HL Deb 10 June 1964 vol 258 cc889-94

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they make a statement concerning the question of the issue of an invitation to the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia to attend the forthcoming Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference; and to ask them, further, whether they will give details of the communication that they have sent to the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia.]


My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister replied to an almost identical Question in another place yesterday I hope the House will forgive me if I answer my noble friend in similar terms to the Prime Minister's.

The process of consultation with other Commonwealth Governments on the question whether the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia should be invited to attend the meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers has now been completed. Mr. Smith has been informed that the consensus of opinion is conclusive that in view of the size of the modern Commonwealth the meetings of Prime Ministers should in future be confined to the representatives of fully independent States. In addition my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has told Mr. Smith that he would welcome a general talk with him in London either before or after the Commonwealth Conference. Mr. Smith has thanked my right honourable friend for this invitation but has asked that it should be left over pending further correspondence.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Duke for the Answer he has given. In view of the fact that, as he has said, an almost identical Question was put in another place yesterday, perhaps I ought to explain that I put down this Question to-day mainly because it seemed wrong that there should be no statement in your Lordships' House on this important development.

But I also put it down because I wanted to ask two supplementary questions which I think are still relevant after the reply, the first of which is this. Do Her Majesty's Government agree that it has always been the basic principle of the British Commonwealth that we do not interfere in each others internal affairs? If so, how do we reconcile with that principle their action in the present instance when they seem deliberately to have invited other members of the Commonwealth to give what they must have known beforehand would be a hostile vote on Southern Rhodesia's attendance at this Conference of Prime Ministers purely on the grounds of her internal policy?—because that is what it is, whatever excuse is given.

The second question I should like to ask is this. Her attendance having been refused, will Her Majesty's Government give an undertaking that the subject of Southern Rhodesia will not be discussed at any official meetings of the Conference in her absence? I quite understand what the Prime Minister said, that you cannot prevent people talking unofficially in corridors—nobody thinks you can. My third supplementary question is: If any member of the Conference continues to press strongly in favour of the inclusion of the subject of Southern Rhodesia on the official agenda of the Conference, on the very far-fetched grounds that she is a danger to inter, national peace, will Her Majesty's Government make it clear that that would involve also the inclusion of Cyprus, where the danger to peace is both more immediate and more acute?


My Lords, my noble friend said he would have two supplementaries and ended up with three. The answer to the first part of his first supplementary is "Yes". The answer to the second part of his first supplementary is that it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that no non-fully-independent member of the Commonwealth should be invited to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference without the general agreement of all members of the Commonwealth. I must make it perfectly clear that as the Prime Ministers' Conference is held in London, our Prime Minister is Chairman of the Conference; but we are only one of the Commonwealth and it is not for us to dictate to our fellow members what we wish to be done. The decision not to invite Mr. Smith to attend is one taken by the whole Commonwealth and not by us, and I should like to put very great emphasis on that.

In reply to my noble friend's third supplementary, I should like to draw his attention to the Prime Minister's reply in another place yesterday, column 241 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. So far as an undertaking about Cyprus is concerned, it would not be fitting for me, as a Junior Minister, to give any undertaking about what the Prime Ministers choose to discuss.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, and I would ask just one further question. If, as I think is apparent, the majority of the Commonwealth will be against Southern Rhodesia, in present circumstances, ever obtaining full independence, does that mean that in such circumstances she can never expect to attend future Commonwealth Conferences as she has done for a great many years in the past?


My Lords, in view of what I said I think it would be reasonable to say that it would be highly unlikely that Southern Rhodesia would attend a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference until she had attained full independence.


My Lords, in view of the fact that I think your Lordships will agree with the noble Marquess that this was a most important statement that was made yesterday by the Prime Minister about Southern Rhodesia, may I ask the noble Duke why it was that a simultaneous statement was not made in this House? Because, as I am sure the noble Duke will agree, it is the usual practice for statements of this importance to be made simultaneously in both Houses. Will the Government at any rate give us the assurance that any decision of policy about Southern Rhodesia which may be reached before the Recess will be announced in this House at the same time as in another place?


My Lords, with regard to the noble Earl's second question, I am sure that that will be done. With regard to his first question, I understand the position to be that Statements made on behalf of the Government in another place are repeated in this House under three conditions: first of all, when they are Statements as such; secondly, when they are given in answer to Private Notice Questions, and thirdly, if the Question to which the Statement relates is of such importance that it is last in the list of Prime Minister's Questions. This Question on the invitation to Mr. Smith to attend the Prime Ministers' Conference was No. 8 of nine Questions in the Prime Minister's list yesterday.


My Lords, is it not right that this decision was a correct one; that it would be a most undesirable precedent to do otherwise, in view of the fact that a number of other countries which are shortly to become independent would have to be invited? For this reason, are not the Government and the other members of the Commonwealth perfectly correct in laying down this rule now? Secondly, from Mr. Smith's point of view, is it not extremely fortunate that they made this rule; because might he not otherwise be in an extremely embarrassing position if he had been invited to attend and the affairs of Southern Rhodesia were debated at the Conference?


My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's first question is, Yes. With regard to the second question, I think I should prefer, if I may be forgiven, not to depart into the realms of conjecture.


My Lords, if any question concerning the independence of Southern Rhodesia is raised at the coming Conference, will Mr. Smith be invited to remain in London so that there can be consultation with him?


My Lords, as I understand it (and I hoped I had made it clear in my original Answer), the Prime Minister has invited Mr. Smith to come to London either before or after the Conference, and so far Mr. Smith has preferred to delay any positive reply: he has said that he feels he should not come until there has been further correspondence. Therefore, at the moment there is no question of his being in London before the Conference opens, and therefore no question of extending his visit. Should he come before the Conference—and the evidence at the moment is that he will not—this will be a matter for discussion between our Prime Minister and the other Prime Ministers attending the Conference.


My Lords, in view of the supplementary put by the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition, which I gather rather suggested that the question of the grant of independence to Southern Rhodesia might be discussed at the Commonwealth Conference, may I ask for an assurance, first of all, that it is for the Government of this country to decide whether, when and on what terms independence—Dominion status, as we used to call it—should be given to Southern Rhodesia or any other country? I think it is very important that that should be re-established, because that has always been the accepted rule of every Government. I agree that, having given independence— Dominion status —to a country, whether that country should become a full member of the Club is a matter for the whole Club. I hope that we may have a reaffirmation of that constitutional position.

Secondly, may we have an assurance that if people at the Conference try to discuss, within the Conference and as part of the proceedings of the Conference, the position of Southern Rhodesia, that will be definitely ruled out? Because, although we are only one of a number of people, the Prime Minister, after all, is in the Chair, and there must be some rules of order, and we must stick to what have always been the rules that have guided us.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to what is a very important constitutional concept. This question of when a country achieves full total sovereign independence is entirely a matter between that country's Government and the British Government, and, as I say, I am very grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to that important matter. On the second question, I can only repeat what I said to my noble friend Lord Salisbury: the Prime Minister dealt with that point in another place yesterday, and it appears at column 241 of the OFFICIAL REPORT.


My Lords, may I take it that it is not likely that the independence of Southern Rhodesia will be discussed at the Conference?


My Lords, as the Prime Minister said in another place yesterday, as well as formal discussions, there are many informal discussions, and I should not wish to intimate that there will not be discussion informally of this matter of very great concern to the whole Commonwealth.