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Polaris Submarine Base (Motion And Amendment)

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 3 November 1960

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On a point of order. May I make a respectful submission to you, Mr. Speaker, about which I ventured this morning to acquaint your Secretary? It relates to a matter which I raised yesterday and upon which I had the benefit of your guidance, but since which an Amendment to the Address has appeared on the Order Paper signed by many of my colleagues and myself. [At end add:

But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech makes no provision for the urgent need for reducing, substantially, the burden of defence expenditure and contains no proposals for the removal of American bases or for opposition to the establishment of a Polaris submarine base in the United Kingdom.]

It relates to the subject which formed part of the speech delivered by the Prime Minister on Tuesday this week, namely, the subject of the Polaris submarine base.

I recognise—I know this from my experience of the House and its procedure—that the matter of procedure in the debate on the Gracious Speech is for your discretion, and I do not question your discretion at all, Sir, in that respect. But the situation is rather different on this occasion, because the subject matter contained in the Prime Minister's speech was of a somewhat unusual character. It was, in a sense, of an urgent nature. It was presented in a novel form and it has been the subject of considerable comment in the Press. Indeed, there are doubts as to whether the Prime Minister—I do not say this in any offensive fashion—told the whole story, and clearly there is a case for private Members, if not for the official Opposition, raising this issue at the earliest possible moment.

It may well be that you, Mr. Speaker, are unable to assist private Members in this regard by providing facilities for a debate on the Amendment which is now on the Order Paper. If that is your decision, perhaps you will permit me to put at once a question to the Leader of the House on the possibility of affording facilities for such a debate in the coming week.

Further to that point of order. I should like your assistance, Mr. Speaker, on a question that perhaps precedes the question of further time, which is more properly directed to the Leader of the House, that is to say, as to the choice of Amendments in the course of the debate on the Motion for the Loyal Address. There are two Amendments—indeed, I think there are three Amendments—on the Order Paper which deal with defence subjects. There is the one to which my right hon. Friend has just referred; there is one in the name of the hon. Member and his hon. Friends behind me, and there is another Amendment from the other side of the House which, although not directly raising the question of defence, does indirectly relate to it.

In the choice of Amendments that has so far been indicated there is no opportunity for raising any of the subjects covered by the Amendment to which we refer, and I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, with great repect that that would be a great pity. Defence is agitating the minds of a great many people today, and not only in the House.

There were many people in the country who were gravely disturbed about these problems even before the Prime Minister made his announcement two days ago. Since then the anxiety has been greatly increased, especially in Scotland. It is a subject which has created great anxiety indeed.

There are two precedents in comparatively recent times for calling unofficial Amendments to the Motion for an Address. I have had an opportunity of drawing your attention to them privately, and. I should like now publicly to draw your attention to them, I hope very shortly.

Perhaps the closest parallel was on 28th November, 1934, when the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) was in temporary disagreement with his then leaders about defence matters. He put down an Amendment to the Address in these terms, and was allowed to move it, and a debate took place:
"But humbly represent to your Majesty that, in the present circumstances of the world, the strength of our national defences, and especially of our air defences, is no longer adequate to secure the peace, safety, and freedom of Your Majesty's faithful subjects."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Wednesday, 28th November, 1934; Vol. 295, c. 857.]
Although the sense of that Amendment is different from the sense of the Amendment to which my right hon. Friend referred a moment or two ago, it is closely analogous in that it was a disagreement with the Government, by the Government's own supporters, about a vital matter of defence policy, and so is this one.

The only other comparatively recent precedent which I had in mind was the Amendment moved on 18th November, 1946, in the days when my right hon. Friends formed the Government. The Amendment was rather longer and I will not take the time of the House by reading it all, but it was similarly a question raising problems of foreign policy and defence in an unofficial Amendment. I remember that the Speaker of the day, Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown, was greatly influenced—apparently it was a difficult question to decide—by the Churchill precedent.

With those two precedents in mind, I urge on you that some time should be found during the course of the debate on the Address for raising this subject in a convenient way, and I submit that this Amendment is a convenient way of doing it.

One understands the reasons which have prompted my right hon. Friends above the Gangway not to put it down themselves. One sympathises with them to some extent, but nevertheless these are subjects of the gravest possible anxiety, and the nation is entitled to have them debated in the House of Commons at a time when they are relevant.

