Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 22nd June 1983.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 5:42 pm, 22nd June 1983

Let us be clear about the issue—it is the conduct and veracity of the Head of Government. In my humble submission, there is no more important issue.

The next point relates to the work of the embassy in Peru, which also merits scrutiny. In The Observer of 12 June, the right hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is reported as saying that if the Peruvians had prepared a treaty for signature on the evening of 2 May they certainly gave us no indication of this in Lima, or in London. The article continued: 'Not so,' said Arias Stella. 'President Belaunde had constant and direct phone contact with Haig and kept him fully informed. We knew that Pym was in Washington. We understood that their contact was so close that whatever Haig accepted was alright with Pym—and that Pym passed it on at once to London.'Arias Stella emphasised that Britain's Ambassador in Lima, Charles Wallace, was kept very fully informed at all times. Belaunde, additionally, went on television with an announcement that peace was imminent.The Ambassador said that the sinking of the Belgrano had `without doubt' also sunk the peace initiative. `I can give you no more graphic a confirmation of that than by repeating Costa Mendez's words next morning on 3 May. He rang to thank us for our help. He said at the meeting of the Argentine Military Committee at 1900 hours (Argentine time) in Buenos Aires on 2 May the agreement was already at the last stage with only two points of minor importance left, which would have been easy to solve on the spot, when an admiral burst in with the news that the Belgrano had been sunk.'It was Haig himself, Rice learnt in Buenos Aires, who passed word of the Belgrano's sinking to President Belaunde about two hours after the event. `Haig was very moved,' Belaunde later recalled. An inquiry should examine exactly what ambassador Charles Wallace was told in Lima, and what he passed to London. These matters are not idiosyncratic in any way. I shall spare the House the full text of the Pym letter to the Daily Mirror.

But why on earth did not the Prime Minister make some effort at least to consult her Foreign Secretary who was doing his job—[Interruption.] I must tell hon. Members who are becoming impatient that it is not simply a matter of history. It is very much to do with the present. President Bignone of Argentina gave a pledge on 14 June, which was reported in The Guardian the next day, that he would fight on. We cannot put the matter behind us.

An inquiry should also examine the question of the Burdwood Bank, and all that the has been told about that. On 8 June, Mr. John Rentoul wrote in the New Statesman:Mrs. Thatcher's outburst continued: `Our submarine could have lost the Belgrano in those six hours.' As the Sunday Times admitted in an article this week attempting to exonerate Mrs. Thatcher, the officers of the nuclear submarine Conquerer—which had been shadowing the Belgrano for 30 hours—were so confident of their ability to stay on the Belgrano's tail that they have rejected what was at one stage the government's explanation for the attack: that the Belgrano could have been lost if it had made a dash for the Burdwood Bank shallows. Who is right — the officers of the Conqueror or the Prime Minister and her Ministers? They cannot all be right. It must be established who is correct. Extraordinary treatment has been handed out to the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East.

I wish to quote a remarkable letter to The Times from Mr. Alan Brownjohn, who states: What is questionable is whether the Belgrano, outside the exclusion zone and sailing away from it, presented such a threat in the very short time—a matter of hours—during which Mr. Pym's consultations were coming to a head.The war cabinet seems not to have been concerned to wait upon the outcome of negotiations which — whatever their outcome—were extremely unlikely to last until the Belgrano actually became a threat. It is hard to reconcile, its decision to sink the Belgrano with Mr. Pym's statement in Washington on Saturday, May 1 (after air and sea attacks on the Falklands) that `No further military action is envisaged at the moment, except to keep the exclusion zone secure.' Whatever it might do later, the Belgrano was no danger to the exclusion zone during the vital hours in which the peace agreement might have been reached. Mr. Brownjohn added, later in his letter: But posterity would not rate highly either the peaceful intentions, or the foresight, of a war cabinet whose actions ruined the chance of Mr. Pym's negotiations succeeding before the progress of his efforts had been examined. That was in The Times on 31 May. He continues: But suppose further—and here the wider implications become frightening indeed — that on another occasion the situation was not that of a relatively small conflict (albeit one to be fought with dreadful new resources of weapons technology) starting in a remote southern ocean, but an impending full-scale nuclear war involving a small country whose nuclear arsenal rendered it a prime, wholly indefensible target. Suppose that the horror could only be averted by delicate negotiations far away, in the same or some other foreign capital. And that such negotiations were to be conducted by ministers and ambassadors who, for some reason, were not fully and swiftly in contact—and perhaps not in concert — with the intentions of a war cabinet in London. Sometimes the unimaginable becomes only too easy to imagine. It is not a matter only of what might be conceived as history. We are dealing with the conduct of the lady who has her paw on nuclear weapons. How people react in a crisis is a matter of interest to us all. I am not saying that too close a parallel can be drawn with Chappaquiddick, but why was Senator Ted Kennedy excluded from the White House? It was because he was thought to react in the wrong way at the wrong time.

