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Rhodesia

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1965

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement on Rhodesia.

On Monday I said that the two Governments had agreed in principle to recommend to Her Majesty the appointment of a Royal Commission for the purpose of testing the acceptability to the Rhodesian people as a whole of a draft independence arrangement which, we hoped, would be agreed between the two Governments and would be based on the 1961 Constitution with such amendments as we might consider necessary. I went on to say that the two Governments were in discussion to see whether it was possible to agree on the text of a document which the Royal Commission could take for this purpose.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General have now returned and reported on their discussions. It is now clear that there is no prospect—and the House would realise from what I said on Monday the kind of issues involved—of agreement being reached on the amendments which should be made to the 1961 Constitution, as a basis for use by the Royal Commission.

In these circumstances we have had to consider our position. This we have done with a deep sense of the responsibility lying upon us for ensuring that this House, before there is any question of its being asked to take a decision about independence, should have before it an authoritative statement of the views of the Rhodesian people as a whole on particular proposals for independence. Mr. Smith considers that independence on the basis of the 1961 Constitution is acceptable to the Rhodesian people. Neither we nor our predecessors have been able to accept this as a fact without the most rigorous proof being forthcoming.

In this connection I must refer to statements made yesterday by Mr. Smith about the discussions he had with my predecessor, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home), in September 1964. Mr. Smith said yesterday that he had made an agreement with my predecessor that Rhodesia could have independence on the 1961 Constitution, if it could be proved that this was acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole.

I want to make it clear that we do not accept this interpretation and we are so informing Mr. Smith. The right hon. Gentleman made it crystal clear again and again that the British Government had as yet no evidence that the majority of the population supported the Rhodesian request for independence on the basis of the present constitution and franchise, and indeed in the final agreed communiqué, the following statement occurs:
"The British Prime Minister said that the British Government would take account of any views which might be freely expressed by the population on the issues involved; but he must make it plain that the British Government reserved their position."
Against that background and unequivocally re-confirming the statement I have just quoted, the British Government have decided and I am so informing Mr. Smith that we are now prepared to agree, subject to certain conditions shall outline, that the Rhodesian's Government's constitutional proposals should be put to the test of acceptability to the people of Rhodesia as a whole.

But if this is to be done it must be known that we ourselves disagree with these proposals for the reasons I stated on Monday and which I shall not weary the House by repeating. Indeed, Mr. Smith himself recognised in his broadcast on Monday night that we disagree with them.

Second, we continue to hold the view that the Royal Commission, before canvassing the views of the Rhodesian people as a whole, should submit for approval by both Governments a unanimous interim report on how they would propose to determine acceptability. If the Royal Commission's suggestions for this purpose were approved, they should themselves supervise whatever procedures were adopted in order to implement their findings.

Third, when the Royal Commission have completed the process of ascertaining the opinion of the people of Rhodesia as a whole, they will submit a final report which we have agreed must be unanimous. The British Government cannot, of course, be expected to commit themselves in advance to accept that report, particularly as, in any case, the eventual decision rests with Parliament alone.

But I must also inform the House that we are making it clear to the Rhodesian Government—and I do not want there to be any misunderstanding about this here, in Rhodesia, or anywhere else—that if, in the event, the Royal Commission's findings showed that the Rhodesian Government's proposal was unacceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole, the British Government reserve their freedom of action as to the future course to be followed. We would feel free to pursue other means of dealing with the problem such as reviving our earlier suggestion of a Royal Commission with the substantive task of devising a new Constitution of Rhodesia, or our proposal that the issue should then be remitted to a Constitutional Conference.

I greatly hope—and I am sure the House will share this hope—that, after all the efforts that have been made in these past few weeks to secure a solution fulfilling all the requirements of honour and of justice, that what I have said will enable us to go ahead with the Royal Commission, on the principle of which we agreed last week, and that the Royal Commission can get down to its vitally important work without delay.

If what I have said is unacceptable to the Rhodesian Government—though I am sure the whole House would find it difficult to believe that this could not be acceptable to them—I have one last alternative proposition, which I have put to Mr. Smith, as a fall-back on which agreement could still be reached. We should still be willing, as an alternative to the Royal Commission, to agree that the Rhodesian Government's Constitutional proposals should be submitted to the test of a referendum of the whole Rhodesian people, provided that it was conducted without restriction on free political activity by all sections of the community, provided that it was subject to adequate impartial supervision, and provided that it incorporated stringent safeguards against intimidation from any quarter.

I will, of course, keep the House fully informed of any further development.

