Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC Stmnt: [Prime Minister (American Visit)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [1000/19-27]
Editorial comments: 1530 to approximately 1550.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4929
Themes: Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Economic policy - theory and process, Energy, Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Americas excluding USA), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)
[column 19]

Prime Minister

(American Visit)

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, I will make a statement on my visit to the United States.

I visited the United States from 25 to 28 February, accompanied by my noble Friend Lord Carringtonthe Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. I had talks in Washington with President Reagan, Vice-President Bush, Secretary of State Haig, Defence Secretary Weinberger and other members of the President's Cabinet. I also met members of both Houses of Congress. In New York I had a meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The reception given to us in Washington was warm and generous, testifying to the health of the Anglo-American relationship and also to the excellent understanding that President Reagan and I had established even before either of us assumed our present responsibilities.

My talks with President Reagan and members of his Cabinet covered all the most important aspects of the international scene. The discussions were particularly timely, since the new Administration are still formulating their policy on many of the issues raised. At this early stage in the new Administration's period in office there was, of course, no question of new commitments being entered into by either side.

We exchanged views on East-West relations as a whole and, in particular, on the speech that President Brezhnev delivered a week ago. We agreed that it contains, besides much that is unacceptable for Britain and America, certain points that need to be explained and explored. That applies, for instance, to President Brezhnev's remarks about arms control, which both President Reagan and I see as a necessary complement to defence and deterrence.

On the Middle East, I explained the objectives of the European initiative stemming from the Venice declaration of last June. I pointed out that the initiative was intended not to compete with American efforts but to complement them. On Southern Africa, we agreed to keep closely in touch, especially in relation to Namibia—a problem to which the United Nations is increasingly turning its attention.

On El Salvador, the Americans expressed their concern about the developing conflict and in particular made clear their opposition to the support that the guerrilla movement is receiving from external sources. My noble Friend and I indicated that the British Government shared the American view of outside interference in the internal affairs of El Salvador. We explained that we condemned violence from whatever quarter it came and that we considered that the people of El Salvador should be able to determine their own future peacefully and democratically.

The President and I discussed the threat to the stability and security of the Gulf and South-West Asia following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I said that Britain shared the determination of the United States and of our other Allies to prevent Soviet encroachment in the region. We discussed the possible creation of a rapid deployment force, which would be available for use, if necessary, in an emergency in this or other areas of the world. The matter will be the subject of consultation. I made it clear that if such a force were created the United Kingdom would be ready to contribute to it, in the same way as, in [column 20]conjunction with the United States and France, we have already stationed naval units in the Gulf in response to the situation arising from the Iran-Iraq war.

In my discussion with Defence Secretary Weinberger I pointed out that this year and last the United Kingdom had increased its defence spending in accordance with the NATO target. The Defence Secretary and I agreed that there should be better balance in defence purchases between this country and the United States. That would lead to more effective use of the Alliance's resources.

On all the matters that we discussed President Reagan and the members of his Cabinet whom I met expressed their intention of consulting even more closely and frequently than in the past not only with Britain but with America's other allies. Indeed, that is already happening. I naturally welcome the American intention, and I hope that my own visit will have contributed to deepening the understanding on which such consultation must always be based.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I thank the right hon. Lady for agreeing to the demand that we made last week that she should make a statement today on her visit, but she could not speak on behalf of a united nation when she went to the United States unless she had changed both her tone and attitude on a whole range of issues on which she expressed views in the United States.

In the United States the Prime Minister gave several homilies on our domestic affairs, but does she appreciate that the most friendly advice that she could have given to the United States was not to follow her example? Is it really the case that, as her communiqué and today's statement seem to indicate, she did not at any time raise with the President the possibility of concerted action by the United States Government, the British Government and others on measures to defeat the slump? Did they not have any discussions on that subject?

Does the Prime Minister understand that on several matters of foreign policy that she mentioned, including El Salvador, the neutron bomb—I am sorry that she did not refer to that in her statement—and the measures that she is apparently contemplating for dealing with the situation in the Persian Gulf, one of the obligations and duties of a British Government should be to warn of the perils that might follow if certain courses are adopted? The right hon. Lady says that she is against intervention in El Salvador, but is she against United States' intervention? As for the Gulf, does not the Prime Minister think that it would have been better if, before making her statements, she had discovered what would be the reaction to some of those statements in the places involved?