There are deep issues about the relationship between the Prime Minister and her most senior colleagues. For the sake of greater accuracy I have the transcript of "Newsnight" of 2 June 1983. It was a discussion between Peter Snow and the former Foreign Secretary. Snow: So you largely endorsed the government's action that weekend? Mr. Pym, could I now come to the issue of this peace initiative. Were you consulted about the decision to torpedo the Belgrano before it happened?Pym: No, the war cabinet did it. I was in the United States at the time and I would have expected them to take that decision. If any one of us were absent obviously the war cabinet goes on. It has to take its decisions in the circumstances at the time. How can that be said with any degree of conviction? Had the Foreign Secretary been Secretary of State for the Environment at a housing conference in Stockholm, it would have been understandable that his say-so would not have been needed, but he was the Foreign Secretary, in the United States on the business on which crucial decisions were been taken. It is preposterous to suggest than. the Foreign Secretary should not have been consulted or: this issue of the Belgrano at the time.

Snow: Do you think it's right that you weren't consulted. Do you think you should have been?Pym: I think it's entirely right. And if anybody else was absent —I'm not sure whether all the rest of us all the time were present throughout, but when there was an absentee the war cabinet goes on. Perhaps it does, but it is curious that when one has sent a senior colleague to discuss this issue one does not ask about the state of the negotiations. He was not away on a jaunt or some irrelevant business. He was closeted with the American Secretary of State discussing these matters. It is a breakdown of Cabinet government to suggest that there was a valid reason why the Foreign Secretary should not have been consulted. It is another reason why we should have a full investigation by Lord Scarman, Lord Devlin or some such person.

Another issue is why, on his admission on 2 June, the Foreign Secretary was not consulted. We must return to The Times of 14 June and Mr. Brownjohn's letter. I read it because I have made the point at some length and I must persuade others that I am not pursuing a personal vendetta but raising a point of public interest. Mr. Brownjohn states: The communication to the Argentine Government of the general warning of April 23 cited by Professor Draper does not affect the argument about the precise relation between military decisions and political negotiations on May 2. The war cabinet had time on that Sunday in which to consult Mr. Francis Pym in Washington about the progress of his talks; though exactly how much time we shall not know until the accurate log of the course of the Conqueror is published.We know that they had lengthy discussions. But they did not consult Mr. Pym, as he himself made clear on Newsnight…Mr. Al Haig's original negotiations had failed only hours before, on Friday, April 30. What was the war cabinet sending Mr. Pym to Washington on May 1 for, if it was not to seek urgent means of averting all the horror and grief of a killing war, maintaining the closest touch with his hour-by-hour efforts?The wider question remains unanswered. In a different, nuclear crisis, the government of an indefensible target country would need to be in the most constant communication with its emissaries in foreign capitals if the logic and inexorable momentum of war were not to take over. In the case of the events of May 2, 1982, the British Government, as represented by Mrs. Thatcher and her war cabinet, was not in such communication. Mr. Brownjohn has succeeded where some of us have failed, in getting his letters published in The Times. The Times was good about publishing the letters from some of us. My score was nine out of 10 before the Falklands arose, but since then it has been one out of 12. Nevertheless, even The Times now comes to the conclusion that these points are worthy of being made.

We come to the interview with Mrs. Diana Gould.