I have only one other short point. If this opportunity is lost, apparently there will be no further convenient opportunity until the Defence Estimates are discussed, which is many months ahead. I know that this is a matter entirely within your discretion, but I submit with due deference that a case has been made for not allowing the debate on the Motion for the Address to conclude without discussing the subjects raised in the Amendment and ascertaining the opinion of the House on them.

Unless hon. Members are rising on precisely the same point of order, I would rather answer at this stage before I forget what it is.

Further to the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday afternoon, quite unintentionally, the Prime Minister misled many hon. Members. Many of us thought that he was going to make a statement, not on the Monckton Report, but on the denial, made that morning by authoritative sources in Washington, of the Prime Minister's statement that there would be the fullest possible consultation before the Polaris missile was used. So that the Prime Minister may be able to make a statement, and in order that the whole matter which may cost the lives of us all may be adequately debated, I ask that this Amendment be called.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Speaking as a Scottish Member, may I, with the greatest respect, draw your attention to one further consideration which lends even more urgency to this question? Today Scottish local authorities are meeting together to discuss the whole question of their attitude towards the proposed Polaris base in the Clyde.

There are several versions of the truth before them on the question of consultation and use of the Polaris missile. There is the truth as given by the Prime Minister. There is the truth as given by the Foreign Secretary in the House of Lords yesterday. Finally, there is the truth as it has been given by the United States authorities. It seems that in this matter truth is indeed many-sided.

Scottish local authorities have the right to know which of these versions of the truth is indeed the correct one before being asked to make up their minds on their attitude to this question. Because of that, it seems most urgent that an opportunity should be found; and, as my hon. Friends have suggested, a suitable opportunity can be found on the basis of discussing the Amendment to the Motion for an Address, to discuss this whole matter before any final consultations take place in Scotland.

I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you would be good enough to give me your guidance on a somewhat narrower point. I have given the Leader of the House and you notice of this. There is one very important point connected with the procedure involved in the passing of the Army Act about which the House ought to be informed before we depart from the debate on the Motion for an Address. Would you tell me whether I should make the point now, or do so on the business statement?

I should be grateful if the hon. Member would raise that after the business statement.

I hope that hon. Members who have risen are still on the substance of the same point of order.

I presume, Mr. Speaker, that in making your decision about whether to call this Amendment you will be guided by two considerations: first, the urgency and importance of the subject; secondly, the degree of support in the House.

On the first point, all that need be said is that this matter was brought into the debate on the Address by a statement by the Prime Minister in the course of a speech on the Motion for an Address. On the urgency of the matter, and on the degree of public interest in it, there can, I think, be no question.

On the second point, the Amendment in question already has the support of forty-seven hon. Members. In addition, there are six hon. Members who have put their names to an Amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) on a similar subject. That makes a total of fifty-three, and I understand that other hon. Members are prepared to put their names to the Amendment. There is, therefore, in my submission, sufficient support to warrant the Amendment being called and the matter being debated.

Might I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the Motion on the Order Paper dealing with the proposed American Polaris base in Great Britain:

[That this House, realising that the civil population of this country has no adequate defence in the event of nuclear war and the grave dangers that might arise as the result of the establishment of an American Polaris submarine base in Great Britain for operations over which Her Majesty's Government could have no adequate control, is opposed to the proposal that a Polaris submarine base should be established in Scotland.]

It deals with many of the points that have been raised, but specifically with the proposed American Polaris base in Great Britain. In the terms of that Motion it is declared, with the support of forty hon. Members, that this country will have no adequate control over the operations of this Polaris submarine.

This is my point. The Prime Minister assured us in his speech on Tuesday that there would be a form of control, and that agreement had been reached with President Eisenhower with regard to the control. Since then it has been stated in the Press that an official of the State Department in America has challenged the accuracy of the Prime Minister's statement to this House. In view of that fact, is not it important that the Prime Minister should forthwith make a statement about the agreement that has been reached on the control that can be exercised over this submarine? Does he realise that there is bound to be grave discontent in Scotland—

Order. The hon. Member cannot now make the speech which he might make if time were found to discuss the Amendment to which he is referring.

I am merely concluding with a question. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that there is bound to be grave discontent in Scotland until this matter is cleared up?