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that one of the greatest dangers for the United States would be to intervene at the wrong time, in the wrong place, on the wrong side? Does she not understand that that is truly the lesson of Vietnam, which she does not seem to have learnt?

On the question that the Prime Minister raised about detente and discussions with other Powers, we all appreciate that for detente to be successful there must be responses from the Soviet Union and others and we appreciate that, for almost the first time, the Prime Minister has had to emphasise the need for arms control, but does she not think that she would have assisted the [column 21]cause of detente more if she had not indulged in so much bellicose demagogy in the United States on the very matter on which demagogy is most out of place?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman says that I could not speak for a united nation. I want to make it clear that I could never speak for the leader of a party that believes in unilateral disarmament. So long as that is the case, I am afraid that the view of the United States is that the defence of this country would not be safe with such a party; nor would the defence of the West.

In regard to domestic affairs, we discussed with a number of people, including the President, the problems of world recession. It is clear that United States industrialists believe that there will be expansion during the second half of this year, as we also hope and believe will happen. We were very much aware that the origin of the world recession was a sharp increase in the price of oil that has occurred over the last 18 months. This matter occurs frequently. It is discussed between Heads of Government, including Heads of Government in Europe. The question is easier to pose than to find a solution to when there are regular meetings of OPEC and the price is raised. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the price of North Sea oil in this country was fixed by the previous Government to be at world price. That is in statute.

With regard to El Salvador, we made a statement before we went. That statement is available in full. We made it clear that we fully understood the strategic importance of the region of Central America to the United States. For the rest, I stand absolutely by the statement that we published, which was welcomed in the United States.

On the neutron bomb, no proposal has been put before us. The United States has said that any further move will be the subject of consultation with the allies.

With regard to a rapid deployment force, I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that in a way we were ahead of the rest of the world. In the last defence White Paper, in the chapter on wider defence interests, we raised a similar subject, although not under that identical name, when we recognised that some of the threats were arising outside the NATO area, that the NATO Alliance could not respond under NATO command outside the area, and that members of the Alliance might therefore have to make particular arrangements. A whole chapter in the defence White Paper deals with the matter. In the debate on 28 October it was referred to again by my right hon. Friend Francis Pymthe present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he was Secretary of State for Defence. There is nothing new in that. The possibility of a rapid deployment force is being considered. I would point out that if we have one, at least we can respond to requests when trouble arises the world over. If we have not, we cannot, and by that time it will be too late to create it.

I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman said about detente. I would say that it must be fully reciprocated. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not wholly share my view. He makes certain comments about arms control. I again point out that the NATO decision on theatre nuclear forces was accompanied by a recommendation that talks on arms control of TNF should be entered into immediately. One such meeting was held. There have not so far been any further meetings. We both recognise, together with our European allies, the importance of that. [column 22]

On TNF, we also recognise that the Soviet Union is well ahead of this country, the whole of Europe and the United States. It is about time that we ourselves, in order to deter, had a similar capability, unless that of the Soviet Union is to be substantially reduced.

Mr. Foot

On one or two of the matters mentioned by the right hon. Lady important questions arise that we shall wish to debate fully in the House. She refers to the rapid deployment force. If we were so far ahead of the rest of the world on the subject, as she said, why could we not have undertaken proper consultation with the countries involved? Why are those countries the first to be protesting at what she and, apparently, the President said?

On the subject of El Salvador, the right hon. Lady says that she stands by the statement that she made earlier. That statement itself, of course, was not satisfactory. Will she say now whether she is opposed to United States intervention in El Salvador, or is it only one-sided intervention to which she is opposed?

On the question of detente and the statement made by Mr. Brezhnev, can the Prime Minister say when it is likely that some progress will be made in establishing a real conference in which these matters can be discussed? Did she make any real progress on such matters in her discussions in the United States?

