HC Deb 13 May 1983 vol 42 cc1043-62

12.2 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I make no apology for returning yet again to the subject of the sinking of the Belgrano. I am particularly glad that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) has said that he wishes to take part in the debate, because for the past 13 months his contributions have been serious and heavyweight, albeit from a very different point of view.

In The Times Literary Supplement this morning, a two-page review of Falklands books ends with the words: Max Hastings quotes a soldier saying of the Falklands 'if they are worth dying for they have got to be worth keeping', but only now do the implications of keeping them become clear. Max Hastings sang a different tune in The Standard last month: Nobody least of all the Falkland Islanders themselves believe that Britain can continue to defend them with a full task force in perpetuity". So Hastings is one of many who is beginning to change his mind. The review ends: Those who supported the war ask what the consequences for England and the world would have been if Mrs. Thatcher's Government had given in to illegality and appeased the aggressors, questions of which their nature cannot be answered". Those who opposed the war have their own questions which will become more and more insistent with time. A brilliant and daring campaign whose record will always be stirring was fought to reconquer a bleak and barren spot in the ocean of which no use could be made unless it were a place of exile for the hypocrites of patriotism. It would be good if the world were in some measure a better place for last year's war. That is an imponderable. What seems more likely is that the British people and Government may yet find themselves saying with Johnson May my country never be cursed with such another conquest". I say that because, whether we like it or not, these questions will not go away.

If there are two sides to the argument summed up by The Times Literary Supplement today, I shall place the hon. Member for Sutton on the other side of this serious argument. However, it would be churlish of me —whatever the hon. Gentleman may have said last night —not to acknowledge that I have greatly inconvenienced the Minister and, no doubt, his officials. I hope that the inconvenience is not too great.

The Minister asked for longer to reply last night. In today's debate he has ample opportunity. If this debate needed any justification, it is that last night's debate at least elicited more new information. Indeed, every time a Minister says more, he raises more real—not trifling or pernickety—questions. For example, it was not known until last night—and I quote from last night's Hansard: The result of those conversations was telegraphed to London at 22.15 GMT"— I should point out that that is 23.15–11.15 British summer time— over three hours after the attack on the Belgrano. It could not be telegraphed before, because it was not possible to get a clear and concise statement before that time of what was in the air". That is a completely new fact. In a moment I shall address myself to the obvious questions about how on earth it was that, having sent the Foreign Secretary to Washington, the Government did not at least check with him before embarking on this cataclysmic act, predictable and predicted, foreseeable and foreseen, of sinking the Belgrano.

I do not in any way criticise Hansard, who took very accurately the speech that I made last night, but I want to put in context one change of sense. I asked, and I repeat: What we really must establish is the gap, in technical terms, between the sending of the message to Conqueror and its time of reception. At what time did the captain of Conqueror receive the order to sink the Belgrano'? Surely that question can be answered this morning. Surely, also, the next question that I asked can be answered this morning: How continuously well informed were the authorisers of the sinking? What was the timing of the despatch of the authorisation to fire the torpedo in relation to any incoming news that agreement was being reached on the basis formulated by the Peruvian Government and that it was imminent? The correction comes now: If the Government did not know that agreement was imminent and sent instructions, I concede it is different from sending instructions, I concede it is different from sending instructions with the knowledge that the agreement was imminent. The timing in this matter is important. I asked the Government when they heard that agreement was close and what was the timing in relation to the despatch of the authorisation to sink and whether that authorisation was given before or after it was known that the Peruvian agreement was so close — [Official Report, 12 May 1983; Vol. 42, c. 1009–11.] Those questions are repeated, and I hope that we shall have detailed answers.

I believe that there is one question above all others to which the House must now address itself. Before taking so drastic a step as sinking the Belgrano, which had a crew of more than 1,000 and where inevitably there would be loss of life in those waters, why was no check made with the Foreign Secretary in Washington and New York and why was no check made with the Government of the United States of America, because their hemispheric relations would be affected by such an action?

It seems only elementary, given what this Government are asking the Americans to do about cruise, Pershing and Trident missiles—and it happens that I do not go along with it — given their view of the United States of America and the Prime Minister's own personal relationships with President Reagan and knowing their concern, at least to have asked the Americans. Not checking finally with the Foreign Secretary is mind-boggling, because the stated reason for the Foreign Secretary going to Washington was to get peace.

I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary regarded it as a cynical negotiaton or a journey for the sake of pretence. In all our 20 years membership of the House, I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman has ever gone in for that kind of cynical charade. But there is supporting evidence for what I say. On that Sunday, having arrived earlier in Washington, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that there would be no bombs, no attack and no action. He said specifically on that Sunday that the attack the day before with cluster bombs on Port Stanley had been to bring the seriousness of our purpose to the attention of the Argentines and to concentrate the minds of the Argentine authorities.

In those circumstances and against that scenario, how can it possibly be convincing that it was done for military reasons if the Foreign Secretary in that negotiating position in America was not checked with?

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

Is not my hon. Friend being too charitable to the Foreign Secretary? Surely if the right hon. Gentleman was there, it was his prime responsibility to report back post haste to the War Cabinet that a settlement of some kind was in the air. Perhaps the War Cabinet quite reasonably assumed that if peace proposals were coming forward through the Americans, the Foreign Secretary's first action would be to transmit them within minutes and not, as we now learn, after many, many hours.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend is right to say "many, many hours." At least five and probably six and a half hours elapsed. Checking yet again this morning, I understand that the Foreign Secretary was with Al Haig over the breakfast period. I am not talking about the toast and marmalade, but from early that Sunday morning the right hon. Gentleman and Al Haig were together. This is established fact.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Has the hon. Gentleman heard from either the Americans or the Argentines whether the Argentine Government had told the American Government that there would be no attack or physical threat to the British forces in the South Atlantic while the Foreign Secretary was in the United States of America?

