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Simonstown Agreement

Volume 893: debated on Tuesday 17 June 1975

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

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the steps the Government intend to take to replace the facilities available to this country under the Simonstown Agreement, now that this has been terminated.

As we have previously made clear, the Royal Navy will be able to continue to operate in the Indian Ocean using the normal facilities available to commercial shipping, although we expect it to do so less frequently than hitherto.

I hope it is in order to start by congratulating the Minister on his appointment to the Privy Council. Having said that, I must ask him whether he recalls that last November the Foreign Secretary told the House that the Government were conducting a review of the naval arrangements arising from the Simonstown Agreement and that when this was complete the House would be informed. We do not regard a Written Answer to a Question yesterday as carrying out that undertaking.

I have three further points to put to the right hon. Gentleman. First, the Secretary of State for Defence, as recently as January, said that the Simonstown Agreeement served a useful purpose in protecting the trade routes round the Cape. Is this no longer the case today?

Secondly, what do the Government estimate that the effects will be upon defence expenditure and upon British exports?

Thirdly, what has happened to the NATO review on the Soviet naval buildup in the Indian Ocean?

I much appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's kind opening remarks.

Over the last year we have had many opportunities to discuss all the difficult problems concerned with Simonstown. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the NATO review. He will also recall a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 3rd December, which was an introduction to the Defence Review White Paper, published some time ago. Since November we have also had two debates, and I think it is fair to say that there were no more than passing references to Simonstown in the debate we had early last month though it was well known by then that negotiations were to begin to terminate the agreement.

May I answer the right hon. Gentleman's three specific questions? Of course, Simonstown has served a useful purpose, but we have had to look at the overall advantage. The Government have decided, after very careful consideration, that the balance lies with terminating the agreement, and that it will not inhibit us in operating in the Indian Ocean in the way we choose to do.

Secondly, it will have no effect on defence expenditure. But also we have no reason to believe—if this is what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind—that it will affect those exports for which we shall continue to look for markets.

The right hon. Gentleman's third question related to the NATO position. As I think he will know, NATO does not have any responsibility in that part of the world. It would be improper for it to do so, because the southern boundary of NATO is the Tropic of Cancer.

On 14th January the Secretary of State told the House that NATO was conducting a study on this point. What has happened to the study to which the Minister referred?

We have had no report of the outcome of the study, but it is very important to emphasise—I do not think there can be any dispute on either side of the House about this—that NATO has no status south of the Tropic of Cancer.

is my right hon. Friend aware that we are very grateful to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) for putting down this Question, which gives us a public opportunity to welcome warmly the decision of Her Majesty's Government about the termination of the Simonstown Agreement and their implementation of a solemn undertaking given by the Labour Party to the country at the last two general elections?

It also gives us the opportunity again to rebut the delusions of the Tory Party and their associates about the defence, as they call it, of the Cape route and of the Indian Ocean. But could my right hon. Friend go further into the question of the NATO relationship with South Africa, especially in view of the revelations in the Press as recently as last week about the relationship, in terms of supplies and communications procedures, between the forces of the Republic of South Africa and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation?

Concerning the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I emphasise again that NATO has no status in South Africa. I understand that the Press reports to which he referred were misleading, where they were not positively inaccurate.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the balance of advantage. Could he tell the House what possible advantage there can be for Britain in abandoning proved and superb facilities which would be absolutely invaluable in the event of the Suez Canal being closed? Is this not just another case of the Government bowing down to Left-wing pressure and giving it precedence over the security of the West? If the Minister is concerned about trying to liberalise policies in South Africa, would he not agree that the way to do it is not to treat South Africa as an international leper?

With regard to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question concerning the conditions, I find no evidence whatever, alas, that our maintenance of the Simonstown base over the years has done anything to liberalise the policies of South Africa, and I have no reason to believe that there could be any change in the future on that. There is a balance of advantage here, but I think the House would be very foolish to be insensitive to opinion, not only in this country but elsewhere in Africa, which has regarded it as anomalous for us to continue using this base. There are other facilities in the Indian Ocean which we shall use on a commercial basis, and there is no reason to believe that we shall be inhibited in operating in the Indian Ocean as often as we want to—irrespective of whether the Suez Canal is open—by giving up the Simonstown base.

Would the Minister give the House an undertaking that all military collaboration with South Africa, not just at Simonstown, will now cease? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why"] Because it is a racialist, apartheid State and because of the Labour Party's programme of 1973. My second question is this: does not "Project Advocaat", which is based on Simonstown, mean that British firms are supplying parts for a military communications scheme?

In regard to the first question, I think that the decision to terminate this agreement, which has involved no difficulties with the South African Government, does mean an end to military collaboration with South Africa in the way that my hon. Friend has in mind.

