Surplus War Material (Export)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th January 1956.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Preston North 12:00 am, 24th January 1956

Far be it from me to start an argument with the hon. Gentleman's recollections, but I think he will find, particularly if he looks at the OFFICIAL REPORT of those days, that on the question of the Middle East and Palestine before the war the great preoccupation of both sides of the House was seeing that justice was done to the different claims that were made. As a result, there was a tendency to take sides. Under present circumstances we cannot do that, even if we wanted to do so. The most we can hope to do is to defend the interests we still have there. I suggest we have two main interests. The first main interest is communications. That is the most permanent, although perhaps not the most urgent. Sea communications are no longer under our control. I have referred to the breaches which have been made in the principle of the freedom of the seas. I see that in Cairo some pressure is being put on the board of the Suez Canal Company to alter its articles of association.

Our air communications, however, are still under our control and they are protected from British bases in Cyprus and Libya, in Jordan and the Persian Gulf and Aden. These bases also have vital strategic implications. The Government have decided, I think absolutely rightly, that Britain should have the hydrogen bomb and should have a hydrogen bomb strategy of her own. But it is no use having hydrogen weapons unless we have the bases from which the deterrent can be exercised. It is essential for any Commonwealth hydrogen strategy that those bases should be maintained.

Of greater immediate importance is the flow of oil. The whole House knows that the future of British production, our ability to overcome the balance of payments crisis and to pay our way in the world, is going to depend on the free flow of oil from the Middle East. It is just as important as the full production of coal. But we are not the only country interested in that oil; the Americans, the Soviets and Western Europe are all interested. Here we have to face a harsh truth which too often is neglected. Economists tell us, and Chancellors of the Exchequer and Presidents of the Board of Trade repeat it, that the prizes in the economic battle go to those who are most competitive and most efficient, but in the world of reality that is not always so. For all I know, our oil experts may be the best in the world, the most efficient in the world, but we would be out of Buraimi and someone else would be in if we had not been militarily in a position to uphold the rights of the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. I wish to congratulate the Government on the line they have been pursuing in the Persian Gulf region. It may make all the difference between the ability of this country to pay its way in the next 20 years and bankruptcy.

The conclusion I would draw from all that is that if we are to protect our interests in the Middle East and discharge our obligations, we have to maintain the network of bases without which we cannot ensure the safety of our communications and the flow of oil. I do not think that general conclusion is in dispute, at any rate on this side of the House. We had a sharp difference a year ago over the question of Suez—I have not changed my view on that—but I have never thought that our difference over that issue was one of principle. It was not a question of whether we should stay in the Middle East or not; it was not a question of staying or withdrawing all our forces from the Middle East, but of where we should stand. The Government decided, rightly or wrongly, to disperse the bases on which British Power rested—re-deploy, I think the word was—and it now rests on positions in Cyprus, Libya, Aden and the Persian Gulf. It seems to me that our main task must be to consolidate those positions and those bases.

What are the main dangers threatening what remains of British influence in the Middle East—threatening our interests and ability to discharge our obligations? There has been a tendency in this debate to concentrate on the problem of Israel, but I agree with the hon. Member for Coventry, East that the Israeli question is not the central problem of the Middle East. I believe that in many ways it is a symptom rather than a cause. The underlying tension in that part of the world—the main danger as I see it—arises from the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat that it may come into alliance with the Soviet Union. Here Egypt is the key. There is a tendency, which perhaps is natural after the Palestine War, to under-rate the strength and fighting ability of the Egyptians, yet history shows that Egypt has probably been the most dynamic element in the Middle East for thousands of years. One could write volumes to support this view but to quote one example in the last century, the main struggle for power, until the British came to Egypt, was between Egypt and Turkey for the control of the rest of the Middle East.

