Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th May 1960.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 30th May 1960

I intend to break the normal practice of the House by following the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) in some of the things that he said, and I shall come to them a little later on, but I want him to know that if I do not begin by commenting on his speech, it is not that I have forgotten his points, many of which are important and with some of which I am in disagreement.

This has been a rather disappointing debate in some respects. I thought that the Prime Minister, whose work in and for Paris I admire, told us nothing at all this afternoon. Indeed, he got to a point in his speech where he appeared to be indicating that he had more in common with Dr. Verwoerd than with Mr. Khrushchev, and, although I do not think he intended it, he gave an unfortunate impression.

This has also been a debate marked with slashing attacks on the Government Front Bench from some hon. Members opposite. The noble Lord the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lambton) delivered himself of a tremendous assault on the position of the Government which, had it come from a back bencher on this side of the House, would have been interpreted as a split in the Labour Party. But the method was so courteous and the manner so gentle that this will be passed over without comment in the daily Press. At any rate, there is one thing with which we all agree, and that is that the failure of the Summit was tragic. Nobody can deny his sense of disappointment that the Summit failed. Even those hon. Members opposite who believe that summitry is the wrong way to go about it must have wished it had worked.

I want to pay a tribute to the Prime Minister's initiative in bringing about, as he did in part, an atmosphere of détente and for trying to bring the two sides together. Indeed, I think that we shall make sense of the debate only if we recognise that all the participants in Paris may have been sincere. I agree it is a novel idea to take what the other side says at its face value, but why should we not try? Perhaps Mr. Khrushchev really did break up the Summit because of the U2 incident. It is ruled out by most speakers as if it were unthinkable that Mr. Khrushchev meant what he said, but, as far as I can understand it, it is likely that a Head of State would find it difficult to sit down at the conference table with another Head of State who claimed the right to fly over his territory. I think the American espionage matter is a small aspect. What mattered much more was Mr. Herter's claim that he had a right to do it. Even President Eisenhower was never able to give a permanent assurance that the flights would not be resumed. I do not believe we shall make much sense of these discussions if we do not recognise the possibility that everybody at the Summit was sincere—that is to say, that all the leaders want peace. And even the generals who are much maligned are actually engaged by their Governments to be cautious about détentes in case they result in military weakness. I am not a great admirer of the military man, but if we pay a man a salary, give him a bright uniform and tell him that he has got to secure his country's safety by military means, we cannot be surprised if on occasion he says that a certain course of policy will lead to military weakness.

So we must start this post mortem on the Summit by assuming that all those who took part, both military and civilian, were concerned to get peace. I do not think we ought to be too worried about the most recent attack by Mr. Khrushchev on President Eisenhower because of the President's well-known enjoyment of golf. It ought not to worry us unduly. I remember some of the robust utterances made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) over the last few years with reference to his own colleagues. Robustness of language is not incompatible with sincerity of purpose or with a desire to work with other people. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in the past has delivered himself of severe comments on his colleagues but they did not render him incapable of the high office of leading us at a moment of national crisis.

The question is, if we accept the possibility that the four leaders at the Summit were sincere, whether their total failure to make progress means that we go back to the cold war. I do not think that will take place, because, in my opinion, the cold war died some months or even years ago. It died not because anybody wound it up, not because it was settled, but because the cold war has become increasingly irrelevant to the problems which confront the world today. Indeed, the whole basis of the cold war was that it was an ideological conflict. It was a conflict that was to be fought out by military methods and it was a conflict that really based itself on a quarrel between the European or white nations of the world. What has happened in the last few years is simply this. The problems of the world as we see them are neither ideological in character, military in importance, nor European in their origin. What has happened is that the real problems of the world, which are quite different and with which I want to deal in a moment, have increasingly asserted themselves and have proved that the cold war is not the dominant factor in the world today. We have had an awful lot of ideological discussion today, even quotations from Karl Marx by hon. Members opposite and comments about the Communist purpose. But it is a great mistake to credit one's opponents with a monolithic and consistent ideology. I can imagine debates in the Supreme Soviet in which the member for Minsk reads the third verse of the National Anthem as proof of the fact that the British are people with whom it is difficult to deal peacefully. It would be difficult for another Russian M.P. to counter that suggestion because he would not know what we here all know—that nobody remembers the third verse and it means nothing. It contains the words: Confound their politics,Frustrate their knavish tricks. It means nothing to us. When I hear the behaviour of Khrushchev explained in terms of what Karl Marx wrote, it only indicates lack of judgment of the person who quotes the words.

Secondly, the struggle in the world today is not basically military. It is quite different.

Thirdly, it is no longer European. This is why I referred to the speech of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn. The hon. Gentleman said that we could not have anyone else at the Summit Meeting except the four great Powers because world peace is primarily a European affair. A great many people looking at what happened at the Summit saw four white men each with the capacity to destroy humanity failing to agree. When Dr. Nkrumah indicated this in a speech soon afterwards, he won my sympathy. Quite franky, I believe that the Summit Meeting as it was conceived at Paris will be the last ever to be held in those conditions, and rightly so.