Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1960.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 1st November 1960

I would rather not give way again because I want to deal with these issues in a fuller way and in my own words later on.

The tribal festival of the Queen's Speech in which we participate every year is an occasion to look forward and to judge the Government's policy and see how it will shape in the months that lie ahead. I want to do that and to examine the international situation that is likely to confront us in the next twelve months, to judge our policy by that situation and to see whether our policy is likely to measure up to the challenge that we have to face.

British foreign policy as it was being expounded today by the Prime Minister had its origins in the postwar era. It had its origins in the years when Stalin's Russia seemed to threaten the security of the Western world. Our response to that challenge of Stalin's Russia was the policy of alliances and rearmament and an attempt to bring everybody we possibly could into alliance with us. "A power vacuum" was the phrase that Ernest Bevin used. The idea was to line up just everybody on one's side and see that there was no area between oneself and the Communists. That was the policy thought most likely to give one security. This was the policy which was applied to the Middle East with the Bagdad Pact and to the Far East with S.E.A.T.O. At the same time we supplied arms to our friends, when they seemed reliable, and in this way we hoped to build a buttress against Communism.

This is the case that the Prime Minister advocated and which he repeated today rather uncritically and rigidly in his speech. Last year, the Prime Minister began to move away from it with his Moscow visit, but today he repeated more or less unchanged the traditional foreign policy that this country has pursued since the war. He made fun of us at Scarborough for having doubts and anxieties about it. I repeat with my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) that when I heard the Prime Minister speak I thanked God for the Labour conference where these issues were thrashed out. I assure hon. Members opposite that whether we reached right or wrong decisions at Scarborough is of very little importance compared with the fact that we actually discussed these issues, whilst at Scarborough the Conservative conference confined itself to the menace to our security that might come from foreigners using our National Health Service, as if the main danger to British security was a lot of pregnant tourists coming here and filling up our maternity hospitals.

I want to apply the simple test of the future problems that the world faces to the foreign policy which is being pursued by this country, and I want to isolate three problems which I believe will confront Britain in the next twelve months.

First of all, it is clear that the arms race will continue. Technical developments on both sides of the Iron Curtain are going on apace. The Polaris submarine system which is now being developed by the United States will mean that in a very few years these submarines can be all over the oceans of the world and any one of them can deliver greater fire power than that of both air forces in the whole of the last war. It is obvious that the Germans are moving towards possession of their own nuclear weapons, and it is very unlikely, if we pursue the Prime Minister's foreign policy, that we can reasonably resist this demand. For he argues that the more nuclear weapons we have in the West the more effective the deterrent and the more unlikely war will be. It is perhaps only when the distribution of atomic weapons is spread more widely that we shall begin to see clearly whether the arms race does give us security or not in the world today. Of course it does not.

By pursuing a policy of alliances and rearmament I think that we are unlikely to be able to face the problems that confront us. The Soviet Union is developing its own weapons too and there cannot be many months before there are armed satellites encircling the globe able at any moment to release their weapons on the rest of the world. Then we have China no doubt developing her own weapons and anxious to take part in a policy of negotiation from strength. Therefore, by that test I do not believe that this country's traditional foreign policy measures up to requirements.

Next we come to the problem of the developing crisis in Africa, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chigwell, with whose speech I said I would deal, has now had to leave the Chamber. The developing African crisis is something that will become more and more dominant in world affairs this year. We have already had in the Congo a complete collapse of a new African State and the attempt of the United Nations to save it. We do not yet know whether the United Nations will succeed. This is only the beginning of the African crisis, because what happens in the Congo will be repeated in Angola and Portuguese East Africa. And the greatest crisis of all, that of Algeria, will be absolute headline news from now on as far ahead as we can see. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition dealt with this matter in his opening speech and I have the Adjournment on it on Friday and therefore I will not deal with it further today. Algeria will become another Korea if the United Nations does not impose a peaceful settlement on France, now paralysed by the contradictions of her own internal crisis. This problem of Africa will not be eased by a policy of alliances and rearmament.

