HC Deb 30 October 1956 vol 558 cc1273-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heath.]

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I was given notice that this Motion might be necessary, but I hope that any statements made on the Adjournment will, by the strict order of the House, be confined to the reason for adjourning the House. I hope, also, that in future some means will be found of making these very necessary statements within the rules of the House. I do not wish to deprive the House of hearing the Prime Minister.

Mr. Shinwell

But, Mr. Speaker, surely this is a most unexpected decision. It was not my impression originally that the Prime Minister intended to do more than interrupt the proceedings, as has been done scores of times in the House by Ministers and Prime Ministers, who make a statement and then perhaps are interrogated on the statement, and leave it at that That was my impression.

It was for that reason I ventured to ask you, Sir, on a point of order, whether you would consider, after the Prime Minister's statement, after interrupting the proceedings, accepting a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order 9. You were not quite clear whether that could be done, and it was suggested then that the Prime Minister would make his statement on the Motion for the Adjournment. But if we are now about to debate the Motion for the Adjournment of the House, surely we should be permitted to debate the statement that the Prime Minister makes. Otherwise, what is the purpose of it?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The last Order, the Third Reading of the Education (Scotland) Bill [Lords] has been finished. The Question now before the House is, "That this House do now adjourn." That will permit a discussion on the Question, which will enable the Prime Minister's statement to be amplified and discussed by hon. Members if they feel so inclined.

The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement.

As the House will know, for some time past the tension on the frontiers of Israel has been increasing. The growing military strength of Egypt has given rise to renewed apprehension, which the statements and actions of the Egyptian Government have further aggravated. The establishment of a Joint Military Command between Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the renewed raids by guerillas, culminating in the incursion of Egyptian commandos on Sunday night, had all produced a very dangerous situation.

Five days ago news was received that the Israel Government were taking certain measures of mobilisation. Her Majesty's Government at once instructed Her Majesty's Ambassador at Tel Aviv to make inquiries of the Israel Minister for Foreign Affairs and to urge restraint.

Meanwhile, President Eisenhower called for an immediate tripartite discussion between representatives of the United Kingdom, France and the United States. A meeting was held on 28th October, in Washington, and a second meeting took place on 29th October.

While these discussions were proceeding, news was received last night that Israel forces had crossed the frontier and had penetrated deep into Egyptian territory. Later, further reports were received indicating that paratroops had been dropped. It appears that the Israel spearhead was not far from the banks of the Suez Canal. From recent reports it also appeared that air forces are in action in the neighbourhood of the Canal.

During the last few weeks Her Majesty's Government have thought it their duty, having regard to their obligations under the Anglo-Jordan "Treaty, to give assurances, both public and private, of their intention to honour these obligations. Her Majesty's Ambassador in Tel Aviv late last night received an assurance that Israel would not attack Jordan.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the situation with the United States Ambassador early this morning. The French Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have come over to London at short notice at the invitation of Her Majesty's Government to deliberate with us on these events.

I must tell the House that very grave issues are at stake, and that unless hostilities can quickly be stopped free passage through the Canal will be jeopardised. Moreover, any fighting on the banks of the Canal would endanger the ships actually on passage. The number of crews and passengers involved totals many hundreds, and the value of the ships which are likely to be on passage is about £50 million, excluding the value of the cargoes.

Her Majesty's Government and the French Government have accordingly agreed that everything possible should be done to bring hostilities to an end as soon as possible. Their representatives in New York have, therefore, been instructed to join the United States representative in seeking an immediate meeting of the Security Council. This began at 4 p.m.

In the meantime, as a result of the consultations held in London today, the United Kingdom and French Governments have now addressed urgent communications to the Governments of Egypt and Israel. In these we have called upon both sides to stop all warlike action by land, sea and air forthwith and to withdraw their military forces to a distance of 10 miles from the Canal. Further, in order to separate the belligerents and to guarantee freedom of transit through the Canal by the ships of all nations, we have asked the Egyptian Government to agree that Anglo-French forces should move temporarily—I repeat, temporarily—into key positions at Port Said, Ismailia and Suez.

The Governments of Egypt and Israel have been asked to answer this communication within 12 hours. It has been made clear to them that, if at the expiration of that time one or both have not undertaken to comply with these requirements, British and French forces will intervene in whatever strength may be necessary to secure compliance.

I will continue to keep the House informed of the situation.

Mr. Gaitskell

Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has made a statement of the utmost gravity. I think it would be unwise if we were to plunge into any lengthy discussion or, indeed, to comment upon this until we have had an opportunity of thinking over what the right hon. Gentleman has said and making up our minds upon it. Therefore, if I may, I will make only a few comments which seem to me worth making in this extremely serious situation.

We are obliged, of course, under the Tripartite Declaration, to do everything we can to stop aggression, either by Israel against the Arab States or by the Arab States against Israel. The Prime Minister made no reference to the Tripartite Declaration and I should like him to tell us, if he would, what the attitude of the Government is to that Declaration now.

