Alec Douglas-Home – 1974 Speech on Foreign Affairs

Below is the text of the speech made by Alec Douglas-Home, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 19 March 1974.

My first words must be of cordial congratulation to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs as he assumes his office. We have both been the shadow, but the substance is very different. Mr. Harold Macmillan used to see the Foreign Office as a killer. Perhap I can do something to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that.

The weighty decisions that the right hon. Gentleman will have to take will be relieved only by their variety and the help of those supremely well-qualified persons ​ who are always at call and who make up the Diplomatic Service.
We debate foreign affairs sometimes in general and sometimes on more particular matters. On this matter we do not seek confrontation across the Floor of the House. I say that with, I hope, suitable gravity after yesterday’s proceedings. We cannot eliminate emotion from matters which in the end can involve peace and war, but I trust that the highest degree of consensus in the House will be our aim.

Any wide-ranging debate is apt to look like a Cook’s tour. Therefore, I shall follow the right hon. Gentleman in being selective. My starting point will be roughly the same but my emphasis rather different in the order in which I put the problems facing this country and the world.

Since the last war, foreign affairs in the countries of the northern hemisphere have been frozen into a pattern which, at worst, has been one of active confrontation, and, at best, one of rather sterile mobility. At very heavy cost, NATO has been able to provide security. The resolution and the will has been there to protect our way of life, and it has been worth while. We have lost nothing to the Communist world. But the question that nags and so far goes unanswered is, how do we reconcile security with détente? The right hon. Gentleman just touched on this matter. I should like to take it a little further.

However passionate our desire for peace—of all things, that is the situation in which this country flourishes—we cannot allow ourselves to be diverted by the words of détente alone and we must look at the deeds.

When we look at the deeds, the shortfall from the peace which we would desire is still very real. The hard fact of life is that, despite the most generous policy of Ostpolitik pursued by the Federal Republic of Germany, 20 years after the disarmament conference has been sitting in practically continuous session there have been no reductions in Soviet forces on Germany’s eastern frontier. I will not elaborate on that at the moment, because the right hon. Gentleman knows the facts. Despite the fact that there are now 45 Soviet divisions facing the Chinese on the Chinese frontier, those facing NATO have in no way decreased. On the contrary, their numbers are up, their equipment is regularly renewed, and they stand in a constant state of readiness. There are on that front far more men, machines and guns than are necessary for a defensive shield.

I recall these facts of life to the House not to dramatise the situation, but to point out that, unless we face the realities, we are likely to get the answers wrong.

I was glad to read in the Gracious Speech that NATO has the full support of the Government and that they feel that, as well as being a defensive alliance, it should be regarded as an instrument of peace. That is right.

I hope that the words mean what they say, for we shall not arrive at that peace unless at all times NATO is equipped with the strength necessary to deter any military adventure. I was, therefore, relieved to read the words on defence in the Queen’s Speech, which are different from those used in the Labour Party’s conference resolution and in its election manifesto. If cuts were to be made in our expenditure, reckoning in hundreds of millions of pounds, on our defence forces and weaponry, it is certain—the right hon. Gentleman will find this when he studies the figures—that we could no longer parade as a reliable ally in NATO.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that our proportion of GNP devoted to defence is higher than that of any of our Western European allies, with the single exception of Portugal, which is deeply involved in its African war? Secondly, I regret as much as the right hon. Gentleman the size of the Soviet Navy and Armed Forces, but may I ask why he always conveniently forgets the equal, if not greater, size of the United States Navy and Armed Forces?

Mr. Cormack

On whose side is the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Allaun

I am on neither side. I am for peace.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

At least in that I am with the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly for peace.

​The hon. Gentleman referred to the percentage of our GNP. When his right hon. Friend examines the figures, I think that he will come to the conclusion that it is not us who ought to move down to the percentage of the others but that the others ought to move up to our percentage. The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about these matters. He must recognise how thin on the ground are the NATO forces relative to those of the Warsaw Pact, so we cannot reduce our strength very far. We should run a real risk of triggering off a process of defence reductions among the European members of the Alliance just when in the last few years Europe has begun to establish a more equitable sharing of the burden with the United States. I feel sure that when the right hon. Gentleman discovers how relatively thin on the ground are the NATO forces—we must include the formidable Soviet Navy—he will conclude that, rather than us go down in our expenditure, the others ought to come up in their expenditure.