Mr. Dalyell

There was constant contact between the Argentine Government and the Americans over this period, and there is no doubt that Haig and other officers of the American Government were in constant touch with the Argentines. If I am asked whether I can produce what transpired between them, the answer is no, because that is an inter-governmental relationship.

Dr. Mawhinney

Is it not the case, therefore, that the British Government faced a position in which there was no guarantees on the table for the safety of British forces in the South Atlantic? If that is the case, as I think implicitly the hon. Gentleman is saying, is not that a factor which so far he has forgotten to add to the equation that he is presenting to the House?

Mr. Dalyell

I do not think that it is a factor. I went into these matters in great detail last night and will do so again. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which I take seriously, I say simply that at the time the Belgrano was sunk she was going towards her home port of Ushuaia and the entrance to the Strait of Magellan on a 280-degree course. I tell the hon. Gentleman with a certain friendliness that if he wants to establish his point he should press his Ministers for that which they have not produced in all these months, which is the course over the previous 24 or 48 hours of the Belgrano and her escorts. If that course had been made known, obviously it would affect the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

The 280-degree course which the hon.Gentleman cites frequently does not lead to Ushuaia. It leads to a point some 60 or 70 miles north of that position. In fact, the inference was drawn quite properly that it was circumnavigation rather than a direct course to Ushuaia.

Mr. Dalyell

I checked the co-ordinates and had them checked by others. The course that I described takes us to the entrance to the Strait of Magellan.

I return to a point made in last night's debate by the Minister. He described me as speaking yet again every time a journalist eggs him on."—[Official Report, 12 May 1983; Vol. 42, c. 1011.] I must make one matter clear in a personal sense. In all this, I cannot remember taking the initiative in approaching any journalist. The truth is that a large number of journalists have approached me. Of course, when I am approached by a member of the Lobby of the House in the first instance, yes, I keep up the relationship if that journalist is interested. But I do not think that there is any member of the Lobby of the House of Commons who can say that on this subject of the Falklands he did not ask me first. In fact there has been no contact with certain papers which do not care for my point of view.

I can give a long list of discriminating and serious journalists who have approached me, and it is fair to say that I have gone back to them having been approached in the first instance. But I did not approach George Carey of "Panorama", Rodney Cowton of The Times, Paul Foot, Arthur Cavshon of AT, Andrew Graham-Youll of The Guardian, Ted Harrison of the BBC, Steve Hewlett of Channel Four, Norman Kirkham of the Sunday Telegraph, Gerald Morgan Grenville, Chris Mullin of Tribune, Richard Norton Taylor of The Guardian, John Pilger of the Daily Mirror, George Rosie of The Sunday Times, Germon Sopena from Argentina, John Wear, nor Andrew Wilson of The Observer. On each occasion, the initial approach was made by a serious journalist, and I do not think they can all be brushed aside. As I say, the parliamentary lobby is made up of discriminating people, and I do not think that it can really be said that I am likely to be egged on in this way. I suggest that that is not the way to put it.

Another matter ought to be made clear. Last night the impresson was given that here was a weird eccentric man going on and on about this subject. Not all my colleagues were here last night and I must say that 155 Labour Members of Parliament signed early-day motion 480 asking for an inquiry into the circumstances of the sinking of the General Belgrano along the lines of that into the Jameson raid. I do not say that that is the most perfect comparison. I should not like to be pressed by the hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on the history of Joseph Chamberlain and the Jameson raid, but it is the nearest analogy. The inquiry into the Dardenelles has certain disadvantages, as do the inquiries into the Mesopotamia and the Crimean war, but I believe that there should be some kind of inquiry. Some of my most tough-minded parliamentary colleagues have signed that early-day motion. They are Members who do not sign any old motion that is shoved in front of their noses.

It is also said that I am obsessed by the Belgrano. It is because in the sinking of the Belgrano that I believe the good name of Britain has been besmirched that I raise the matter. When history comes to be written the sinking of the Belgrano will be seen as a dreadful episode in our history. I believe that it was no accident that the early-day motion was entitled Conduct of the Prime Minister because I believe that she has shown disgraceful, personal conduct. If I am accused of being over-personal, I must draw attention to the astonishing fact given by Hastings and Jenkins that from 2 April until 5 May — 33 days—the Prime Minister did not call a full meeting of her Cabinet on the Falklands. It was only after the attack on the Sheffield that she had to go to the Cabinet for endorsement. So I am afraid that this is a very personalised situation. All that is in me—this is why I go on about it —is outraged by the fact that she should have got away with it for so long. From February 1982 she has behaved wickedly about the Falklands issue, and the Belgrano is but one tenth of the iceberg of infamy.

I refer particularly to question 4 yesterday. The Prime Minister, in reply to my question, said: The hon. Gentleman's allegations are utterly ridiculous. The Belgrano was sunk for military reasons and the threat was real. I strongly dispute that statement. The Prime Minister continued: News of the Peruvian proposals did not reach London until after the attack. That begs many questions about the relationship with her Foreign Secretary. She continued. The record shows that our efforts to reach a negotiated settlement continued until 17 May, 15 days after the sinking of the Belgrano on 2 May."—[Official Report, 12 May 1983; Vol. 42, c. 922.] That is technically true but, of course, once the Belgrano had been sunk it was an entirely different ball game because the whole war had moved from a basically non-fighting war into a completely different area. I believe that after the torpedo was launched, the chances of a negotiated settlement had been transformed.

The Prime Minister's second statement is astonishing and it must be examined because if it is true it implies that the Foreign Secretary should resign forthwith for dereliction of duty and that heads should roll in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for incompetence. As I have said, I have been a defender of the Foreign Office and I do not believe that it was incompetent. As I said yesterday, and have said many times previously, the Foreign Office officials are not incompetent, certainly not in this situation, where they did their duty.

Mr. Tilley

Does my hon. Friend agree that on the question raised by that second statement about the timing of the knowledge reaching London, in her remarks the Prime Minister established a six-hour credibility gap, but, in his remarks later in the evening, the Minister of State established that it was nearer to nine or 10 hours before London was informed late in the evening of what the Foreign Secretary had known at breakfast time. Is not the credibility gap widening rather than narrowing.

