HL Deb 11 May 1961 vol 231 cc370-82

4.38 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships with any wide-ranged narrative describing the reasons which have brought the Government to lay this Bill before you. Enough has been said already on South Africa's decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth and of the way this came about, and of the increasing strains which the South African Government's pursuit of the policy of apartheid had placed upon the Commonwealth partnership. Indeed, this House debated the matter on March 23. The decision reached at the recent Prime Ministers' Conference already belongs to history. It marks a permanent milestone in Commonwealth evolution, a melancholy landmark, but essentially a milestone and not a gravestone. Inevitable though that decision now appears, its effect has proved both salutary and sad.

But we are to-day concerned not with post-mortems but with consequences. This Bill, the South Africa (Temporary Provisions) Bill, is a short Bill and, if I may say so with respect, a dry one. It is a Bill of limited application both as to content and to time. It is a standstill measure designed solely to give the Government elbow-room within which to work out a new and permanent bilateral relationship with the Republic of South Africa. In less than three weeks from now, on May 31, South Africa will become not only a Republic but a foreign country, severed from the Commonwealth association. It will be readily apparent to your Lordships that a radical change of this kind, affecting a major Commonwealth partner with whom over the past half century we, above all, but also other Commonwealth Governments, have built up intricate relationships, must inevitably give rise to far-reaching practical problems.

It will, I think, obviously not be possible for the Government to solve those problems between now and May 31. There are many matters to be considered—some legal, some administrative, some personal. To all of them we must now apply the maxim that a country which moves outside the Commonwealth can no longer expect to benefit from the same privileges as one which remains within the association. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in another place, we must be careful not to destroy the value of Commonwealth membership by giving to those who are not members all the privileges of those who are.

It is therefore the clear duty of the Government to review our relations with South Africa, while at the same time taking care that we do not needlessly destroy such existing bilateral relations as we might normally expect to enjoy with a friendly foreign Power. As I have said, some aspects of this relationship are enshrined in law, some are contractual, yet others are based on convention and usage. It would take time to review them all. All of them, not least our future bilateral links in the trade and defence field, will no doubt involve us in detailed negotiations with the Government of South Africa.

I hope I have said enough to show that the Bill which is now before the House is but the visible part of a far larger iceberg which the Government has now to circumnavigate. In fact the Bill itself can deal only with a limited sector of the problem which South Africa's withdrawal from the Commonwealth throws up. It is designed to freeze for a maximum period of one year—I use the word "maximum" advisedly—those Acts of Parliament which relate to South Africa, in the sense that they refer to that country as part of Her Majesty's Dominions or as a Commonwealth country. If we fail to take action now to preserve these Acts of Parliament in respect of South Africa, until we have decided upon their amendment, we should, as from May 31, be creating a legislative vacuum. Admittedly, the number of Acts which will be affected by the Bill is relatively small. But some of them, such as the Fugitive Offenders Act, the Merchant Shipping Acts, the Maintenance Orders Acts, the Visiting Forces Acts and the complex of medical, dentists and solicitors Acts will suggest to your Lordships that both practical and human difficulties would arise if we merely allowed such measures to lapse in respect of South Africa before we had thought out in detail what, if any, provisions should be worked out to replace them.

For this same reason, Clause 1 (3) of the Bill explains its provision to cover the dependent territories. Again this is designed to prevent a vacuum as from May 31 in relation to Acts of Parliament at Westminster which, as is the case with the great majority of Acts on which this Bill bites, have the force of law in the dependent territories. As my right honourable friend in another place also said, great confusion and uncertainty would be created if United Kingdom laws were allowed to have effect in some of our dependent territories and not in others. The Bill also covers local laws enacted by Colonial Legislatures, referring to South Africa by reference to that country as a part of Her Majesty's Dominions or a member of the Commonwealth. But the Act will not prevent Colonial Legislatures from amending such local legislation at any time they see fit so to do. There is, however, a proviso in Clause 1 (3) excluding from this general operation laws which the Federal Legislature of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the Legislature of Southern Rhodesia are themselves competent to amend. The constitutional reasons for this will readily be apparent to your Lordships.