May I call your attention to a further precedent in this matter, Mr. Speaker? On 18th November, 1946—also in a debate on the Address—Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown permitted me to move an Amendment regretting the introduction of military conscription. On that occasion only twenty Members signed the Amendment, but not only did Mr. Speaker allow a discussion of the Amendment, in the name of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), but he also permitted those of us who felt a deep conscientious objection to the introduction of something new, which conflicted with our consciences, to vote on it.

I therefore appeal to you to consider this matter very carefully. On that occasion we were not only permitted to discuss the question but to vote on it. This is another introduction of a measure that many of us feel deeply to be wrong, and we ought to be permitted to express our views and to vote upon it in the debate on the Address.

There is obviously a widespread desire to have a debate on defence. It exists among those who have signed the Amendment standing in my name and those who have signed the other Amendment. But it is also desirable to have a statement from the Government. There have been important developments in defence—not only in regard to Polaris, but on the whole position of N.A.T.O. and the situation of the forces in Germany. I submit that if it is possible to fit this subject into the time allotted for the debate on the Gracious Speech we should at least get an extra day on it, and we could discuss these Amendments together in a proper debate.

I appreciate the concern and anxiety of hon. Members and their desire to have peace and security in the world, but as the Member for Dunbartonshire, West, the constituency where this new submarine base is likely to be situated, I should point out that I had a public meeting in my constituency on Sunday night, when not one question was asked about this matter. I am making this point in drawing your attention and that of the House to the question of the urgency of the matter. These constituents of mine were gathered together, because 1,000 people have been told that they will be out of a job before Christmas. This will be adding to 1,000 workers who are already unemployed, and my constituents are therefore very much concerned that the House should discuss the question of the provision of work for the people who are unemployed in Scotland.

Therefore, although nobody appreciates more than my constituents and I do that the question of peace is important, at the same time we believe that the provision of work for our people is also important.

May I express the hope that hon. Members will, as far as possible, confine themselves strictly to points of order?

I readily accept your advice, Mr. Speaker, and in any case I was going to do that. This is the most serious issue with which Parliament has yet been faced. The future of our country and of humanity is at stake. I shall confine myself to the relatively narrow issue raised in the Amendment, and shall not roam over wider fields.

The Prime Minister's statement was made without any warning. I am not complaining of that, but Parliament knew nothing about it before it was made. I should have made it clear at the beginning that we all agree that it is your prerogative to decide what Amendments you call, and that we are not entitled to challenge your decision in any way. We are not doing that. But the Standing Order also provides for private Members, in particular, asking Mr. Speaker for reasons for his decision. With great respect, that is all we are doing. We are keeping within those narrow limits.

I recognise that you have a great responsibility, and that you are in a difficult position, but I hope that you will look at the matter afresh from the point of view I have expressed. [Laughter.] There should be no laughing about this; those who have played their parts in two world wars are in a strong position to deal with any laughter.

The life of the country and of humanity is at stake with the development of this site. In view of the fact that the Prime Minister made the statement he did, and that Parliament had not been consulted, we ask you to consider the arguments we have put forward and appeal to you to call the specific Amendment in order that the British Parliament may take a direct vote on this issue.

In giving your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I ask you to pay special attention to the last point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) concerning the position of back-bench Members of Parliament? The Prime Minister's grave statement was made on Tuesday afternoon, after the attitude of the Government and the Opposition had been decided. If neither the Opposition nor the Government are prepared officially to find time for a debate on this subject, it means that sixty or seventy private Members will have no opportunity of testing the opinion of the House. We look to you as the custodian of back-bench freedom in this House, and ask you to safeguard our interest on this occasion.

I apologise for not being here at the commencement of this discussion. As one who has been associated with the Amendment, I wish to add further arguments to those which have probably already been used by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). You are guided by precedents, Mr. Speaker, and that is natural and right, but we are now in a situation When we have no precedents for the issue before us. I remember raising the question of the atom bomb in this House ten years ago, when we were debating the Air Estimates. Your predecessor then said that such a question was out of order in a debate on the Air Estimates because they contained no reference to it, and I could get into order only by asking if the atom bomb was going to be delivered by the Minister of Transport.