Mr. Callaghan

How does the right hon. Gentleman square those sentiments with the cut of £178 million in defence expenditure that the Chancellor in the former administration announced just before Christmas?

Sir A. Douglas-Home

I do not say that defence should not take its share in any cuts that have to be made, but cuts anywhere near those proposed in the resolution which was passed at the Labour Party Conference, or even the hundreds of millions of pounds mentioned in the manifesto, would, I am confident, do grave damage to our NATO stance.

There is one opening which the right hon. Gentleman may be able to exploit. When I was in Moscow at the end of last year the Russians agreed to the principle of undiminished security. That principle is vital in the proper sense of the word. But it is not translated into practice by unilateral disarmament, and progress, if it comes through disarmament, must come through disarmament which is mutual and balanced. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will take time to impress upon his colleagues the reality of the military facts and to consult our allies before authorising savage cuts in defence expenditure. We can and we should pursue disarmament, but it must be mutual and balanced.

​There is available, apart from the disarmament conference of which the right hon. Gentleman spoke, one instrument through which, if the Soviet Union and its allies will plan, one could start truly fruitful co-operation between the USSR and Eastern Europe and the West. That is the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. At the first of these discussions last July, with NATO and Community agreement and approval, I put forward proposals to develop contacts between the peoples of East and West Europe and for the better exchange of ideas which would lead to closer understanding. I admit that they were modest. They concerned the ability of people to marry and live in the country of their choice. They concerned facilities for divided families to reunite. They concerned wider exchanges of information through newspapers, magazines and television programmes, jointly agreed and controlled. The reception for that idea was polite, but all such ideas have so far fallen on stoney ground.

I renewed them lately in Moscow, with the same negative result, and it is the failure to make progress on this wavelength of contact between people that makes it so difficult to build up that confidence between East and West which is a prerequisite of successful mutual and balanced force reductions. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will persevere, but somehow we must face the fact that the Russians have to be persuaded that the ordinary and compelling habits of interdependence which all of us have to practise are not aimed at interference with their internal affairs. I do not know whether it can be done.

Certain recent events which are familiar to every hon. Member are rather discouraging and disheartening, and there is a long legacy of suspicion in Russia towards the outside world. But I hope that the gulf between ethical and social standards is not such that the East and the West cannot meet except at the extremities of armed neutrality at best and confrontation at worst. If there can be a real advance here, nothing will do more to restore confidence to a very badly shaken world.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Those of us who think the defence of this country is still the number one priority are disturbed to hear an exchange ​ across the House which gives the impression that because the last Government reduced defence expenditure by £178 million, the new Government are entitled to reduce it by the same amount, or even more. If the last Government cut expenditure by that amount for strong economic reasons, there is good reason to believe that they reduced it to a point beyond which it should not go and that there should not be a competition to see who can go furthest.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

As I have said, defence expenditure is a matter of practical politics and we cannot escape from that.

I believe that we are approaching the point among our NATO allies where the line on the frontier of West Germany is almost too thin and we have to watch that with the greatest care, because if we do not great damage could be done. Meanwhile, while the ways of reconciliation are tested we have no option but to pursue peace making and reconciliation from a basis of strength and through NATO.

The Foreign Secretary devoted some time to various aspects of the affairs of the EEC. That is another organisation designed to contribute to the economic strength and political cohesion of Western Europe, and therefore peace. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Community should not be antagonistic but complementary to the United States. That is essential. Of course, it is not easy to build a new Community with a recognisable economic and political identity without getting in somebody’s way or with others thinking that the intention is to get in their way. But it is possible to build a Community which is complementary to the United States, and I have no doubt from what the right hon. Gentleman said today that his authority will be exerted in the interests of harmonious European-United States relations. An effort of understanding is necessary from both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the House will allow me a short analysis which might conceivably be helpful to clarify some of the factors which I think led to the recent discontent and irritations and which have tended to overshadow the basic identity of interest between Europe and the United States. During 1972 some American officials and ​ politicians evolved a theory of relations with Europe labelled in their picturesque vocabulary, the ball of wax principle. Put in its crudest form—and this was not uncommon—it meant that unless Europe conformed to American economic ideas, the United States would not feel obliged to pay such attention to Europe’s defence.