Mr. Dalyell

Yes. In addition, Paul Foot went through the Reuters telegrams and discovered that on 3 May at 10.9 am the Downing Street spokesman was distraining all knowledge of the negotiations, which strengthens my hon. Friend's point.

The Prime Minister's third point shows what a limited person she is. The idea that negotiations could go on meaningfully reveals someone who does not understand much about South Americans and less about human nature among foreigners. I campaign because at home she appeals to the worst jingoistic elements of the English. I am entitled to say that in view of the amendment to the motion on the conduct of the Prime Minister. The bravery of the armed forces has never been in dispute, but anybody who reads the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) will see exactly what I am getting at.

In dealing with the military threat, I want to refer to the interview with Lord Lewin on 30 January. It is curious that in a reference on 2 May last year to the sinking of the Belgrano, the chief of staff said that the vessel was sailing towards the task force whereas the Ministry of Defence has admitted that it was sailing away from the task force and towards Argentina on a 280 degree course. Lord Lewin said that it was a threat to the task force whereas in reality it was an obsolete status symbol whose guns had a range of seven miles less than the Exocets fitted to the 15 ships of the task force. He said that Argentina had escalated the conflict the previous day with an air attack on task force ships whereas that attack, which injured one sailor, was in response to Vulcan and Sea Harrier attacks and a substantial naval gunnery bombardment of the Stanley airbase earlier in the day which killed 19 and injured 37 Argentines.

Lord Lewin claimed that the General Belgrano and its escorts represented one part of a co-ordinated attack on the task force which also involved Argentina's only aircraft carrier, whereas repeated parliamentary questions seeking information on this attack have been met with the response that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the extent of the Government's knowledge of Argentine naval activity.

In addition to Lord Lewin's reasons, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces stated Concerned that HMS "Conqueror" might lose the 'General Belgrano" as she ran over the shallow water of th Burdwood Bank, the task force commander sought and obtained a change in the rules of engagement."—[Official Report, 29 November 1982; Vol. 33, c. 104.] When it was sunk the General Belgrano was 45 miles outside of the Burdwood bank, known depth 25 fathoms, and heading away from the bank towards its home port.

Is it true that the submarines were directly responsible to Northwood and were not at that time under the control of the task force commander? My understanding is that the submarines operated direct from Northwood. The sinking of the General Belgrano is seen as one of the pivotal events of the Falklands war. As we are faced with a tissue of contradiction from Government sources, should there not be a public inquiry? The evidence goes against the Prime Minister's assertion that the sinking of the General Belgrano took place for military reasons. Do the Government still maintain that HMS Conqueror first contacted the General Belgrano on 2 May? An inquiry should examine people such as Commander Wredford-Brown, Surgeon-Commander MacDonald and Petty Officers Billy Guinea and Billy Budding. As a result of talking to two members of the crew of HMS Conqueror, it became clear that the General Belgrano was detected not on 2 May but on 1 May. That information has not just arisen from my gossiping with the crew. It is in the Sunday Times book and in the book by Hastings and Jenkins. Furthermore, it is accepted in the corpus of knowledge. Do the Government still maintain that the Belgrano was detected on 2 May, because they are now saying that the Belgrano was detected some hours earlier. On 4 and 5 May, the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), made clear that the Belgrano had been initially detected at 8 o'clock London time on 2 May. The radio programme "The World at One" recently broadcast that clip in Mr. Ted Harrison's programme.

I have received a letter from a relative of a member of the crew of HMS Conqueror asking if I undersood how exhausted those boys were when they returned and that they had, naturally been extremely frightened and had a rough time. I understand all of that. I am not criticising the crew or our service men. I am criticising the political direction of the war. Was the authorisation to sink Belgrano given before or after it was known that peace was in the bag? My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has referred to telegrams that are printed in the New Statesman. The telegrams are important and I will refer to them. Lima, May 2, Reuter — Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry said today that peace negotiations between Argentina and Britain were under way and that both countries had agreed in principle to cease hostilities. He was speaking at a press conference here on the efforts to end the fighting between Britain and Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands. That telegram was sent at 00.30 hours.

The next telegram reads: 0045: Falklands—Belaunde 2 Lima. President Belaunde said that both parties would be willing to accept peace proposala set out by Secretary of State Alexander Haigh who conducted a peace shuttle mission between London and Buenos Aires before fighting broke out. The President said that he could not go into further details but added: negotiations are under way and that in a short while total peace can be established in the South Atlantic and there is a will on both sides to cease hostilities. The next telegram reads: 0054: Falklands—Belaunde 3 Lima. As President Belaunde made his announcement Argentina's ruling miltary junta are meeting in Buenos Aires to discuss the Falklands crisis. 0109: Falklands — Belaunde 3A Lima: In London, a spokesman for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's office said he knew nothing of the reported negotiations or agreement in principle. As the Foreign Secretary was in America doing precisely that and was presumably in contact with ambassador Charles Wallace in Peru — a very able diplomat—it is mind-boggling and astonishing that such statements can be made. Again— 0123: Falklands — Belaunde: President Belaunde said Argentina and Britain were studying a seven-point peace plan drawn up by Mr. Haig. He said that at present General Galtieri was discussing this with Argentine leaders, adding: 'If this effort fails it will be a tragedy for Latin America and perhaps for the world."' once more— 0158 … snap: London, May 3, Reuter … A British submarine torpedoed the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the South Atlantic last night, the British defence ministry said today. The cruiser was believed to have been severely damaged, the Ministry said. Given what was going on, how could such an order have been given by people seriously interested in peace? If the spokesman was inaccurate or did not know, we should be told about that. The questions that I asked yesterday as reported in col. 109 of Hansard are important and fit into the argument. We need a point by point denial and not the blanket denial that we received last night. Did the Foreign Secretary have a working breakfast with Al Haig in Washington? Do the Government deny—I have cross-checked this again—the statement that Peter Snow made on 29 April? I reiterate that I am talking about journalists who are very careful. The Newsnight transcript states: At breakfast time in Washington Haig and Pym had a long meeting. Did they or did they not have a long meeting? The transcript continues: Our American source tells us that it was now clear to Haig that Mr. Pym wanted a settlement"— I do not doubt that for a moment— and was working hard for it"— I do not doubt that either.