I suggest that the whole political atmosphere has changed with the advent of this great new weapon, with all its political repercussions. If there are no precedents—

If there are, there are abundant reasons for referring to those that fit the present situation. I am concerned that this should be a House of democracy—a House of Commons, and not a Madame Tussaud's Waxworks.

If the Opposition Front Bench do not wish to oppose the Government on a clear-cut issue affecting the peace and welfare of the nation, I suggest that an opportunity should be given to those who do. If the Opposition Front Bench wish to go into cold storage, that is their look-out, but it is not for the House of Commons to go into cold storage. I suggest that as a democratic institution we should be guided by the trend of public opinion outside. There is certainly growing up in this area, and certainly in my own constituency and in the west of Scotland, which is vitally affected by the question whether these submarines come to the Firth of Clyde, a demand that some of us who have been opposed to this should oppose it according to the constitution of this country.

I respectfully suggest an opportunity should be given for hon. Members to cast their votes on what might be a decisive issue for the future of this country. Although this may be difficult from the point of view of Parliamentary precedents, I submit not only that you, Mr. Speaker, are the custodian of this House but that we look to you as the custodian of democracy.

In case you should be influenced, Mr. Speaker, to some degree by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele), may I draw you attention and the attention of the House to the fact that I have received a communication dated 1st November and signed by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West suggesting that there is a great volume of public opinion in that area against this proposed base.

Order. We are consuming a lot of valuable time, and I should like to be able to hear

In view of the grave issues that are at stake and the terrific feeling which this matter has aroused throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, I suggest that it is proper that we should have an opportunity of discussing this as Members of the House of Commons at the earliest possible moment.

I have called Mr. Reynolds. Let me say that I do not regard it as part of my duty, nor have I ever assumed that it should be, to judge the relative urgency of issues raised by various hon. Members. If I did so, I should be bogged down in attempting to assess the relative degrees of urgency as to which hon. Member may be in conflict.

May I at this stage, Mr. Speaker, call your attention to the fact that while there is not a large number of back-bench signatures to the Amendment under discussion, there is a terrific number of signatures of backbench Members, at least on this side of the House, indicating that we should be able to find time to discuss an Amendment dealing with rents in London and another dealing with education. I can only express the hope that, in coming to your decision, nothing will be done to prejudice the opportunity of dealing with these matters.

However important the other subject may be, and I do not doubt this myself, may I sincerely express the hope that time can be found, indeed priority given, to the other two subjects, which are of terrific importance and affect a larger number of back-bench Members than does the other Motion which you are now being asked to consider. If it is thought desirable to have debates on the other subjects, I hope that some way can be found of dealing with the matter without interfering with debates already planned.

May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to one other point, which makes this Amendment more urgent and more important? It raises a very high constitutional issue. This House, by a series of Measures, has given consent to the occupation of this country by allied foreign forces, but with very strict undertakings. Until recently, we passed the Army Act each year, because our constitutional practice declares against the maintenance of a standing British Army in this country.

Announcements made in Washington, on which we cannot ask questions, suggest that there is a complete misunderstanding of the position as between the two allied nations, and suggest that the Americans have assumed that they will have permission to use weapons of mass destruction from our inland seas and our territorial waters without consultation or approval from anyone representative of this House at all. This country, therefore, could be engaged in a world war and in the mass destruction of its people by the actions of occupying forces taken even without consultation with any of Her Majesty's advisers. I cannot think of anything more important or urgent than that.

What my hon. Friends wish to discuss is a very important issue, and we are all agreed on that, and if these two subjects are selected for debate, we have tomorrow and we could easily have another day. The legislative programme of the Government does not seem to be a singularly heavy one, and I urge that an issue of this kind cannot be by-passed for months and ignored without a debate and doing justice to the principles upon which this House exists.

I want to put one point to you, Mr. Speaker. I want to assure you that hon. Members who are asking you to give us an opportunity to discuss this Amendment are not opposed to discussions on the Amendments on education and rents which are already on the Order Paper. Indeed, as you know, Sir, I particularly wish to speak on the rents issue, because it affects my constituency.

What I suggest to you is that this question of the Polaris base, which has arisen within the last few days, on which there is a division of opinion and interpretation as between what has been said on the Front Bench and what has been said in Washington, must be discussed by this House of Commons before we conclude the debate on the Address. I would very respectfully urge that you should give us an opportunity for an exchange of opinion in this House on this subject and that, if necessary, an extra day should be allowed.