The Prime Minister

We stand absolutely by the statement that we made on El Salvador before going to the United States. The first point is to try to stop the large supplies of arms to the guerrillas. I cannot comment on each and every activity of the United States. It would be most improper to do so.

With regard to what the right hon. Gentleman says about the capacity to operate outside the NATO area, I refer him to the part of the “Defence in the 1980s” White Paper, which says:

“the Government believes that the Services should also be able to operate effectively outside the NATO area, without diminishing our central commitment to the Alliance … certain improvements in the Services' worldwide capability are being considered” .

The document goes on to detail them, and adds:

“Such improvements can be achieved at relatively modest cost, yet they give the Services significantly more flexibility to undertake tasks outside the NATO area. What is needed is the ability for all three Services to combine in providing a force of appropriate size and capability as may be necessary.”

It seems to me that if people are really concerned, and truly concerned, in protecting the freedom of the West, since that freedom may be challenged anywhere in the globe, unless one considers the creation of a rapid deployment force one denies the capacity to meet that threat. I can quite understand that the right hon. Gentleman may never wish to have a capacity to meet a threat. We wish to try to consider having such a capacity. We believe that one has to be prepared before such a threat arises.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned conferences about detente. We had the Madrid conference, but because the Soviet Union is still in Afghanistan in full force it was not a success. The best thing that could happen for the future of detente would be for the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan, and soon.

Mr. Foot

All these important questions will have to be debated in the House. I wish to put to the right hon. [column 23]Lady a question that she has not so far answered on the deployment force. Does she not think that the countries involved have a right to be consulted?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. That is exactly why I said in my statement that this matter would be the subject of consultation.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Will my right hon. Friend recall that many hon. Members on the Conservative Benches have been urging for some years that the defence of the West depended on defending the periphery, particularly the Gulf and Southern Africa? Is she aware that we well understood the difficulty of her Government in giving effect to our advice so long as the American Administration were vacillating, as they have done in the past? Will she allow me to offer my congratulations to her on having grasped, at once, the opportunity to align ourselves wholeheartedly with the new American Administration in saying that we would not only support but would join in the defence of our essential interests in the Gulf, Southern Africa or wherever it may be in defending the freedom of the free world?

The Prime Minister

This has been a subject of considerable debate for some time. It is clearly not possible to defend outside the NATO area unless we have a capability to do so. We were already making certain modest changes in that direction ourselves. It would seem right that we, with our allies, should discuss the possible creation of such a force. That is exactly what we learnt when we visited the United States. Of course, its use would also depend on consultation with States in the area.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Since I was one of those who criticised the Prime Minister for the lack of a statement after her visit to Ireland, may I welcome the fact that she has made a statement today and is open to questioning? Does the Prime Minister recognise that her apparent accord with President Reagan is profoundly disturbing? It is right to be suspicious of Soviet activities and to demand withdrawal from Afghanistan, but does the right hon. Lady recognise that a growing generation is deeply worried about the waste of resources on the arms race by both sides of the Iron Curtain and by the habit of world leaders of keeping each other at arm's length and in personal ignorance and mutual hostility?

Will the right hon. Lady and President Reagan recognise that the way to defeat the march of world Communism is not by giving aid and comfort to other totalitarian regimes in El Salvador or Southern Africa but by demonstrating that the free democracies have superior values? Will she accept that her Government have singularly failed to do that, with cuts in overseas aid and broadcasting and increases in fees for overseas students, particularly from poorer countries? Does she accept that the process will not be helped by the hint of a return to the role of an uninvited world policeman?

The Prime Minister

I find it very alarming indeed that the Liberal Party, too, seems to be retreating from the first duty of defending our own freedom and that of the Western Alliance. It plainly does not have the guts to devote the resources. There would be no freedom and there would be no Western way of life if we were not prepared to defend it. If we did not, and trouble arose, we should [column 24]be the first to be criticised. Some of us lived through that period before. So long as this Government are here we shall never retreat to a failure to defend again.

