Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC Stmnt: [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Nassau)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [84/815-24]
Editorial comments:


Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 5209
Themes: Public spending & borrowing, Trade, Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Commonwealth (general), Commonwealth (South Africa), Defence (arms control), Terrorism, Law & order, Labour Party & socialism, Famous statements by MT (discussions of), British policy towards South Africa
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Commonwealth Meeting

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a brief statement on my visits to Nassau for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting from 16–22 October, and to New York on 23–24 October for the 40th anniversary of the United Nations. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Howethe Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary accompanied me to Nassau.

I have arranged for copies of the communiqué from the Commonwealth meeting to be placed in the Library of the House.

Much of our time at that meeting was devoted to the problems of South Africa. We were unanimous in our abhorrence of apartheid, in our wish to see fundamental peaceful change in South Africa as soon as possible, and in our desire to find practical ways in which the Commonwealth could help secure that objective.

As my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Howethe Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has already told the House, we reached an agreement which was endorsed by all 46 Governments attending the meeting. That agreement is set out in the Commonwealth accord on South Africa. I wish to emphasise four points from the accord.

First, we called on the South African Government to establish a dialogue with representatives of the black community with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government. Secondly, the dialogue should be initiated in the context of a suspension of violence on all sides. Thirdly, we agreed to set up a group of eminent Commonwealth persons to encourage and facilitate dialogue. Fourthly, we agreed on a programme of common action which incorporated a number of measures which we were already taking, together with two new measures of which my right hon. and learned Friend has already informed the House.

The Commonwealth accord is a clear political signal from the united members of the Commonwealth of the need for rapid change within South Africa as well as of the need for the South African Government to end their illegal occupation of Namibia. We shall review the situation in six months' time.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed on a number of other matters, including a declaration on world order reaffirming the support of the Commonwealth for the United Nations, a welcome for the report of the Commonwealth Consultative Group on the vulnerability of small states; the need for greater co-operation both to counter the international traffic in illicity drugs and to deny to those convicted of drug trafficking the proceeds of their crime, and the need for greater co-operation to prevent and combat terrorism.

I believe that the outcome of the meeting demonstrated the capacity of the Commonwealth, despite widely varying initial views, to reach a sensible and realistic agreement acceptable to all Governments. Its rejection of violence as a way to solve the problems of South Africa is of particular importance. I believe that the outcome of the meeting is one which fully meets the interests and concerns of the United Kingdom.

I subsequently visited New York from 23 to 24 October to address the 40th anniversary session of the General Assembly of the United Nations and for meetings with [column 816]other Heads of Government. I held bilateral discussions with President Reagan, Prime Minister Craxi, Prime Minister Peres, Premier Zhao Ziyang and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I also attended a meeting with President Reagan and the Heads of Government of Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy and Japan to discuss the forthcoming meeting of the President and Mr. Gorbachev. We expressed our support for, and confidence in, President Reagan's approach to this important meeting and we wish him well.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

We welcome the Prime Minister's further condemnation of apartheid in her statement but regret that she undermines the force of her words against apartheid by saying that she is willing to take only a “tiny little bit” of action against apartheid.

The Prime Minister has spoken on previous occasions of “signals” to South Africa. Does she not realise that the inconsistency between her words and her actions signals only comfort to President Botha and those of his regime? Is she further aware that leaders of opinion in South Africa, including Desmond TutuOn 25 July the right hon. Lady told the House that sanctions would be “counter-productive” . Is she aware that we welcome the change in that view, which she has signified by her agreement to the Nassau accord and the way in which she belatedly recognises the failure of so-called constructive engagement strategies, and that we also welcome the usefulness of economic pressures in pursuit of peaceful change in South Africa, which she now apparently endorses?

We wish every success to the Commonwealth mission, provided, of course, that its activities are not used as a means of delaying or diminishing pressures on apartheid from outside. In order to clarify her position on the initiative, will the Prime Minister confirm that when she reviews the situation in six months' time she will be prepared to join in further action if the Commonwealth leaders on that mission judge that further pressure is required?

I gather that there is some difficulty in choosing a British representative for the Commonwealth mission. I put it to the Prime Minister that we have a number of very suitable candidates in the House and that she could usefully consider distinguished and well qualified Members, including, perhaps, those from Cardiff and Bexley. [Interruption.] We will settle for “useful” . “Superb” would involve my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey).