Secondly, of course, we are bound by the Charter of the United Nations to do everything we can to stop conflict, and I certainly warmly endorse those parts of the Prime Minister's statement in which he said it was extremely important that hostilities should cease as soon as possible. I am also delighted that the matter has been referred to the United Nations and that the Security Council is now meeting to discuss it. I would hope that we would at any rate now pledge our support in advance to any decisions which the Security Council may reach on this matter.

The last part of the Prime Minister's statement is, of course, the gravest part, and on that I would not like, without further consideration, to make any detailed comment, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman this question. We want to stop the hostilities ; we want, I should have thought, both parties to withdraw themselves from the fighting area, but I must ask the Prime Minister under what authority, and with what right, he believes that British and French forces are justified in armed intervention in this matter before there has been any pronouncement by the United Nations upon it.

The Prime Minister

I will endeavour to answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions—first, as regards the Tripartite Declaration. Certainly, the spirit of the Tripartite Declaration, and more than the spirit, operates in our minds.

Mr. S. Silverman

The letter is equally important.

The Prime Minister

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not interrupt me for a moment. This is a very serious matter.

It is also true that Egypt's own attitude to the Tripartite Declaration has been, to say the very least of it, equivocal. She has made it quite clear on more than one occasion, certainly in Government-controlled newspapers if not by other means, that she does not wish the Tripartite Declaration to be invoked on her behalf. I thought I ought fairly to add that in giving a picture to the House.

Secondly, as for the Security Council. I am sorry that the communication which I have now made to the House was rushed. I finished discussions with the French Ministers only a very few moments ago and I came to the House at once and gave the information. I thought it was right that I should.

We have communicated it and I hope it will have reached the Security Council by now, and they will have it before them in the course of the discussions which they will now hold.

Finally, on the last part, which I fully understand is the gravest, we do maintain, and I think I must fairly say, that there is nothing in the Tripartite Declaration or in the Charter which abrogates the right of a Government to take such steps as are essential to protect the lives of their citizens and vital rights such as are here at stake. I ought to add, "vital international rights such as are here at stake".

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he would make it plain that it is the intention of the Government, in making this proposal to the Egyptian and Israeli Governments, simply to safeguard the lives of British nationals and that as soon as they are satisfied that those lives are safe the forces will be withdrawn?

The Prime Minister

I used the word "temporarily" deliberately in my statement. There are some who think that we could have invoked other treaties to do what we are doing. I did not want to do that. We have based this action simply on the present situation. We certainly should not wish to keep any British forces there, and I am sure the French would not wish to do so for one moment longer than is absolutely necessary to deal with this immediate situation and the very real danger of fighting across the Canal. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for asking that question.

Mr. Clement Davies

Do I understand the Prime Minister's views to be these: that the first desirability is the cessation of hostilities; secondly, that if there is any danger to life or to shipping these should be protected ; and, thirdly, that any question of who is the aggressor will be decided by the Security Council and that pressure will be brought upon the Security Council to deal with these matters as early as possible? Is that right?

The Prime Minister

The Security Council are considering the matter now, and it would not be for me to express an opinion as to what they will say, but we thought it right to express our view on the situation and the action we should have to take if this situation continued to develop with its present seriousness.

Mr. Shinwell

In the circumstances, I have no wish to precipitate a full-dress debate on this issue. I recognise the gravity of the situation and also the desirability—although that is a very hackneyed expression in this situation—of bringing hostilities to an end. I think we are all agreed on that. We desire to debate this matter objectively or to interrogate the Prime Minister in that temper, because we are primarily concrned with world peace and, if I may say so, the true interests of our own country.

While that is so, I am bound to say that a heavy responsibility rests upon the shoulders of Her Majesty's Government who, it seems to me, have brought about an inevitable situation. For example, the Prime Minister told us in his statement that, in view of the threats uttered by Egypt, in view of the state of tension provoked by Egypt and Egypt's intransigence, some action had to be taken. It is a great pity that the intransigence of Egypt and the constant threats of action against the State of Israel had not been taken into account by Her Majesty's Government a long time ago.

Let me take another illustration of this theme. Time and again, when there have been incursions and raids over the border, perpetrated by Jordan, unofficially or officially, or by Egypt, unofficially or officially, the Armistice Commission, endorsed by Her Majesty's Government, have condemned what were described as acts of aggression by the State of Israel ; but never a word, or hardly a word, about the repeated incursions and threats and all the rest of it by Egypt, Jordan—and even Iraq and Syria.

These are facts which are well known. [HON. MEMBERS : "No."] It is, of course, possible for right hon. and hon. Gentleman opposite to ignore facts. They frequently do so. If I may say so, speaking as objectively as I can, it seems to me that they have encouraged themselves a great deal by the information about the possibility of French and British intervention in the Canal not because they take an objective view, but because they want to teach Nasser a lesson. Nor is it because they want to encourage Israel in peaceful development.

