Falkland Islands

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 29th April 1982.

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Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness 7:15 pm, 29th April 1982

In the debate on 14 April I said: It is the essence of this Chamber and of parliamentary style that the Opposition seek to criticise the Government and work out a competing policy, not a joint policy…A statement is made and an attempt made to distinguish from it. We tend to drift into that situation whether we like it or not."—[Official Report, 14 April 1982; Vol. 21, c. 1172.] Although the basics remain unchanged, even in such a short time there has been an evident drift. There has been a pull-back in this debate, but only to a limited extent.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) made clear, the immediate and unequivocal support which the Social Democratic and Liberal Parties gave to the Government in their effort to free the Falkland Islanders from the unprovoked attack and occupation to which they were subject has been steadfastly maintained.

On the afternoon that the invasion was confirmed, 2 April, I said in a statement: The Royal Navy should send to the Falklands a force strong enough to blockade the islands from the Argentine. That force must remain on station until the Argentines leave or until, if necessary, we can plan measures required to remove them. That was the policy that was followed.

The Government have no reason to complain about our response to what is, without doubt, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), a former Prime Minister, said, a national crisis, or about the support that we have given to them in an intensely difficult and tense situation. However, it must be said that our forceful condemnation of the repressive nature of the Argentine regime did not find an especially receptive ear from many Conservative Members before 2 April.

We now have every right, with a real possibility of hostilities, perhaps hours away, to ask the Government to lay more cards on the table. We well understand the difficulties that the Prime Minister has in setting out Secretary Haig's proposals. Nevertheless, events have surely reached the stage at which the Government, especially if they are on the brink of action, must give some clear indication of their basic position and the ground from which in no circumstances they will shift. That has been said by several hon. Members over the past fortnight. For example, senior Members, such as the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), have called for quickly produced White Papers setting out the Government's basic position. Time is probably far too short for that now, but their position could be made clear by the Foreign Secretary tonight.

This afternoon the Prime Minister regretted the absence of the cross-play of opinions, which she said was normal in a democracy. That is part of the case for bringing party leaders into confidential talks. I have said that we understand her difficulty in setting out Secretary Haig's proposals. I am not seeking to be divisive in saying that we feel that we are in this situation because of the Government's misjudgment, which led to the Argentine invasion. The right hon. Lady must understand that. That has not been repeated today, but we should not forget it. For that reason we have some difficulty in offering the Government a blank cheque.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), the leader of the Liberal Party, said on 27 April: If we have to make a choice between accepting a diplomatic compromise or committing our forces to a necessarily bloody battle, that is a choice on which, on Privy Council terms, the leaders of the other parties should be consulted in a round table discussion. He was subject to some criticism. I myself wondered about the phrase "a necessarily bloody battle" since, as some hon. Members have said, we are not in a position to make detailed comments on what may or may not be done or what is or is not possible. I notice, however, that almost those very words were echoed by Admiral Woodward yesterday from the fleet off the Falklands.

What my right hon. Friend was saying, which is profoundly legitimate, is that we have now reached the point when, since we are willing to share responsibility and because we share objectives, we need to have much more information than we have been given. Without that it is impossible to make proper judgments. That is a reasonable, consistent and supportive position.

I conclude with five brief points. First, may we be told more about the increase in BBC broadcasts? An important part of our diplomatic pressure should be to tell the Argentine people what is happening. Are our broadcasts getting through effectively without any jamming? Can the Minister assure us on that point?

Secondly, during the previous debate hon. Members referred to the encouragement and support of the European Economic Community. There has been scant reference to it today. However, for example, Italy has a notable trade in leather with the Argentine and is putting itself to considerable financial embarrassment by co-operating with us. Hon. Members should reflect on the fact that if we were doing this for Italy many hon. Members would, I suspect, be making a considerable noise about it. We should express our considerable gratitude to the Italian people and Government, and to our other European colleagues, for the action that they have taken.

Thirdly, although I have no time to examine in detail the arguments on further referral to the United Nations that were advanced by the Leader of the Opposition, like him, and like the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South East, I am anxious to ensure that we make every effort to work through the United Nations against the background of resolution 502. One obvious extension is mandatory economic sanctions. Have the Government had any contact with the Soviet Union on that? Have they established what the Soviet Union's response to such a proposal might be? I see no reason why the Government should not ask them. It would be interesting to know what general contacts the Government have had with the Soviet Union during the crisis.

Fourthly, we fully support the extension of the blockade to the air. In referring to the naval blockade the right hon. Lady used the words "enforced against Argentine warships and naval auxiliaries". That phraseology suggests that contacts have been made. Have contacts been made?

Fifthly, although one is tempted by the speech of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South East (Mr. Benn), I do not want to embark at this hour on the argument about sovereignty. I am not a lawyer, least of all that rather more terrifying type of lawyer, a constitutional lawyer. However, surely we all know how arbitrarily borders have been drawn throughout the world and how capricious has been the movement of various peoples, the footloose, the adventurers or the persecuted. As a layman I cannot understand why, because an island is 400 miles from a country, it should inevitably be regarded as part of that country's territorial integrity. Anyway, few Argentines have ever shown the slightest enthusiasm for living there.