Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Speech)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th February 1962.

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Photo of Lady  Grant of Monymusk Lady Grant of Monymusk , Aberdeen South 12:00 am, 5th February 1962

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) spoke with feeling of the deep anxieties he holds about the United Nations and its problems, with particular reference to its Charter, as did the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson), who shares with him the same interest and experience in our international organisations.

The speeches of both right hon. and learned Gentlemen emphasise the extraordinary nature of this censure debate. The Motion implies either that the Opposition have an uncritical idolatry towards the United Nations or that, given the courage and realism to discuss its imperfections, they are doing neither more nor less than the Foreign Secretary did, except that he did it a great deal better.

I have been extraordinarily lucky in that I have attended two General Assemblies. It has certainly been a most invaluable experience. I think that I learned more by working there about the United Nations than I could have done in any other way. It is a unique forum in that nowhere else in the world can one see the leaders and potential leaders of 104 countries working together in relation to each other. By working there one has the chance to learn what makes the members of a delegation think in the way that they do and what are the influences which mould their foreign policy. At the same time, I am afraid, it also gives one a unique chance to see what I can only describe as the cosmic muddle.

Among other things, I learned at the United Nations that there is a great difference between belonging to the United Nations and supporting it. The United Kingdom is the second largest financial contributor out of 104. I believe that, as a founder member, it is better that our support should not always be uncritical, just as with any human institution, whether it be Parliament, a party, an individual or the institution of marriage.

I would certainly say that the views in this country about the United Nations are very much divided and that there is much uneasiness about it in the country as a whole. This can be summed up under three heads. First, there are those who would like this country to support the United Nations without question. Secondly, there are those who say, "Write it off", although I believe that they are few in number. Thirdly, there are those, including myself, whose view is that we should support the United Nations in the interests of peace, which are the interests of all of us, within the bounds of the Charter and the limitations of an organisation which is, after all, only sixteen years old.

We had some very distorted comments from the Leader of the Opposition about the Foreign Secretary's speech. On the point which he raised about a crisis of confidence, I do not think I will repeat what could not have been more admirably said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East, (Sir D. Walker-Smith). The three main issues to which I have referred were even more deeply underlined by the Prime Minister in discussing what are really the strains and stresses reflected in the United Nations.

I think that the Foreign Secretary's speech can be summed up in this way. He foresees the danger that the United Nations may evolve into something very different from the very fine conception which was originally held by those who founded the organisation and wrote the Charter. Therefore, surely it must be our job to make as intelligent and constructive criticism as we can.

As the Prime Minister so rightly said, there has been considerable misunderstanding about the function of the United Nations. It was never designed to be a substitute for a country's own national foreign policy. The Security Council, which gave the main executive responsibility to the United Nations, ensured that the five big Powers were permanent members and that they were all armed with the veto. It, therefore, ensured that there could be only two results. Either there was agreed collective security, or deadlock and the status quo.

As we all know, the Assembly tried to get over the constant Russian veto by passing in 1950 the uniting-for-peace resolution, which meant that security questions were taken to the Assembly itself. But this is where many troubles began, because, when there is one nation, one vote, we have the power but by no means always the responsibility. If peace today is kept by the balance of power, the Assembly is run by the balance of votes.

I do not think that it is possible to change the Charter, although I should like to see it changed particularly by enlarging certain organs of the United Nations to reflect the doubling of membership. However, as we all know, the Soviets have declared their intention to use the veto against any consideration of changing the Charter until Communist China is seated. In any case, I do not believe that changing the Charter, except in this instance, is really the problem. The United Nations has no will of its own. It merely has the will of its own members. It seems to me that the rôle of the United Kingdom must be to go on doing whatever we can to persuade, to mediate, to encourage, and, at times, to warn. That is our job, and it will be a long job which will take many years.

If the United Nations reflects only the world outside, then we can understand what is the seam of anti-colonialism which is running through the United Nations. The right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), in the debate on 14th December, said that in the United Nations there is, in fact, a prejudice against all colonial and ex-colonial Powers "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1961; Vol. 651, c. 656.] The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that he thought that this was unfair. I am sure that with the passage of time this issue will pass, but at the moment strange company is kept, because I can well remember President Kennedy coming to deliver a very fine speech in the last Assembly, but he went out of his way in the middle of it to say, "We can remember what it was like in the United States to be a British colony and therefore can sympathise with all of you", turning to some of the uncommitted and ex-colonial countries.

I thought that the Foreign Secretary had a rather good riposte to this comment in a very fine speech which he made to the Assembly a few days later, in which he said, "I was interested in what President Kennedy said about the United States remembering its experiences as a colony. All I can say is," If all our ex-colonies were as rich and powerful as the United States, how happy we should be."