This sort of thing will not do. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that this matter has been referred to the Security Council. I suppose that is the right thing to do, although I am bound to say that hitherto the decisions of the Security Council and the United Nations Assembly have been either ignored or not implemented by those responsible. Take, for example, the decision reached eight or nine years ago by the Security Council about the free passage of ships, including the ships of the State of Israel, through the Canal. Not a single step was taken to secure the implementation of that decision. These are facts which are well known.

The Prime Minister says that we must extract from the Egyptians a guarantee that they will not interfere with Israeli ships now. It is a pity that they did not think of it before—[HON. MEMBERS : "You were in power."]—and take action on the lines suggested by the right hon. Gentleman himself, who talked about sending a gunboat. It is a pity that they did not. It is quite useless for hon. Members opposite to interrupt me. In my long period of agitation in the country, I have been able to deal with malcontents and truculent people of that kind quite effectively. Moreover, I have already said that I am doing my best, perhaps not altogether with success, to deal with the matter as objectively as I can. I am as much interested in the well-being of this country as any hon. Member opposite. I have given proof of that on many occasions.

What I want to know from the Prime Minister is, what does all this mean about French and British intervention? We have apparently given 12 hours' notice to both Israel and Egypt demanding that hostilities should cease ; if not, there will be intervention. What kind of intervention, and against whom? It seems to me that that is a very ambiguous declaration which requires considerable clarification. Is it to be intervention against Israel on the ground that she is described as the aggressor, or is it to be intervention against Nasser and the Egyptians on the ground that they have uttered threats of war against Israel? What is it to be? We ought to know. What is the use of the Prime Minister telling us that if we place our troops, and French troops are equally placed, in the Suez Canal base they are going to be there temporarily? That is not the intention of the Government at all. They are going to be there for a long time indeed.

Finally, I want to put a point which concerns me more than all the rest of it. This business has a very bad history. Let us forget about that. I want to put what I think is the most relevant question of all. Let us assume that Israel agrees to a cessation of hostilities. That is what the Prime Minister wants and what he hopes to extract from the Security Council's deliberations. The question I want to put is : what guarantee can be offered to the State of Israel that there will be no recurrence of these threats and that the provisions of the Tripartite Declaration will be implemented, not only because there is a direct act of aggression but because one of the other parties in the Middle East dispute has uttered threats? That is what we want to know.

Israel wants peace. So do we. Israel wants to proceed with peaceful development. I would just add this. Technically, Israel may be at fault, in terms of the Tripartite Declaration and the provisions of the Charter, but has there been any other country in the Middle East, or, indeed, throughout the whole of the world, which has been more provoked than the State of Israel, which has been threatened, bullied, accused, castigated—and all for what? Because she seeks peaceful development.

As regards Her Majesty's Government and their responsibility, it appears to me that they were prepared hitherto to sacrifice Israel in order to gain the support of the Arab States, not so much because they wanted the support of the Arab States but because they wanted to ensure that our oil resources were safe. I wish that the Prime Minister would answer the simple question which I have put. Let me tell hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and on this side of the House, also, that if the question cannot be answered there is no guarantee of peace in the Middle East.

The question which I put, again, is simply this : what guarantee is there, if Israel agrees to a cessation of hostilities, that she will be left alone and in peace to pursue peaceful development? Unless we have a guarantee that is satisfactory to the State of Israel, then, in my judgment, it is hardly worth her while agreeing to a cessation of hostilities. [HON. MEMBERS : "Why?"] Shall I tell hon. Members why? There is no shame about it—because she has got to defend herself. I applaud a nation that seeks to defend itself. [HON. MEMBERS : "Aggression."] What are hon. Members opposite talking about—aggression? Why, this country has risen to great power on aggression. The history of this country consists of a series of aggressions. But I do not want to go into history ; I said that I would not. I can leave that to some other occasion.

I say that there is a responsibility resting upon the shoulders of the Government. They have brought this situation about and now we want to know from them whether they are going to take action which will give Israel some assurance of peace in the future.

The Prime Minister

May I say one word in reply to the right hon. Gentleman? At the beginning of his observations, he said that there was a very heavy responsibility resting upon our shoulders. I accept that. That is absolutely and entirely true. These decisions were arrived at after very careful discussions with our French colleagues. What we hoped for, what we asked for—what we prayed for—is that both parties to whom these appeals have been made will accept them, because if they do accept them then we truly believe that a new era can open in the Middle East.

Major Legge-Bourke

My sole reason for rising is that I think that there are moments when, in this House, we have to put aside all lesser issues and concentrate on what is more important. If there should be any misunderstanding in anyone's mind as to what is the more important, and if anyone feels that he has a contribution to make to clarify the issue, he should stand up and say what he has to say. What I have to say this afternoon is simply this. As the House and the Government know, in 1954 I was in very considerable disagreement with the policy then outlined by the Government. Today I believe that it is the duty of all of us, no matter what may have been our disappointments, no matter what may have been our disagreements in the past, to put the most important issue first.