Next we have the very important element of the situation which we shall have to face in the next few months inside the United Nations, a situation in which many Powers are turning to the United Nations to solve their problems. The hon. Member for Chigwell poured scorn on the United Nations and poked fun about our religious faith in it. Of course we have a religious faith in the United Nations. If the United Nations does not solve our problems who else will solve them? I have a religious faith in Parliament too, not because I agree with all that Parliament does but because I would prefer that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister should do the wrong thing, peacefully by popular consent, than that we should all try to do the right thing by means of violence. Therefore, in the United Nations lies the only hope for the peace of the world. I asked a United Nations official last year, "Is it worth working in this organisation?" He replied, "Very often it does not seem to be, but if I came to the conclusion that it was not I should jump out of the window." That is what I feel about the United Nations, with all its imperfections.

So my point is a very simple one. If we measure our existing traditional foreign policy against the problems that will confront us in the next twelve months we will see how irrelevant it is. The policy of the cold war not only does not contribute to the solution of the arms race or of the African crisis or help to make the United Nations work, it actually makes every one of these problems more difficult to solve. My point, therefore, is to try to isolate and draw attention to some now priorities in foreign policy. These are not important because I am suggesting them, but because they stem from an attempt to look at the world afresh and to see what it is in the 1960s that we have to do if we are to survive.

I come first and foremost, as everybody does, to the question of disarmament. There is no hope whatsoever of disarmament if we cannot reduce or remove the distrust that now exists between the Soviet Union and the United States. Therefore, I put priority No. 1, disarmament, as our task.

Secondly I put the struggle for human rights as our responsibility, because, as I said earlier, if we do not give to Africans the opportunity for peaceful victory for themselves, equality of status, and human rights, there will be bloodshed in that Continent. All we are discussing in Africa today is not what will happen but how it will happen. It is the method of change that we are discussing.

The third problem that I put on my new list of priorities is the problem of economic development, because people very often forget that the greatest crisis that faces the world is still the problem of human poverty, and I just do not mean the poverty that exists today. I mean that poverty that is awaiting us in the future when world population doubles, as it will in the next forty years. I believe that the first true man appeared on the globe 50,000 years ago and during that 50,000 years the population of the globe has risen to 2,700 million. In the next forty years there will be twice as many mouths to feed. Therefore, this problem of economic development is much more pressing even than the problem of the atomic weapon. There is a possibility that we shall not destroy ourselves in war, but there is certainty that we shall starve if we do not provide the economic development and capital accumulation on the scale necessary to meet the needs of the world's rising population.

Finally, on my list of priorities comes our rôle in the United Nations. I agree most strongly with what has been said about world Government. None of these problems can be settled within the framework of national sovereignty. They can only be settled by some supranational authority. I feel that the question of world government, which we all believed was a good thing—we wanted it one day and all that—has to be transferred from the drawer in our desk marked "Distant Future" and put in the drawer marked "Near Future". I believe that an initiative along these lines would meet with very considerable response by other countries which also fear the dangers that national sovereignty may bring to them.

If these are our priorities, how can Britain help to achieve them? What is required now is a new foreign policy initiative by the British Government. I put at the top of our priorities for our own policy—I am now speaking about what Britain could actually do—the need to work to bring about a détente between the Soviet Union and the United States.

I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for what he began to do last year when he went to Moscow. He was, unfortunately, frightened away from it by the objections of Dr. Adenauer. General de Gaulle gave him the "icy mitt", President Eisenhower was not very keen on it, and, after the abortive Summit, the whole thing came to an end. But it was the right idea and should now be put as priority No. 1 in our foreign policy.

I do not believe that the United States or the Soviet Union are planning an aggressive war, nor do I think that they believe that they could win such a war. Indeed, I think that Soviet motivation deserves extra study by us and that we ought to come to terms with the changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union since the death of Stalin. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) has done a great deal with his British Council work and the U.S.S.R.-Great Britain Association work to try to bring about understanding. A number of us who have taken an interest in this have come to the conclusion that Soviet ideas have changed a great deal, not because of a change of heart, but because the realities of the situation have changed the Soviet analysis of the situation.