As far as the other project is concerned, I do not think I have anything further to add, other than to say that it has nothing whatsoever to do with NATO, nor am I aware of an involvement of the kind which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Has not the right hon. Gentleman forgotten something? Surely it would be only fair and generous in a statement of this kind to pay tribute to the enormous help, cooperation and hospitality offered by the South African people in their ports to generations of Royal Navy ships on passage to and from the Far East?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he hopes in the future to receive continued help and co-operation from the South African Government to exert, especially on the intelligence side, the essential surveillance for the security of our overseas trade routes, whatever his right hon. and hon. Friends below the Gangway may say?

Dealing with the hon. and gallant Gentleman's first point, certainly I am extremely happy to pay tribute to those individuals in South Africa—[Interruption]—which is what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, who over the years, have offered hospitality generously to the crews of Her Majesty's ships. It is perfectly reasonable to do that at this time, and I am glad that the hon. and gallant Gentleman reminded me of it.

As for the Cape route, we have discussed this on many occasions. In conducting our review of the Simonstown Agreement and in deciding to terminate it, we had in mind all our interests in that part of the world. In our debate a short time ago, I remember that we heard a very good speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) illustrating the dangers of assuming that the maintenance of Simonstown had significant consequences for our own security. It has not.

Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the status of the so-called NATO study south of the Tropic of Cancer? Does he agree that the Simonstown Agreement is irrelevant to NATO? Surely what needs to be done in the circumstances is to strengthen the central front and the northern and southern flanks and not to provide for irrelevancies such as the Simonstown Agreement.

My hon. Friend is right. NATO's obligations are in Europe. Whatever studies may be undertaken, its responsibilities do not extend south of the Tropic of Cancer.

Is the Minister aware that the Royal Navy has been using Simonstown to protect the trade routes for 250 years? In his peremptory, dogmatic and short statement, the right hon. Gentleman gave no idea what the alternative arrangements were to be or whether the civil arrangements, which he just mentioned without specifying them, would be under the control of Her Majesty's Government. Will he explain this matter, because his failure to state the true position leaves a great deal of anxiety?

I am sorry if my statement was dogmatic, but I make no apology for its brevity. The position has been plain for some time. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the use of Simonstown over 200 years. I put it to him that circumstances change. Although the Royal Navy can operate in the Indian Ocean, it is ridiculous to attempt to be a police force around the world. That has been accepted on both sides of the House. For a large part, the facilities that we need to operate are commercial facilities, and these are available. They are available, for example, in a number of ports around the Indian Ocean which we have used previously. There is no reason to believe that we shall be inhibited in operating in the way in which we wish to operate within the limitations of 1975 by giving up Simonstown.

Will the Minister accept that it is difficult to see how the defence of the free world can be discharged convincingly by having a permanent base in a country whose régime, repressive in nature, has been condemned by the overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, and that this decision is long overdue?

Is the Minister aware that the decision announced in what I regard as being an under-hand way—by a Written Answer to a Written Question—on a matter of such importance may set back the help that we seek from the South African Republic over a settlement in Rhodesia? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether we have comparable facilities to those that we enjoyed under the Simonstown Agreement available to us in any black African State? Is he aware that, at a time when the Soviets are developing air and sea facilities in the Horn of Africa, to abandon the only facilities available to us under treaty arrangements can bring only comfort and warmth to Moscow?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary can speak for himself, but I do not think that his announcement by means of a Written Answer is unusual. My information is that the announcement of the termination of the agreement was received very quietly in the South African Parliament—more so, apparently, than it has been here.

As for comparable facilities, the right hon. Gentleman must know that Simonstown was special in itself. However, the nub of the argument is surely whether we need Simonstown and whether it has disadvantages for us, looking at the world picture. The answers are that we do not need Simonstown, that there are commercial facilities which we can and will use, and that therefore there is no need to look for a replacement.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's third point, I ask him to look at these matters in a slightly more sophisticated way. Insofar as the Soviet Fleet is a new threat to world peace, it is not the case that we shall escape it by maintaining the Simonstown base.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved elevation and on his statement, which will be received with very great pleasure by everyone in the Labour Party and, as we heard from the Leader of the Liberal Party, by others in the House, though not by Conservatives. Does my right hon. Friend have any information whether the South Africans propose to make the Simonstown facilities available to any other NATO power on a bilateral basis, and is this the end of all bilateral defence agreements of any kind with the South African Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, though I must make it clear that we did not reach this decision simply to give him and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends great pleasure—though it may have that result. We reached this decision because, looking at the matter responsibly, we believed that the balance of advantage lay strongly with giving up Simonstown.

Dealing with my hon. Friend's two questions, first, despite the public comments that there have been, I have no information that any other member of NATO hopes to use the facilities at Simonstown other than on a customer basis, as we shall be able to do. Secondly, it is the end of all bilateralism of the kind associated with this agreement.