I believe that today the most important issue is quite simple : whether Britain stands for the preservation of the rule of law or not. I rise, therefore, simply to say that I believe that what the Prime Minister has said today is what he should have said. I entirely support what he has said, and I ask all hon. Members—and all of us have our differences on either side of the House on various issues—to put special pleading of any kind out of their arguments and to concentrate on this question : do we or do we not stand for the preservation of the rule of law?

Was the United Nations set up or was it not to preserve the rule of law, or was it to get peace at any price? I believe that the United Nations was set up to preserve—and, indeed, that British policy always ought to be designed to preserve—the rule of law. I ask the House, with all the sincerity that I can muster, to put away partisan special pleading or the natural sympathy which certain hon. Members have for one side or the other on what is going on in the Middle East and to concentrate on this issue. Let us do all that we can to maintain the rule of law and, for heaven's sake, let Britain speak with one voice.

Mr. Bellenger

I should like to put a question to the Prime Minister which, I hope, he will recognise as a very important one. The Prime Minister told us in his remarks that what, in other days, would have been called an ultimatum had been given to Egypt and Israel to expire in twelve hours. Will the Prime Minister tell us the expiry time? Does it then follow that if no reply, or an unsatisfactory reply, has been given to what I term an ultimatum, automatically British troops will go into the Canal Zone?

Lastly, Mr. Speaker, the House is due to rise the day after tomorrow and the Prime Minister has promised to give the House further information. It seems to me in those circumstances that the House may be denied the opportunity, which obviously we cannot take today, of expressing our views on an issue which may very well be war at the end of twelve hours.

Mr. Gaitskell

I venture to say to the House what I said earlier on, that I do not believe any very useful purpose will be served by continuing the debate now. I believe it is the desire of the House that we should have a little time to reflect before we say anything further. I would therefore ask the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House if they will give an undertaking that we will debate this matter tomorrow and that the necessary change of business can be made. I also ask the Prime Minister, following on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) has said, whether he can possibly give us an assurance that until either the Security Council has reached a decision on this matter, or the House has had an opportunity of discussing it further, no further physical action will be taken by Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister

As regards the question about the debate, of course I gladly conform to what the right hon. Gentleman has suggested. As regards what I said about the time, I have asked for an answer to these communications within twelve hours and it would not therefore be possible for me to give the undertaking about action for which the right hon. Gentleman has asked. The communications were conveyed to the Governments about the same moment as I rose in the House.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I press the Prime Minister on that for a moment? I am sure he will appreciate that we, the Opposition, represent a very large number of British people, and I think he will agree that we have a right to be heard on this matter and to think over what has been said before we come to any decision. The Prime Minister has told us of the communications addressed to the Egyptian and Israeli Governments and has told us that an answer has been requested within twelve hours. He has not said that immediately thereafter any particular action would be taken. I was hoping, therefore, that he would agree that no further physical action would be taken until we had had an opportunity of discussing the matter.

I put this further point to him. The matter is being discussed in the United Nations and we do not know exactly what will be said, or what decision will be reached there. Would it not be extremely unwise, therefore, for Her Majesty's Government to reach any irrevocable decision until they know what decisions are taken at the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry, I cannot give that undertaking, and I must explain why to the House. The fighting is going on at this moment. I do not have the very latest information, but in all likelihood there is air and other fighting in the very close vicinity of the Canal, perhaps over the Canal, in which we have at the moment large quantities of shipping. That is why we and the French Government thought it absolutely imperative to ask for this temporary measure to be taken now and why we have asked for the replies by the early hours of tomorrow morning. I hope that they will reply by tonight. Therefore, with the best will in the world, I could not give an undertaking to the right hon. Gentleman that we would not take action.

Mr. Elliot

I am sure the whole House realises that a declaration of the utmost gravity has been made and it is very desirable that an opportunity for reflection should be given. Is it not clear that, as the House continues to sit today, even if this Motion for the Adjournment were withdrawn—the Prime Minister has assured us of his desire to keep the House informed—the Government would not hesitate to tell the House before the conclusion of the sitting of the very latest developments?

I am sure that nothing but damage can arise from a continuation of the debate at the moment, because there is a danger, with the best will in the world, as with the case of the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), of stepping outside the immediate issues which concern us, the great issues which have been brought to our notice. I therefore suggest that it may be for the good of us all that the present debate be terminated by the withdrawal of the Motion for the Adjournment on the understanding that the Motion can again be moved later in the sitting and the House kept informed of the latest development in this very tense situation.

The Prime Minister

I am ready to try to consider how we can work out how to make a further statement on the latest information and the situation as we know it at ten o'clock tonight before the House rises.

Mr. S. Silverman

Everyone has listened with sympathy to the speeches made on both sides of the House to the effect that it would be a great mistake to attempt on short notice, or indeed without notice, and without full information as to the facts to enter into a general debate today. I think that most of us agreed with every word of that, but there would be not the slightest use in refraining from debating today on a promise that we can debate it tomorrow if in the meantime the Government took action which made tomorrow's debate virtually useless, or took action in the meantime which would embarrass not merely this House in coming to a decision, but very likely the Security Council as well in considering the grave issues which are here involved.