I rise again to indicate to the House that my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) rather misrepresented me, and I seek the opportunity to put the matter right. While, in fact, he held a letter in his hand and gave an indication to the House of what it contained, he did not read the letter to the House. Therefore, I want to make it clear that he was referring to a resolution passed by the Federation of Labour Parties for East and West Dunbartonshire with regard not only to the Polaris missile base but all nuclear missile bases in this country, and indicating, in fact, that the Federation of Labour Parties in Dunbartonshire was not objecting to these bases provided that they had a substantial measure of British operational control.

If the hon. Member has something to contribute to this point of order, I shall be glad to hear him; otherwise, there may be an opportunity of dealing with it on the business statement.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, in order to clarify the situation, whether the Prime Minister will be making today a statement to clarify the issue as between the statement which he made on Tuesday and the statement made in Washington?

I have no reason to think that the Prime Minister is contemplating making any statement today.

In reply to the various points put to me, and I hope that I have not forgotten them all, I think I must go back first to the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). So far as the Motion on the Order Paper is concerned, of course, the provision of time for discussing that is in no way a question for me, and that is all I can say in answer to the representations that some time should be provided for discussion of the Motion.

With regard to the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) and other hon. Members, I beg leave to assure him and others that I have given this matter the most anxious consideration and have looked at the precedents to which he referred me; and, of course, I was aware of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) was recounting in his personal history in the matter—I have read it. But I think it manifest that the Chair would be lost at once were it to depart from the established precedent in this matter and would at once be reduced to judging as between hon. Members and the relative importance of the issues they wanted to raise, and that would be hopeless.

In those circumstances, although I have not been asked, I will say that I conceive myself, in the circumstances of this year—that is to say, the time available for the debate on the Address—required to select the Amendments standing in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members. I should like to say this: the Chair accepts, of course, the duty of looking after true democracy and the rights of back benchers. But, prima facie, from the Chair's point of view, the official Opposition Amendments represent the way in which the largest minority desires the time to be employed. I hope that now we can get on to the other matters.

I venture to make this further submission to you, Mr. Speaker. I agree entirely with what you have said about discretion being in the hands of the Chair. I do not quarrel with that at all. But let us assume that, at the commencement of business this week, the statement by the Prime Minister had already been made, and had caused some comment among hon. Members, and there appeared to be a need for a debate on what the Prime Minister had said. Then when the submission was made to you by the official Opposition, namely, that two subjects—very important subjects indeed—should be regarded as providing the Amendments to the Address, if you had been made aware before then that there was a demand in the House for a debate on what the Prime Minister had told the House, surely you would not have come to the decision which you have just made; because apparently you agree that the views of private Members must be taken into consideration. I think that a very fair submission to make to you on the point you have just made.

May I deal with one at a time or I shall become confused, and I do not wish that.

In answer to the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. E. Shinwell), I am not proposing to rule about what would have happened in some hypothetical circumstance. Of course, if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition were to add his name now to the Amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), the position would be altered, but that has not happened.

I hope that so far as questions which are not within my responsibility arise, they may be addressed to the proper quarter, because I want to get on. I will hear hon. Members on points of order strictly, but nothing else.

I understand, Mr. Speaker, that the Leader of the House is about to read the business statement now.

May I, according to precedent, be permitted to make the business statement?

I am trying to reach an opportunity when the right hon. Gentleman may be asked the question on business. I hope that hon. Members will confine themselves strictly to points of order.

I hope to confine myself strictly to the matter we have been asking your advice about. I make two short points only. One is that, if the view had prevailed always in the past that the official Amendments from the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends necessarily took precedence, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in 1934 would not have had the opportunity to make what turned out to be a most historic speech and perhaps the most significant speech of his career.

The second point I should like to put to you is this. I understand that your main difficulty is not as between official and unofficial Amendments at all, but as to the time limit within which the selection has to be made. It is a question of priorities within this time limit. May I ask you whether you would consider this a proper Amendment to be called and discussed if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House provided an extra day before concluding the whole debate on the Address? We should then have extra time, there would be no competition with my right hon. Friend, and those of us anxious to have a discussion would be able to have it.

I will not give rulings on hypothetical sets of circumstances. It has never been the practice. Mr. Gaitskell—business question.