So far, the right hon. Gentleman has not given us much idea of the weight that the Government give, first, to the military, secondly, to the political and, lastly, to the economic considerations of this decision. In their careful consideration of this matter, have the Government decided that there is a change in the major dependence of the West on Southern Africa for strategic raw materials? They must have reached that decision to justify their decision about Simonstown.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he makes complicated questions unreasonably simple. Our concern must be to say whether the maintenance of the Simonstown base, with its clear political disadvantages, is offset by the strategic advantages it provides in return for the economic consequences of cancelling the agreement. We decided that in 1975 the Simonstown base did not provide what we required, given the operations that we had in mind for our Fleet. The decision was made soberly, in a hard-headed manner and, I believe, correctly.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether Her Majesty's Government know of any steps taken by any of our allies in NATO to enter into military arrangements with the South African Government to replace the Simonstown Agreement? Many Labour Members would regard it as absolutely disgraceful if such arrangements were entered into to carry on the support for apartheid and racialism—policies which appear to have supporters in some quarters in the House?

I am not sure of the circumstances in which the Government could reasonably oppose decisions made by other Governments of the kind my hon. Friend has in mind. However, these are matters for the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, and it may be that my hon. Friend would like to address this question to him.

Is it not the truth that there are no military advantages whatever in abandoning the use of the Simonstown base and that this is just one more surrender of national defence interests to the rabid, dogmatic and highly selective disagreements by certain elements of the Labour Party with the internal policies of other countries?

I think that the House as a whole will agree that that is a fair level of nonsense. I did not say and would not say that there was "military advantage in surrendering" the agreement. What I said was that there were political advantages in terminating agreements which no longer had military advantage for us.

What are these advantages about which the right hon. Gentleman is talking?

As the hon. Gentleman must surely know, the maintenance of an agreement of this kind with a country whose regime is abhorrent to many people both in this country and elsewhere has been regarded by many as a sign of support for that régime which does not help us in our dealings with other countries.

May I offer my congratulations to my namesake on his becoming a member of her Majesty's Privy Council? Has not the right hon. Gentleman confessed in his answers today that this deplorable decision has been reached on ideological grounds and not on defence grounds? Will he now reconsider the matter?

I greatly appreciate the hon. Gentleman's kind opening remarks. The word "ideological" is often misused. It is used as a term of abuse when a proper political decision has been taken. I repeat that when we looked at the balance of advantage it seemed that as Simonstown was a base which we no longer required to carry out those operations which we thought were possible and proper, and which we have set out in the defence review, there was no advantage in retaining it, given the political disadvantages, which are real.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that his statement will be welcomed by the United Nations Organisation—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—which has called for a total international embargo on arms sales to and by South Africa? Will he recall the courageous words of Mr. Harold Macmillan, when he was Prime Minister, in his "wind of change" speech in Africa? We have heard a lot of wind from the Conservative Party but very little change in attitude. We welcome the Government's move because at least they are taking action to end the system of apartheid, about which the Conservative Party has done very little.

I noticed, as did my hon. Friends, the somewhat contemptuous reaction by the Opposition to my hon. Friend's proper reference to the United Nations Organisation. I say to Conservative Members that my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should be looking at what Britain requires today in a hard-headed fashion. Imperial illusions of the kind we have heard this afternoon have nothing whatever to do with Britain's defence needs in 1975.

Will the right hon. Gentleman not set up his own skittles and knock them down but address himself to the questions asked and answer less evasively the questions of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), and tell us which other facilities in the Indian Ocean area would be available to Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's allies in all circumstances and in all emergencies?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is simply not possible to anticipate what might or might not be available in circumstances of war, should they occur. However, I have made it absolutely plain that in the interim, despite the termination of the agreement, we shall be able to use the facilities of Simonstown, if we need to do so, on a commercial basis. However, elsewhere in the Indian Ocean—in Karachi, Colombo, and Singapore, for example—there are major docking facilities which can be used by the Fleet and there are other facilities available in Mauritius, Mombasa and the Seychelles. These facilities are available now for the purposes of our Fleet. In circumstances of war it is plain that we should not find difficulties of the sort the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should not the Minister inform the House about which facilities are available in the Seychelles?

In view of the unsatisfactory answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison), I shall try to raise this matter on the Adjournment—and so will a hell of a lot of my hon. Friends.

That notice is, in fact, about as inoperative as notice usually is after an ordinary Question.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are about to debate the Army. Although Simonstown is primarily a naval and air matter, this is a defence debate Would it be in order to debate Simonstown today?

I shall deal with points of order on that debate when I get to it. I am trying to get to it. I have to stop questions now, because a number of hon. Members who are seeking to ask supplementary questions also wish to speak in the debate on the Army, and I must try to safeguard their interests.