HL Deb 04 December 1956 vol 200 cc718-27

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, as the House was not sitting yesterday I was unable to make to the House the statement which was made by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary in another place; but I thought it would be the wish of the House that a statement of this importance should be made here. Therefore I have taken the liberty of arranging to make it this afternoon. Before doing so, I should like to say how delighted we all are, in all parts of the House, to see the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, back. I know that he has had a bad time but he will have a very warm welcome from everybody.

This is what my right honourable and learned friend said:

"Last Thursday I was able to give the House only an interim account of my visit to the United Nations. I promised to speak more fully to-day when our conversations with the French Government had been completed. Since Thursday I have also been able to get further clarifications of the position from New York and we have been in touch with the Commonwealth Governments.

"Her Majesty's Government and the French Government hake now taken certain decisions. We are in complete agreement about them, These decisions follow upon the two resolutions passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the 24th of November. The first resolution called for the withdrawal of the Anglo-French 'forces forthwith. But, as I told the House. Mr. Cabot Lodge, the representative of the United States interpreted forthwith' to mean a phased withdrawal. That was exactly the expression which we had used ourselves.

"The second resolution was equally important. It called for the early clearance of the Canal and the restoration of its use to international shipping, and entrusted the Secretary-General with the task of making tie necessary arrangements.

"Before commenting on these two resolutions I think it rig It to remind the House of the broad framework within which the events of the last few months must be considered. In view of the debate next Wednesday and Thursday, I believe that this reminder may be helpful.

"For the last ten years we have been living with a worldwide struggle going on between Communism and the free world. The introduction of nuclear weapons has made a global war unattractive to the aggressor. The Soviet therefore has used the methods of political subversion from within and military pressure from without.

"The existence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has halted the direct advance of Russia across Europe to the sea. But all the time there has been an open flank in the Middle East which Russia has been making a determined effort to turn. Certain factors have developed there to her advantage. There have been hostilities smouldering between Israel and the Arab States and the United Nations has so far not been able to solve that problem at all. The situation has been deteriorating rather than improving. At the same time. Colonel Nasser has come to power with his plans for the aggrandisement of Egypt and the subjection to his domination of the material resources of the Arab countries. The seizure of the Suez Canal was part of that design.

"The Arab-Israel tension has afforded opportunity for Soviet mischief-making. The large supply of Soviet arms to Colonel Nasser put him very much under Soviet influence. The Baghdad Pact gave a measure of security against direct Soviet penetration from the North, but the arming of Syria and Egypt was no doubt intended to turn its flank also.

"Let there be no misunderstanding. The situation was deteriorating. It was one which sooner or later was likely to lead to war. The only doubtful question was the scope or extent of that war. A general conflagration in the Middle East would have been disastrous for many countries, not least our own.

" It was against that background that on the 29th of October major hostilities began between Israel and Egypt.

"The French and British Governments decided immediately to intervene. We are quite sure that, by our timely action, we not only rapidly halted local hostilities, but forestalled the development of a general war throughout the whole Middle East and perhaps far beyond. I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the conduct of the Fighting Services who performed their task so skilfully and at the same time took great care to minimise casualties and damage. As soon as the two parties agreed to a cease-fire, we also gave orders to cease our military action.

"Our secondary purpose was to interpose a force to prevent the resumption of fighting. That is one reason why we made the request to station detachments in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez for a temporary period. The Prime Minister made it clear at the time that this would only be for a temporary period. Then on the 1st of November he stated that we should be glad if the United Nations would take over the physical task of preserving peace. The conception of an international force came into being and gained rapid support. We believe that the character and composition of the force will shortly make it capable of carrying out these obligations. I gave details of the build-up last Thursday. I will not repeat them. We have to remember that the strength of the force depends not only on its actual size but on the sanction that lies behind it. It is perhaps worth recalling that the position in Berlin has been held for ten years by a small force just because behind it lay the whole organised strength of the Atlantic Alliance. So far as the composition of the United Nations Emergency Force is concerned, the Secretary-General has made it clear that it is for his decision. With regard to its functions, these are in accordance with the Assembly Resolutions of the 2nd, 5th and 7th of November. The Secretary-General has also made it clear that it is for him and the Assembly to decide when its tasks have been discharged.

"Another vitally important result of our actions has been that the Russian designs have been exposed and dislocated. It is to be hoped that the free world will use the breathing space that we have provided to frustrate them altogether. But there are serious dangers ahead in the Middle East. Although Russia has suffered a reverse she is seeking to tighten her grip upon Syria to restore her position. I believe that the whole free world will welcome the statement by President Eisenhower warning the Soviet Union of the dangers of intervention in the area of the Baghdad Pact Powers. We must also be watchful to see that Russia does not violate the Assembly resolution of the 2nd of November enjoining a ban on the delivery of military goods to the area of hostilities.