We hear what the Prime Minister says about the need to stop violence in South Africa, and of course we earnestly hope that that will occur, but will she tell us what she is doing to ensure that the inherent violent system of apartheid is ended, for that, in itself, is the root of all political violence in South Africa?

As for the Prime Minister's discussions with President Reagan, her statement was, to say the least, very uncommunicative. May I ask her the following questions, so that she can enlarge on what she has told us?

First, are the Americans still willing to negotiate about the arms race in space, which was agreed between Mr. Gromyko and Mr. Shultz at their February meeting in [column 817]order to set the agenda for the forthcoming summit, and does that agreement include discussion of the strategic defence initiative?

Secondly, does the Prime Minister stand by her statement in New York on 24 October:

“as I understand it there will be a further initiative before the meeting”

between President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev on 19 November? Is that still the right hon. Lady's feeling, or was that wishful thinking, resulting from the reasonable desire which she and others have that President Reagan will announce counter-proposals before going to Geneva? Can she, in any event, confirm that President Reagan will report back to NATO after the Geneva summit?

Thirdly, is the Prime Minister aware—[Hon. Members: “Come on.” ] The Prime Minister could have said all this in her statement if she had not made it so abrupt. Is the Prime Minister aware that while a plan to curb regional conflicts between the super-powers would be welcome, especially in respect of the middle east, that process should not distract attention, diminish effort or in any way inhibit work to secure an early agreement to stop the nuclear arms race?

Fourthly, and finally, can the Prime Minister confirm that she interprets the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty in the same way as Mr. Shultz and Mr. Paul Nitze, and that so-called new principles could not justify the testing of components or of sub-components of an anti-ballistic missile system?

The Prime Minister

I note that when I make a long statement the right hon. Gentleman wants it short, and that when I make it short he wants it long. I tried to be brief in this statement. It suits me very well when the statement is briefer than the questions.

As regards sanctions, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Labour Government were absolutely against far-reaching economic sanctions. Indeed, they said in 1978—[An Hon. Member: “That was the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen).” ] No, it was not. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said:

“We voted against” —

the sanctions—

“together with France, West Germany, the USA and some other Western countries because we do not agree that the far-reaching economic measures which the resolution calls for would produce the changes in South Africa which we would all like to see.” —[Official Report, 16 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 9.]

We wholly agree. That is why we are fully against——

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

That was never Labour party policy.

The Prime Minister

That was stated from this Box—not by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)—on 16 January 1978 as official Labour party policy, even if the hon. Gentleman does not like it.

The only strict sanction that we are operating at the moment is the one against armaments, in accordance with the mandatory resolution of the Security Council, which we have been operating for some time. The others are not strictly sanctions. They are a number of unilateral measures, that we have been taking for some time, concerning such things as add-on computers, new nuclear contracts, and so on. The only two small ones are on krugerrands, where we have agreed to do all that we can, [column 818]because there are legal limitations, to stop their importation—the import is very small indeed—and to stop new grants from taxpayers' money for trade missions to South Africa.

Several eminent persons are under consideration for the mission to which I referred. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to add to the list which he has already provided.

I was pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about stopping violence and that all his hon. Friends want the violence to stop. That is not what I thought he was saying, as he appears to support Mr. Tambo, and what Mr. Tambo has said:

“The ANC will go to every conceivable length to destroy the apartheid system in South Africa. The escalated armed struggle cannot avoid the use of guns.”

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman totally and utterly rejects that statement, and I am delighted to hear it.

As regards the talks in New York, the SDI research, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is outside the anti-ballistic missile treaty. I do not believe that the Americans will negotiate on research. There is no way, as the right hon. Gentleman should know, in which one can verify what research is going on. I think, therefore, that research on both sides of the strategic defence initiative—because a good deal is being carried out on the Soviet side—will continue and will not be bargainable in these talks.

As regards the new possible initiative, the United States put forward proposals at Geneva in the talks on strategic arms reduction for radical reductions in ballistic missile warheads—a cut of nearly 50 per cent. in the current Soviet level. That was put down in the spring. Those proposals, together with a look at the new Gorbachev proposals, will, I believe, give rise to new initiatives before the talks are actually started.

