Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 7th April 1987.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 6:17 pm, 7th April 1987

It will be a pity if the hon. Member for Esher (Sir C. Mather) has, indeed, just made his valedictory speech because he spoke from personal experience on matters which I hope the House will some day debate at greater length. This is not the opportunity to go into them, but it would be instructive if the House were to debate that period and some of the things that happened.

That period teaches us something about what can go wrong in Government in such circumstances. It cannot have been right that the Government's policies should have been so distorted in the event that people, many of whom were not even citizens of the Soviet Union, were sent back there to certain death or to long periods of imprisonment in camps in which they eventually died. It is also instructive because it tells us something about what the Soviet system is like when used in the malevolent way in which Stalin used it. It tells us a great deal about the evils of that system. but that is a matter for another occasion.

I said last week that there would be a general and genuine welcome for the outcome of the Prime Minister's visit to Moscow, and that has proved to be the case. I do not believe, as she said, that the world is significantly safer as a result of the visit, although it could become so if the right steps now follow from it. It certainly changed the Prime Minister's perception of the Soviet Union. It was remarkable to hear some of the things that she said when she returned.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was obviously struck by that and made much of it, although, having made his speech, he fled instantly from the scene to visit the far east. When he made so much of the Prime Minister's conversion, I had some sympathy with what he was saying, but he did nothing to indicate whether some similar process or a different process explained his conversion from the belief that a nuclear deterrent had to be stationed on British soil to the view that there should be no such thing and that all nuclear weapons should be removed from Britain. At some point he may explain how that came about. Perhaps it will lead us to be more sympathetic to the view advanced by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). The right hon. Member for Leeds, East owes it to us to explain how that conversion took place—whether it was through talking to a foreign leader, or at a Labour party back room discussion, I do not know.

The Prime Minister said that we should support Mr. Gorbachev in his great endeavour. That was a remarkable phrase for her to use after the years of megaphone diplomacy. She also said that if he gave her his word she would trust him. I think that that was a rather naive phrase. It is an understandable reaction to Mr. Gorbachev, whom I met, in company with the right hon. Member for Leeds, East and Lord Whitelaw, a year ago, in what turned out to be a dress rehearsal for Mrs. Thatcher's visit. We were taken round the same places on the standard tour. It is a naive remark because it underestimates the extent to which Mr. Gorbachev is part of a system. He is attempting in certain ways to change that system, but we do not know how far he is able or willing to change it. Most of us admire what he is trying to do and what he has achieved so far, but we must be a little cautious about the type of deals that we do with him; the best basis on which to form agreements is one on which there is realism on both sides. Both sides must accept that an agreement that has been reached safeguards their interests, and that sacrifices must be made by both sides. It is on that basis, and not on the trust of words alone, that matters must proceed.

So far as I can glean from what the Prime Minister said, and from her reported remarks, I believe that she got it about right on some of the major issues, including that of intermediate nuclear forces. I was genuinely worried about what she said before she went to Moscow, when she seemed to be ruling out an intermediate nuclear forces deal that was not directly linked with short-range missiles or human rights issues.

I am glad that the Prime Minister raised human rights issues in Moscow—the position of Jews wanting to emigrate, the position of Christians, and issues of general political rights. By raising those issues, the Prime Minister did us a service.

It was also sensible for her to raise our concerns about short-range missiles. However, to link either of those issues with the achievement of an agreement on intermediate nuclear forces would be to condemn the deal. There is no way in which progress on them could objectively be ascertained. One cannot ascertain objectively whether sufficient progress on human rights has been made to allow a deal on intermediate nuclear forces. The linkage is not even a logical one. Still less was it any part of the West's original insistence on the zero-zero option. The Prime Minister's remarks about verification, about follow-on talks on short-range missiles and about allowing the West to match—if it wanted to—the East's numbers were all within the terms of reference of the Soviet leadership's acceptance of the zero-zero option. It is, by the way, curious at this stage to raise the idea of the West matching the short-range missiles, when we have not attempted to do that in all the years during which we have not been prevented from doing so. So that is a false hare to raise now.