"Two important objectives have therefore been achieved. The war has been stopped and an international force has been put into position to prevent its resumption.

"There are, however, other important matters to which I must refer. The first and most urgent need for us and the whole world is that the Canal should be reopened and the freedom of navigation restored. Under the resolution to which I have already referred these duties have been clearly placed upon and accepted by the United Nations. The Secretary-General has entrusted executive responsibility to a team which includes men of the very highest calibre and worldwide reputation, such as Mr. McCloy and General. Wheeler. This shows that technical considerations have been uppermost in his mind. We have made it clear for our part that all the resources which we have been able to assemble will be made available to this team to be used as and how they may decide.

"I am satisfied from the discussions with the Secretary-General that he will press on with his task with the utmost speed and that every effort will be made to proceed without delay with the clearance of obstructions below Port Said, using all available equipment found necessary by the United Nations authorities. It is planned to proceed with the greatest possible despatch with the survey and diving operations which are a necessary preliminary, and that the actual work of clearance will begin as soon as technically possible.

"In other words, I am satisfied from the discussions with the Secretary-General and the assurances which have received from him that he will press on with his task without delay and that work will beg n as soon as technically possible and that its progress will not be dependent upon other considerations.

"The French and British Governments have come to the conclusions that the withdrawal of their Forces in the Port Said area can now be carried out without delay. They have instructed the Allied Commander in Chief, General Keightley, to seek agreement with the United Nations Corn-minder, General Burns, on a timetable for the complete withdrawal taking account of the military and practical problems involved. This timetable will be reported as quickly as possible to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Given good faith on all sides, it can be carried cut in a short time.

"In preparing this timetable, the Allied Commander in Chief has been told to ensure that proper regard should be had to the maintenance of public security in the area now under allied control. The United Nations Commander has been asked to make himself responsible for the safety of any French or British salvage resources left at the disposition of the United Nations salvage organisation. The Secretary-General has accepted this responsibility.

"In making a communication to the Secretary-General to this effect (and a copy will be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT), the two Governments have again drawn attention to the treatment of British and French nationals in Egypt.

"Another matter of long-term importance is the future of the Canal. The position with regard to that is this. The Secretary-Genera] will promote as rapidly as possible negotiations on the basis of the following matters. First: the six requirements set out in the Security Council's resolution of the 13th of October. Secondly, the conversations between the Secretary-General and the Foreign Ministers of France, Egypt and myself in New York. And thirdly, the Secretary- General's letter to the Egyptian Foreign Minister of the 24th of October, setting out a basis for the negotiation of a system to conform to the six principles and the Egyptian acceptance thereof of the 2nd of November. I believe we shall reach an agreement providing adequate guarantees that the six requirements will be met. Her Majesty's Government of course adhere to their view as expressed in the resolution voted on by the Security Council on the 13th of October with regard to the 18-Power proposals.

"Lastly, there is the question of a long-term settlement of all the problems in the area. I believe that our action has done a great deal to produce conditions in which progress can now be made.

"Israel should withdraw from Egyptian territory. We have said this repeatedly. With regard to the Gaza Strip, it is our view that Israel should withdraw from that also and that the Strip should be made a United Nations responsibility. I am sure that would be the best solution of a difficult problem. A just settlement of the refugees is an essential condition of a final settlement, together with agreement about frontiers, water schemes, and other matters. All this, I know, has been said before, but at the present time we have the knowledge that there is being stationed in the area a substantial United Nations Force charged with the duty of keeping the peace. That, I am certain, will contribute to the final settlement, which is the prerequisite of stability in the area.

"Therefore, I claim, that we have stopped a local war. We have prevented it spreading. The extent of Soviet penetration has been revealed. We have caused the United Nations to take action by the creation of an international force. We have alerted the whole world to a situation of great peril. We have created conditions under which there can be hope of wider settlements. Of course there will be heavy costs to bear, but they would have been far greater if our action had not been taken, and it is now for the United Nations and its member States to see that this opportunity is turned to good account."

Following are the communications referred to:

Communication from Her Majesty's Government and the French Government to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The two Governments take note that

  1. (a) An effective United Nations force is now arriving in Egypt charged with the tasks assigned to it in the Assembly Resolutions of 2nd, 5th and 7th November.
  2. (b) The Secretary-General accepts the responsibility for organising the task of clearing the Canal as expeditiously as possible.
  3. (c) In accordance with General Assembly Resolution of 2nd November, free and secure transit will be re-established through the Canal when it is clear.
  4. (d) The Secretary-General will promote, as quickly as possible, negotiations with regard to the future regime of the Canal on the basis of the six requirements set out in Security Council Resolution of 13th October.