We're told that Mr. Haig personally phoned Mrs. Thatcher. Is that accurate or inaccurate?

So, according to the Peruvians and the Americans Britain was aware—at the highest level—of all that had developed at the time they were getting up from lunch at Chequers Is that accurate or inaccurate? The transcript continues: now what no-one is telling us is exactly when the war cabinet at Chequers made its decision to give the Navy the green light for the Conqueror to attack the Belgrano. Perhaps we could have an answer to that. The transcript goes on: whether or not the full reported details of President Galtieri's alleged acceptance of the plan were known to Mrs. Thatcher when she finally said Yes to Commander Wredford Brown there should have been time to attempt to call the mission off in the intervening five hours. If there was no contact, why did not the whole Foreign Office machine at least contact the Foreign Secretary to find out what he was up to in America? That is the astonishing thing. Yesterday I quoted the reaction of Sir Nicholas Henderson, who went white when he heard what had happened to the Belgrano. People are beginning to talk and we should establish why consultation did not take place with his own boss. Why did not consultations take place with the Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Parsons, Sir Nicholas Henderson and our ambassador in Lima over that crucial decision? By what means did the Peruvian proposals reach London, and was the ambassador in Lima negotiating with the Government of Peru with the approval of Her Majesty's Government before any information on those proposals reached London?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

The answer will be "By telegram", and "no".

Mr. Dalyell

In that case, I shall be interested to see what Mr. Paul Foot writes about his interviews in Lima with senior officials and Ministers of the Peruvian Foreign Office. The implications of the Minister's "no" is that Mr. Arias Stella and a number of senior people in Lima, Mr. Wagner and others, are not telling the truth.

The implication also is that in some sense the ambassador was acting off his own bat in Lima.

Mr. Onlsow


Mr. Dalyell

I hope that that comment goes into the record, because it is a matter that must be pursued.

Had all the Foreign Secretary's activities gone on unbeknown to the Prime Minister? is that what we are expected to believe? As I have said, it is all very well saying, as the Minister did last night, that I am "egged on" by journalists, but Mr. Foot has been to the place where the information comes from. That is why I must have a point-by-point reply. He says in his researched article: The Belaunde proposals, it is safe to conclude, were taken seriously by both sides. They were drawn up into a treaty which was expected to be signed. And they were put to flight by the sinking of the Belgrano. Is it said that there were no proposals? Senor Arias Stella, who is a fellow of the Royal Society of Pathologists in London and has no anti-British feeling, generously ascribes the Belgrano sinking to military accident. He told me that he and all his colleagues had assumed that some hothead submarine commander had let fly at the cruiser without any idea of the state of negotiations in Lima, Buenos Aires and Washington. This has been indignantly denied by the submarine commander himself. He insists he received clear orders to sink the cruiser."— and said so when he returned to Faslane on 5 July.

Mr. Foot continues: Nor have Tory Ministers been slow to claim their part in the action. Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons on 4 May last year: 'With regard to that particular event [the sinking of the Belgrano] and all events other than the mere tactical ones in the South Atlantic, the task force clearly is and was under political control.' What was the control? We have to be clear about this. When the order was given to the submarine commander to fire the torpedo, who was in control?

Mr. Foot continues: A few minutes later, Nott, the Defence Secretary, was asked by Willie Hamilton: 'Will the Minister confirm … that the decision to launch the torpedoes was a political decision—in other words, it was made either by the Prime Minister or by the Rt. Hon. gentleman, or by both together? Or was it made by an admiral on the spot?' Nott replied, rather evasively: 'The overall political control remains with the government.' There the matter rested until last October, when a mysterious leak to the newspapers (printed in all of them) 'revealed' that the decision to sink the Belgrano had been taken by the 'war cabinet' (minus Pym) in pre-lunch discussions with the service chiefs on 2 May. This version comes out in The Battle for the Falklands by Simon Jenkins and Max Hastings as follows: 'Sir Terence Lewin went to the war cabinet meeting at Chequers on the morning of Sunday 2 May to request permission under the rules of engagement to sink the General Belgrano some 40 miles South West of the total exclusion zone.' After some discussion, the book goes on: `No Minister demurred. The order was issued before lunch.' One difficulty about this is that the cruiser was not actually sunk until about eight hours afterwards between 3 and 4 pm Argentine time—8 and 9 pm GMT. Even given the difficulties of contact with a submerged submarine, this does seem a huge time gap. I refer again to the interview given by Lewin on "The World at One" on 30 January when he said distinctly that there were no difficulties at that time in contacting the submarine. He made that clear in that interview and it is on the record.

Foot states: Another problem is that the war cabinet meeting with the defence chiefs was not just a discussion about the Belgrano. It was, as reported in the newspapers on 4 May, a full-scale assessment of the state of the war, which went on for four hours. At any rate, the direct responsibility of Thatcher, Whitelaw, Nott and Parkinson for the Belgrano sinking has never been denied. The question then arises: how much did they know of the progress of the Peruvian peace talks? That is a question which must be asked. What was known at Chequers about the progress of the talks?

Paul Foot states: The seven-point plan had been agreed between Haig and Belaunde the previous night (in Britain, the early hours of the morning). Was it conveyed to Chequers that night? Did the War Cabinet meeting not have before it 'the latest from Francis in Washington'?"— something must be explained about the contacts between the war cabinet and the Foreign Secretary.

