HL Deb 17 July 1963 vol 252 cc213-6

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I think it might be convenient if I were now to give your Lordships the statement that my right honourable friend is making in another place on British Guiana. I will use his own words:

"I returned yesterday from British Guiana, and I will at once give the House my frank impressions of the situation in that unhappy country. Wherever I went in town and village, I received a warm and openhearted welcome from crowds of all races. In one place after another simple people expressed a touching belief that I would be able to lift from them the shadow which overhangs all their lives—the shadow of fear and suspicion. From one end of the country to the other, from the highest to the lowest, the people of British Guiana are gripped with fear and cleft in two by mutual suspicion. The Africans fear the Indians and the Indians fear the Africans. They live in constant dread of assault, murder and arson; and this has got to the point where even neighbours of long standing in the same village no longer trust each other. The police, who are mainly African, are doing a fine job, despite the fact that their impartiality is quite unjustifiably questioned by the Indian community, including Ministers.

"Against this background, it is not surprising that the British soldier is universally welcome among all sections of the population. His calm and cheerful presence has undoubtedly had a steadying effect and has done much to prevent the situation from getting completely out of hand.

"In addition to the immediate fear of violence, each race has a deep-rooted fear of the prospect of living under a Government controlled by the other, after independence. On this aspect of the problem, I received much advice from many quarters. The Government and the predominantly Indian Party expressed the view that the trouble would cease at once if I would fix an early date for independence. The remedy of the Opposition whose members are predominantly African was the introduction of proportional representation.

"I made it clear to both leaders that I was not prepared to discuss independence or constitutional changes under present conditions. I told them that it was their duty temporarily to join together to stop the bloodshed between their supporters. I urged them temporarily to put aside Party politics and to form an emergency Government of all Parties for the single purpose of restoring peace. The leader of the main Opposition Party, Mr. Burnham, and the leader of the smaller multi-racial Party, Mr. D'Aguiar, both declared themselves willing in principle to participate in such a Government. But Dr. Jagan, the Premier and leader of the predominantly Indian Party, did not feel that an all-Party Government with this limited objective would be practicable. However, he offered to consider the formation of a Coalition with Mr. Burnham's Party, provided they could first agree a joint programme covering the main aspects of political and economic policy. They held their first meeting on Sunday and will be resuming the talks to-morrow.

"I was naturally disappointed not to be able to secure the formation at once of a joint Administration to call an immediate halt to racial violence, all the more so because I am well aware of the difficulties which the two leaders will have in reaching agreement on basic political and economic policies. Nevertheless, I hope that the very fact that they are meeting and talking may help to some extent to reduce tension between their supporters. The restoration of law and order is, of course, not the whole problem. When that has been done we shall still be left with the acute political differences which led to the breakdown of the Conference in London last autumn. I am convinced that the constitutional future of British Guiana must now be decided without much further delay.

"I think it is right to give the Party leaders a further short period in which to make a last effort to reach agreement among themselves. But in any case I intend to reconvene the Conference not later than October. If, in the meantime, they are able to resolve their differences, that will greatly ease my task. Failing agreement, I think it is now generally accepted that the British Government will have to settle the outstanding issues on its own authority; and that is what we propose to do. Before ending, I am sure that the House would wish to join with me in paying a tribute to the Governor, Sir Ralph Grey, whose wisdom and impartiality has won the respect and admiration of all fair-minded people in the country and outside."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Marquess for that statement, and we think it right to say that the primary problem at the moment is the restoration of law and order. I think we should also wish to pay a warm tribute to the Governor, the Administration, the police and the British soldiers in British Guiana for averting what could easily have become a very serious clash between the East Indian and the African population.

The main problem, after the maintenance of law and order, is clearly a political one. I may say that we are very glad that the Government have not suspended the Constitution in British Guiana; which was one of the suggestions made in certain quarters. I think the efforts to form a Coalition Government should have every support from us; because if Mr. Burnham and Dr. Jagan succeed in forming a Coalition then the races will be brought together. But, in any event, I think that we are delighted that there will be a further Constitutional Conference in the autumn and that there will be no unnecessary delay in granting independence to British Guiana.


My Lords, I would join the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in thanking the noble Marquess for his statement and in wishing every possible success Ito the Governor, police and troops in British Guiana, in their important task of maintaining law and order. While I join with him in wishing that a Coalition Government can be formed, and also in expressing the hope that Her Majesty's Government will do everything possible to encourage that, I would ask: is it not a fact that if Britain walks out of British Guiana, either now or in the near future, there will be bloodshed and chaos, and the Communists will move in? Then we shall have another Cuba, not on an island in the Caribbean, but on the mainland of South America. Therefore, is it at all practical to believe that Britain can divorce itself from responsibility for this Colony for a considerable time to come?


My Lords, is it not a fact that Mr. Burnham has said that he will go into a Coalition only on the basis that certain Ministries are offered to African Parties, and will the Secretary of State urge Dr. Jagan to accept this impartial solution?


My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, for the reception of my right honourable friend's statement. It is perfectly correct, as the noble Earl said, that we have no plans whatsoever for suspending the Constitution—a step which can of itself solve nothing. As regards the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, I think that it is perfectly clear from the statement of my right honourable friend that Her Majesty's Government have no intention whatsoever of not carrying out their responsibilities and obligations. As regards the question put to me by my noble friend Lord Sandwich, I would simply say this to him. As a very delicate situation at present exists, and conversations are to take place no later than to-morrow between the two principal political leaders, I prefer not to make any comment at this present time.