I hope and pray that we shall obtain a deal on intermediate nuclear forces that will help to make the world a safer place. However, I do not agree with all that the Prime Minister said in Moscow. Naturally, we profoundly disagree with her line on star wars—as would Dr. Andrei Sakharov. If that was one of the subjects that she discussed with him, she will have found him a critic of it. It is helpful that the Soviet Union has set aside for a moment its preoccupation with the star wars issue in order to make progress in other areas, but it remains a matter of real concern that the British Government should fuel President Reagan's commitment to the project, which is the subject of so many doubts and criticisms inside the United States.

What a contrast there was between the two visits that were made, respectively, by the leader of the Labour party and the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman's visit was doomed to failure from the start—by its very nature, it could not succeed. It involved trying to persuade the United States that NATO can continue without its bases in the United Kingdom. For the Prime Minister's visit to fail, however, would have been both difficult and foolish. However, she took her opportunity well, and succeeded.

The two leaders are alike in one respect : they are both, in one sense at least, unilateralists. The one believes that Britain can achieve general disarmament by acting alone: the other believes that British nuclear weapons should for ever be excluded, even from multilateral negotiations. The Labour party believes that we can act as if we had neither allies nor enemies, and abandon every category of nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom without first having negotiated to make the world safer. The Prime Minister said that she could not conceive of a position in which British or European nuclear weapons would be negotiated away, even if the superpowers negotiated away all their nuclear weapons. Both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev have explicitly stated that that is their aim.

The Prime Minister told the leader of the Labour party that one could not build one's defence policies on dreams, and most of us would agree with that. The leader of the Labour party was wrong, not in having dreams, but in building his defence policy on the assumption that they had already been realised. To have no dreams, vision or ambitions, as the Prime Minister's remark suggested, is to throw away any prospect of' achieving great things— where there is no vision, the people perish". Without dreams there would have been no desegregation in the United States, no United Nations, and no abolition of slavery. All those were achieved because of vision and ambition. The mistake is to assume that one has achieved one's dream before one has done so. Of course, we should have a vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It should drive us on the step-by-step route to negotiated disarmament.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs mentioned the issue of Afghanistan, which has also, doubtless, been the subject of discussion between the Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. I and other hon. Members also had discussions on the issue with him during his visit. There is a sense of optimism abroad. From Pakistan there are suggestions of a real prospect of movement. From Moscow, one senses that Mr. Gorbachev is serious about getting out of Afghanistan. He suggested as much to us last summer. I believe that to be true for the reasons that the Foreign Secretary advanced. The whole exercise has been a disaster for the Soviet Union from every point of view. It has cost it a great many lives and a great deal of repute in parts of the world in which it hoped to win friends.

The Soviet Union has not yet found terms that it considers would be acceptable for leaving Afghanistan. The attempt to move to a position in which the people of Afghanistan can have a say in their own future and the vast numbers of refugees in Pakistan can return to their country should be a major objective of all the nations that are involved. I hope that the British Government are doing what they can in that direction.

Central America is another area of conflict that we must examine. The American-supported Contra attacks on Nicaragua continue, and unrest persists in a number of neighbouring countries. It is time the Government clarified their position. They have frequently said that their policy is to seek a peaceful solution. As a logical consequence of that, they must be opposed to the arming of groups that are seeking to overthrow the Government of Nicaragua. Why cannot the Government state that? Is it because of their inability to give candid advice to the President of the United States, while so many of his own countrymen are doing precisely that—including most of Congress? The Government should change their stance on the issue.

It is important to argue for human rights in Nicaragua and in many other countries. It is impossible, however, to justify the Contra attacks on the ground that Nicaragua has a distinctively bad record on human rights, as compared with other countries in south and central America. There is no reason why the Government should not argue for more human rights there, but they cannot defend such attacks on that basis.

