide, as they must, to gather round the conference table. We shall be ready there. I suppose that they could fight on until the country is a desert, but that should not be a policy that the British Government should appear to encourage. Therefore, we must work to try to get them round the negotiating table.

I do not believe that any Conservative Member would dissent from that. They know that it is far better to try to get a peaceful settlement than to allow the fighting to go on. [HON. MEMBERS: "What are the Government doing about it?"] I will not answer that question. I do not know what the Opposition would do, apart from sending in the Brigade of Guards.

We have to continue with the diplomatic action, some of which must be carried out privately and cannot always be revealed at the time it is undertaken.

Mr. loan Evans

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that hon. Members on the Government side agree that he was right to delay publication of the report until the House resumed, because it was proper that the report should not be issued until he could be questioned in the House? In his discussions with President Carter about new initiatives, what consideration will be given to steps against South Africa? The key to the Rhodesian problem is that Rhodesia has been sustained by South Africa and that, if nothing is done immediately, pressure is likely to build up in the United Nations for sanctions to be taken against South Africa itself.

The Prime Minister

It is important to ensure that the United States is ready to work with us. That is one reason why the publication of my right hon. Friend's report was delayed. I am glad to confirm that the United States Administration and President Carter personally are fully ready to work in partnership to try to solve this problem. The United States and South Africa also have special connections, and action in relation to South Africa can be taken much better in conjunction with the United States than separately from them. There may be a possibility of progress along those lines.

Mr. Wall

I appreciate the Prime Minister's genuine interest in Rhodesia, but is he not now contracting out? May I press him further about the appointment of an observer in Salisbury? Does he agree that the weakness of the internal settlement has largely been due to the fact that the West refused to back it? If that is repeated when an African majority Government is elected in April, the inevitable result will be a civil war between the Matabele and the Mashona.

The Prime Minister

I have already answered the question about an observer in Salisbury. We have been over the hon. Gentleman's second question on a number of occasions and he knows that we do not share his view.

Mr. Lee

My right hon. Friend earlier gave a list of non-allies. Does he agree that Zambia, at least, is an ally that we should most warmly cultivate, and that we should do everything we can to provide any military assistance that President Kaunda may require, because as long as Smith is in power there will be a continuing danger of incursions into Zambia by the forces of Smith's so-called Government?

The Prime Minister

Zambia needs all the assistance and help that we can give. It has been a force for stability in Southern Africa. Not only is Zambia a member of the Commonwealth; President Kaunda has the deepest ties with this country, and we shall certainly give Zambia all the support we can.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am prepared to call three more hon. Members from the Opposition Benches in view of their wide interest in this matter, but we have three applications under Standing Order No. 9 to follow before we get on to the main business of the day. I try to do this for both sides of the House on different occasions, in the spirit of fair play.

Sir Frederic Bennett

Various remarks have been made about the impact of South Africa's altering its policies for supplying Rhodesia. Is it not a fact that since the reopening of the border with Zambia a large amount of the essential supplies received by Zambia come through Rhodesia from South Africa? Would a blockade such as that suggested by the Prime Minister not only possibly transform the situation in Rhodesia but seriously damage the Zambian economy? If the Prime Minister does not believe what I say, perhaps he would like to consult the Zambian Government on the matter.

The Prime Minister

I am not aware that any of my comments could have led to that question, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Further to the three valid points made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, will the Prime Minister give serious consideration to sending a permanent official or even a substantial presence to Salisbury so that the British, with our expertise, could help the Rhodesians draw up an electoral register and monitor and supervise the April elections? Does he agree that the election in April will be the best way of gauging how many people in Rhodesia—and they are the people about whom we are concerned—support the constitution being put forward by the interim Government and the Executive?

The Prime Minister

I have already answered the question about an observer and I have nothing to add to my reply. As for giving electoral advice, I do not believe that that would be helpful to our role in the present situation. Mr. Smith's Administration has not shown any desire to accept the advice that we have given him over a long period on some of these matters. If he had, I doubt that we would be in the present position.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

In the absence of a permanent commission and in the light of the Prime Minister's refusal to consider the appointment of a mission to oversee the elections and report on them, how does the right hon. Gentleman propose to assess the results of the elections and their implication for future Government policy?

The Prime Minister

We shall assess the results in the same way as every other Administration will assess them When they come, we shall no doubt have full reports on them.