Hon. Members who know Egypt will realise the appalling social and economic problems by which that country is beset. A very large population presses on very scarce means of subsistence. There is no indigenous element in the country which has sufficient power or is sufficiently strongly established to be able to carry into practice the reforms which would be necessary to relieve the prevailing social and economic tensions. The monarchy could not do it, the Wafd could not do it, and I do not believe the military Government can do it. So long as we were there those tensions continued, but at any rate they were prevented from exploding by our presence. But from the moment we withdrew from Cairo, even before we left the Suez Canal zone, each Egyptian régime has adopted an imperialist and xenophobe policy in order to divert attention from social problems and get a measure of calm at home. It is like the natural problem which existed in the Nile Valley before the dams were established; every seven years there were widespread floods. So periodically all through history Egypt has developed expansionist policies.

What are the effects of this new Egyptian expansion which is developing? Egypt is trying to secure the leadership of the Arab world, and in the process she is attempting to undermine those elements in Libya which are working with us. She has sought to gain control of the Sudan. With Saudi-Arabia she is attempting to undermine our position in Jordan and Iraq and there are reports that she is even feeling her way into the Persian Gulf area. What are we to do in the face of that problem? We are taking away from the Suez Canal the forces which could have made Egyptian expansion harmless. If we oppose Egypt all-out we shall get, as we have already seen, a growing connection between Egypt and the Soviet Union.

How are we to settle this key problem of the Middle East? There is no sure way out of this problem. The best way is to try to help secure a solution of Egypt's internal problems, and although I have felt a great deal of anxiety about the Aswan Dam project, considering how many other and more friendly countries have a stronger claim on our resources, I think probably that decision was right. The other step we can take is to strengthen our other friends in the area so as to build a true balance in the region. The nearest geographically to Egypt is Israel.

Here I should like to ask the Foreign Secretary when he winds up tonight to clarify a little the intervention of the Prime Minister on the subject of the Tripartite Declaration. I had understood that the Tripartite Declaration bound us to resist aggression against the existing armistice frontiers in all circumstances. I should be worried, and I think public opinion would be worried, if that were not the case. I am not one of those who are critical of the Prime Minister's Guildhall speech. After all, Egypt and Israel are successor States of what used to be the British Empire in the Middle East and it must be our task, in so far as we try to exercise influence there, to bring them together. The old saying, "Agree with thine adversary quickly" has some relevance to Israel at present.

But I, want to make two points in this connection. First, I believe that in the long run it would make for stability if there were a British base in Israel matching the position we have in Jordan. It would make a balance and have an influence in restraining forces on both sides of the border. Secondly, I hope very much that, whatever concessions Israel may be asked to make to her neighbours, we shall not ask her to make any concessions which would weaken her ability to defend herself or make her economically more vulnerable. In particular, I hope we shall not try to establish a common frontier between Jordan and Egypt.

We have all been worried by what we have seen in the papers during the Recess about the way in which events have unfolded in Jordan. No doubt the Foreign Secretary will be able to say how far the account of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Coventry, East concurs with what has happened. I am glad that we have sent reinforcements to Cyprus, not to suppress sedition there but to be able to protect our interests in Jordan in case of need. I understood from the newspapers that this was the object of sending out those reinforcements. It looks as if they have had a calming effect.

It also seems to me to point to a fundamental reason why it is important that we should retain the possession of Cyprus as well as a position in Cyprus. No doubt bases in Cyprus could be leased to us similar to the American bases in Crete. If they were leased from Greece, presumably it would be in connection with N.A.T.O. or some other agreement. Now we have sent troops to Cyprus to support the policy we are pursuing in Jordan, a policy not directly connected with N.A.T.O. Let us not forget that Greece is a country with many economic links with Egypt. Egypt is opposing our policy in Jordan. I do not know whether the United States of America is supporting it. In those circumstances it might not be easy to use bases on Greek soil for the support of a policy to which Greece may not be opposed.

All this seems to show that, whatever hon. Members may think of the policy we are pursuing in Jordan—and I hope we shall get clarification of it tonight—it is important that we should have a base in the Middle East where we can station reinforcements to be used in support of the defence of our interests and our ability to discharge our obligations.