Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Meeting

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1965.

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The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. Q13.

Hon. Members will have seen the communiqué published at the end of the meeting and I shall not at this stage take up the time of the House by referring to all the conclusions we reached and which are set out in the communiqué, copies of which are in the Library, and which, I hope, will be published later as a White Paper.

As is customary on these occasions, we opened with a review of world affairs. On this occasion, however, we were not content merely to review international tensions, but decided to do something about them. It was in these circumstances that we were able—I would hope with the support of the whole House—to take an unprecedented initiative over Vietnam. We did this because it had to be done and because there was no one else to do it. And there is still no one else.

On Rhodesia, as right hon. Gentlemen opposite will understand, the Prime Ministers expressed their views very fully. Equally, they accepted that the responsibility for leading Rhodesia and, indeed, all Britain's remaining territories to independence must continue to rest with Britain. I informed them of the principles guiding us in our current discussions with Mr. Smith; but I thought it right to undertake that, if these discussions did not develop satisfactorily in a reasonably speedy time, the British Government would be ready to consider promoting a constitutional conference in order to ensure progress to independence on a basis acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole.

Apart from these major political problems, the meeting approved the terms of reference of the Commonwealth Secretariat and appointed its first Secretary-General. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join with me in wishing Mr. Arnold Smith every success for this new venture. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

We have in addition, following new and urgently needed initiatives in the field of trade, agreed that preparations should go forward for a Commonwealth trade conference, for a meeting of those most closely concerned with planning and for meetings between representatives of all Commonwealth countries to deal with questions affecting aviation and aircraft.

Let me summarise. This was a meeting in which the Commonwealth Prime Ministers showed their determination to make the best use of the particular characteristics of this family of nations. The Commonwealth, as we all have often said, represents the entire world—apart from the Communist sector—in miniature. If—and I know that the whole House will agree with me in this—the major problems that lie ahead are those of race and poverty, then the Commonwealth, bridging as it does the gulfs between white and non-white, rich and poor, has a vital rôle to play in neutralising the tensions of race and overcoming the divisions of wealth. In the initiative over Vietnam it has also given itself a peace-making rôle in the world, not in any sense to supersede the United Nations or the Geneva co-chairmen, but to complement their work and to take action where others concerned are for one reason or another powerless to act.

Altogether, though there are difficulties ahead, and although no one wishes to suggest that in the Commonwealth we all think alike—indeed, I regard that as a source of strength rather than weakness—I am sure that the House will agree with many of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers that this meeting has given the Commonwealth a new sense of direction, a new sense of purpose and a new sense of unity in diversity.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

While accepting that the Commonwealth has a great part to play in future, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the communiqué is more ambiguous than usual? Will he give the House some details of the programme of the peace mission to South-East Asia? Does he agree that to call a constitutional conference without the agreement of the Rhodesian Government would itself be an unconstitutional act?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The hon. Gentleman, and certainly right hon. Members opposite, will realise that when there are 21 fully independent countries—we had once or twice to remind them that we were independent, too—each of which has a veto on any particular sentiment appearing in the communiqué, inevitably the communiqué is not always so clearly drafted as any of the 21 might wish. That was true last year, and it was true this year.

The Vietnam peace mission remains in being. We have not yet had a reply from one of the principal countries concerned, and if it is not possible to take off at this time we remain in being in the hope that the climate will improve. I am sure that we all feel that this initiative had to be taken. All of us will feel, equally, I think, that it has had a very valuable effect in getting many countries thinking about the policy on Vietnam.

On Rhodesia, all that I would say in reply to the hon. Member is that the discussions will be resumed again with Mr. Smith and, as I have said before, I hope that there will lead to independence on a basis which all of us can support.

Photo of Sir Alec Douglas-Home Sir Alec Douglas-Home , Kinross and West Perthshire

May I associate myself with what the Prime Minister said about Mr. Arnold Smith and give him the good wishes of this side of the House? I should like to ask the Prime Minister two questions.

First, it is very important that there should not be ambiguity, in one respect, in relation to Rhodesia. Could the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear that in considering the possibility of calling a constitutional conference in certain circumstances this will not infringe the pledge which the Commonwealth Secretary of State gave the House only a few weeks ago, that the convention that we do not legislate without the agreement of the Government of Rhodesia still stands? It is very important that that should be said by the Prime Minister, and now.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman will recall the scorn which he poured on last year's Commonwealth Prime Ministers' communiqué on the question of trade. He will recollect that a few weeks ago he held out the highest hopes for far-reaching, imaginative proposals which he said he would put before the Prime Ministers. Could he specify what they were and how they were received by his colleagues?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The whole possibility of a constitutional conference at this moment is hypothetical. If the negotiations in which we are engaged proceed satisfactorily, as I hope they will, then, as the communiqué said, a conference to prepare a constitution—the terms of independence—would presumably be an automatic and agreed measure and there would be no problems on the lines that the right hon. Gentleman has indicated. If not, we have said that we are prepared to consider promoting a constitutional conference of that kind. [Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition is going a very long way ahead in the negotiations.