Even if they did not, they knew that Pym had gone to Washington in a last bid for peace"— What on earth was the Foreign Secretary doing there if he was not taking part in major negotiations? That is the criminal part of not contacting him before pressing the trigger— However hopeless such a mission seemed in the eyes of the hawks in the war cabinet (and by all accounts they were all hawks except Pym), they knew that the armed forces could not be seen to cut the ground from under the Foreign Secretary's feet."— I believe that the ground was cut from under the Foreign Secretary's feet—and how.

On arrival in Washington the previous evening, Mr. Pym gave an impromptu press conference.

Mr. Onslow

It is obliging of the hon. Gentleman to read out all the quotes that he read into Hansard yesterday evening, but I am not sure that it is necessary for him to repeat himself at such tedious length.

Mr. Dalyell

I take that intervention calmly. I hope that it means that the questions that appear in yesterday's Hansard will be answered at length. The parliamentary opportunity exists for a proper answer.

I put it to the Minister that had there been a convincing answer to all this it would have been sensible to give it before now. Whatever others may say, my track record is that if I am given convincing answers I am man enough to acknowledge that. I have done so in the past on a number of subjects.

Let the Minister of State reflect on whether, if I had merely been repeating questions that did not deserve an answer, there would have been so much interest from many other serious people. I am not asking questions only for myself; I am asking questions for a largish and growing section of the community who want to know how their country became involved in such an episode. Foot states that the Foreign Secretary explained that the attacks on the Falklands that day had been intended to concentrate the Argentines' mind on a peaceful settlement. Nicholas Ashford reported in The Times on 2 May that the right hon. Gentleman said: No further military action is envisaged at the moment, except to keep the exclusion zone secure. Foot says that This pledge was kept — right up to the sinking of the Belgrano. At the very least, then the Cabinet that Sunday morning knew that Pym was trying for peace and that a period of calm was vital if he was seen to be trying. That is the background, apparently, in which they gave the order to attack a ship on the high seas, with a complement of 1,000 men, when it was outside the war zone that they themselves had designated. I am not greatly impressed by what the Minister said last night about generalised warnings. Why establish a zone unless action will be taken only inside it?

Foot continued: As the afternoon and evening went on, however, Mrs. Thatcher and those Ministers who stayed in contact can have been left in no doubt as to the progress of the Peruvian peace talks. By noon US time, 5pm GMT, after all, the seven-point plan had been agreed between Belaunde, Haig and Galtieri. Even before he sat down to lunch wih Haig, Francis Pym must have known about this, and expressed his own agreement. He must, too, have conveyed it back to Chequers.

Mr. Alan Clark

He had not. The evidence of Senor Stella, upon which the hon. Gentleman relies, is that that had not been agreed. Senor Stella plainly said that there were a number of areas upon which agreement had not been reached. He has given evidence publicly that there were a number of points that had to be referred to the junta. It was no different from all its predecessors in negotiating terms.

Mr. Dalyell

If that is so, why is there no record of contact between the Foreign Secretary in Washington and Ministers in London, albeit it was a Sunday? When the hon. Gentleman, who is well informed and has studied this matter seriously, asks such questions, they beg more questions. How was there an information gap, given that the Foreign Secretary's stated purpose was to seek peace in Washington? I do not believe that it was a cynical move, because I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary would have been party to such a move. Why was it all not reported?

Foot claims that the Foreign Secretary must have conveyed the information back to Chequers. Foot stated: If the order to sink had in fact been given at lunchtime, there was still time to countermand the order, or to try to countermand it. For the Belgrano was not sunk until three hours later. I quote from page 9 of the transcript of 30 January. Christopher Lee, the BBC correspondent, asked whether approval was immediately forthcoming. Lewin said: Yes, immediately forthcoming and was taken with legal advice in terms of international law and we were within international law and the attack was justified under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which permits you to take action in your own self-defence. Lee asked: From the time that the Conqueror sighted the Belgrano to the time that it sank the Belgrano, how long did it take? Lewin answered: A matter of hours. Communications with nuclear submarines are not continuous and 100 per cent., because this would restrict the nuclear submarine's operations. But on this occasion, the communications worked very quickly. That was the view of the chief of staff, not mine.

The Government do not deny that they were prepared to accept the Belaunde proposals. Foot claims: The official Foreign Office document, 'The Falkland Islands; negotiations for a Peaceful Settlement', published on 20 May last year, says: 'The next stage of the negotiations was on proposals originally advanced by President Belaunde of Peru and modified in consultations between him and the United States Secretary of State … Britain was willing to accept the final version of these proposals for an interim agreement, but Argentina rejected it.' The document does not point out that Argentina rejected it under the most savage provocation imaginable, namely, the sinking of the Belgrano.

Mr. Onslow

That is not true.

Mr. Dalyell

If it is not true, the Minister must spell out why. Will the Minister make a note of that and add to our knowledge?

If the interim agreement had come into force, what would have happened? All forces would have been withdrawn: 1,000 lives and several thousand million pounds would have been saved; the British forces would have left the Falklands for the time being; and a settlement respecting the needs of the islanders would probably have been reached. Not everyone would have been satisfied, but at least the Falkland Islands would have had a future as a place where people live and work rather than as a military bunker.

The only organisation seriously undermined by a settlement would have been the British Conservative party. Its press and its Right wing would have been let off the leash. Only war and conquest would have satisfied them. For the Iron Lady, donning the ill-fitting garment of peace and compromise, the future would have been bleak indeed.

That is why the details must be examined in depth. I repeat that the action, like so many other actions throughout the Falklands campaign, was taken on the basis, not of military necessity, but of political necessity. The threat was not to the task force but to the Prime Minister's position.

Now we are left in an appalling position. Our country is trapped. Sooner or later we shall have to negotiate. Today we hear news that the Rev. David Shepherd, the bishop of Liverpool, has come back to say that there are two sides to the case. The difficulty is that those who put forward views may go away, but the questions themselves will not go away. Time is not on our side, and sooner than we think we shall have to negotiate it. It is better to negotiate in the knowledge of the truth of what happened.

