Anglo-Soviet Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:25 pm on 14th March 1991.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:25 pm, 14th March 1991

I invite my hon. Friend to consider again the reasons why, perhaps, there has been no such society and there is no such society. I remind him of the temptations that in the Soviet Union distorted 1917 through to the purges, to the Kulaks and to the totalitarianism that perhaps was the inevitable result of the principles of Stalin, which brooked no obstacle and no attempt to ascertain, as Cromwell might have said, whether there was another way. So be it.

I return to the key part of the debate, which is the nature of British-Soviet relations in the light of recent developments in the Soviet Union. My starting point is the internal state of the Soviet Union. We are passing through a period of extreme uncertainty, even confusion, with the paralysis of policy-making in the Soviet Union. We have a war of sovereignties between the different power structures in the Kremlin under President Gorbachev and the Russian Federation under Mr. Yeltsin. There are other challenges to the authority of the Kremlin in the Baltic republics, in Georgia and in other parts of the old Tsarist and Stalinist empire. The war of sovereignty is perhaps personified in the confrontation between President Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin. Some try to portray it as the conflict between the conservatives and the democrats.

Who would choose, with the multiplicity of conflicts, to be in the shoes of President Gorbachev? Who would be confident about the time scale or the direction of the massive movements that are now under way within the Soviet Union?

If one feels impatient and frustrated at the lack of progress and the current indecision, perhaps it is possible to be heartened by looking back over the past 10 years. It was 10 years ago that we saw the beginning of the new cold war. It was a time when President Reagan was referring to the Soviet Union as the evil empire. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), was creating a pale echo of that strident Reaganite rhetoric in a speech in Canada. That was before she saw the new apparition of President Gorbachev in 1985 and thereafter.

I had reasons to read an issue of The House Magazine in 1985 that featured the 40th anniversary of the United Nations. I compared it with what appeared to in the edition of December 1990, to which, I think, the Minister contributed. In 1985, we were in the last part of the new cold war. There was the assumption in a series of articles that that war would continue. We can take heart from the substantial changes that have taken place over the past five years or so. Both in domestic and foreign policy, the situation in the Soviet Union has altered dramatically. We should appreciate the changes, be prepared to understand the changes and the transitions through which we are passing and be prepared to adjust our own policies accordingly.

Internally the effects of glasnost and perestroika can be seen, for example, in the mass demonstrations that took place last Sunday throughout the Soviet Union. More than 500,000 people protested against the conditions to which my hon. Friend was referring—the shortages, the corruption, the lack of democracy, the paralysis of policy. That would not and could not have taken place even only five years ago. On sees strikes among the miners and a new era of political freedom. Yet those internal moves to democracy have been accompanied by an accelerating economic decline and a feeling of hopelessness and impotence among the policy makers and the people.

Externally, the new spirit in the Soviet Union has had a marked effect over a wide area. We see it most dramatically in Europe with the dismantling of the Berlin wall, the unification of Germany and the end of the old Soviet empire in eastern Europe. But it is also seen more broadly in the new co-operation by the Soviet Union in arms control agreements and in the easing of international relations in many parts of the third world, for example, in the developments in southern Africa, beginning with the independence of Namibia and the dramatic changes in South Africa itself. Those could not have happened had it not been for the greater co-operation of the Soviet authorities.

More recently, and perhaps most dramatically, we have seen the effects of the changes externally in the Soviet Union co-operation over the Gulf war. We recognise that even five years ago that could not have happened because of the alliance between the Soviet Union and Iraq, with Iraq a major purchaser of Soviet military hardware, with the Soviet Union regarding Iraq as its major foothold in the middle east and with the generals being largely in control. The new spirit, personified by President Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze, was responsible in large part for the relative ease of international co-operation in the Gulf crisis.

Perhaps it is an answer to my hon. Friend's Marxist analysis that we are talking about changes which probably occurred as a result of the remarkable imprint on history of one man. That surely conflicts with the classic Marxist analysis that one has an economic substructure on which all else within the pyramid is built, as if we are the playthings of movements in the substructure. How can one fit into that analysis the remarkable changes in the Soviet Union as a result of the personal efforts of one man—President Gorbachev? It may be that he is played out as a reformer; I do not know, but no one can deny the vast changes, internally and externally, which have come about because of his activities. I do not see how those changes could be accommodated within the pure Marxist analysis.