President Reagan has said that he will come to NATO to tell us the results of the talks after they have taken place, so that he will have consulted both before and after them. Regional conflicts will, I believe, be on the agenda, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is not easy to find solutions to the middle east conflict.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Will my right hon. Friend rub in still further to the Leader of the Opposition the message that, whatever the shortcomings of the South African Government, President Botha has done more to reform and to roll back or contain the Soviet interference on the northern borders than the Governments of South Africa with whom the Labour party was happy to work? Will she confirm that while arms control is essential, the regional problems of Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Nicaragua have been the main cause of the arms race over the past few years, and that it is essential that the Soviet Union should realise this?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the South African Government have taken more steps than were taken by any of their predecessors to start the process of dismantling apartheid. A considerable number of measures have been taken—the Mixed Marriages Act and section 16 of the Immorality Act have been repealed, almost all job reservations have been removed and forced removals have been suspended, the abolition of influx control and pass laws has been recommended to the President by his advisory council, and a common [column 819]citizenship for all South Africans has been restored. These are considerable steps towards the process of removing apartheid—a process which will need to continue, and to which the dialogue is directed.

I agree that, as well as arms control, it is vital that some trouble spots in the world, including Afghanistan—which is illegally occupied—central America and other parts of the world, and the presence of Cuban troops in Africa must be discussed at the summit because that are manifestations of the difference of approach between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

In the light of the talks with President Reagan, will the Prime Minister give a sign of the British attitude on two specific aspects of the anti-ballistic missile treaty? First, do we believe that the nine technology demonstrations planned as part of the strategic defence initiative programme in the United States are outlined by the treaty? Secondly, do we believe that the Soviet Union is in breach of the ABM treaty because of its radar installations?

The Prime Minister

We believe in what is known as the more conventional interpretation of the treaty, which includes most, although not all, of the testing. There have been suggestions that certain actions are not in compliance with the treaty. These actions probably fall into two kinds—those which may be genuine non-compliance, and those which result from an ambiguity of the wording of the treaty. The treaty provides a way to sort out those problems, because machinery exists, in the standing consultative commission on the treaty, for the United States and the Soviet Union to discuss implementation of the ABM treaty. That appears to be the right place to discuss compliance if there are suggestions that the treaty is not being complied with.

Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Was there any discussion at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on helping the developing world by joint ventures such as that between France, Japan and ourselves in Sri Lanka? Would not one way to help the developing world be such joint ventures, and would they not help the expansion of world trade and be an indirect way of helping to improve our balance of trade with Japan?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend is very much aware, aid projects, particularly big ones involving capital aid, are frequently joint ventures between two or three countries, each one setting its own aid and trade provisions and making provision for the requisite interest rate. We already have joint projects, greatly to the advantage of projects in developing countries. Sri Lanka is a particular example.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Is the Prime Minister aware that during her absence the Palace of Westminster witnessed the biggest lobby in its history on overseas aid? Does she not therefore regret that the matter was barely discussed—if it was discussed at all—at the Commonwealth conference, and, still more, that at the United Nations she was unable to confirm that Britain is on course to achieve its meagre target because Britain has slipped in the international league table on account of the reductions since 1979?

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The Prime Minister

The United Kingdom aid programme, at 0.33 per cent. of GDP, is close to the OECD average, which is 0.36 per cent. of GDP. To that has to be added the considerable private flows. Taking the official and private flows together, the United Kingdom figure is 1.25 per cent. of GNP, which is well above the United Nations target of 1 per cent.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Not enough.

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman would like more aid to be provided, and I am the first to understand the reasons why, we have to look at our other expenditure. We cannot spend money over and over again, because the taxpayer is expected to cough up every time. Therefore, I suggest that we should look at what else we can spend less on if we wish to spend more on aid.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Can my right hon. Friend say a little more about the talks in New York which touched on the middle east? Does she accept that there is widespread support for her recent effort to break the logjam and make progress? Will she persevere in those efforts, which rightly included the need for a Palestinian voice?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the case for a Palestinian voice is in dispute. It is who should represent that voice that is in dispute. As my hon. Friend knows, we tried to take an initiative and there was a carefully measured statement. We do not accept violence as a means of pursuing a political end. Unfortunately, the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was not seen by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Howethe Foreign Secretary, for very good reasons. The understanding on which the meeting was set up was not a statement that they were prepared to make. Nevertheless, we must persist in trying to get a settlement of the middle east problem. The United States, Jordan and Prime Minister Peres understand that before negotiations can start there must be a framework of international support. The precise framework is the subject at the moment of many discussions.