The Belgrano is just one of the tips of the iceberg. I wonder why on the evening of 7–8 April, five days before the submarine spy could have got there and, as the American Secretary of State was in midair on his way to see her about peace the British Prime Minister decided to impose a military exclusion zone. Anyone concerned about peace would not have acted in such a pre-emptive way. Indeed, if one refers to the Franks committee report, one realises that we must have military contingency plans. It is becoming clearer and clearer that orders were placed for explosives in the shipyards of the Tyne as far back as February. It is now clear that the Argentine junta decided to invade on 12 January. It is also clear that our MI6 performed properly. How could this country have gone on so long with that knowledge without saying to Argentina, "If you invade we will react"? In life, it is quite acceptable to take a hard line and then compromise. To start with a soft position and then take hard action is utterly unacceptable.

The Government would be well advised to give a great deal more information as soon as possible. People are beginning to talk. I wonder what the memoirs that Al Haig is busy writing will reveal. I also wonder what the memoirs of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) will reveal. They will be revealing because the right hon. Member for Sidcup had plenty to say during the first week in May about the Peruvian peace proposals and asked in what respect they were unacceptable. Indeed, he went on television to make that point at some length.

When the history of this affair is written, complexities about the internal domestic politics of the Conservative party will be revealed. It will reveal the Prime Minister's worries about her Foreign Secretary's old loyalty to the right hon. Member for Sidcup. That was right as he was the right hon. Gentleman's Chief Whip. I believe that the right hon. Member for Sidcup and the then Foreign Secretary would have done the right thing. It is quite clear that no British Prime Minister since Churchill, and probably not Churchill, would have acted as has the present Prime Minister on many occasions throughout the crisis. That is why so much of what I have said about the Prime Minister's conduct is personalised.

1.2 pm

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) opened and concluded his speech with the familiar cry that we must negotiate. We all know what he means by that. He means that we must give up the Falkland Islands to Argentina. If he had been to Argentina, he would know that they simply want to forget about the whole affair. They hate the subject and want to put it at the back of their minds. All of the literature, the television shows, the displays and the discussions that have emerged since the war display a mawkish introspection and an exculpatory quality.

The nearest comparison that I can make is with the American literature that swamped the United States for three of four years after that country had withdrawn from Vietnam. It is impossible to get away from the impression that the Argentines feel a sense of shame and humiliation and are trying to put the affair at the back of their minds. They are no more likely to attack the Malvinas—they simply occupied them last time — than is the United States to send its forces back to Saigon. It is not realistic to suppose that Argentina will embark on a head-on confrontation in the next 20 years. The hon. Member for West Lothian makes our flesh creep on this subject. If he studied Argentine literature such as "Los Chicos de la Guerra", which has come out since the war, he would realise the truth of what I have said.

Before I deal with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's triangular argument, I must point out that he is keeping rather bad company. He quoted Paul Foot at great length. Paul Foot and others like him, such as Anthony Barnett, and those on the extreme Left who are convinced Marxists, hate their country so much that they will even take sides with President Reagan's favourite hit-man in that hemisphere—President Galtieri. It is an extraordinary paradox that the far left and Marxists are so resentful of the military triumph and the accretion of prestige that came to Britain out of the Falklands that they will gang up with Jeane Kirkpatrik, the extreme oppressive Right in the State Department, and the private armies and repressive gangsters of South America, and recommend actions and policies that would keep them in power. However, they do not welcome actions and policies that would unseat them.

I move on to the hon. Gentleman's arguments, if one can call them that. We must admire him, because he has created an enormous artefact, part substance, part imagination and part inference feeding on supposition and on instinct. It has the tiresome quality of a show that is sometimes generated under the pretence of scholarship—the dramatised documentary—in which a real historic event is presented with actors and with a script that pays scant regard to the disciplines of scholarship. It is given a quasi-verity. Those who do not know the real facts and who have not read the books and considered the sources are left with the image of his dramatised documentary, which does not even follow the set form of some of those deplorable works. There is a hint of Bunuel's film "L'Annëe Passe a Marienbad"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)


Mr. Clark

It should be "Last Year at Marienbad", although I foolishly gave it the Common Market title. In that film, figures drift across a misty scene. Figures appear and reappear, and one wonders whether that is the person about whom the narrator was speaking, because he is unrecognisable. The hon. Gentleman's account is highly fictionalised, but it rests on the arguments, first, that the sinking of the Belgrano was needlessly brutal and provocative; secondly, that it prejudiced negotiations that were realistic and in train; and, thirdly, that it was directly related to the internal policies of the Conservative party.

That third argument is the most ludicrous and unrealistic of all the hon. Gentleman's predictions. I shall not dwell on it, because almost every sentence—each one more preposterous than the last—was prefaced with the words "I believe that", and no evidence was adduced. The next proposition is that this event prejudiced serious negotiations that could have delivered a peaceful solution. The phrase used by the hon. Gentleman was, "peace was in the bag", but, as I said in an intervention, his own principal witness, the Peruvian diplomat, Mr. Stella, has denied that. When Mr. Stella has been subject to independent cross-examination by other commentators, he has admitted that the negotiations had had a cursory provisional acceptance but that they had to be referred back toBuenos Aires where they would be examined in detail. He explained that other provisions had to be attached to them and they were no different in substance from the negotiations that had been continuing for a long time. It is clear that the purpose of those negotiations was to buy time. They were all artificial, and the junta had at the back of its mind the fact that the south Atlantic winter was approaching, that in a matter of weeks it would be impossible for military force to be applied in the area, and that in the fullness of time the United Nations, the Organisation of American States and the World Court—I remember the Leader of the Opposition recommending the use of the World Court at one point—would get in on the act and be left in possession. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House distinguishes those negotiations in any serious qualitative sense from any others that preceded them.

Finally, there is the hon. Gentleman's argument that the sinking was needlessly brutal and provocative.

Mr. Dalyell

If that is all true, why was the Foreign Secretary in the United States? Was it a cynical visit? I do not think it was. I thought that he was negotiating meaningfully. How would the hon. Member for Pymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) reply to the suggestion that it would at least have been wise to consult our own Foreign Secretary before taking such a step?