2. The British and French Governments confirm their decision to continue the withdrawal of their forces now in the Port Said area without delay.

3. They have accordingly instructed the Allied Commander, General Keightley, to seek agreement with the United Nations Commander, General Burns, on a time-table for the complete withdrawal, taking account of the military and practical questions involved. This time-table should be reported as quickly as possible to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

4.In preparing these arrangements the Allied Commander will ensure:

  1. (a) That the embarkations of personnel or material shall be carried out in an efficient and orderly manner,
  2. (b) That proper regard will be had to the maintenance of public security in the area now under allied control.
  3. (c) That the United Nations Commander should make himself responsible for the safety of any French and British salvage resources left at the disposition of the United Nations Salvage Organisation.

5.In communicating these conclusions the two Governments recall the strong representations they have made regarding the treatment of their nationals in Egypt. They draw attention to the humane treatment accorded to Egyptian nationals in Britain and France. They feel entitled to demand that the position of British and French nationals in Egypt should be fully guaranteed.

Communication from Her Majesty's Government to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

(A similar Note has been sent by the French Government,)

With regard to negotiations for the future regime of the Canal, Her Majesty's Government consider that, in addition to the six requirements set out in the Security Council Resolution of October 13, account should be taken

  1. (a) of the draft resolution submitted to the Security Council by France and the United Kingdom recommending the adoption of the I8-Power proposals or the equivalent thereof, which in their view represent the best solution;
  2. (b) of the conversations between the Egyptian, French. and United Kingdom Foreign Ministers;
  3. (c) of the Secretary-General's letter to the Egyptian Foreign Minister of October 24, and of the Egyptian acceptance thereof.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, may I first say a word of thanks to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for his kind welcome to me on my return to your Lordships' House after protracted medical treatment. The statement which the House has just heard is of tremendous importance, both to the House and to the country. Since the statement was made yesterday in another place by the Foreign Secretary, it has already been studied by my colleagues and by other Members of your Lordships House. I think it would be inconvenient, and even not desirable, that we should enter into a discussion of the statement at any length to-day, in view of the debate which is to take place in your Lordships' House next week. But I should like to say, on behalf of my colleagues, how much we rejoice at the fact that the statement means that British forces are to withdraw from Egypt without any serious conditions attached to that withdrawal. However late that decision has been made, we feel that it will bring relief to the anxiety, and perhaps to the divisions, which have arisen between many great sections of the people in this country. We shall look at the statement in more detail next week, when noble Lords in all parts of the House will give their praise or criticism for what they may regard as ineptitudes or mistakes in policy. I hope very sincerely that the decision which has been made by the Government will lead to great fruitfulness, and that the nation may have time to get together collectively to try to restore some of the damage which has been done by the incident which has occurred.


My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for what he has said. He will not expect me to agree with every word of it. I think we are withdrawing because the task for which we went in has been completed. However, we can discuss that next week. I expect that your Lordships will wish to have some information about the plans we are making for the debate. We are proposing that the debate should be held on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. Your Lordships will know that there was a Motion down on the order Paper for Wednesday, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Winster, but he has been kind enough to say that he will postpone his Motion until Thursday. That will enable us to have two successive days, 'IA Inch I hope will be sufficient for our purpose.


My Lords. may I correct an omission from my remarks a few moments ago? I should like to associate all my colleagues and myself with the remarks of the noble Marquess in his statement in tribute to all our Services in this incident, all the more so as some of us felt that in their prolonged stay there since the cease-fire they were in a rather exposed situation.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess one question of fact? Neither here nor, if I am correct, in another place has any mention been made in regard to the breaking of the pipeline. Can the noble Marquess give us any information about what is expected to be done in regard to that?


My Lords, I take it that the noble Load has in mind the Syrian pipeline. No; I cannot give him any information. That will be a matter not exclusively for. Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I gather that the debate will take place on a Motion to be moved by the Government. Could the noble Marquess say what will be the form of the Motion? Will it be substantially in the same form as the Motion to be moved in another place, or will it materially differ?


My Lords. I think that it will be in approximately the same form. I feel that it would be inappropriate, in a matter of this importance, that the Opposition should put down a plain Motion asking whether there was any information about events in the Middle East, or some phrase of that kind. The Government have great acts of policy to justify, for which they hope to receive the support of Parliament; and in those circumstances, I think that what is required is a vote of confidence. We shall put down a positive Motion. Of course, it will be open for noble Lords opposite to take any action they feel inclined to take with regard to that.


My Lords, may I ask whether the Motion will be so framed as to allow any noble Lord who desires to do so to discuss the problems of the Far East?


My Lords, I think that that would be extremely doubtful.


My Lords. without in any way committing any of my noble friends to supporting the Motion, may I say that we cordially agree with the method that is proposed of debating this matter on a Motion.