We appreciate, of course, the great difficulties under which the Prime Minister and his colleagues are working at the moment and the pressure of time and communications with Salisbury. Therefore, we appreciate the reasons why he has not been able to extend to us the usual courtesies of a reasonable time to consider his statement beforehand.

The whole House will have heard with the deepest disappointment that it has not been possible to reach agreement on a draft document which could be presented to the Commission. Do I understand the position aright—that the Prime Minister has now reserved the British Government's position at every stage; on the actual proposals which will be put forward by the Commission to the people of Rhodesia, on the interim report, as to the procedure which is to be used, and, if that is agreed, on the final decision to which the Commission comes? Can he tell the House anything about the present proposals of the Government of Rhodesia which will, if his new proposal is accepted, be put to the people by the Commission? Have there been any changes in the last proposal which the Government made?

I am sorry that it was not possible to send an earlier copy, for the reasons which the right hon. Gentleman knows. The other day I made certain he got one unusually early when that was in my control. I share his disappointment that we have not reached agreement on the document. The reason is that we have stood firm on the principles which I outlined on Monday, which would have made it impossible to agree to the Rhodesian Government's proposal, which is, basically, the 1961 Constitution with certain consequential amendments which are necessary when a country proceeds from a position of dependence to a position of independence, but also, of course, including their proposition for extending the number of voters on the B roll. That is the only difference we have.

As to his understanding of the position, I entirely agree with the way in which he has summarised it. Of course, there is still no agreement on the interim report. He is quite right that, on the method of consultation, on the final report and certainly on any action by this House, we fully reserve the position of Her Majesty's Government and of this Parliament throughout.

While regretting that the proposals put before the House and the Rhodesian Government by the Prime Minister have been rejected, may there not be some disquiet, now that, as I understand it, the proposals put forward by the Rhodesian Government will not contain proposals for the implementation of the five principles, which the Prime Minister told us in his last statement were essential to the draft agreement? Does it mean, therefore, that the British Government will appoint a member of the Commission who will put before the Rhodesian people proposals which are not acceptable to the British Government themselves?

We have made it quite clear that we do not regard this Constitution as now proposed as satisfactory and we have reserved our position as to the ultimate outcome, as did the Government before us. Mr. Smith all along has argued, indeed for three years he and his predecessors have argued, that they have the support of the Rhodesian people as a whole. He quoted indabas of chiefs and all sorts of things in support of the argument. Both our predecessors and ourselves are entirely unsatisfied that that is the position. All right; we will put it to the test. If it turns out that the Rhodesian people as a whole, on terms that all of us would consider fair as an indication of their view, reject it, then, of course, Mr. Smith's case falls to the ground. If, on the other hand, they accept it, then we still reserve our position as to the course of action to be taken.

May I be allowed to confirm the interpretation which the Prime Minister has put on the talks of 1964? It seems to me important that this should be done. We were not satisfied at that time that there were sufficient safeguards against retrogression in the position of the Africans, and we were not satisfied, either, that the proposals before us for ascertaining the will of the people of Rhodesia were sufficient or sufficiently defined. Will the Prime Minister find some convenient way of letting the House know on what particular points in the five principles the talks have broken down? It seems to me that at one time there was considerable progress, but now there seems to be deadlock. I do not know whether the Commonwealth Secretary would be able to enlighten us at some time.

I hope that there might be an opportunity of going into the details. I am not sure that it would be helpful to go into every point at the moment. On the question of guarantees against retrogression, we feel that these are essential to this agreement, and we insisted on this staying in if our name were to be attached to the document, which was to be the subject of ascertaining the views of the people of Rhodesia as a whole. May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for confirming what I said earlier about his attitude last year? Anyone who reads the full text of what he said and what his colleagues said, to say nothing of the communiqué which I have quoted, can be in no doubt at all that the right hon. Gentleman made the point about ascertainment and about reserving the Government's position crystal clear again and again.

Is the Prime Minister aware that some of us are greatly concerned by the statement which he has made this afternoon? In view of the fact that the position of the Rhodesian Government about independence has been on countless times challenged on both sides of the House and by the Prime Minister himself in countless statements, is it not quite wrong that that proposal should be submitted for consideration to the Rhodesian people? Does not this conflict with the statement which the Prime Minister made on Monday that the five principles would have to be part of the statement submitted to the Commission? Is it not now possible that Mr. Smith could gain independence for Rhodesia on the basis of terms which month after month and year after year have been rejected by this and previous Governments?