Mr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman asked me what I think the Foreign Secretary was doing in Washington. No doubt the Minister will enlighten us to the extent that he thinks appropriate. At the time in question, if United Nations resolution 502 could have been complied with—if the junta had been serious and complied with it—it would have been our duty to maintain contacts at the highest level.

I suppose that the hope at the back of the minds of Mr. Haig and the Foreign Secretary was that the junta would show good faith and make the sort of concession that it would be obliged to make under resolution 502. But the hon. Gentleman maintains the petty and repetitive charade that Senor Belaunde had acted partly out of his personal rivalry with Senor Perez de Cuellar, whom he was determined to do down. I do not propose to detain the House in dealing with intricacies of that sort.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether it would have been appropriate to consult the Foreign Secretary first. I do not agree that it would. I do not know whether he was consulted, but I can well understand that it was an operational decision that had to be made. The circumstances were that night was coming on, there were difficulties in maintaining contact, and there had been ample evidence in the preceding days of hostile action. Battle had been joined.

The hon. Gentleman admits that the raid on Port Stanley had caused casualties. He admits, although he plays down, the efforts of the armada to attack the task force on its voyage south. All those circumstances had effectively generated a state of war in the area. Here was a principal target. It offered an opportunity to show the strength of the SSN, a weapon against which Argentina had virtually no answer.

There is evidence, which the hon. Gentleman has not cited, that another SSN had contacted the Argentine aircraft carrier the Veintecinco de Mayo in earlier days. It had been under instructions to stay with it, not to sink it, and had lost it. So there was the other major capital ship south of the Falklands. If that, too, had been lost, the consequences would have been completely unpredictable. I am certain that that single action was the most decisive of them all, the most economical, and saved more lives than any other, because, after the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentine fleet scuttled to port and did not emerge again.

Following that, we removed the risk of any subsequent naval engagement. Had the Argentine navy behaved with even one fifth of the bravery and skill shown by the Argentine air force in going to almost certain death, as we know, the consequences would have been incalculable. The hon. Gentleman knows that many hundreds of members of the Royal Navy, and I know that many hundreds of my constituents, who are at present alive might have been drowned or burnt. For that reason, I believe that it was the most decisive moment of the Falklands engagement, and was certainly the most effective and the most beneficial.

Mr. Dalyell

On that argument, the bereaved of Coventry, Antelope, Ardent, Atlantic Conveyor and Sheffield might have been saved their bereavement. However, I shall not pursue that argument further.

The fact is that, on arrival in Washington, the Foreign Secretary made it clear that the actions of 1 May had been carried out to suggest that we were in earnest and to concentrate the mind of the Argentines, and that there had been peace—no action—throughout that Sunday. To say that it was simply an operational action, a matter of operations, is surely a grotesque underestimate of the predictable effect of sinking a capital ship—whatever its previous course, and one would like to know—which at that moment was going back.

What the hon. Gentleman said about nightfall, bearing in mind modern sonar on the Conqueror, was very strange, because night time makes no difference to sonar.

Mr. Clark

I had in fact concluded my speech. The point about the bereaved emphasises the whole force of my argument, because all the people who were killed on those ships were either killed or injured by the actions of the Argentine air force. How much greater a multiple there might have been had the Argentine navy also pressed its attack and used its Exocet missiles is a matter for conjecture. I am happy to leave the other points about the diplomatic exchanges to my hon. Friend.

1.16 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) for his extremely effective and witty intervention. He saved me the need to say a number of things that I might otherwise have said about the speech of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who on this occasion I thank for leaving me rather more time today in which to reply than I had last night. However, I shall not detain the House long. In fact, there are few outstanding points that I was unable to clear up last night, or that the hon. Gentleman raised today, which are substantial enough to detain us long.

On the minutiae of naval movements, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that if he wishes to pursue the subject he should do so with the Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, either in correspondence or questions, whichever he feels is the best way. I must leave him to do that, because I cannot answer his questions on that subject now. I only wish to say that it is my personal belief that the way in which the hon. Gentleman has chosen to pursue his disgraceful vendetta against the Prime Minister comes close to being a gross abuse of the procedures of the House. When he says that he intends to do it in the next Parliament, I hope that the intervening weeks will give him time to reflect and to come closer back to his senses.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of communications from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in Washington to his colleagues in London. As I told the hon. Gentleman only last night, a thorough investigation of the records confirms that an outline of the American-Peruvian framework proposals was first communicated to London in a telegram dispatched from Washington at 22.15 GMT on 2 May, over three hours after the attack on the Belgrano. I can tell the hon. Gentleman further that in another telegram, 15 minutes later, our ambassador in Washington specifically stated that my right hon. Friend had not consulted London about the proposals. Of course, the ambassador sent that telegram because my right hon. Friend was on his way from Washington to New York. It is there, and it is clear that there was no telephonic consultation, and I must ask the hon. Gentleman why he thinks there should have been, given the circumstances as they actually were, and not as he imagines they might have been.

Why does anyone suppose that my right hon. Friend should have felt impelled to leap to the telephone to tell his colleagues in London about a roughm. scheme of ideas, by no means fully elaborated or fleshed out that Mr. Haig had outlined to him, as if it represented the one and only opportunity for peace in the south Atlantic, especially when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton emphasised, the Argentine junta had consistently shown itself intransigent throughout all the negotiations during the preceding weeks?

Mr. Dalyell

the answer to that question is clear. There may be no reason why the Foreign Secretary should have leapt to the telephone, but before such a drastic action was taken there was every reason in the world why someone of great seniority in London should leap to his telephone to consult the Foreign Secretary—the political head of the Foreign Office — who was conducting the negotiation. It is astonishing not that the Foreign Secretary did not feel impelled to get on the telephone but that, before giving the order to the submarine, no one decided to consult the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Onslow

That is the hon. Gentleman's opinion and we are fairly familiar with it. We do not have to agree with it simply because he goes on repeating it, any more than we have to accept the terms on which he sets his argument out. When he pretends that peace was there for the asking, that there was an interim agreement ready for signature, the fact of the matter is that as the proposal had not been endorsed by the Secretary of State, let alone formally conveyed to London for consideration, there could have been no such thing as an interim agreement. That is self-evident.

