Orders of the Day — Malta

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd February 1967.

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Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking 12:00 am, 2nd February 1967

Anything that can be done to attract tourism from other parts of Europe—and of course Italy is very near—would be extremely welcome. One difficulty is that this very crisis is having an adverse effect already on tourism. Potential visitors are telephoning and asking, "Is it safe to come?", because they fear that there may be disturbances.

A re-phasing of this exercise would cost a little more. It would diminish, though I think not too significantly, the saving of £6 million. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will be able to tell us how much more it would cost if what is called the "hump" were reversed, if, instead of the hump falling in the first and second years—that is when the heaviest incidence of this hardship will be—it were levelled out a little and were to fall in the second and third years or in the third and fourth years of the four-year period. I do not know if my right hon. Friend can tell us how much it would cost. Even with our present economic difficulties, the difference between our resources and those of Malta is so enormous that we can surely afford one more gesture of friendship.

Nor is there any balance of payments element in this problem. It may be argued that sterling is convertible in Malta, but I understand that steps have been taken by the Malta Government to restrict convertibility as it is restricted here.

There is a disposition in some quarters to say that, when the four years are up, our moral obligation to Malta will have been fully discharged. If there are two friends with a mutual moral obligation, or one friend who has a moral obligation to another, it is not particularly gracious for either of them to say unilaterally, "There! I have discharged my moral obligation to you". One cannot quantify moral obligations or assume that life and death service freely rendered has ever been adequately requited. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said recently in an entirely different context, quoting Wordsworth: … high Heaven rejects the IoreOf nicely-calculated less or more. I appreciate that the Chancellor cannot think in those terms, but possibly the Commonwealth Secretary ought to be able to.

This brings me to my last point, the point about consultation. This is of much less concrete importance than the basic economic issue, but it is psychologically of considerable importance. Her Majesty's Government have a legal case. There were the vague words in the Defence Review, followed by a telegram from the Prime Minister which gave no indication of impending cuts of this severity. There was the visit of my noble friend Lord Beswick last August. Apparently he did not really go there to consult in the ordinary sense of the word. He went to present a set of decisions so startlingly harsh that they were quite unacceptable.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State reminded us, note was taken of this sharp reaction and the Government agreed to extend the rundown from two to four years—a welcome concession so far as it goes, but still ruinous to the Maltese economy. We must remember that Article VI of the Defence Agreement promises consultation when major changes in the British forces … which might have significant effects on the defence or economy of Malta are contemplated"— contemplated, not when they have been decided already.

I must agree also, I am afraid, with the right hon. Member for Barnet and the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) in thinking that it was a little unfortunate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs should have allowed himself to be caught by the Press at the airport on arrival—this is so easy to do, as we all know—and to say that there could be no bargaining on major points. I am sorry to have to say this in my right hon. Friend's absence, but this caused deep offence to the Malta Government. Genuine consultation, after all, usually involves some bargaining. We have always distinguished between consulting and merely informing.

One of the tasks of statesmanship and diplomacy is precisely to be able to put oneself in the other man's place and to identify oneself imaginatively with him in his hopes and his fears. It is a general practice in negotiating to ask or to offer, at first, something much more or less than one realistically expects to end up with. To the Maltese, it must seem that Lord Beswick was offering them the death by 1,000 cuts and that the Commonwealth Secretary then came along and said, "We are being fantastically generous. We offer you death by 500 cuts". I hope that is not unfair.

As I say, the British Government have got a case. No doubt they argue that the change of plan between the two Ministerial visits and the Prime Ministerial discussions, which the right hon. Gentleman did not mention but of which my hon. Friend the Minister of State reminded us—last September, I think they were—did cumulatively represent a kind of consultation, or at least a taking cognisance of the other party's views. But it is surely time that both Governments stopped arguing legalistically and got down to the business of discovering how to cushion this blow to the unfortunate people of these small islands so that, when we withdraw, they will cherish our memory and will say, "Nothing in their Empire became them like the leaving it."