HL Deb 13 April 1954 vol 186 cc1206-11

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to make a statement about the High Commission Territories in Africa. As your Lordships will have seen, a Resolution was yesterday introduced by the South African Government in the Union House of Assembly in the following terms: The House resolves teat the transfer to the Union of the government of Basutoland and the Bechuanaland and Swaziland Protectorates, to be administered in accordance with the terms and conditions embodied in the Schedule to the South Africa Act, 1909, or such other terms and conditions as may be agreed upon between the two Governments concerned, should lake place as soon as possible. The House consequently urges that with this end in view immediate steps should be taken towards the resumption of the negotiations between the said two Governments at the point reached at the outbreak of the war in 1939. The House further resolves that this Resolution, if adopted, be sent through to the Senate for its concurrence. A description of the position reached in 1939 will be found in Cmd. 8707 which was published in December, 1952.

The Resolution to which I have referred has not yet received the assent of the Union Parliament. Nor can I forecast what action the South African Government may take assuming the Resolution is passed. Nevertheless, I think it is in the interests of both countries that the position of the United Kingdom Government should be stated. It is common ground that, whereas the Union Government are within their rights in raising again the question of the transfer of the Territories, the decision whether they can or should be transferred at any given time rests with the United Kingdom Government. Moreover, at the time of the passage of the South Africa Act, 1909 (which contains provisions about the machinery for the administration of the Territories if they should at a future date be transferred), certain pledges were given in Parliament, and these have been frequently repeated. They are to the effect that transfer of the Territories to the Union of South Africa should not take place until their inhabitants have been consulted, and until the United Kingdom Parliament has been given an opportunity of expressing its views. It is to be remembered, too, that, as far back as 1925, General Hertzog stated in the Union House of Assembly: Our position has always been, as a Party, that we are not prepared to incorporate in the Union any territory unless the inhabitants of the territory are prepared to come in. I think it is right to state that, in the conditions which exist at the present time, the Government would not be prepared to recommend such a transfer to Parliament.

While I think it is necessary in the general interest to make this clear statement, I should wish to add this. So far as relations between the Administrations of the 'Territories and the Union Authorities are concerned, these are, I believe, working very well. There is close cooperation over a wide range of practical matters, trade, transport, agriculture, health (human and animal), and development generally. All that is working well, and if it can be improved we want to make it work still better to the mutual advantage of both the Union and the Territories. These are the practical things that make for increasing good will between the Union and the Territories. All these practical matters of day-to-day collaboration have gone on and developed irrespective of any question of transfer. While I must make plain that transfer is an issue on which there is no prospect of agreement at this time, I should wish to make equally clear that it is the firm wish and intention of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom to continue our close collaboration on all the matters I have mentioned, as well as on wider fronts in the world outside—economic and foreign policy and defence —where there is to-day between us such a large measure of agreement and common action.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for making that statement. I am bound to say quite categorically that I believe the Government are completely right to make this clear statement without any loss of time: I have no doubt that in all sections of the House there will be unanimity about that. I think there can be no question of the transfer of these Territories at the present time. I confess that I am glad to see, particularly as I have just come back from the Union, and I know it to be so, that there is to-day a very close collaboration and co-operation between the administration of the Territories and the Union Government with regard to what is being done, and I sincerely hope that that will be continued and strengthened—if, indeed, it needs strengthening. For I firmly believe that this is one way in which we can bring about an extension of friendship and co-operation between the Union authorities and ourselves, which is so vitally important in the interests of us both.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the history of the Liberal Party in relation to this problem, I need hardly say that we welcome the statement which has been made this afternoon. I, too, feel that Her Majesty's Government are absolutely right to have made this statement at the earliest possible moment. There is explosive material right throughout Asia and Africa, and you can never be wrong to make your position clear from the offset. We welcome not merely the fact of the statement, but its contents. As the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, said, there is certainly unanimity that the transfer should not, and could not, be contemplated at the moment. It is clear that it would be contrary to the whole drift of recent British policy in relation to territories inhabited by coloured people. It would be not only contrary to the trend of current policy, but contrary also to all our written commitments.