As I have already said, the problem with which the Bill itself deals forms the lesser part of the iceberg. There are other United Kingdom Acts of Parliament on which the Bill will not bite, but which the Government will none the less have to review before our longterm relationship with South Africa is settled. Chief among such measures is the British Nationality Act, 1948, Section 1 (3). This subsection lists South Africa, but without reference to Her Majesty's Dominions or membership of the Commonwealth, among the countries whose citizens are British subjeots. Thus, until that Act is amended South African citizens will remain British subjects. Here, we have a fundamental human problem to which the Government have already begun to give anxious and detailed thought. Clearly, a fundamental change will have to take place once South Africa leaves the Commonwealth comity. Equally clearly, the nature of any new arrangement will require the closest consideration. This alone is a major reason why the Government should seek a sufficient period within which to work out their policy.

As I have already suggested, there are other equally complicated matters which fall neither wholly within this Bill nor in all respects within other existing legislation—I refer to our bilateral trade and defence links of agreement with South Africa, and to the future of the High Commission Territories. So far as trade goes, our Trade Agreement is a bilateral arrangement between South Africa and ourselves which continues in force until it is terminated by either side. Thus, the Agreement itself will not be affected by the changed status of South Africa. As your Lordships will be aware, it is one of the Agreements entered into by Commonwealth Governments as a result of the Ottawa Conference of 1932, and involves giving certain preferences to South African goods and receiving in return certain preferences on our goods.

Our obligation under this and under other Ottawa Agreements is implemented in our law under the legislation relating to import duties. The current legislation —that is, the Import Duties Act, 1958—will be affected by the present Bill, since it refers to South Africa in a context which implies South African membership of the Commonwealth. In fact, this is one of the matters in which we shall, under the present Bill, be holding the existing position while we consider the whole context of our future relationship with South Africa.

So far as the High Commission Territories are concerned, I should like to assure your Lordships that Her Majesty's Gvernment's responsibility for them will be in no way altered or diminished with the advent of South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth. We will continue to meet our obligations, and to do all we can to further the interests of the three Territories and of those who live in them. Their long and loyal connection with the Crown will remain unaffected. The new situation may require certain administrative changes to be effected—for example, the continuation of Mafeking, situated as it is outside the Bechuanaland Protectorate of which it is the capital, is one that immediately springs to mind. But this and other matters are among the reasons for which we require the breathing space which this Bill provides.

I hope I have said enough, my Lords, to convince your Lordships that this Bill is needed, as my right honourable friend said, to win time; to win time not only in respect of United Kingdom Acts on which this Bill is effective, but also in relation to the far wider range of problems with reference to each of which we must work out a new relationship with the Republic of South Africa. We must not deal with these matters piecemeal. Clearly, we shall have to come back to this House at a later stage, not only to report on the conclusions we have reached, but also to present comprehensive legislation incorporating all the final changes in our law that seem necessary in consequence of South Africa's withdrawal from the Commonwealth, of our study of those conclusions, and of the outcome of such negotiations as we may have with the Government of South Africa.

We are pressing forward urgently with these studies, and if we can reduce the standstill period we shall certainly do so. But, as I have emphasised, this is a problem without precedent in its range and complexity, and it would be wrong for us to rush our fences or, in accepting a shorter standstill period in the Bill, to find ourselves faced with the necessity of coming back to Parliament later with a request for an additional period of time in which to adjust the situation. My Lords, I hope you will not think that, because of the comparative brevity of my speech in introducing this Bill, either I or my colleagues are considering it in a cursory or perfunctory manner; or that we regard the departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth, with the consequent reappraisal of our relationship with her, in any way other than as a most grave matter requiring the most serious consideration.