Making every allowance for the fact that at the time America’s balance of payments was weak, that approach was psychologically and philosophically wrong. Of course there is a link between economics and defence, but of course, too, essentially the defence of Europe, of the Atlantic Ocean and therefore of the United States is indivisible. I hope therefore that no such mistake will come again from that side of the Atlantic.

The ball of wax has now happily become unstuck. Some aftermath lingers which the Foreign Secretary will have to square up, and that can be done with good communications. By that I mean anticipating the possible differences which might arise between the United States and Europe and then dealing with them quietly with diplomatic methods before they burst out on to the public gaze. That must be right.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Some of us might go along with what the right hon. Gentleman said on the defence of the Atlantic. What worries many of us is the extension of Anglo-American cooperation into the Indian Ocean, the increasing number of naval bases such as Diego Garcia, and the increasing commitment. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he apparently agreed to the extension of these bases in the British Indian Ocean territories?

Sir A. Douglas-Home

The hon. Member is referring to what is mainly a communications centre. I shall explain one thing to the hon. Member about my own view on the matter. It is dangerous in an ocean such as the Indian Ocean for there to be a monopoly of one navy, and there was rapidly developing a monopoly of the Russian Naval Fleet.

If I may turn back to the irritations felt between Europe and the United States, I believe it is also true that while the President of the United States always supported the concept of a Europe which would be able to speak with one voice, it was not recognised in America that what ​ was said might occasionally reveal a difference of approach to the matter in hand.

Curiously enough, the economic approach to the review of the GATT was not one of these causes of difference. It was not, I think, a cause of difference because the Community took immense trouble to try to anticipate and meet the fears of the United States. It did this also in relation to possible trading relations with the African countries about which the Americans felt very strongly in relation to compulsory reverse preferences. These difficulties were removed, and I think that the Foreign Secretary will find that the paper produced by Europe on approaches to GATT comes very close to the American point of view. Again, good communications were responsible for such success as there was in that case.

The Middle East presented, and presents, a more difficult problem. For many generations Britain and Europe have naturally been involved in that area, and they had much first-hand experience. Until lately, the United States has been reluctant to accept that if there were to be a future for the State of Israel, a fresh pattern of security would need to be evolved which did not involve occupation of Arab territories, because that would no longer serve. I expressed that point of view as long ago as 1970, but one must recognise that America was, America is, the only country which can deliver a peace in the Middle East on those lines, although others of us may be able to guarantee it.

Doctor Kissinger is now making the most imaginative and strenuous efforts. I associate myself with everything that the right hon. Gentleman said about that. Dr. Kissinger deserves our full support in this area, where he is doing such a good job. It is good news that the oil embargo on the United States has been lifted and good news, too, incidentally, that the British and Americans are to begin to reopen the Suez Canal.

Still, it is essential that there should be a follow up of the Washington conference on oil in a real attempt to find an identity of interest, which I think began to emerge there, between the producer and the consumer countries in the medium and longer term. No doubt that ​ conference will be followed up and there will be another stage.

More generally, in NATO and the Community, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not approach either in a state of depression. He will find already drafted declarations which interpret favourably the complementary relations between the Community and the United States and which redefine in terms of intimate collaboration the spirit and purpose of the Atlantic alliance. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will seek an occasion when those declarations may be published. Perhaps the 25th anniversary of NATO in April might be an appropriate time. Anyway, no doubt he will consider that matter.

I recall a remark of the right hon. Gentleman in 1967, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he said,

“I do not know of any economic or political problems in this world which would be easier to resolve if Britain is outside rather than inside the Community.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th May 1967; Vol. 746, c. 1323.]

I think that that was right then and it is right now. Our economic performance is surely not so good that we can neglect a free trade area of that size—[An HON. MEMBER: “It is not.”]—it will be a free trade area in a very few years—in which, provided we are competitive, we should derive rich industrial and commercial dividends which will repay the price of membership.

This is not an exaggeration. A recent poll that the right hon. Gentleman may have seen after our first year of membership showed that 84 per cent. of the British firms expected long-term benefits, 78 per cent. said that they would be harmed should Britain withdraw, four out of ten showed that profits had risen for 1973 as a direct result of membership. In the capital goods sector, 86 per cent. considered that membership would help them and in the consumer sector 85 per cent.