I made it clear on Monday that those points necessary to give effect to the five principles must be included in any document to which we set our seal. Since this is impossible, we are faced with the position of what to do. If my hon. Friend thinks that the people of Rhodesia as a whole are likely to accept this constitution, then I must say that it is a very big change from the attitude taken by him and many other hon. Members. What we have to do now is to see whether they accept it or whether they do not accept it. This is not giving carte blanche for independence. Not at all. We have fully reserved our position, but obviously we have a right to know whether Mr. Smith is correct in saying that the Rhodesian people as a whole back him. We shall find that out.

The Prime Minister will appreciate that since his earlier statement a very provocative and, in my view, regrettable resolution has been passed in the Trusteeship Committee of the United Nations—a resolution which I understand is likely to be endorsed by the General Assembly. In his statement this afternoon the Prime Minister said that in the last resort perhaps there might be a referendum supervised by an independent body. Does he visualise that being the United Nations? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] If so, would the Prime Minister bear in mind the very great danger, if we were to take that view, of giving the United Nations there power which really they do not have and which the Trusteeship Committee is abusing?

While I do not agree with the last few words of the hon. and gallant Gentleman nor with some of the interjections during his remarks about the United Nations, nevertheless I take the view, as I said on Monday, that the referendum requires outside supervision, not only as to the ballot box procedure, but as to freedom of political association; but, as I said on Monday, I think that the appropriate authority to provide that impartial supervision is the British Government on terms acceptable to the British Parliament, because it is our responsibility and we have the duty of ensuring that this referendum is carried through on a free basis—as we should have to face any consequent responsibility—and with guarantees against intimidation from any quarter.

Since it is now plain that what the Prime Minister calls the unanimity rule has extreme urgency, could he explain it to us a little? Does what he calls the unanimity rule mean that every member of the Commission will be conscious throughout that there can be nothing in the report which has not received the assent and consent of each one of the three members?

The hon. Member is correct. The statement means that at the end of the day the Royal Commission will report saying either "Yes, this is acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole" or "No, it is not". It must be a unanimous report.

Since the Prime Minister will appreciate how strongly the Prime Minister of Rhodesia will wish to prove that he has the support of the Rhodesian community for the 1961 Constitution, may I ask whether he could give the House any information about the type of supervision of this attitude of the Rhodesian population which we can expect from the Commission? Secondly, may I ask him whether it is possible to ascertain that, if accepted, the 1961 Constitution would be carried out in full, in the light of what happened to the Constitutional Committee under that Constitution?

If this is done on the basis of a Royal Commission, it will be for the Royal Commission to recommend the methods of supervision. Quite frankly, I am not yet in a position to say who the members will be, but I shall have the fullest confidence in that Commission to recommend methods of ascertainment which, in so far as they involve a direct popular referendum or means of finding out the views of the Rhodesian people, will be guaranteed to be free under whatever supervision is needed. Answering the second part of the question, I am in no doubt at all that if the Rhodesian Government now reject the idea of a Royal Commission—and I think that that is inconceivable—then under our proposal for a 100 per cent. referendum it will be our duty to see that there is adequate supervision.

Would the Prime Minister agree that both in London and in Salisbury the Rhodesian Government did move some way towards his point of view? May I therefore press him to get their agreement to publish the differences which still lie between the British and Rhodesian Governments? I do not believe that they are as great as all that.

I think that they are very great. They are great not merely as legal matters; they are great because of the political differences. I fear that they may represent something much deeper than that, deeper than simple political approaches to a problem. This is why we felt that since we could not reach agreement on the terms to go into the document of the Royal Commission, we could not endorse one put forward by the Rhodesian Government. It involves fundamental questions about retrogression.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that nearly everybody concedes to him the claim which he made the other day that he has done everything in a man's power to try to bring this tragic and difficult situation to an end and that therefore this will offer him a firm support, in consequence, in not making any further concession which would go beyond what is reasonable?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I can say, as a result of this statement and what is being communicated to Mr. Smith, that the full rights of this House are completely reserved as to the terms of independence.

If there is failure to reach agreement on amendments to the 1961 Constitution, and since the Rhodesians are now pressing for independence on the basis of that Constitution—and since successive Governments have made it clear that there is inadequate support for independence on the basis of that Constitution—short of a complete referendum, what is the purpose of asking a Royal Commission to advise on the taking of opinions on a limited basis to reach a conclusion of which we are already well aware?

The point is that the previous Government and ourselves have not said that we are satisfied that there is no Rhodesian support for this. We have said that Mr. Smith's contention that there is support has never been proved and we have never been satisfied—either the previous Government or ourselves—about the methods which he suggested for finding it out. This is a chance to find it out once and for all, not on the basis of what he may have said or what the hon. Gentleman or we may think, but on a basis of fact, under a Royal Commission in which we can have confidence, as to whether Mr. Smith is right or wrong; and the consequences of finding that out can be very important.