This Bill, however, is in no sense a policy Bill. It merely preserves the status quo for up to one further year. When, in due course, legislation is brought before your Lordships' House by which the new relationship between the two countries will be effected, then will be the the appropriate time to debate our new policy towards South Africa. I hope, however, that those of your Lordships who are to speak in the debate will ask for elucidation on any points arising out of the Bill that you feel require it, and I will do my best to answer such points when I come to wind up the debate. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Duke of Devonshire.)

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Duke was right, in introducing this Bill, to say that we do not wish to discuss again the withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth or the impact of the withdrawal on the rest of the Commonwealth; for this Bill is consequential upon that decision. I think that the Government are very wise to take this precautionary measure to give them time in which to deal with matters that have to be negotiated between us and the Union of South Africa. The time factor is important. We are substituting a treaty relationship for a Commonwealth relationship, and time must be allowed in which to negotiate these treaties and to deal with the other matters that have to be dealt with between us and the Union.

I remember, looking back, an interesting parallel in my own experience: the case of Burma. Burma, we agreed, should become a Republic outside the Commonwealth in the early part of 1947. But Burma did not, in fact, become a Republic outside the Commonwealth until January 1, 1948, which gave us the whole of the rest of the year 1947 to negotiate the various treaties—defence treaties, those concerned with citizenship, and so on—which had to be negotiated before Burma left the Commonwealth. In the present case, the Prime Ministers' Conference took place in March, and the Union decided formally to leave the Commonwealth and become a foreign country only two months later. It would therefore have been quite impossible for the Government to negotiate the necessary instruments in that very short period of time. Moreover, the negotiations that will have to take place with the Union of South Africa will be very much longer, very much more complex, than the negotiations that we had to enter into before we were able to reach agreement about treaties with Burma.

I was glad that the noble Duke mentioned, as one of the matters that have to be dealt with, administrative arrangements with the High Commission Territories. I was particularly glad that be referred to Mafeking, which is at present, of course, the headquarters of the High Commissioner, because when it becomes a town in a foreign country it would seem, on the face of it, to be less suitable as the headquarters for an officer who will administer the British High Commission Territories. I was also glad that the noble Duke said that Parliament would have an opportunity of discussing again the proposed agreements with the Union of South Africa and the proposed legislation before the agreements are embodied in treaties and before the legislation is introduced. I think this is important, because Parliament here does not have to ratify treaties, and the only way in which our opinion can be expressed about the contents of a treaty is by discussing the matter in advance.

I also thought that the noble Duke was right to limit the period of the standstill to one year. It is quite clear that we must stick to the principle that a foreign country cannot continue to enjoy the advantages and privileges of a Commonwealth country: that principle must be upheld. My Lords, we support this Bill, and we regard it as an indispensable consequential and interim measure following the withdrawal of the Union from the Commonwealth.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, apologise for speaking yet again on South Africa and Basutoland so shortly after I have spoken before, but, as I told the House at that time, I have a deep interest in these countries. This is a standstill measure, as has been said. I should like to say my humble word of praise to the noble Duke for the friendly way in which he presented this Bill to us, and to the noble Earl opposite for the way he welcomed it. The noble Duke spoke of a new relationship with a friendly foreign Power. I hope indeed that that is what will emerge from the talks that will follow this standstill measure. I do not think that a year is too long; nor do I suggest it is too short: I think it is just the right time to put in this Bill.