Of course we should like to be able to defend at a lower level of balance. However, I wish that some people who feel as strongly as we do would direct their criticism to the Soviet Union, which devotes 13 per cent. of its gross national product to increasing armaments year after year after year.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the defeat of the march of world Communism. Our first duty to freedom, as well as defending it, is to proclaim our own.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


The Prime Minister

Yes, it is rhetoric, which people behind the Iron Curtain cannot enjoy.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the success of her visit. The Leader of the Opposition asked about intervention in El Salvador. Does my right hon. Friend consider that there is a clear and logical distinction between the position of countries the efforts of which are directed to the support and defence of freedom and democracy and those whose efforts are directed to subversion?

The Prime Minister

I certainly recognise the difference that my right hon. and learned Friend points out. Our statement said:

“Her Majesty's Government have now had an opportunity to study the information provided by the United States Government about arms supplies to insurgent groups in El Salvador. This points to activities which can only be regarded as gross interference in the internal affairs of El Salvador and Her Majesty's Government support the Government of the United States in calling for it to end.

Her Majesty's Government note, with concern, the continuing violence inside El Salvador and the suffering and hardship this causes to the people of that country. We condemn such violence from whatever quarter. Her Majesty's Government look to the Government of El Salvador to take all possible steps to protect the Salvadorean people from violations of basic human rights and, in particular, to exercise firm control over all Government institutions and organisations.
Her Majesty's Government consider that the people of El Salvador should be able to determine their own future peacefully and democratically.”

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Is the Prime Minister aware that her hawklike utterances in the United States have brought nothing but shame upon the British people? Does she agree that it is now the duty of the House of Commons to apologise to the Americans and to say that her statement about the neutron bomb and the rapid deployment force in no way represents the majority view of the British people?

The Prime Minister

When it comes to statements that reflect shame on the British people, I leave it to the hon. Gentleman. He is expert.

Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

May I compliment my right hon. Friend on her robust performance in the United States? May I also welcome her statement that the European initiative in the Middle East is complementary to that of the American Government? Am I right in believing that the European initiative is now behind the Camp David initiative, and that it will not diverge from it?

The Prime Minister

We are staunch allies of the United States and staunch believers in the defence of [column 25]freedom. On the Government Benches at least we are robust in that belief and will continue to be so. With regard to the Middle East initiative in Venice, I have said that it was meant to be complementary to the United States negotiations and not competitive in any way. The United States Government are considering how to take the negotiations forward. I doubt whether anything much will come out until after the Israeli elections. The statement that I made holds. Our efforts are meant to be helpful and not in competition.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call three more hon. Members from either side.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

Is it not bad that the Prime Minister should spread despondency and fear across the whole of the United Kingdom, among the 1 million people who are now unemployed but who had jobs when she came to power and among those who still have jobs but who fear that before long they will not? Is not the Prime Minister overstepping her remit when she makes statements about the Gulf area? Does she not understand that the “Imperial Power” days of this country are long gone, or does she want another diversion like Suez?

The Prime Minister

We have some ships in the Gulf area for the defence of the freedom of navigation, which is vital to the Western world. The ships were welcomed by the Gulf States and are still welcome in terms of keeping open the Straits of Hormuz.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Does my right hon. Friend feel that as a result of her talks with President Reagan he now accepts that while no settlement in the Middle East can be achieved without American involvement, European participation is also necessary? Does she agree that while military strength is required in the area it is no substitute for intelligent diplomacy and political initiatives on the line proposed by the European Nine in the Venice communiqué?

The Prime Minister

Sometimes military strength is required when political and diplomatic initiatives have failed. Of course we have to try such initiatives. It is also necessary when tyrants who are well armed have their way. It can also be necessary as a result of subversion. Of course we continue with every political and diplomatic effort to try to solve the problems, particularly in the Middle East. Our efforts are meant to be complementary to those of the United States. We all recognise that the Middle Eastern problem cannot be resolved except with the United States.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is it not correct to say that the United States rejected the need for a European initiative based on the Venice declaration largely because it suggests the involvement of the PLO without its prior renunciation of terror and without its prior recognition of the right of Israel to exist behind secure and recognised frontiers?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and learned Gentleman is not right about the Venice declaration. I do not have a copy of the declaration with me, but I know it pretty well. The declaration made it clear that the Palestinian people would have to accept Israel's right to exist behind secure boundaries and that Israel would have to recognise the [column 26]legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. That was the basis of the declaration. I take it ill from the hon. and learned Gentleman that he is not aware of that.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham and Crawley)

Did any discussions take place about the critical position of Poland, not least about the indebtedness of that country to various national and international banks in the United States and Western Europe, and the difficulties that might arise if those banks were unable or unwilling to continue with loans?