Do not let us think from all this discussion about colonialism that there are members of ex-British Colonial Territories who have not the courage to speak up against the misrepresentation which is often current in the United Nations Assembly. I can remember very well the delegate from Ghana in my Committee, the Third Committee, who one day suddenly exploded and said, "Colonialism! Why do you always talk about Colonialism? I should like to tell you all the good things that Britain did for my country", and he then went on to list some very fortunate episodes. At the end of his speech, he called his friend the delegate from Nigeria to support him. This put the Nigerian in rather a spot. He said that he would wait and speak about it tomorrow when he would have had time to think. The chairman pointed out that the item under discussion might be finished by then and therefore the delegate from Nigeria also had the courage to speak in our favour. These things will grow because people get just as much fed up with constant colonial misrepresentation as they do with any other misrepresentation.

The dominant emotion which I found running through the Assemblies last year and the year before was without doubt fear of Russia. I can best illustrate it by telling of a conversation which I had with a distinguished jurist from one of the chief Middle-Eastern countries. He was discussing the decision of the United Nations to ask the International Court to decide whether Article 19 of the Charter bound a member, not only to pay its regular assessments, but also all other contributions to emergency forces. This delegate agreed that it was an excellent thing to do, and I said, "If the court decides that all members are bound to pay all their assessments, then a great number of the members sitting here will be deprived of their vote under Article 19, including Russia." This distinguished jurist said, "But you could not do it to Russia. Think of the effect that it would have on her actions in other political matters". I said, "If you cannot take a stand on things in which no security is involved, it must mean appeasement in the bigger things as well as in the small." That is why, when there is this constant and very real fear of Russia, it so often happens that when motions are passed condemning or attacking colonialism, the Soviet empire is never mentioned. Indeed, even the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Diefenbaker, in a speech in Toronto in November, felt himself bound to say this: Is the Soviet Union to be the only colonial Power remaining in the world? Why should the Soviet Empire be more sacrosanct than any other? Different rules do not, and should not, apply to Soviet imperialists, There must be no double standards in the United Nations. We see the fear of Russia in many other ways. For example, at the restarting of nuclear tests just at the time of the Belgrade Conference, what muted comments there were. Even the resolution of the United Nations condemning the Soviet for exploding the megaton bomb had to have the condemnatory part removed from it.

It is against this background that I should like briefly to consider the constant dichotomy that confronts the United Kingdom delegation at the United Nations when trying to decide whether to vote for resolutions passed in the context of the United Nations and remembering the obligation of any British Government to carry out a clear and definite national foreign policy.

We have a fine permanent mission at the United Nations. It was a privilege for me to serve under Sir Patrick Dean. One sees, however, the way that resolu tions are framed, sometimes completely unacceptably, and the constant lobbying and immense hard work which must be undertaken to get even a few amendments accepted so that they look at all reasonable. We have often supported resolutions or abstained with the well-known procedure of the interpretive statement on resolutions with which we could not entirely agree in order to show the uncommitted nations that we share the same aim, even if we disagree on methods, in colonial matters of timing.

There are occasions when one can certainly vote on what I would call the general sense of a resolution, but the big security questions and questions of timing in colonial affairs are a very different matter. In the last resort, it is the Government at home who have to take the responsibility, not only for defence and security of our own people here, but also for those overseas whose future we still hold in trust.

That is why I am driven to the conclusion that in future, on the big political issues, there will be times when we must vote against instead of using the abstension and the interpretive statement. It is a procedure which is well understood at the United Nations, but it is not understood in this country or, indeed, always in this Parliament. Otherwise, we shall have constant anxiety as to the interpretation of resolutions that are often vaguely and widely drawn simply because they are, in essence, a compromise.

For example, the political decisions on the Congo taken in New York, interpreted in New York by a civilian Secretary-General who has attended the debates and knows the feeling of member States, can well vary from the military interpretation on the ground in the chaotic conditions of the Congo. People will say, "If we vote against and we are in a minority, shall not we in Britain lose our influence in the United Nations? Is it not bad always to be in a minority?" It is true that the general instructions to our delegation in New York are, to use an American expression, to try to create as good an image of Britain as possible. We must, however, guard against falling into the habit—which, for all their virtues, is so often that of the Americans—of confusing being popular with being respected.

Therefore, to those who say that, because the United Nations cannot always keep the peace and because so many of its members cannot pay the price of peace, we should withdraw, I would only say that that is not the answer. Russia learnt the folly of that at the time of Korea. It has not done any good either to France or to South Africa.

I am certain that it is in Britain's interests to state our case in the United Nations and to go on stating it. From whatever side of the House we come, each one of us has declared for interdependence. Therefore, let us neither boycott the United Nations nor use it as an alibi for inaction, but let us go on doggedly trying to edge towards agreement.