Very much depends, my Lords, upon the behaviour of this country and the behaviour of the governing races in South Africa—that is to say, the Afrikaans-speaking and the English-speaking people. Let us remember that they are, in fact, the governing races there, having been placed in that position by the Liberal Government of 1909 and having been there ever since, and that it is difficult for the tradition and the way of life of 50 years to be changed swiftly. If the evolution of a way of life in South Africa takes time, let us, I beg, be patient and appreciate that it will be more likely to evolve slowly, and in a manner which will enable our friendship with that country to continue, if we do not interfere with them. Would they not resent it if we were to tell them what they ought to do? Should we not resent it if their Parliament were to tell us what to do in our domestic affairs? I do not say that every aspect of the policy of every Government can be exclusively regarded as a matter for that Government only: there are matters which must impinge upon world opinion and upon world relationships. But if to the largest possible extent, during this year of discussion, we in Britain can leave it to the pressures in South Africa to work themselves out, to that extent will the final friendly relationship between our two countries be the better.

This is all the more important, my Lords, because the Territory of Basutoland, as is well understood, is an enclave right in the middle of South Africa, depending for its protection on Her Majesty's Government but for its very life, its economic life, upon South Africa. It therefore seems to me that it cannot be emphasised too strongly that a friendly relationship among Britain and South Africa and Basutoland is absolutely essential in this sub-continent. I should deplore it if opinion in Britain during this period of discussion about these complex matters which my noble friend has outlined to us were to exacerbate the situation between our two countries. Rather would I beg, now that we are almost on the eve of the opening of this new chapter in South Africa's life, that we might join to wish her all the very best of good luck—or, as the Afrikaners would say, "Alles van die beste".

5.3 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support this Bill. In the ordinary way, one would presumably have nothing much more to say, because the Bill as it stands must obviously command the support of all of us. I appreciate that it is there merely to gain time, and that later a discussion on any details or any decisions which may have been reached will be possible when we have to consider the legislative sanction for those decisions. But, my Lords, in view of what has appeared in the Press and in other means of publicity, it is perhaps just as well to make one or two general remarks.

I do not propose to enter into the questions which we discussed in March. We all had the opportunity of saying what we thought in that debate, and I do not propose to try to repeat anything that I said then; but I think that one should be very clear, and hope (I have no reason to suppose that the Government will not take this attitude towards these considerations) that there will be no specific or deliberate attempts to embarrass the South African Government because of a political system of which so many of us disapprove. I say that because one reads daily in the Press appeals to the Government to take some sort of action of that kind, and it is desirable that the large number of us who totally disapprove of that attitude should say so. Surely we should proceed on the lines of negotiations with a friendly Power which is not a member of the Commonwealth, or which will not be then.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of large numbers of people in this country, it would be quite wrong to allow our dislike of the policy of apartheid to colour in any way negotiations, which should be conducted on the basis of mutual national interest. All questions—economic, social, military and so on—fall under this head. In this matter there should be no punitive flavour or pressure to show dislike of another Government's internal policy. After all, South Africa holds hundreds of thousands of men and women of British birth, and to my mind it is nonsense to talk of her as a foreign country in any other than the purest technical sense. In any case, any attempt to bring pressure to bear on the South African Government over this issue of apartheid would surely be likely only to consolidate the support for that Government in that country. No Government likes to be dictated to by people from another country.

As I see it, the alternative questions to put to ourselves are: are we more anxious to upset the present South African Government at any price, or is our anxiety to help the South African peoples of all races as much as we can in a spirit of reciprocal benefit? The answer surely is in the negative to the first question, and in the affirmative to the second. In the case of a war enemy, Germany, we have succeeded in separating in our minds the people of Germany and the Government that we held guilty. In the case of our dealings with Soviet Russia, whose internal and external policies we abhor, we can still separate in our minds those who are responsible for those policies and the people with whom we do our best to trade and to have relations. In the case of moral reform, there should be no difficulty in a similar mental separation in the case of a country which has always been our friend and which is so largely peopled by people of our own stock. I support this Bill as providing a breathing space during which all the multitude of questions—whether they be defence, trade, currency, nationality, or any of the others—may be considered and negotiated upon in a spirit of enlightened and, above all, friendly self-interest, with no thought of punitive pressure or political hostility.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is the first of several legislative actions which Parliament is going to consider as a result of the parting by South Africa of the ways of South Africa and ourselves after fifty years of association in Commonwealth affairs. As the Under-Secretary who introduced the Bill said, the Government are going to face many problems for negotiation and settlement which I feel sure will be approached with understanding and dignity on the part of both parties. Therefore, I think the Bill is right, and worthy of our support. The Minister who introduced it said, quite rightly, that this Bill is not policy: it preserves the status quo. But in considering policy during the standstill period in the coming months, the Government will naturally pay heed to the views expressed by Parliament. That, therefore, is my justification for the very few remarks which I wish to make on one aspect of our relationship in the future with South Africa—that is, the economic aspect.

