Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th July 1960.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Roy Wise Mr Roy Wise , Rugby 12:00 am, 4th July 1960

I shall have to forgo the pleasure of commenting on some of the arguments put by hon. Members during the debate, for I have no time both to deal with them and put forward my own thesis. I have heard nearly every word that has been said and I think that the debate is, without exception so far, the most unpractical contribution ever made to any debate on the Commonwealth at any time and in any place.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) began with the right question. He asked: what sort of Commonwealth do we want? He then went on to talk about South Africa! We must find out what sort of Commonwealth we want and, therefore, what sort of Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference we want. We are faced now with this very large collection of nations not thinking alike politically, as the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) said. Some of them are arbitrary in outlook and he fell back, of course, on condemnation of South Africa for imprisoning people without trial. I believe that that is done in Ghana, also. He abused South Africa for shooting people in civil disobedience. But that has also been done in Pakistan and other countries. It is not only when skins are white that these things are obnoxious.

We must try and find some connecting link which will enable this collection of countries with totally different outlooks to govern themselves and to govern their relationships with each other. The only possible link is the link of Commonwealth trade. We shall not solve the problems of the Commonwealth by pouring out money by dole or loan. To start with, as has been pointed out, the interest on loans is burdensome and, in the end, it is more than these countries can face. Handing out doles is of no use whatever, and in any case we cannot afford it.

We can only afford to invest roughly what we make on our balance of trade. That is not nearly enough for all the calls on us in the Commonwealth. Inside the sterling area we can expand to a slightly greater extent because we do not run into the same danger over our balance of payments. But by no means all the Commonwealth is in the sterling area, and much of it that is may leave it before long.

We must, therefore, try to find some basis of mutual trade. For some reason known only to themselves, hon. Members opposite, when in office, abandoned the right to control our own trading destinies. It cost the United States £1,000 million to wreck a carefully built-up trading system, and it was the cheapest £1,000 million that any country has yet spent. Not only that, we are even repaying it to the United States.

Having lost the right to control our own destinies, we have now lost the right to produce those inducements for building up trade between one part of the Commonwealth and another. What hon. Members opposite forgot at the time was that we were not only undertaking the obligations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, but proposing to continue to honour the obligations we already had under the Ottowa Agreements, which had been in force for quite a long time. In fact, it left the United Kingdom, alone of all the countries of the world, in a position in which there was no room for manœuvre of any kind whatsoever.

This had been recognised by the Conservative Party when it was in Opposition and it spoke very firmly about it. From a member of our own Front Bench, about 1950, the words came: The Conservative Party regard all this as highly objectionable. Is it any less objectionable now, and can we not get back to the perfectly sound idea that we had at the time and start to restore our own liberty of action? Even in an election manifesto, not long afterwards, we said: We shall retain Imperial Preference and uphold the right to grant and receive such preferences so that the Empire producer will have a place in the home market… What are we doing now? All we are doing is asking the Australians to whittle away the preferences that we gave them so that we may deal with another body of persons. I have nothing against a deal with the Outer Seven. They are meritorious nations and will undoubtedly add to our trading area. But it is not right that one of our own Dominions should have to part with some of the few advantages that we give our Dominions to make that possible.

The Imperial Preference system was a useful and good one. It rescued this country from one of the major financial disasters through which it was staggering at the time. I will not say that that situation was the fault of a previous Labour Government, because that would be controversial, but whether it was the fault of the Labour Government, whether it was, as hon. Members opposite say, a bankers' ramp, or whatever it was, it was a major crisis. Within two years of our adopting an intelligent imperial trading system the value of the £ sterling has risen from 3·20 dollars to 5·5 dollars and we were not having a balance of payments crisis or a dollar reserve crisis every two years as we have them now.

There must have been something in the system which enabled us to use it to control our trade. We are faced now with a hotch-potch of trading agreements. Our own internal trade is bolstered by subsidies, quotas, anti-dumping duties and a vast number of other things of that kind, when all that is wanted is a plain and simple tariff, which we used for so long and so effectively.

I ask the Government to try to get back to the conception of the Imperial or Commonwealth link between one of our countries and another. We can help the Commonwealth countries a great deal. We have a huge market here and we have a capacity for production, which is exactly what under-developed countries want. If we must have commercial arrangements—as, indeed, we must—with whom is it better to have them—with the Six countries with which we are negotiating so painfully now, which already enjoy a very high standard of living and whose rate of population expands certainly as slowly as our own, or with countries which at the moment have a very low standard of living and are, therefore, capable of almost infinite expansion?

We have already seen one or two warnings from the six countries with which we are trying to negotiate at the expense of our own Empire. M. Mollet said: Great Britain can no longer carve out her destiny or choose her own future. Which course shall she choose—the Commonwealth? No responsible British statesman will consider this a satisfactory answer. Is it true that no responsible British statesman considers that a satisfactory answer? If so, then in my view such people are not responsible British statesmen.

Some time ago, in the Financial Times, we had another warning: Certainly, there has been no change in France's attitude that the purpose of the Common Market is to rebuild the ancient glories of France on a new European foundation. That is a laudable ambition, but are we to take the part of the slaves who were buried under the foundations to bring good luck when buildings were put up in ancient times? We are better out of rebuilding the glories of other countries in teat sort of way. We have before us a wonderful opportunity even now. We need to regain our freedom of action. To regain our freedom of action we have to denounce the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. We are still entitled to do that, mercifully, because the United States, which, in many ways, dislikes the Agreement as much as we do, although having invented it, has withheld effective ratification. I sincerely trust that it will continue to be our friend in this way and continue to withhold it to give us time to make up our minis that we shall take our last chance of rebuilding the Commonwealth, which is in grave danger of disintegration.

Hon. Members opposite have pointed to the political differences, and, of course, they exist. In many cases there are colour differences. There are nations which are barely on speaking terms with others, but they are still inside the Commonwealth. There is this one link and this one link only which can be provided to hold them together while their various policies and their various prejudices have time to settle down into one great single, single-thinking unit.

We must have some cement to hold it together in the interval while this new Commonwealth is getting its roots and bringing itself together. I agree with those hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who have said that this new Commonwealth may be the decisive factor in preserving the peace of the world. But it is certainly not so now. At the moment, it has not the coherence to speak with one voice, and it has not the power to make its voice properly heard.

Those things can be given, but they can be given only by starting at the very bottom, with a financial basis to start with, with mutual trust engendered by mutual trade, and then slowly building from then on. As the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) said, the Union Jack is not a symbol of anything very much to a very large portion of the Commonwealth, but if the country whose national flag it is takes the initiative in building this new Commonwealth, then the emblem which we fly over the Commonwealth may be regarded at least with respect, if not with passionate loyalty. Passionate loyalties are probably out of date, but respect and mutual advantage are not. This is our last chance of securing both.