The lesson of this century, in which two world wars started in Western Europe, is surely that we should exchange rivalry for partnership. I will leave my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) to study what the right hon. Gentleman said today about reorganisation inside the Community. I keep an open mind on the form of any ​ modifications which may be possible or desirable.

One thing that I do know—the right hon. Gentleman gave us a warning about this—is that although we all want cheaper food, we also want more production from our own fields. If he were to come to my constituency now, he would find knowledgeable stockmen arguing that the costs of production in Britain justify Common Market prices now, and that production will not come from our farms without this incentive. Therefore, we may have to look at the CAP with a slightly different, or at any rate an open, mind. My right hon. and learned Friend will make more detailed comments.

Mr. Marten

I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend quote that opinion poll, which was on a very limited front. Now that we are quoting opinion polls, did he see the one at the end of January, a very large one, which asked the question of the British people, “Do you think that it was a good thing or a bad thing that we joined the Community?”? Only 12 per cent. thought that it was a good thing that we had joined.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

Perhaps the people who gave that answer had not read the poll that I am quoting.

But I do not think that I misrepresent the right hon. Gentleman if I conclude that he means to try to modify some of the Community policies from within the Commission and the Council. That is not exactly the impression that his leader conveyed, but his words are none the worse for that. This is an improvement. Of course one should negotiate or adapt —whatever word one uses—policies from within the European Council. There is no other way, unless one is prepared to leave the Community.

At any rate, I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will keep his eyes on what I call the strategic gains which are available to us, some of which I have mentioned in the economic field, and also, of course, the huge strategic gain on which he put his finger—the most important event that has happened in my lifetime since the war—the rapprochement between France and Germany. French-German rapprochement is the basis for the whole European Community. So I hope that he will keep ​ his eyes on the great strategic gains which seem to me possible in this adventure.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the real problem in Europe today is not enmity between members of the Common Market but enmity between Western and Eastern Europe and that the Common Market has exacerbated that enmity?

Sir A. Douglas-Home

I do not think that that is true. The Foreign Secretary is to meet representatives from Eastern Europe. I have seen quite a number of them and I know that they are not antagonistic to the Community. In fact, they expect to do a great deal of business with it.

I want to turn to the complex problems of the Middle East. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Resolution 242 offers the best opportunity for a negotiated peace. That is common ground. It has, of course, its ambiguity, on which so far a settlement has foundered, but one can take comfort from one development and encouragement—the military withdrawal and the pattern on which it is proceeding. Israel and her neighbour Egypt have agreed that their forces should withdraw out of artillery range of each other and that a United Nations force should patrol in between.

If that pattern can be carried forward in Sinai and further in the Golan Heights, which is the most important of all the frontiers for Israel, then there will be a chance of a peace which has eluded this area for so long. But the right pattern is there if it can be extended and taken a good deal further. However, some way must be found to give the State of Israel security other than by the occupation of Arab territories. It may be, as I hope, that Dr. Kissinger will be able to make the peace, and it may be that Europe will be able to help with guarantees. There is certainly a mutual interest in the United States and the Soviet Union in avoiding a clash, but that is not enough. I agree that the enterprising Dr. Kissinger has been extraordinary, and his sense of urgency is right.

Finally—and I am sorry to say this —the Socialist Government seem to have a unique capacity for alienating friends. It is not as though there were any principle that I can see in their moral judgments. The Russians offend just as gravely ​ against the code of social ethics as the countries which incur the right hon. Gentleman’s displeasure. There are countries in Africa and Asia where people have been imprisoned without trial for years. These gestures are political. I do not believe they do any good, and they are not designed to help British interests, particularly that of our security. I hope the right lion. Gentleman will realise that Britain’s future lies in making friends and not shedding them.

On any reckoning of the last few years, Britain has made the most of the diplomatic opportunities which were open to a Power of medium size. Some people have a nostalgia for past power. Others exaggerate what we can now achieve. But if we can pursue Britain’s own interests, at the same time reconciling them every time, if we can, with the needs of interdependence, then we shall serve the cause of greater stability and peace for which the right hon. Gentleman asked.