I will appeal once again to the right hon. Gentleman. He is giving nothing away by giving the undertaking for which my right hon. Friend so reasonably asked him. All that is being said to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he wants the House of Commons to pause for reflection, the House of Commons is ready to pause for reflection, but he should pause for reflection himself in the meantime. Let the Prime Minister take the same opportunity for second thoughts which he is asking the House to take. Nothing would be lost. Surely nobody in the House, whatever his views about this general question, is anxious to set the Middle East and the world on fire without a few hours' pause for reflection and debate on either side.

I know that there are many of us with very strong feelings. Sometimes strong feelings are enlisted on one side and sometimes on the other. My own feelings are well known, and I make no secret about them. I have stood here before without much agreement or support from other Members and I have said where my interests lay. However, I am sure that the interests of the world, of Egypt, of the Middle East and of this country will be better served by preserving peace in this area and in the world than by anything else.

I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not very much to ask, in view of all that is at stake on this issue, as the House of Commons is prepared to wait until tomorrow before debating the issue, that at least we should be assured that in the meantime our hands will not be tied behind our backs with the whole position prejudiced in such a way as to make further discussion useless.

Mr. McAdden

I very rarely intervene in debates of this kind, and I hope the House will bear with me if I express my feelings on the matter. It is wrong to suggest that any action has been taken by this country to set the Middle East aflame. It is unworthy of hon. Members to suggest that such action has been taken. Certainly action has been taken in the Middle East, and it is possible for us, according to our sympathies, to lay the blame on the Arabs or the Israelis for the continued fermentation of trouble in the Middle East.

I, for one, may allege, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will allege, that British foreign policy over the years under both Governments has had its failings, but certainly it has never been the foreign policy of either Government to ferment trouble in the Middle East. One may say that the results have not been as good as we hoped, but certainly that was not the intention or foreign policy of either Government.

Today the Prime Minister has told the House that he has addressed an appeal—[HON. MEMBERS : "Ultimatum."]—all right, an ultimatum—he has given information to the Israeli and Egyptian Governments. He hopes that they will let him know within twelve hours that they have accepted his suggestion to withdraw all the fighting forces so that what we all desire, peace, can be secured. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend is being attacked because he is not prepared to say here and now that he is not prepared to implement the undertaking which he has given about the use of British and French forces until after a decision has been taken in the House. It seems to me that the responsibility for deciding whether in fact the Prime Minister's words are implemented or not rests just as much upon the people of Israel and Egypt as upon anybody else.

I hope that hon. Members who want to make speeches on this question, if they must address their remarks to somebody, will use the influence and power they possess respectively, as they have it, with Egypt or Israel, to persuade them to adopt the very reasonable suggestion which the Prime Minister has put forward, in order that the peace that I hope all hon. Members want in the Middle East may be secured.

Mr. S. N. Evans

There is much that one could say upon this matter, but this is not the moment to say it. I can understand the Prime Minister's dilemma. It could be that attacks were being made upon British citizens and that men, women and children were in danger, and that he, because of a pledge he had given to this House, was prevented from going to their assistance. I can understand that dilemma. But the last thing I want to see is the House divided at this moment.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister whether he could not give a conditional undertaking that, unless there is some special incident of the kind that we can all envisage, he will withhold military action until the House has had an opportunity of discussing this matter. I understand the military difficulties of this situation. This is a very complicated business—a very confused and confusing situation—but it is not immodest for me to say that both the Prime Minister and the House will understand the sense of what I am trying to say. If the Prime Minister could give a qualified assurance of that kind, I think the House would find it satisfactory and be prepared to accept it.

The Prime Minister

I should like to answer the hon. Member's appeal. I think I must explain to the House the difficulties of this position. They are not all easily explicable. It is not only the position of shipping which is involved ; there is also the question of stopping this fighting before it spreads more widely, and that affects both sides. I do not want to exaggerate too much, but I want to keep the balance even, and it is very difficult to keep the balance even.

It is fair to say that in bombing arms one side is well in advance of the other. I do not say that that should weigh heavily with us ; I do not know. It is difficult to know what things should weigh with us in a situation like this. But that is certainly an element in the situation, and it is an element which made us and the French Government come to the conclusion which I announced to the House just now. It is quite impossible for me to vary that conclusion, which is an Anglo-French conclusion which we agreed with the French Government, but what I readily undertake to do is to come to the House tonight with whatever is the latest information I have. We shall try to arrange the machinery, although I do not know how it can be done, so that at half-past nine or ten o'clock—I do not mind how late it is—I try to give the House all the information I can and so give hon. Members a chance to say what they have to say about the matter. I think that that is the best it is in my power to do.

Mr. Gaitskell

I have no wish to enter into the questions of substance involved. I had hoped that the Prime Minister would give the assurance which I and some of my hon. Friends have asked for. The Prime Minister has his difficulties, but so have we, and we do not wish to find ourselves in a position where things have happened which, as my hon. Friend has said, make a debate somewhat academic.

