Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1960.

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The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Duncan Samlys):

This is the first occasion on which I have had the honour to address the House in my new capacity as Commonwealth Secretary, and today we are to discuss one of the most difficult and important issues within my sphere of responsibility.

I am glad to see that the Opposition have not tabled an Amendment to the Motion for an Address on this particular aspect of Government policy. I do not interpret that as meaning that they have no criticisms to make. I have no doubt that they have criticisms to make and will make them during the course of this debate. But I do interpret it as implying that they recognise the gravity of these issues and the importance of dealing with them in a manner free from the atmosphere of party political controversy. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, I can assure the House that that will be my approach to these difficult and awkward questions.

My right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary has asked me to say to the House how sorry he is not to be able to be here for the debate; he had thought, perhaps excusably, that the debate might start a little earlier. As I think the House knows, he is heavily engaged in the current conference which is dealing with the West Indies bases.

At the request of the Opposition, we shall be discussing today the problems of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Nevertheless, I am sure that hon. Members would like me to take this first opportunity after the Recess to express our good wishes to the latest new member of the Commonwealth. Coming at a time of grave crisis in other parts of Africa, the calm and dignified manner in which Nigeria has assumed her independence, and her attitude of warm friendship towards Britain, which came out so clearly during the independence celebrations, have, I believe, made a deep impression on the whole world.

With her 35 million people, Nigeria has a larger population than any other State in Africa and she will undoubtedly play an important part in international affairs. As we can see, she has already produced her own leaders, men of high calibre. These include statesmen like her Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar, whose first address to the United Nations undoubtedly made a powerful impact on the Assembly.

We can, I think, be very proud indeed of the part that Britain has played in leading the peoples of the Commonwealth to independence. There are now eleven member States with a combined population of nearly 700 million people—about one-quarter of the population of the whole globe. Not only have we given these countries independence; we are continuing to give them to the utmost of our ability economic and financial aid to help them develop their resources and so raise the living standards of their peoples. That is our answer, if answer be needed, to the empty charges of "colonialist oppression and exploitation." Moreover, the process still goes on. Before long, other British Colonies, headed by Sierra Leone, next April, will be following Nigeria along the road to independence.

I come now to the main topic of today's debate—the future of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. I expect that most speakers will express their views on the recommendations of the Monckton Commission's Report. I shall have to be an exception.

The Conference which will shortly be held to review the Federal Constitution will be of critical importance. The principal parties and racial communities have already publicly expressed diametrically opposed views on some of the most important issues which will have to be settled there. Since it will be the task of Her Majesty's Government to try to reconcile the conflicting opinions, it would, I am sure the House will agree, be a great mistake for Ministers here to adopt firm attitudes in advance of the Conference. I shall, however, listen with interest to the speeches of other hon. Members who will be able to speak with greater freedom than I.

On Tuesday, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked for an assurance that the delegations to the Review Conference from the Northern Territories—that is, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland—would include Africans. The delegations will be chosen by the Governments of the respective territories. I can assure the House, as the Colonial Secretary has already done, that the delegations from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, for which Her Majesty's Government are responsible, will be as representative as possible and that leading personalities from the principal African parties will certainly be invited.

While it would be unwise for me to comment on the Monckton Report, there is, I think, no harm in my telling the House how I myself see the problem in the light of the impressions which I formed during my recent visit to the Federation.

It is, I think, important to recognise the nature of this problem. Basically, it is the problem of reconciling the interests and aspirations of peoples of different races with entirely different backgrounds living together in the same country. But this problem cannot be understood entirely in terms of interracial friction and rivalry. The issues are much more complicated than that. In part, they are economic; in part, social and psychological; and, in part, political.

On the economic side, there is the age-old conflict between the haves and the have-nots. A relatively small number of people are enjoying a standard of life incomparably higher than that of the rest of the population. Wherever that situation occurs, even among people of the same stock, it breeds envy and a sense of injustice. When the differences in economic standards coincide with differences in the colour of men's faces, then mutual mistrust and prejudice are inevitably accentuated.

That is the economic background against which we have to consider our present problems. To recognise it is not necessarily to blame anybody for it. It is a situation which is bound to occur when pioneers from an economically advanced country go and settle in an economically primitive country with a large indigenous population. Moreover, I think that it would be unfair to dwell only upon present differences between the living conditions of Europeans and Africans. It is right to remember, also, the differences between the living conditions of the African population as they are today and as they were only sixty or seventy years ago, when the European settlers arrived.