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

The Prime Minister is surely aware that to include private flow figures is a smokescreen in relation to the overall aid programme; that the average figures for the OECD disguise the fact that Britain, in terms of aid per head, is 12th among the OECD countries and is giving half that which is given by most Scandinavian countries, and only a quarter of that which is given by Norway. Does the Prime Minister realise that if she, with other Heads of Government, were to achieve the 0.7 per cent. target it could create 2 million jobs in the OECD countries, many of which would come to the United Kingdom? When will she set at least a teeny-weeny target, such as increasing aid from 0.33 to 0.35 per cent. of GNP, so that we can have some indication that aid will go up rather than down?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise that we should not also look at private flows. Many Heads of Government are prepared and anxious to get more private capital into those countries because they wish to develop their resources. If the Opposition would like more money to be spent on aid, as many people would, they must not spend money at the same time on other things. If expenditure at home on social security goes up and up, what can be spent on giving help [column 821]abroad will not be sufficient. Therefore, the Opposition should look at expenditure at home if they wish to change the balance.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

I appreciate that the summit meeting dealt mainly with South Africa and apartheid, but can my right hon. Friend say how much time was spent discussing the lack of freedom and the compulsory absence of Opposition parties in newly independent African countries? Does she agree that at future Commonwealth summit meetings this matter should be fully discussed by our partners?

The Prime Minister

In the views that I took up on a number of matters, I was very conscious of the fact that not every Commonwealth country was a perfect example of democracy. I suspect that others were also conscious of that.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the clear political signal that she sent to South Africa with her talk of “tiny measures” shows basically that she believes in the appeasement of the apartheid regime in South Africa, in much the same way as Neville Chamberlain believed in the appeasement of the Nazi regime in Germany?

The Prime Minister

I believe that the apartheid system must come to an end and that through negotiation we are going the right way about bringing it to an end. I do not believe that apartheid will be brought to an end by creating unemployment in hon. Members' constituencies in this country in order to create more unemployment in South Africa.

Hon. Members

But we have it already.

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

On the second point about the Commonwealth accord, is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be much support in this country and beyond for the part which she played in getting the agreement that there should be a suspension of violence on all sides in South Africa signed by all Commonwealth leaders?

The Prime Minister

To get full Commonwealth agreement that there should be a suspension of violence when negotiations between the South African Government and representatives of the black community start was a great advance and a significant achievement. I am delighted that we all signed it, because it has helped to achieve a general agreement.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

But why, having spent so long getting that agreement, did the Prime Minister see fit to belittle the amount of movement that she had made? In what way did that contribute to the clarity of the signal? Will her reluctance to undertake certain measures, which she eventually overcame in the wider interest, be carried through in the British attitude to the enforcement of the measures?

The Prime Minister

I think that many people there realised not only that sanctions would cause great damage to industries in South Africa but that they could be counter-productive, in that they would induce exactly the attitude that we do not wish to have. They would also have very damaging effects on the African countries which have tried to increase trade with South Africa a great deal in the last year. As some countries pointed out, they, too, have preferential trading arrangements with South Africa which [column 822]they do not wish to stop. There was a good deal more reality than would appear from some of the rhetoric. The hon. Gentleman should not lose sight of that.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

When my right hon. Friend met Mr. Peres, and in subsequent diplomatic exchanges, did she congratulate him on the proposals in his speech to the General Assembly? Is she encouraging him to have direct negotiations with King Hussein?