In these circumstances, I propose that the Prime Minister gives us what further information is available, say, at nine o'clock ; that the Rule be suspended, and that we then have at least a three hours' debate in order that we may discuss the situation between nine o'clock and midnight.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I have been thinking about the technical point of the suspension of the Rule. It appears that we have no power to suspend the Rule now, because we did not do it at the right time. We could suspend the Rule only under guidance from you, Mr. Speaker, which would mean a breach of Standing Orders. I should like to seek your guidance on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

A very difficult position has arisen. A Motion to suspend Standing Order No. 1 usually requires notice ; it usually appears upon the Order Paper according to the rules of the House. I wonder whether nine o'clock is the best time to give the additional information. If an earlier statement were made, the House would at least have two hours in which to debate it.

Mr. Bowles

I feel quite certain that, during the time when the Labour Government were in power, the Rule was suspended by a Cabinet Minister without notice appearing on the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

That may be so. I shall have to inquire into that, but my impression is that notice should normally appear on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bowles

I remember the occasion quite well.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Member can look it up for me.

Mr. Healey

Whether or not we have a debate this evening, there is some information which the Prime Minister should give us immediately. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) expressed a view which I know is sincerely held by many Members, that the Government's action is intended to uphold the rule of law; but there are also many Members, of whom I am one, who as a result of what the Prime Minister has so far said, have a feeling that this Government and the French Government are taking the law into their own hands.

I should, therefore, like to ask the Prime Minister if he will now answer certain questions. The British and French Governments are by no means the only Governments which have obligations in this area, nor are they the only Governments whose nationals and interests may be threatened if the fighting continues. The Prime Minister has said that he believes he is acting in the spirit of the Tripartite Agreement. But the United States of America is also a signatory to that Agreement. The first question I want to ask the Prime Minister is this : were the United States Government consulted when the British and French Governments took the decision which the Prime Minister has announced, and did they approve of that decision?

Secondly, some of our allies in the Middle East are vitally concerned with any action which may be taken and, while I do not in any way wish to inflame passions at this moment, I would point out that feeling among our Arab allies is extremely hostile to the French Government, particularly as a result of events during the last seven days. I should therefore like to ask the Prime Minister whether he has consulted our allies in Jordan and Iraq upon the steps which he proposes to take, and whether they approve?

Thirdly, the Commonwealth is vitally concerned, no less than we are, in the safety and security of the Canal, and I hope that this Government take seriously the view of their friends who are also members of the Commonwealth. I would therefore ask the Prime Minister whether the Commonwealth Governments have been consulted about this decision and whether they have approved of it.

One final question. The British people are also vitally concerned to prevent any step being taken which may lead to general hostilities between this country and the whole of the Arab world, with a majority of the United Nations opposed to us. I cannot feel that the Prime Minister has done his duty if he has taken this step without prior consultation with the Opposition. As a back bench Member of the Opposition, I should like to know what steps the Prime Minister has taken to obtain the support of at least half the country before taking so grave a step.

The step which he has threatened to take is a military ultimatum by two Governments against two others. If the Prime Minister is correct in suggesting that unfavourable replies may be received and, therefore, that action may be taken even during the night, we may have a position tomorrow in which British tanks are shooting down women and children in the streets of Port Said. If this is not the case, how do the Government propose to implement their threat to occupy the Canal? This, after all, is the subject we are all discussing—the question of peace and war—and I think it would be both a crime and a tragedy if at the moment when freedom and national independence are being suppressed by Russian tanks in Hungary, this Government did anything without international support which led to a similar impression being given to world opinion.

The Prime Minister

I am perfectly prepared to answer. I have explained to the House the circumstances in which this situation arose last night, and the House knows the action we have taken. We have been in close communication not only with the United States Government, but also with the Security Council to whom we have sent these proposals. We have also kept in close consultation with the Commonwealth Governments, but the responsibility for the decision was that of the French and British Governments owing to the information reaching us of the situation in the neighbourhood of the Canal. I do not believe that any other course would have been open to any Government.

Mr. R. Bell

On a point of order. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, concerning the number of speeches which a right hon. or hon. Member is allowed to make on the Question now before the House?

Mr. Speaker

An hon. Member can only speak more than once with the leave of the House. I feel it would be convenient if the questions which hon. Members may wish to ask were all put first and answered together. I cannot see how they can be answered one after the other like this without a breach of custom. I think the mistake has arisen because it is customary in a statement made after Questions for supplementary questions to follow one after another. But now that we are on the Motion for the Adjournment, it would be better if speeches were made and questions asked and answered.

Mr. Elliot


Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has already spoken and can speak again only with the leave of the House.

Mr. Elliot

May I have the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman does not appear to have the leave of the House.

Mr. Nicholson

I venture to express my opinion, which is this. The ordinary humble people of this country will hold the Government very much to blame unless they take the most urgent and quick action to stop this conflagration. It is as if a house caught fire and people on either side of the house were spending time discussing which fire brigade should put out the fire. The Prime Minister will have the support of the whole country in taking the most immediate and urgent steps to preserve the peace and to put out the conflagration.