The first and dominant thing about the Soviet Union today is that it believes that it will win by peaceful means. It does not matter whether they are right or wrong. History will tell us that. But if they actually believe, as Mr. Khrushchev believes, that Socialism will defeat capitalism by outcompeting and outproducing it, they would be lunatic if they tried to anticipate this peaceful victory by a war which would destroy the whole of society. That is the first reason why we can reasonably say that the Soviet Union does not want a war.

The second is that the Soviet Union and the Communist Party have in recent months been willing to engage in the most intense ideological conflict with the Chinese who had not accepted their view on the dangers of war. There is no greater test of the sincerity of Russia's intentions than to judge by the way Russia has pursued—at great risk to the solidarity of the Socialist camp—its theoretical argument with the Chinese. Some people have been comforted by the disagreement between Moscow and Peking. I find no comfort in it. I yearn for the day when Moscow and Peking may be brought to think on the same lines that Mr. Khrushchev has advocated. There is evidence in recent weeks that the Chinese are beginning to see the Soviet case for co-existence.

The third reason why we may believe that Mr. Khrushchev's Russia is different from Stalin's Russia is that there has been considerable internal easement in the Soviet Union. There is no question about this. One does not put on internal easement to impress the foreigner. It is growing self-confidence in their society which helps them to relax a little bit.

I therefore believe that a British initiative designed to bring about a détente between Moscow and Peking could achieve great influence, and certainly it is worth trying.

The second thing that we must do if we are to have a new foreign policy initiative is to take a new and more vigorous line on what is commonly called imperialism. This is the big issue of the twentieth century. When future historians come to write about the twentieth century, the end of the old imperial pattern will be one of the trends described most fully and elaborately. Although British policy has had some good aspects under this Government, there is still uncertainty in its attitude to Imperialism. In Muscat and Oman, an issue which I tried to raise some years ago, we still hang on to the sort of association between an imperial Power and local sheiks, which was really more appropriate for the eighteenth rather than even the nineteenth century. And it is the same in Aden.

On the other hand, if we look at other parts of our Empire and at what we have done in those parts of Africa where there are no settlers—Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone—the picture is much more bright. When we look at areas where the settlers live in Central Africa, we find that the Government, on the other hand, have been bolstering up the settlers. When we look at South Africa we find that excuses of Commonwealth unity have come in to fog the issue. When we look at Portuguese territories and at Algeria, we find that N.A.T.O. Loyalties have corrupted our attitude to imperialism.

All I am saying is that we have in Britain still, despite the much vaunted "wind of change" speech, no consistent policy against imperialism, and the African people regard us as, at the worst, enemies, and at the best uncommitted on the issue of colonialism and imperialism. I do not believe that in the twentieth century, if we want to have any influence in the world, we can be uncommitted on colonialism. I believe that an uncompromising policy against old-fashioned imperial structures is absolutely essential.

The third priority for our foreign policy is to build up the United Nations. I believe that if we have a contribution to make it is in this very field. We often boast of our many years of Parliamentary experience. We preserve in the ways, habits and methods of work in this House all our old history to remind ourselves of our own struggle. This experience in making change by discussion effective is experience which the United Nations desperately needs.

Mr. Khrushchev's decision to visit the United Nations Assembly this year was the best thing that could possibly have happened, because the only way that one can kill the United Nations is by ignoring it. One cannot kill it by using it. The great struggle in the world is on the issue of whether the great Powers—America, Russia, China, and India—are willing to put confidence in the machinery of peaceful change or not. I do not agree with much of what Mr. Khrushchev said. But although his language was sometimes unparliamentary and you, Mr. Speaker, would have called him to order long before he was allowed to indulge in his personal attack—you have no gavel to break but no doubt your discipline would soon have been effective—because of the fact that Mr. Khrushchev actually visited the United Nations I believe that there is some reasonable hope that it may be made to work.

If our new priorities are to be a détente, an uncompromising attitude against imperialism and a real effort in the United Nations, what effect will this have upon our traditional policy? All I am advocating is a new emphasis and a greater flexibility. I do not believe this will always be popular with our allies, but that is a very different thing from saying that we should leave our alliances, which I do not think we should. Until we get multilateral disarmament there can be no security. Atomic arms races can never give security to any country. But until we get a disarmament agreement we must be free to make arrangements for our own security.