The Prime Minister

We are all aware of the critical political position of Poland, and we hope that she will be able to continue to find her own destiny in her own way. We are all very much aware of the difficult economic position in which she finds herself. As my hon. Friend knows, we have made arrangements to try to help her during the coming months by providing food, by rescheduling debts, and with certain further help on ECGD. I think that for the immediate future that decision was right.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

Were there any consultations with the Governments of Gulf countries before the right hon. Lady made her public statement in America, and are any consultations now proposed to try to rectify the damage that she has done to British Gulf relations?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should understand that the possible creation of a rapid deployment force is not only to deal with difficulties that have arisen or that may arise in the Gulf; it is to deal also with other areas of trouble in the world. As I said in my statement, and as hon. Gentlemen would know if they had listened, it is to have a capability to try to deal with other trouble spots in the world. [Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen will allow me to continue, I shall do so.

We are talking about the possible creation of a rapid deployment force to meet possible trouble arising in the world. We do not need to have consultations—except with with our allies—about its possible creation. Of course, if it were created we should need to consult the host countries about its use.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Is it not deeply disturbing that not a single Opposition Member has had a good word to say either for our allies or ourselves?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend, but occasionally the Opposition show themselves in their true colours.

Mr. Foot

We on the Opposition Benches have been firm friends of the United States for many, many long years, and we do not need any lectures from Conservative Members. Sometimes it is best for friends to speak out. That is what we are doing.

Will the right hon. Lady answer our questions about the Persian Gulf? Is she not now saying that she intends to have the consultation that should have taken place earlier?

Will the right hon. Lady take into account that, on all the evidence, it appears that many people in El Salvador have been murdered, or are in danger of being murdered, by people using arms imported from the United States? Is it not true that what is wanted in El Salvador is some sort of mediation?

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Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Why does not the right hon. Gentleman go there?

Mr. Foot

I know that some Conservative Members below the Gangway do not care a damn about the murders in El Salvador, but we do. Since the right hon. Lady confined herself to reading out what she had said before she went to El Salvador, can she say whether she had discussions in the United States with President Reagan to see whether there could be mediation, as was suggested by the West German Government? Should she not have supported that proposal if she wanted to defend the freedom that she prates so much about?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's earlier question, I point out precisely what was in the statement that I read out:

“We discussed the possible creation of a rapid deployment force which would be available for use, if necessary, in an emergency in this or other areas of the world. This matter will be the subject of consultation” .

That is perfectly clear, and I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman persists in further cross-examination.

Of course one is concerned about the murder, violence and hardship in El Salvador, from whatever quarter they come. We made that perfectly clear in our statement. We continue to make it perfectly clear that the people of El Salvador should again be able to be free to decide their own future. One of the immense problems at present is the large amount of arms that is getting through to the guerrilla forces.

With regard to the reported initative of the West German Government, we have not been informed of any such initative.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to consider the rights of Back Benchers? We had a statement that lasted for 35 minutes, of which slightly under 20 minutes was taken up by interchanges between the Front Benches. Do you not think that the rights of Members of Parliament are such that hon. Members on both sides ought to have a larger share of time on a statement like this?

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have it in your authority to prolong a discussion in a situation like this. May I suggest that on a matter as important to world peace as this the Prime Minister, who had her first meeting with the new President of the United States and has come back to report to the House, should be permitted to answer more questions? As you have the authority to do that, and as the business of the House is not heavy today, I ask that you prolong questions a little further.

Mr. Speaker

With regard to both points of order, the House knows what happened. There was a longer exchange between the Front Benches than sometimes happens, but it concerned a statement. It was not Question Time. I have allowed 35 minutes, and that is reasonable.