Mr. J. Hynd

There are still a number of questions that the Prime Minister has not answered and which I think must be answered before we go very much further. In the first place, the right hon. Gentleman has not answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) as to what was the consultation with the American Government under the Tripartite Agreement and what was their reply. I should like to press the right hon. Gentleman for an answer to that question. I should also, quite briefly, like to ask one or two other questions. In his statement the Prime Minister told us that we had an assurance from Israel yesterday that she would not invade Jordan, so, presumably, when we received that assurance we were in discussion with the Israeli authorities about their intention to invade Egypt.

The Prime Minister

Late last night—I said it quite distinctly.

Mr. Hynd

Late last night we had an assurance from the Israeli Government that they would not invade Jordan, presumably at our request because of our commitments with Jordan.

The Prime Minister

I do not want any further misunderstanding. Over and over again, both privately and publicly, we made clear to the Israeli Government our position with regard to Jordan. Therefore, it is not only natural, but proper, that Israel should have said to us what her position was.

Mr. Hynd

Precisely, and we got that assurance from Israel late last night. She proceeded to invade Egypt. We had an assurance that she would not invade Jordan. The reason she invaded Egypt, the Prime Minister told us was because of the raids over the border. Those raids about which Israel has been complaining were from Jordan and not from Egypt.

Now a question about the ultimatum we have given. We are told that, in any case, it may be necessary to defend British lives. There has been no threat to British lives as far as I am aware. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East has pointed out that there are other lives there besides British lives. For instance, there are American lives, but America, apparently, is not taking any action. Why is it thought that British lives will not be threatened for twelve hours but will be threatened after twelve hours? The action which the Government are taking and the threats they are making are precisely the kind of things likely to create a situation in which British lives will be endangered.

There are many on this side of the House and in the country who are not quite ready to accept the naïve statement made to us by the Prime Minister, because we are very well aware of the fact that for a long time past the Prime Minister and the Government have been determined to find some excuse for landing British troops in the Canal area. That has been made obvious from all the statements made and we are not quite so simple as to believe that this is out of the Government's mind in connection with the ultimatum they have given.

Therefore, in the event of landing troops, against any opposition from these benches or elsewhere, can we have a direct assurance from the Prime Minister that immediately there is a withdrawal of Israeli troops beyond the frontier, and when we are sure the situation has been settled, the troops will be withdrawn from the zone irrespective of the situation between ourselves and Nasser vis-à-vis the Canal problem?

Mr. Gresham Cooke

As a humble back bencher, it seems to me that what has escaped the notice of hon. Members opposite is that a state of war exists at the present time in the region of the Suez Canal and that if this state of war is not checked the consequences will very rapidly affect British subjects in British ships and also British civilians in the Suez base. That is something that obviously cannot be allowed to happen.

I would ask the Prime Minister whether, if the state of war is continuing in twelve hours' time, we are not acting correctly in putting troops into the area under the spirit of the Tripartite Agreement to act as buffers or policemen with a view to damping down hostilities. Surely, on these two grounds, and particularly on the ground that there are British civilians in the Suez base, we are perfectly justified in taking action if hostilities have not finished in twelve hours' time.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom

I want to ask the Prime Minister a question arising out of his use of the word "temporarily". I presume the right hon. Gentleman means that after the twelve-hour ultimatum has expired British troops may, and probably will, go into the Canal Zone as a temporary measure. Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that those troops will be withdrawn as soon as the Israeli-Egyptian clash is over, or temporarily settled, and that the occasion will not be used to keep British troops in the Canal Zone in furtherance of the dispute between ourselves and the Egyptian Government? On that I want a categorical assurance.

The Prime Minister

indicated assent.

Mr. Winterbottom

Is the answer "Yes "?

The Prime Minister

I answered the hon. Gentleman's question in an earlier statement.

Mr. Paget

Various questions have been asked here which seem completely to confuse this issue. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) talked about the rule of law. In this context that is not an argument, it is a slogan. To say who is the aggressor here and who is not is an impossibility. The war has been maintained all this time. The issue before us—and let us recognise this frankly—is one of policy, one to confine this conflagration.

Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) talked about maintaining the peace. It seemed to me a slightly odd argument that when the peace was clearly broken because a war was on, we maintained it by guaranteeing that the policeman would not do anything. I do not honestly think that that sort of argument takes us very far.

Mr. S. Silverman

My hon. and learned Friend will agree that this is far too serious a matter for debating points, however clever or specious. What the Government are proposing to do, and to commit the House to doing before the House has an opportunity of discussing it, is to take British and French troops back to the Suez Canal area, exactly as they wanted to do before any of this trouble started. My hon. and learned Friend knows too much about the law to get the burglar mixed up with the policeman.

Mr. Paget

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I certainly regard this as much too serious a question to be taken lightly. Therefore, I am trying to define the issues.