May I follow the last supplementary question by asking the Prime Minister to clarify one point? Will it be the responsibility of the Royal Commission to define what is meant by "acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole" as well as to ascertain whether that definition in fact exists in the country itself? If that is the case, an immense responsibility will rest on the Royal Commission and on the Prime Minister in the choice of his representative on it.

It is for the Commission to define what is meant by this, and I personally would have every confidence in its members' ability to do that and to test it out. If when the report was received we all felt that they had gone out of their senses and had defined as "acceptability" something that was clearly not acceptable, this House reserves its position. However, I think that the members of the Commission will not only be learned in the subject and other matters but will have a real knowledge of the issues and of the political realities in Rhodesia as well as elsewhere, and the political realities in Rhodesia will suggest that acceptability means not only acceptable to the present electorate but to a very much larger number of Rhodesians who are at present disfranchised.

I appreciate that this is an important matter, but I must protect the business of the House. Mr. Ennals.

On a point of order. When will Parliament have an opportunity of discussing this matter—[Interruption.] As I understand—

Order. That is not a question which the hon. Gentleman can put to me. He must put it to the Government and find an opportunity for doing so.

Later

I beg to ask leave, Mr. Speaker, to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, to call attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

The situation in Rhodesia and the decision of Her Majesty's Government to authorise a Royal Commission of three to consult the Rhodesian people concerning their acceptance or otherwise of independence on the basis of the 1961 Constitution.
In doing so I submit that it is not difficult to prove that this is a definite matter. It is a matter on which the Prime Minister has made a statement as newly to the House as this afternoon. I do not believe that it will be difficult to prove that this is a matter of public importance. The question of Rhodesian independence faces the British Government with probably a bigger challenge than at any time since 1947 when independence was granted to India and Pakistan.

Certainly it is not difficult to prove that it is of public importance, in view of the fact that it has dominated the headlines of the newspapers over the weeks, that it has caused the Prime Minister to undertake the most serious and prolonged discussions in London and in Salisbury together with others of his principal Secretaries of State, and that it is an issue on which he has made two vital statements to the House in the course of three days.

I would submit also that it is not difficult to prove that it is a matter of urgency. On Monday, in answer to a Question from me, the Prime Minister said, of course rightly, that the decision on Rhodesian independence would require an Act of Parliament and, therefore, a decision of both Houses. But in answer to a Question that had been put by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party the Prime Minister said that if the Commission had reached agreement it would be difficult for this Parliament not to be influenced by the decision, and I would submit that it may be that if by some strange chance or mischance the proposal now before the Commission should be acceptable to the people of Rhodesia, then today or tomorrow, or before a final reply is sent to Salisbury, may be the only opportunity for the House of Commons to decide on what basis we are prepared to see independence granted to Rhodesia. This is a matter, as the Prime Minister has said many times, over which this Parliament is paramount. I submit, therefore, on the three points that I have made that it is a definite matter of urgent public importance.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Ennals) seeks, under Standing Order No. 9, to move the Adjournment of the House in order to draw attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

The situation in Rhodesia and the decision of Her Majesty's Government to authorise a Royal Commission of three to consult the Rhodesian people concerning their acceptance or otherwise of independence on the basis of the 1961 Constitution.
For the benefit of new Members especially, may I point out that the House has given me, under Standing Order No. 9, tremendous power—power to withhold or give consent to such an application for leave, not because the matter is not a serious one, but because the Chair has to be guided by the precedents which have established themselves over the years, in deciding that a certain matter which an hon. Member thinks ought to take precedence over the Orders of the Day shall or shall not take precedence.

I am bound in my decision by the Rulings of the Chair in previous similar occasions, and hon. Members will find examples of such Rulings on page 364 of Erskine May. The situation which the hon. Gentleman has argued with the Chair is a situation which only threatens to arise, and a situation which only threatens to arise, however grave the circumstances may be, or however serious they may be in the opinion of the Member who is seeking to move the Adjournment, does not fall within the Standing Order because it merely threatens. It may not, in the event, take place, or it may be varied by other intervening events. To that extent it remains hypothetical and so falls outside the Standing Order's requirements of a definite matter. When the hon. Gentleman argued that it was a definite matter, what he was really arguing was that there was a definite statement by the Prime Minister before the House.

The application for leave must also relate to a single specific matter and not, as in this case, to one of a series of related events. In these circumstances, I cannot allow the hon. Member's request for leave to move the Adjournment of the House. I am grateful to him for having given me notice this morning that he probably had this intention in mind.