The important thing is to try to get these negotiations advanced and not start looking at things which may not arise for six months or 12 months, and which may not arise at all. I think that we are more concerned to get a satisfactory solution of this problem, which the right hon. Gentleman—I do not complain—left for his successor to deal with. He had to face the same problem at the conference—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not complain. He was right not to rush it, and we shall not rush it; and we will not be pushed around in these negotiations by hon. Members opposite.

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's question on trade, the plain fact is that there was, I understand, no discussion of trade last year at all. This year, we had two full days on trade, in the course of which we put forward the initiatives—I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy; obviously, there is not time to do it at Question Time—which were accepted by our colleagues, leading to a Commonwealth Trade Ministers' conference to see what can be done to ensure that all of us buy more from one another, which is what we want.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

In view of the extremely welcome section in the part of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' communiqué referring to Vietnam, in which they call upon all sides to show restraint in military measures, will the Prime Minister comment upon the fact that there does not seem to have been restraint in Vietnam so far? Will he tell us whether he proposes, either on his own behalf or on behalf of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers generally, to make representations to those who are apparently stepping up the military action in Vietnam, in particular, the bombing of North Vietnam?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Our appeal for restraint, which, obviously, must be restraint based upon reciprocity between both sides to the dispute, was made so that the mission can do its work unimpeded by a worsening or an escalation of the war in Vietnam so that it would, I think, be considered by all the countries concerned as soon as it becomes clear that there are enough acceptances from both sides to the dispute to enable the mission to do its work. We felt that if we got those acceptances, we had the right to make that appeal.

Photo of Mr Duncan Sandys Mr Duncan Sandys , Wandsworth Streatham

In pursuing the point raised by my right hon. Friend about Rhodesia, naturally I do not wish to make the negotiations any more difficult, but to make sure that the negotiations go forward in a proper atmosphere may I ask the Prime Minister to reaffirm the assurance given by his right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary that the British Government will recognise and adhere to the convention that the Parliament here in Westminster does not legislate on matters which are within the legislative competence of the Parliament of Rhodesia? That is absolutely essential to start the negotiations on a proper footing.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there was surprise and, I think, dismay that the strong condemnation of racial discrimination which appeared in the communiqué was not matched by any condemnation of the naked aggression by Indonesia against Malaysia? Does not the Prime Minister think that a Commonwealth country which is attacked by another country is entitled to full moral backing and that a mild expression of sympathy is totally inadequate?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

We have certainly no intention whatever of departing from the convention referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. We intend to go forward with the negotiations and discussions and I hope that no question will arise in which there could be a clash or a difficulty of this kind. None of us can foresee the future and none of us can foresee, in this situation, the growth of tensions and the actions that will have to be taken. We are negotiating genuinely to try to get an agreed solution based, as we have said, on continued and unimpeded progress to majority rule. It is on that basis that we are negotiating. I think that everyone will agree that the situation cannot be left in Rhodesia where it is. We want to deal with it by negotiation.

With regard to the reference to Malaysia, I share the right hon. Gentleman's disappointment with the wording of the communiqué. We could not dictate it. We could not tell our 20 colleagues what they had to say. They were, however, left in no doubt about the vigour and determination with which a number of us have responded to the needs of Malaysia and will continue to do so as long as that is necessary.

Others of our colleagues, while not prepared to associate themselves with any kind of military support or expression that might be taken as implying military support have made it clear that they are giving a great deal of diplomatic support and using their valued offices in trying to bring a peaceful settlement of this problem. It is right to say that the Prime Minister of Malaysia has very much welcomed the statement which we have made.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Will my right hon. Friend say what progress, if any, was made towards setting up a Commonwealth Assembly?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The reason that this does not appear in the communique is that this proposal received less than general support at the conference and, therefore, did not make progress.

Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton

Is the Prime Minister aware that his use of words to the effect that if negotiations with Rhodesia are not concluded speedily might be interpreted as a time limit on the negotiations and that, if so, this would impair the negotiations? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that he is not thinking in terms of a time limit?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I think that all of us agree that the negotiations must be given full time to see whether we can reach agreement. That has been the basis and over the past year we have shown this in the negotiations by the attitude of the previous Government and of the present Government. At the same time, it will be realised that events and the pressures in the situation will not allow of a situation in which nothing at all is done. I think that Mr. Smith and the African leaders would agree with that. Therefore, nobody, I think, would want—neither the British Government, the Rhodesian Government nor anyone else—to pursue dilatory methods in these negotiations. We must make progress. We intend to give ample time to see that progress can be made.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

We cannot deal with this by way of supplementary questions. The Prime Minister. Statement.