The statement refers to pledges given at the time of the passing of the South Africa Act, 1909. Similar undertakings have been given since that time. After all, the Atlantic Charter contains a phrase that the territories are to be free to decide their own form of government. It would be contrary to that statement in the Atlantic Charter to have a transfer, unless it were agreed by the persons concerned. I would remind your Lordships that even more recently we have undertaken a commitment bearing on this. As lately as October 23, Her Majesty's Government tabled a statement conferring on forty-three Colonies and Territories of the British Empire the privileges of the Convention of Human Rights, which came into force last: September. After lying on the Table of both Houses, it became binding on Her Majesty's Government. That is a commitment to apply certain rights; and not only to apply them, but to answer to our associates in the democratic world that they are being applied. We were committed to this step as deeply as possible, and throughout the Territories concerned that commitment of ours has been carefully noted.

It might be argued by the Government of South Africa that that Government would recognise all those rights—the right of trial, the right of free speech, the right of association and so on, without discrimination of race, colour or religion. But if this transfer were agreed to, it would at least be a transfer from the direction of a country which is committed to those human rights to one which is not a party to any such undertaking. Whether it be on the ground of policy, or on the ground of written commitments, certainly we on these Benches are grateful, both for the Government statement this afternoon and for the policy which it adumbrates. Nevertheless, we are equally gratified at the reference in the statement to collaboration: for, after all, if you are divided on a main issue of policy, then the only hope of getting on is to take a circuitous route, such as that provided by day-to-day collaboration in administration and matters of that kind. We are grateful to the noble Viscount for making the statement.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to go against the trend of your Lordships' House—indeed, I am in agreement with the Government—but I detect a certain atmosphere in this House which fails to take into account the extreme acuteness of this problem. I do not dissent from what the noble Lord, Lord Layton, has just said, but he would not find a single member of the Union House of Parliament, on whichever side of the House he sits, who would agree with a word of what he has said, because on that issue the United Party, though they differ strongly from Doctor Malan, as the debate has shown, consider that Her Majesty's Government must at some future date band over these Territories. Incidentally, if I may go off on a tangent, I do not remember any precedent for an announcement by the Government of this country in the midst of a debate in a Dominion House of Parliament. So far as I know this statement to-day is a complete precedent. It may be a serious one, but while Mr. George Strauss disagrees with Dr. Malan, he has made it dear, as hay every member of his Party, that they consider Her Majesty's Government must at some future date hand over these Territories I rise only for the purpose of saying that I imagine it is perfectly clear from the Secretary of State's speech that this matter is still open to negotiation. Though I were alone in the House in saying so, I would point out once again—to quote the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Layton, in a different connection—that this is a question of dynamite. It is one of the most difficult questions we have in the whole Commonwealth, and I sincerely hope that it will be solved by negotiation.


My Lords. I hoped that we might close on the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Layton. I must make it clear fiat I do-not know whether what is being done to-day by the Prime Minister in another place, and myself, as Secretary of State, here, is a precedent but as a Government we were absolutely united and firmly convinced that we must make this statement here and now. I think that here, as in another place, we have carried the whole of the House with us, not only in what we have said but on the necessity for saying it. With great respect to the noble Earl, when you have an issue of this kind it is much better that you should not shilly shally about it. There are things that can be said among friends —I use the words "among friends" advisedly; and one of the most important things is that there should be frankness. I am sure that we shall not have lost but shall have gained by stating with absolute frankness what the position is; and here the Government speak, I think, for everybody in this country. I trust that it will still be possible to go forward with the mass of collaboration on practical things that matter which we are doing day in and day out, and which need not be prejudiced because we cannot agree on what I may call the main matter. I must again make it absolutely clear that we cannot and will not at this time propose to Parliament the transfer of these Territories.