Had time permitted I would have liked to make a point last night about the statement that President Belaunde made subsequently and to which I have never heard the hon. Gentleman refer. I disagree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton said was President Belaunde's motivation in this matter. I think that he had a high-minded desire to secure peace and we should recognise the President of Peru as an international statesman who deserves our gratitude and respect for trying to achieve a peaceful solution.

In an interview that was printed in an Argentine magazine earlier this year President Belaunde said that the British negotiating position after the sinking of the Belgrano had been receptive and open. He also made it clear that negotiations continued for at least two weeks thereafter, that both Argentina and Britain participated in the process with significant progress being made and that it was Argentina who finally took the matter out of his hands. The hon. Gentleman's attempts somehow to telescope these events to suggest that the Argentines walked out finally and completely when the Belgrano was sunk is a distortion and I think that he knows that.

The construction that the hon. Gentleman attempts to put on one particular quotation in the New Statesman article by Paul Foot is tortured and tortuous. It is one that he quoted last night and has quoted again today. I think that he will be astonished to see how much of his speech last night he has duplicated today. I wonder whether he recalls some of what he said last night at all. I am referring to the passage about the impromptu press conference when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that No further military action is envisaged at the moment, except to keep the exclusion zone secure. The hon. Gentleman knows, and I reminded him last night, of the message that we conveyed through the Swiss to the Argentine Government on 23 April about the consequences of any approach by Argentine warships. There was a clear warning that appropriate action would be taken. That was common knowledge. It was known to the Argentines and to my right hon. Friend, and it is in no way inconsistent with what was said about keeping the exclusion zone secure. That was the warning which, for some peculiar reason of their own, the Argentine elected to ignore when they sent the Belgrano into the area where it was sunk.

The heading of the Belgrano seems to be a matter of fairly minimal importance. The real question and the one that the hon. Gentleman has never asked — it is extraordinary that he has managed to overlook its importance—is why the Belgrano was there at all, and why she had been sent to sea. This was not some routine passage. It was not a training exercise or a pleasure cruise. This was a warship, armed, equipped, manned and sent to sea for a warlike purpose. Unless the hon. Gentleman has some evidence to the contrary about which he has not told us—

Mr. Dalyell

It would be helpful if we could have put in the Library of the House or if we could be informed of her course over the previous 48 hours.

Mr. Onslow

That is not the point. The point is why she was there, what she was doing there and whether she was there to impose a threat to our task force. If the Argentines are trying to say that she was not meant to be a threat, they must be pretty naive to suppose that she would not be seen as a threat given that she was in the position where she was; and she paid the inevitable price.

Mr. Dalyell

What is the difficulty about giving this information?

Mr. Onslow

I am not giving way again to the hon. Gentleman. As I told him earlier, if he wants to ask questions about the minutiae of naval matters, he must address himself to my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and I hope that he will.

I come finally to what in my view is an important question. It concerns the quality of the hon. Gentleman's arguments and the quality of his motives. He gave himself a good chit today when he said, "If I am shown that I am wrong, I will admit it." He may not recall that last night I reminded him of the smear on the Gurkhas from "Los Chicos de la Guerra" which he took such pains to read into the Official Report on 15 April at c. 1067–8, and where I gave him a denial which he said last night that he did not accept and that he did not intend to retract or express any regret for what he had done.

The facts are pretty welt known. The allegations are serious if they are true. They are outrageous if they are untrue. They are outrageous., and everyone knows it. If the hon. Gentleman had taken pains to establish whether there was truth in them at the time that the book first came out, he would not have needed to come to the House months later and use this grubby device to keep his unsavoury campaign going by reading it into the columns of the Official Report.

I am not aware that the hon. Gentleman has made any attempt to contact Ministers in the Ministry of Defence who could have told him in terms that there was no contact between the Gurkhas and Argentine forces during the fighting on the Falkland Islands. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton might interject, "Not for want of trying," which is true, but there was no contact. The only Gurkha casualty which was suffered was an unfortunate soldier who fell victim to an Argentine booby trap in the post-fighting phase.

The Falkland Islands were not exactly denuded of journalists during the fighting. It seems to me that if any such occurrence as is reported in this nasty little book had actually transpired, some journalist would have heard about it and reported it. If there had been substance in it, even the Argentine officers, who were not particularly careful about the welfare of their men, might have been moved to lodge an official complaint on the grounds of a breach of the Geneva convention. None of these has happened. It has always been common knowledge, first, that the Argentines were very scared of the Gurkhas. That we know. But, secondly, the events as described in this book did not occur, and the hon. Gentleman should not give them currency.

Mr. Dalyell

Let me be candid about this. I asked the question, and I might not have hesitated so long had I not had a disturbing letter from Brunei, in reply to which I sent back various quotations. On receipt of an answer, which may take some time, I shall have to make a judgment. Those of us who know something of the Gurkhas are not so sure that the information is inaccurate. Are the Government saying that there was no contact whatsoever in the fighting between Argentine forces and the Gurkhas? If so, that is a new factor.

Mr. Onslow

It is not. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is quite as green as he is cabbage-looking on the subject. I suggest he asks some more questions. He will then find that I am not misleading him.

I do not intend to dignify the hon. Gentleman's delusions by detaining the House any further. He has been given the facts. He may not like them, but they remain the facts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated the position when she said: The hon. Gentleman's allegations are utterly ridiculous. The Belgrano was sunk for military reasons and the threat was real. News of the Peruvian proposals did not reach London until after the attack." — [Official Report, 12 May 1983, Vol. 42, c. 922.] And that is that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past One o'clock till Monday next.