As my hon. Friend says, the question as to what one does to try to limit this conflagration, whether it be for peace or against peace, is a matter of policy ; and it is in terms of policy, not of legality, that we have to think about this. This event which has happened is the prophesied and inevitable result of the weakness of the Government at the time of Suez. In August we told the Government exactly what would happen if they took the course which in fact they took, and it has happened. What do we do now?

I would just say this for Israel. Israel has been living under a nervous tension and the threat of war for seven years. Her people have had to build a new country, to till the desert and to guard post every night. That has been a condition which has been imposed on Israel for seven years, and for those seven solid years she has kept the peace. Now, apparently, she has taken a grim decision. With a united command all round her, with the West showing evidence that it was not prepared to take action, she had to take action for herself. Really, to demand of her that she stop that action on our say-so is unrealistic.

This is where I join with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has said. If we are to be realistic in the request—and it cannot be more than a request, we certainly have no right to do more than request in view of our policy—to Israel to change her action of policy, which at long last she has found necessary for her defence, we must offer her some form of safety. That is the essential thing. We cannot ask her to stop without giving her some promise of safety, some promise of action on our part which, when applied, will foe sufficient. I ask the Government to be realistic.

My right hon. Friend's question has not yet been answered. What guarantee can we give to Israel to ask her to restore the peace? That must be answered, that must be the demand. I hope that answer can be given now or later this evening. After all, Israel—in her own view at any rate, and in mine, too—is defending her life and her existence after a terrible experience in which the very existence of the Jewish people throughout the world has been threatened. We should regard this with a little sympathy.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I think it evident that the spirit of the House is that there should, if possible, be a short suspension so that people may think over these issues. I was going to make a formal request to you, Mr. Speaker, that I should as Leader of the House be allowed to move a Motion to suspend the Standing Order. That, so far as I can see, would be the only way in which it would be possible to suspend, and in that way to have our sitting protracted tonight beyond ten o'clock so as to give more opportunity for hon. Members to take part.

I have to make this formal request to you, Mr. Speaker and in the event of your granting it—this happened during the war—we could then suspend, on notice being given at this late hour. If you are unable to accept that suggestion, I can only make an alternative suggestion now so as not to rise again later. That would be that we meet again after the next Order—that is the Fat Stock (Guarantee Payments) (Amendment No. 2) Order—at, say, eight o'clock and debate the matter for the rest of the time until ten in the evening. That is on your Ruling that it is impossible to suspend the Order.

In one or other of these ways we should have time for reflection. We would then proceed to the next Order and, on that understanding, the Government would request the withdrawal of the Motion now before us for the Adjournment of the House. Therefore, I ask your formal permission, Mr. Speaker, to suspend the Order and in the event of your not being able to grant that, I suggest the other alternative.

Mr. Speaker

I am, of course, bound by the Standing Order which says that a Motion to exempt business from the operation of the Standing Order can be done without notice, but at the commencement of public business, and that is not now.

Of course, the House can do what it likes, but I am bound to say that I consider it most undesirable to break the rules of the House. Those rules are there for the protection of hon. Members, particularly of minorities, and if the House once made a precedent of breaking them and suspended the whole Standing Order so as to allow this to be done, I think it would be most unfortunate.

It may be said that these are exceptional circumstances, but in my long experience in this House I have found that exceptional circumstances frequently arise. I would give my humble counsel to the House to abide by the rule. I believe it is a wise thing. In these circumstances I could not accept such a Motion. If the House over-rules me it is the affair of the House, but it would be against my earnest counsel.

Mr. Gaitskell

In the light of what you have said, Mr. Speaker, it seems to me that we have no alternative but to accept the other suggestion made by the Lord Privy Seal; that is to say, that we should have a further statement from the Prime Minister at about eight o'clock, and we should then continue the debate until the usual time, ten o'clock. While it is not entirely satisfactory, I commend that as the best available course to my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Shinwell

Since he is dealing with this matter, may I ask this of the Lord Privy Seal? I am sorry to disagree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about procedure—[HON. MEMBERS : "Oh."] Is it not permissible in a free country to offer advice? It does not appear right, in spite of the suggestions which have been made from this side of the House, that the Government will agree not to undertake any physical action in the Suez Canal. Would it not be very much better, instead of having another statement tonight, and a "scratch" debate lasting until, say, ten o'clock, or eleven o'clock or perhaps twelve o'clock—[HON. MEMBERS : "Ten o'clock."] All right, ten o'clock, or whatever it may be—a "scratch" debate which would lead to no satisfactory result, to have a full-dress debate tomorrow when further information is available to the House? Would that not be far better than a "scratch" debate tonight?

Mr. R. A. Butler

We have to deal with things in the light of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. As you have used the expression that it is your earnest wish that we should follow your advice, I feel, in agreement with the Leader of the Opposition, that we have no alternative but to accept it. In the circumstances, our only hope tonight is to adopt the procedure suggested, and that would leave tomorrow without prejudice. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.