As the Minister has said, South Africa at present enjoys a trading position with this country as a member of the Commonwealth; and I believe Her Majesty's Government have something of a dilemma to resolve, because on the one hand—as the Minister said, quite rightly, and as has been said by the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State in another place—we cannot go on as before and virtually say that membership of the Commonwealth means nothing. Things cannot be as they were before. On the other hand, we and South Africa both have an urgent need for the greatest possible amount of trade. We do not want to hurt ourselves just to spite South Africa, and we do not want to hurt the people of South Africa, particularly when we remember that of the 13 million inhabitants, only some 700,000 voted for the Republic. I feel it is unthinkable that we should deliberately deal a blow to the progress and livelihood of those millions.

The trade position of South Africa is governed, basically, by one of the Ottawa Agreements, terminable at six months' notice by either party, and supplemented by certain subsequent Agreements, including South Africa's participation in the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, with its preferential position, and South Africa's right to join the Conference in settling prices and quantities to be placed on the market. Commonwealth preference is enjoyed by South Africa on 50 per cent. of her exports, excluding gold, and, in the other direction, 20 per cent. of our exports to South Africa enjoy a Commonwealth preference on entering that country. We are South Africa's best customer. In 1958 we took 30 per cent. of her exports, and the rest of the Commonwealth took another 20 per cent. From our point of view, South Africa is our fifth best customer, ranking in 1960, after the United States, Australia, Canada and Western Germany.

I trust that I have not wearied your Lordships with too many figures, but I have quoted those to show that we should do ourselves a bad turn economic- ally if we were to reduce in value our economic relationship with South Africa. If we maintain our trading position with her and do not repudiate the Ottawa Agreements it is likely other countries in the Commonwealth will follow our example. I believe that the answer to the dilemma as to how we are to preserve our trading position with South Africa, while at the same time making clear that things are not as they were when South Africa was a member of the Commonwealth, lies in bringing home, by effective action and differences in fields other than economic matters, to South Africa, to the Commonwealth and the rest of the world, that the Common- wealth means something.

There will be a great loss to South Africa of what I would call, generally, "family benefits" in not being a member of the Commonwealth. Not least, she will lose, I believe, her only ally in the United Nations—which has been this country. There will be loss of close consultation in scientific fields, in technical research, which is to a considerable extent pooled among Commonwealth countries. And in many directions, political and social, the loss will be felt. So I sincerely hope that we shall not speed the process of estrangement from South Africa in future years by hurting her economically but that we shall, in the standstill period, negotiate a position which will allow our trade relations not only to be as close in the future as they have been in the past but even to expand to the mutual benefit of ourselves and South Africa, while at the same time showing South Africa that there are differences, in directions other than in preferential trade, between being a member of the Commonwealth and not being a member.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank those noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill, particularly the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his extremely helpful speech, and my noble friends on this side of the House for their helpful contributions. I cannot give any undertakings at this stage, and I will say merely that I know my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will give due weight and pay due heed to the remarks which have been made by my noble friends Lord Milverton, Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, and, last but by no means least, my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, on trade between the two countries. I do not think your Lordships would wish me to elaborate any further at this stage. But I again thank all Members of your Lordships' House for the very friendly and helpful reception you have given to this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.