There is a very wide measure of agreement on this side of the House, despite the disagreements which have been much discussed in the Press, that a predominantly non-nuclear Britain operating within a reformed N.A.T.O. would be able to play just the sort of rôle that I advocated earlier in my speech. All we have to recognise is that in the world of the sixties—unlike the world of 1949 when Stalin dictated our response—we cannot let N.A.T.O. dominate our own foreign policy. I have no doubt whatsoever that it is allowing N.A.T.O. to dominate our foreign policy that has led us wrong in Algeria, led us to vote against Chinese admission year after year to the United Nations, led us to drop the idea of disengagement in Europe because Dr. Adenauer would not have it, and has prevented us from making the contribution to peace that Britain could make. This demand for an independent foreign policy, I believe—and not unilateralism—is the greatest and most important change that is coming over our country at the present time.

There is a specific and particular contribution that the Government could make this coming year. I want to bring it down to hard-and-fast proposals. The Government should go back to the policy of détente with Russia and see whether they could not succeed this time. After all, it was not of our making that the Summit failed. That was the fault of other very unhappy events which occurred at that time. It was not the Prime Minister's wish that the Summit should fail, and he should not be deterred by the hostility of others from attempting it again.

I should like a deliberate policy of friendship with Russia to become once again an important element in British policy-making. I am not suggesting anything so very revolutionary. I am suggesting that we should cut out the provocation and try to cut out and cut down some of the propaganda, hoping that that will be reciprocated. I suggest that we should try to make a real effort to lift the limitations on Soviet diplomats here and try to get more contacts. We should try to show in everything we do that there is nothing built into our policy which leads to hostility towards the Soviet Union.

I should like to see Britain end the trade embargo, which has no meaning whatsoever in the world today. With Soviet arms progress in the atomic field, to maintain a strategic embargo against Russia or China is meaningless, and it does great damage to our cause, which is to show friendship to the Soviet bloc. Even if the United States were not prepared to accept this, I would go ahead alone in ending the trade embargo.

I would go further and Try to resume contact at the highest level. This summer a Soviet Trade Exhibition is being opened in London. It is the greatest exhibition that the Soviet Union has ever staged outside its own country. It is twice as big as its exhibition at the Brussels Fair. A month later there will be a British Exhibition in Moscow, which, I believe, will be the biggest foreign exhibition ever to appear in the Soviet Union and the biggest exhibition ever put up abroad by Britain. I should like to see the Prime Minister invite Mr. Khrushchev to London to open the Soviet Exhibition, and if this led to some useful contacts, I should like to see the Prime Minister go to Moscow a month later to open the British Exhibition and renew those contacts.

This is really the way ahead for Britain in the nuclear age. All I am saying is that new realities should give rise to new policies. We are always too late. Like the War Office, Which is always preparing for the last war, we are always preparing for the last international crisis and seem never to be looking ahead to the future.

I believe that we are, in a sense, on the eve of a great break-through in foreign affairs in which flexibility will return, and can be made useful if it does return. When I travel—I have had the good fortune in the last year to go to the United States, to the Soviet Union and to Africa, and have travelled a little in Europe—I feel that the whole world is on the move. The younger people—those who were born in Africa and are now coming to freedom for the first time, the young people in the United States belonging to a country which has confidence in the future, and the young people in the Soviet Union who are engaged in construction—really do believe that this is their world and that they are able to shape its destiny.

Where does one find that feeling in Britain? Where is that boundless confidence in the future and that desire to get on with the job? In my view, Britain has been induced into a smugness and complacency which shuts our eyes to what is happening in the world. We still believe that because we do everything in the same way, because Mr. Speaker wears his wig and because there is the same procedure as we go about our daily business, we are, by that very fact, still great. But no country is great unless it faces the challenge of its own time and makes its own contribution in its own way and seizes the opportunities which are presented to it. That can be done in the Britain of 1960 only by a new, more independent and more flexible foreign policy and a Government who are willing to provide it.