It is one of the prime aims of Government policy in all three territories and in the Federation to improve the economic conditions of the African population and, what is equally important, to raise their standards of education. The ultimate objective must clearly be to bring these up to the level of the Europeans. It would do nobody any good—I think that this must be accepted by all—to try to level down the standards of the Europeans. The only practical effect would be to drive out the Europeans and to frighten away overseas investors, whose capital is so badly needed for the economic expansion of the country. Far from helping the Africans, it would set back their prospects of economic and social advance by at least a generation.

There is no good imagining that there is any quick and easy way of removing economic inequalities between the races. It certainly cannot be done just by passing laws. An immense increase in the national revenue will be needed, and this can be found only in one way—by developing the natural and industrial resources of the country. Anyone who visits the copper mines and the Kariba Dam or the new industries now growing up can see how much is now being done. African leaders, I believe, well understand that their country's continued progress depends upon constructive co-operation between the races. It would be very helpful if they would explain this more frankly to their supporters.

Then there is the problem of the social and psychological barriers which divide the races. Some are due to lack of understanding between communities with widely differing ways of life. Others arise from the practice of racial discrimination which grew up in earlier times. This is, undoubtedly, the cause of great resentment and bitterness, and we welcome, all of us, I am sure, the steps taken by the territorial Governments to reduce racial segregation in public places and to amend restrictive property laws.

I sincerely trust that the recent troubles will not lead to any reversal of this trend. On the contrary, I hope that early opportunities will be found to extend and to accelerate the process of eliminating discrimination, for there is still a very long way to go.

Finally, there is the political aspect of the problem. The African population see that political power is concentrated in the hands of the Europeans and they inevitably contrast this with the achievement of full independence by other African peoples elsewhere in the Continent. Most Europeans accept the fact that with 8 million Africans and only 300,000 Europeans the Europeans cannot expect indefinitely to retain exclusive control of the country's affairs, and that the Africans must assume an increasing share of the responsibilities of government. But European and African ideas about the possible rate of advance are, of course, very different indeed.

The grant of a new Constitution to Nyasaland and the promise of political advance to Northern Rhodesia have provided the practical evidence, of the attitude of the Government here in Britain. But I am certain that many Africans simply do not believe that the Europeans in the Federation and in Southern Rhodesia have as yet reconciled themselves to any substantial shift of political power within any reasonable time. That, I think, is the root of African hostility to the Federation which they seem to regard, rightly or wrongly, as a device to keep the white man permanently on tap and to Prevent future Governments in the territories from ever getting full control of their own affairs.

On the other hand, the Europeans are, not surprisingly worried by African demands for immediate universal suffrage and dissolution of the Federation. Moreover, in the background of African political activity, there is the weapon of intimidation and a tendency to violence which naturally increases European apprehension. If once the Africans could feel assured that the Europeans accepted the inevitability of political change, and that the issue is not "whether", but "when", then I would hope that they might adopt a more realistic attitude on their side about the possible rate of political advance.

Equally, if the Africans would make it clear that they recognise, which I believe they do, that stable administration and economic progress will require, for a long time to come, the talents and experience and financial support of the Europeans, this would undoubtedly make the Europeans much more ready to welcome increasing participation by Africans in the responsibilities of government.

At the root of the problem is the absence of confidence between the races, for reasons which are understandable on both sides. To dispel some of the mutual anxieties and suspicions, to create a belief in the good faith of both races, and of their genuine desire to work together on honourable terms—that will be the main task, and a very difficult task, of the Review Conference. If once an atmosphere of trust could be created, I do not believe that the practical problems should be incapable of solution. It will call for a good deal of patience and restraint on all sides, and I am well aware of the responsibilities which rest upon Her Majesty's Government.

Britain has honourable obligations towards all of the peoples of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. We have a solemn duty to the Europeans, mostly of British stock, who went to settle there with the encouragement of successive British Governments, who brought up their families there and made their permanent home there. We have an equally solemn duty to the Africans, who constitute the bulk of the population and for whose progress and well-being we have assumed responsibility.

We respect the rights and the aspirations of Europeans and Africans alike, and we shall do our best, faithfully and fairly, to discharge our obligations to them both. But it is essential that they, too, should recognise that they have not only rights, but also obligations towards one another. I do not accept that the interests of the two races are basically incompatible. With a little more realism and flexibility on both sides, I believe that a solution can be found which will offer not only an acceptable compromise but a positive gain for both Europeans and Africans, for the fact is that they both need one another.