In the context of human rights, I hope that the Government will examine the proposals that have been put forward by the representatives of three Nicaraguan Opposition parties who are in the United Kingdom now. Senor Godoy of the Independent Liberal party and representatives of other parties have made proposals for an internal political settlement that would make a major difference in Nicaragua and in the attitude to Nicaragua of neighbouring countries. It has common features with the Arias plan, and I hope that the British Government will consider that seriously. There will be hon. Members from all parties in Managua to attend the Inter-Parliamentary Union congress and I have no doubt that the arguments to which I have referred will continue then.

Another major area of conflict that concerns us all is the middle east. The Foreign Secretary said a little about the prospects for a middle east peace conference, which were somewhat advanced by the discussions of the Council of Ministers. Perhaps the Minister of State will say more about that when he replies. I hope that he will tell us what is envisaged and the sort of time scale that will apply. It would be foolish to get down to discussing in this debate the formulae for the representation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Foreign Secretary was rightly cautious about that. It is clear, however, that the voice of the people of Palestine must be heard at the conference, and the PLO has an honoured record of representing that voice over a long period.

We are dealing with a rapidly changing situation. Who would have imagined a time when Israel could be so relaxed about Syria moving into Beirut? Who would have imagined the main opponent of the PLO would not be Israel but an Arab grouping of fanatical ruthlessness? It is a fanatical and ruthless grouping which claims to be pursuing the same cause as the unfortunate Palestinians who are trapped in camps, and it has subjected them to the most awful privations in the process. It is not Israel that has done that.

It is perhaps surprising that after the arguments that we had about Syria last year we can welcome at least some moves on its part. This prompts the question whether Syria will come in from the cold and what steps we shall take to encourage that to happen. I argued strongly over a considerable period that Britain should end its diplomatic relations with Syria in the light of evidence of Syria sponsoring terrorist activity in Britain, but some of those who were involved in that activity are no longer in positions of power in Syria, and Syria is beginning to show signs of a different approach. When I questioned the Prime Minister on these matters, she seemed appalled by the suggestion that we might in future try to restore good relations with Syria. We must recognise that it is an important player on the middle east scene and exercises a great deal of power. We shall have to consider seriously what Syria's role will be. In a general foreign affairs debate we must make some reference to South Africa, where elections among the white electorate alone are shortly to take place. There is surely a need for a clearer signal than has yet been given by the British Government and other European Governments, and I believe that it can be given only by applying sanctions against South Africa.

We are engaged in a series of measures against South Africa but it is not polite to call them sanctions. A much clearer signal needs to be given to the white electorate that Britain cannot be described, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, East described the present Government, as the last friend of the apartheid regime. I do not believe that to be the intentional position of the British Government, but I think that they should take clearer measures to ensure that it is not. The situation in some of the neighbouring countries should be exciting the Foreign Secretary's concern as well, not least Angola and Mozambique.

The Philippines, although not the scene of international conflict, are nevertheless an area of real concern. Everyone in the West was relieved to see a transfer of power to a Government with democratic objectives and high ideals for the people of that country, who suffered so much from a corrupt regime. There is a legitimate European interest in the Philippines that is reflected in major aid projects. There are a number of causes for anxiety, and one of them has been expressed by those who are working in the area of development who say that European aid is not taking sufficient account of the non-governmental voluntary organisations and their expertise in the country. If that is the position, I hope that it can be corrected. I hope also that the British Government will make it clear that they are prepared to play their part in relieving the Philippine Government's serious debt problem. There are various devices and methods that can be used. It is part of the wider international problem and we have a part to play in resolving it.

There are many other subjects that I should like to raise in this general foreign affairs debate. Unfortunately, I cannot do so because many other right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in it. If the world is to be made a safer place, painstaking work will have to be done at many levels. Apart from bilateral discussions, work will have to be done in the United Nations, including in its peacekeeping role, in the Commonwealth, in the Community and in the international financial community. Britain's interests are in a fairer world, and only a fairer world will be a safer world.