The Prime Minister

Whether or when those direct negotiations start between the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and representatives from Israel will depend on whether we can find an international framework within which they can take place. I do not think that it is realistic to expect them to start without that framework. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the sensitivities involved.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

How many people in South Africa must be killed by the security forces in a campaign of open ferocity before the right hon. Lady concedes to South Africans the right to defend themselves and to fight to save their lives and their freedoms? Does she not understand that apartheid is the root of violence, that violence is being committed in the name of apartheid, and that until she takes action, on behalf of this country she will be regarded as an ally of South Africa, with blood on her hands?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept the apartheid is the root of violence—[Hon. Members: “Oh.” ]—No, I do not accept that, and nor do most other people. How, then, could one explain the total and utter violence in Uganda? I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Why do Commonwealth conferences have to conclude with unanimous decisions? What was wrong with us staying in honourable isolation on the principles for which we have already fought? Is my right hon. Friend aware that now that we have taken this tiny step on the escalator of economic sanctions it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get off?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that. We obtained a very good agreed result throughout the whole of the Commonwealth. It was more important to achieve that—especially the condemnation of violence and the recognition that economic sanctions would not work—than to issue a separate British statement.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is it not a fact that the Prime Minister's opposition to international economic action against the racist apartheid regime of South Africa has nothing to do with the 250,000 jobs which she estimates could be affected by such action? After all, she does not care a jot about the 2 million people whom she has put on the dole during the past six years. Is her opposition not precisely to do with the fact that British companies own 40 per cent. of foreign investment in South Africa? Did not Consolidated Gold Fields make £115 million profit last year through paying black miners £21 a week? It is profit, not jobs, that has dictated the right hon. Lady's action.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should be very much aware that industry has been in the forefront of [column 823]breaking down apartheid. The standard of living of black Africans in South Africa often exceeds the standard of living of those in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa is a strong economy, and the gold miners to whom the hon. Gentleman referred refused to strike.

Mr. Nellist

No, they did not. They were beaten into submission.

The Prime Minister

Many black people in South Africa have a high standard of education and culture, and it is rising every day. Therefore, that is not the problem—it is that they do not have a proper right to take part in government. That is what we are trying to rectify.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the realism and courage that she has displayed, not only in Nassau but in the House this afternoon, in defence of an evolutionary, non-violent retreat from the tragedy that apartheid has inflicted on South Africa.

When the other Heads of State in Nassau were attempting to forge the weapon of nuclear condemnation, were they at any stage aware that they were providing the world with the most vivid illustration that it has had in two millennia of the wisdom of the parable of the beam and the mote?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his question. He has made all his points very forcefully indeed.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

In view of the unanimous call of the Commonwealth Heads of State to the South African Government not to execute Daniel Moloise, has the right hon. Lady changed her mind about capital punishment, or is it simply that she says one thing abroad but votes another way in this House?

The Prime Minister

No, I have not changed my mind. Some of the Commonwealth Heads who put their names to that motion have capital punishment in their countries for crimes far less serious than murder—for example, for dealing in drugs.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her efforts to achieve a fair return on British participation in the strategic defence [column 824]initiative programme, but may I ask when she expects to obtain an agreement, and when she expects to be able to announce such an agreement?

The Prime Minister

I regret that I cannot answer that, but I shall pursue the matter.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Was it not an appropriate comment on the Prime Minister's performance at the Nassau conference that a group of the most ardent supporters of the South African regime marched to a number of embassies, and when they reached the British embassy raised three cheers for the right hon. Lady?

Is the right hon. Lady aware that for more than 70 years the African National Congress has tried to avoid violence, but, faced with the violence of the regime and the denial of basic political human rights, it reached the conclusion that there was no alternative? Would it not help matters if the Prime Minister later today listened to the evidence being given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by Mr. Oliver Tambo?

The Prime Minister

No, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen to many other black South Africans who do not want sanctions and utterly deplore violence. I very much regret that Chief Buthelezi is not receiving him, but many of us have seen him.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that prior to the Nassau summit Opposition Members were gloatingly predicting that the thorny question of South Africa would lead to the breakup of the Commonwealth? Has that not proved to be far from true? Has not the agreement signed by every Commonwealth state proved to be a major diplomatic success for this country and this Government?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it was a major success, both for the content of the accord and for the wisdom of going for the path of negotiation rather than violence, and keeping the Commonwealth together. Many Heads of State were pleased that the question of sanctions did not go any further, especially as some countries have preferential trade treaties with South Africa.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have two other very important statements to follow.