Some may think that the difficulties before us could more easily be resolved if the Federation were brought to an end and the problems of each of the three territories tackled separately. A great deal has been said lately, as we all know, about the right of secession. I can well understand the strong feelings on this issue which are held by those who want to preserve the Federation and by those who want to break it up. I certainly do not propose to make any pronouncement on the subject today. It is far too prickly an issue. All I will say is that we must recognise that, whatever clauses one may or may not write into the Constitution, the strength and stability of the Federation must, in the long run, depend upon its ability to win the confidence and loyalty of all its peoples.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was created because practical experience and long study showed it to be desirable. Already, before the war, the Bledisloe Commission advised that the three territories should be linked together. In 1945, it was decided to form a Central African Council with loose co-ordinating functions. This Council, perhaps because it lacked political powers, failed to secure the co-ordination that was needed. Consequently, in 1950, the then British Government initiated discussions with a view to creating a closer political association. Eventually, there emerged the Constitution of 1953. We, like our predecessors, were convinced that closer political association would, as is stated in the Preamble to the Constitution, help to promote the advancement and welfare of all the inhabitants. Whatever may be thought—I know there are differences of opinion on this—about the way in which the Federal Constitution was introduced and the way in which it has worked, nothing, in my opinion, has happened to make close co-operation between the three territories any less desirable today than it was seven years ago.

If I am asked what is the value of the Federation, I do not think that I can do better than quote from the Monckton Report which, in paragraph 51, says that the main arguments for Federation are economic: First, a common market embracing eight million potential customers is much more valuable than three separate markets each embracing less than three million. Second, this larger unit with all its potentialities is very much more credit-worthy than each of its constituent parts. Third, the economies of three countries are complementary. The Report goes on to say that to abandon Federation would cause the economy of the area to suffer a set-back from which it might take years to recover. On the consequences of the dissolution of the Federation, the Report says this—with which I fully agree—in paragraph 71: It was an expressed intention of Federation to build up a partnership between the races. … A dissolution would gravely prejudice the attainment of this aim. In theory, there is no reason why policies based on racial partnership should not be pursued by all of the Territories individually. Nevertheless, the immediate reaction to the dissolution of the Federation, both inside and outside the area, would be that a great experiment in race relations had failed. It goes on to say: To break it up at this crucial moment in the history of Africa would, we believe, amount to an admission that there is no hope of survival for any multi-racial society on the African continent and that differences of colour and race are irreconcilable. It is surely in everyone's interest to prevent the Balkanisation of Africa. Many small and weak States are springing up on the African Continent, and it cannot be wise economically or politically to add to their number. On the other hand, the Territories of Rhodesia and Nyasaland together possess the scale and resources to become a strong and stable nation in their own right. We still firmly believe that these three territories should be linked together in some form of federal association. Changes will be necessary, and they may have to be quite extensive. But I must not speculate on what those changes may be. That is something which will have to be agreed, if we can, at the Review Conference.

It may be asked, "What will you do if the Conference fails to agree? Will the Federation just go on without any change, will it be dissolved, or will a new Constitution be imposed?" Naturally, I have given a great deal of thought to this problem, but it certainly would not be wise for me to try to give an answer in advance. All I can say is that, if we fail to reach agreement at the Conference, all the courses open to us will be highly distasteful and highly unsatisfactory. This, I think, only emphasises the acute difficulties and gravity of the problem and the importance of doing everything possible to secure an agreed solution.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is not just a convenient administrative machine. It is the expression of a thigh ideal. The Federation was set up with the aim of creating a political system based on a real partnership between the races. Whatever disappointments there may have been, whatever changes may be necessary, we believe as firmly as ever in the rightness of the federal concept and of the principle of partnership on which it was founded. If we fail to find a solution, it will be not just failure of individuals or governments or institutions. It will spell failure for the hopes of all who have worked to create a civilised relationship between Europeans and Africans.

To abandon this noble objective would, indeed, be deplorable. Such an event would cast its shadow across the whole of the African Continent. So spectacular a breakdown of this great experiment would come at a particularly unfortunate moment, when the whole world is watching other quite different approaches to the racial problem in neighbouring territories. Let us make no mistake about it. The whole concept of a multi-racial society is on trial. Neither the Africans nor the Europeans or anyone who cares about human progress can afford to let it fail.