Amnesty for Certain Offenders

Part of New Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 6:47 am on 13th May 1980.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith North 6:47 am, 13th May 1980

I shall not detain the House long. Hon. Members would not welcome a detailed review of the past few days. I agree that the Government have won the day as a result of their numbers. However, they have not won the argument. I intended to speak on Monday, but several of the speeches were so good and mentioned so many of the things that I intended to say that I chose not to speak.

I was particularly impressed by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). He gave one of the best analyses and historical descriptions that I have ever heard. However, it is sad that I could not agree with his conclusion. It did not follow the logic of his argument.

There are two fundamental errors in the Bill. First, it is assumed that we are doing something that will affect the Government of Iran. That is a mistake. We have fallen into the trap of assuming that the Government of Iran do not wish to release the hostages. I suspect that they would do so if they were an effective Government of Iran. When I imply that they are not an effective Government, I do so for this reason: That the person who controls this matter is Ayatollah Khomeini, and I do not think that he is susceptible to rational argument on this issue at this stage. I do not think so for a number of reasons, not least—we often underestimate this—his attitude towards his religious beliefs and his feelings of nationalistic fervour for his country.

When a person is in leadership and is challenged, I can think of few things that are more likely to fail than challenges to that nationalism. I say that because one builds up one's strength on challenges to nationalism, just as this country built it up in 1940 and the Vietnamese built it up during the American bombing of the northern towns. It has the same effect. If anything, it stiffens resistance. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has pointed out on a number of occasions that the Ayatollah has said that he welcomes the hardships that will be brought to Iran in standing up for what he regards as its rights in this matter.

I think that the second fallacy is that we in some way offer support and help to the United States by giving what I would call blind support. At a time such as this, the United States needs more than anything wise, calm, cool counsel and not blind support, which I think is what we are offering it.

At the time of Suez, I remember being very despondent about what was happening to the United Kingdom by our allowing ourselves to believe that we were pursuing a course of conduct which was in our own interests when to my mind it was manifestly not in our interests. At that time the United States, quite rightly, exercised the view that we were not right in what we were doing, and it would not support us. I think that this is a similar type of situation, in which we should say to the United States "This is not in your interests. It is not in the hostages' interests. It is not in the interests of the Western world." Even less is it in the interests of the battle for democracy, because in the many countries in which democracy is being challenged it will not be won by measures of this type. If anything, we shall lose the support which, as has been said, we were beginning to gain after the Afghanistan invasion.

The United States occupies a curious position. I have said in other debates that I think that it is in trouble. It is in trouble precisely because it is losing some of the confidence that it had in the past when it was indisputably the major world Power. That is no longer so. At times such as this, nation States go through a difficult crisis of confidence, just as we did after we lost our major world role. It is almost a case of the United States having to find a role in the world different from that which it exercised immediately after the Second World War.

One of the things that has saddened me during the debates was listening to one or two hon. Members talking about the debt that we owed to the United States. It was as though this was a one-way debt, as though the debt was in some way a total commitment to the United States and that the United States might not have a debt to us. I assume that that assumption is made on the assistance that the United States gave during the Second World War and its assistance after that war.

I am certainly not anti-American. Indeed, I have a considerable admiration for some of the things that the Americans have done both at home and abroad. But that does not make me an unqualified supporter of all that they have done. It certainly does not make me assume that we have some unpaid debt to them. It needs to be remembered that they also have a debt to us. Apart from anything else, the United States, in its origins, is an expression at least of Western Europe and primarily of Britain.

Secondly, if people are talking in this curious language of debts incurred in wartime, it needs to be remembered, and the United States needs to remember, that this country was involved in both world wars for some years before the Americans came in and there is a debt involved there, too. It was A. J. P. Taylor who pointed out that in the defeat of the Nazi regime during the Second World War the United Kingdom gave time, the United States gave resources and the Soviet Union gave lives. It is the latter, if we are to talk in terms of debt, that we need to remember and to respond to.

I believe that we are embarking on a policy which is unlikely to achieve anything other than a stiffening of the resolve in Iran to maintain opposition to any attempt at mediation. I do not pretend that the embassy incident in this country would persuade the Ayatollah Khomeini to get up in the morning and say "They are right. This is a terrible situation. If it was right for the British to release our hostages, we should release the Americans." Of course, that will not happen. But that incident gave us some long-term influence that we could have used. By passing the Bill, we are throwing away some of the good will that we might have earned.

Finally, it is relevant to turn to penalties. I suppose that I always had considerable concern about the sort of penalties that would be offered in instances such as this. We talk of this as a serious matter. Therefore, one assumes that serious penalties will be involved. As an ex-probation officer, I looked at a case recently in my constituency concerning a man who was sent to gaol for defrauding the social security system of £112. I have a sneaking suspicion that on this issue no one will go to prison. Whatever it may be, the penalties are not spelt out in the Bill, and that is a serious failure.

I do not pretend that the prisons in Britain will be full of Iranian sanctions-busting gangsters and their molls. But, if a Bill of this nature is to be passed, at the time that it is passed the penalties should be part and parcel of it. It is unwise to pass a Bill and to imply that it covers a serious matter without specifying the penalties in it.

The House has spent a long time on the Bill. I regret its passing. It will damage our cause. I do not think that we come out from it with any great credit. However, I recognise that the Government have the numbers and the right to go ahead. I shall watch with interest to see what happens. I fear that the whole incident will not be regarded as a happy state of affairs in the history of our relations with Iran or within the Atlantic Alliance.