HL Deb 03 July 1962 vol 241 cc1183-7

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, in answer to the questions put down by my noble friend, Lord Balfour of Inchrye and the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, I should like, with the permission of the House, to repeat a statement which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour. After the usual preliminaries he said:

"I attended a meeting in my constituency last Saturday afternoon. At the end of the meeting I was asked a question which suggested that the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference should itself decide by a majority vote whether or not Britain should agree to join the European Economic Community.

"I pointed out in my reply that the United Kingdom had the obligation to secure terms which safeguarded the essential interests of the Commonwealth, our own home agriculture and our partners in the European Free Trade Area, but at the same time the decision as to whether we should join or not must rest with us. In making my reply—as has been accurately reported in the Press—I drew on the analogy of the Commonwealth as a family of nations. I would never wish either to seem patronising or to say anything wounding to any country in the Commonwealth. On reflection, it is clear to me that what I said on the spur of the moment could be, and indeed has been, interpreted in a sense that I certainly did not intend. Both as a Member of this House and as a private citizen I have always endeavoured to promote the interests of the Commonwealth. I therefore take this opportunity of expressing my deep regret to any in the Commonwealth who may have felt hurt by what I said."


My Lords, while thanking the Foreign Secretary for that reply, may I say that I do not suppose there is any single one of us who has played any part in public life and who, at some time or another, has not used words or expressions which he regretted afterwards. The real cause of concern is not in the unfortunate words, which we can forget and forgive, but that such an outlook of mind should be possessed by a senior Minister. May I ask the Foreign Secretary this? May we be assured that no member of the Government, least of all those who are responsible for negotiations, is in any way unsympathetic with the portrayal of what are sincere, reasonable and justified Commonwealth representations as regards their interests in relation to this country?


My Lords, as I understood the Minister of Labour's statement, he himself has said that he is not of this outlook of mind, and he very much regrets that the words he used conveyed the impression that this might be so. Of course, neither is any member of the Cabinet of this outlook of mind. Indeed, we take the most scrupulous care in this matter, and in all other matters, to acquaint ourselves with the view of the Commonwealth countries who are equal partners with us in the Commonwealth association.


My Lords, we are much obliged to the Foreign Secretary for having made the statement. I agree with the opening words of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye. What I am concerned about is what impression must have been left upon the minds of representatives of the Commonwealth as to future procedure. I am wondering whether this statement in another place quite answers that point, because it says: I pointed out in my reply that the United Kingdom had the obligation to secure terms which safeguarded the essential interests of the Commonwealth, our own home agriculture and our partners in the European Free Trade Area, but at the same time the decision as to whether we should join or not must rest with us. What I should like to be made quite clear is this. Is it the intention of the Government to announce, when an agreement has been made by them, that in their view the agreement covers the actual needs of the Commonwealth; or are they going to adopt what the Commonwealth think about that particular point—their own needs—and not what somebody else thinks?


My Lords, I think that at least two of the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth, certainly the Australian and Canadian Prime Ministers, have said that they recognise that the ultimate decision on whether or not Britain enters the Common Market must rest with the British Government. They have said that time and again, and I am sure that is widely recognised within the Commonwealth. At the same time we have said to the Commonwealth Governments that we will bring them into consultation, as we have done all along during the negotiations; and the purpose of the meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers is that we should continue that consultation so that we may have the benefit of the views of all the Commonwealth countries before we actually take the decision whether or not to join.


My Lords, it is a very fair statement that the Foreign Secretary has just given of previous statements made by the Government, but, in view of this particular form of words, what I want to know is who decides whether Commonwealth interests have been properly safeguarded? Am I to understand from that last answer that the home Government here decide upon entry having decided that the Commonwealth interests are properly safeguarded?


It is very difficult to outline the exact form which the future discussions will take, but we hope towards the end of July to have a broad picture of what is involved and to be able to present that picture to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers. It is only after we have presented that picture to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and consulted with them that we shall be able to decide ourselves whether or not we are able to enter the Common Market.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Earl this? While not committing oneself to the belief that the Minister of Labour's remarks were directed to any particular part of the Commonwealth, so that I am not obliged to put the cap on, and while agreeing that his remarks might be regarded as a little close to the bone, would not the noble Earl believe that it would be a bad thing if this incident—as one might call it—were made the reason for denying the right of the use of plain words as between members of the Commonwealth for the future? Further, would the noble Earl agree, from his experience in the Commonwealth Relations Office in the past, that the Commonwealth would be a better thing now if over the last generation there had been more speaking in popular terms by responsible members of Governments of all parts of the Commonwealth?


Yes, my Lords. I am all for using plain words, but I am beginning to think that this mother complex—Mother of Parliaments and Mother of the Commonwealth—may have been a little over-used.


My Lords, is it the Foreign Secretary's view that the speech has done no more harm than can be put right by a little "Hare" restorer?


My Lords, I hope that what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Casey, will not remove from our countrymen's minds over here the feeling that we owe an enormous debt to members of the Commonwealth. It is a free Commonwealth. It may have plain speaking—I do not mind plain speaking, either—but when we come to very great issues like this, wrapped up with these negotiations, I sometimes feel that perhaps we do not remember what kind of debt we owe the Commonwealth.