Nicholas Fairbairn – 1978 Speech on Being Excluded from HMS Caledonia

Below is the text of the speech made by Nicholas Fairbairn, the then Conservative MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, in the House of Commons on 6 April 1978.

I am grateful to the Chair for being able to raise a matter which I consider raises important principles for the House and for the people of this country. Although it appears to be a personal issue, I have no personal hurt or feelings about it and it is not my intention to harass the Minister or his Department in any way. I hope that the Minister understands that. I am obliged to him for being present to reply to the debate. It raises grave matters for the House to which we need an answer which is not only truthful but which appears to be truthful and which can stand scrutiny.

I shall give the facts of the matter. In May 1977 I was invited by the president of the mess of HMS “Caledonia” in Rosyth dockyard, which is near to my home, to address a mess dinner in July ​ of that year. On 23rd June I was informed that that dinner had been cancelled. I accepted that explanation but I wrote in the following terms to the president of the mess.

“Being an advocate and an episcopalian and a Scot I have a naturally suspicious mind and I would like to be assured that there was a genuine reason for the cancellation of that dinner and that somewhere along the line I was not regarded as persona non grata personally or politically. The effect of a new date of course would confound my suspicions.”

I was assured that that was true. Thereafter I discovered that the dinner had been held and that another person had been asked to speak at it. Therefore, I felt it right to raise the matter with the Minister.

On 7th December 1977 I wrote a letter which inter alia included the following remarks:

“This refusal caused gross embarrassment to my host and to the naval commanders of the base including C-in-C Northern Command and the Admiral in Scotland who were bidden by your Department to silence. My host was required to explain to me that dinner had been cancelled, which it had not. Will you please kindly explain to me for what reason I was held to be politically unacceptable to address wardroom dinner and also inform me on whose instructions the letter was written to the Captain informing me that the invitation to me was to be rescinded?”

The letter is on file.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)


Mr. Fairbairn

On 30th January I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State. What I am about to say is important. The Minister was ill. He had a most unfortunate illness, as we all have from time to time. For a period he was ill, but he graciously undertook his duties, and I pay tribute to that fact. I do not therefore wish to prey on the question of the delay.

Nevertheless, on 30th January I received a detailed letter signed by the Minister which read inter alia:

“As you know Ministers vet all invitations for Members of both Houses of Parliament to visit defence establishments for whatever purpose, and we thus have a good idea of those who have a genuine interest in defence matters. In particular I make it my personal concern to ensure that those Members invited to ‘social functions’ do indeed have a sustained interest in defence and have demonstrated such. My inquiries lead me to believe you have not paid any visits to HM ships or establishments, or to any Army or Royal Air Force establishment since your election to Parliament.

Furthermore, I do not recall your ​ attendance at the two Navy debates I have fielded as Navy Minister, or for that matter any of the defence debates when I have been in attendance. Finally I arranged, with attendant publicity, for the Royal Navy presentation team to visit the House of Commons on 30th December 1977. As I had received your letter I made a particular point to check on your attendance. Unless you slipped in and out during the presentation while the room was in darkness I did not notice your presence among the 30 or 40 Members who were there. When I am confident that an hon. Member has demonstrated a genuine interest in defence matters I may feel much better disposed to encourage social visits.”

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is that really true?

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

What arrogance!

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Mr. Fairbairn

None of the allegations in that letter was accurate or true. But, forgiving that, what I find unacceptable is that that was not a genuine, although much researched and time consuming, answer. In other words, it was an utterly false and untrue explanation of why I had been excluded from that dinner.

I had the courtesy of meeting the Minister and his superior, the Secretary of State. Following that I received a letter from the right hon. Gentleman himself, in which he said that

“the Under-Secretary of State for the Navy had declined to issue an invitation as being outside the guidelines for visits by Members.”

It went on:

“He asks me to confirm in writing what he has already told you personally “—

which the Minister had the courtesy to do—

“that he completely withdraws the explanation offered in his letter and any suggestion of a lack of genuine interest in defence matters on your part, and that it was quite erroneous to suggest that such was the reason for not approving your visit.”

In other words, the explanation given, which took six or seven weeks to contrive and which took eight paragraphs to express, was a deliberate falsehood. That is something that causes me concern—

Mr. Gow

And the country.

Mr. Fairbairn

As a result I wrote to the Prime Minister, and it was because of that that I had the meeting which resulted in a letter. My right hon. Friend ​ the Member for Amersham and Chesham (Sir I. Gilmour) wrote thereafter to the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend has asked me to express his regret for his absence tonight owing to public duty abroad. I regret that my right hon. Friend is not present.

But my right hon. Friend asked the Secretary of State, and the answer that we now have is still that I fell without a guideline on procedure. But if I fell without a guideline on procedure, I think that the House of Commons has a right to know upon what basis a Minister of the Crown is entitled to say that a Member of the House of Commons can be excluded from a visit to a defence establishment or any other establishment on the basis of his interest or his disinterest. If there are guidelines, we are entitled to know what they are. What was the circumstances in which I fell without them?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Is my hon. and learned Friend a security risk?

Mr. Fairbairn

The Minister said in his letter that I was not a security risk.

What are the guidelines which I or any other Member, or any Cabinet Minister or Shadow Cabinet Minister, fall without? Also, if so reasonable, so determinable, so explicable, so obvious and so agreed an explanation was the explanation, why did the Navy have to be told to tell a lie to me? If the Navy was not told to tell a lie to me, as the Navy did tell a lie to me, why did the Navy feel it to be its duty to tell a lie to me?

I accept the Minister’s word in his letter that the Navy was not required to tell a lie to me. Indeed, I accept the Minister’s word as often as he changes it. But it is important to know why the duty was put upon the Navy to deny it, and why the Minister thought it necessary, if there was so innocent an explanation as guidelines, that he should contrive over seven weeks a letter in eight paragraphs which gave an explanation which he is required to withdraw as totally false.

Others might say that it was a lie. I cannot say that it is a lie. All that I can say is that I cannot conceive an explanation as to why the Navy was required to give one explanation, the Minister gave another, and his superior has required him to withdraw it and give a third.

The House of Commons is being told that Members of it, unlike members of the public, cannot visit defence establishments if they fall outside the guidelines on procedure.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Mr. Fairbairn

Unpublished. Those are guidelines and procedures about which no one knows.

Unless the Government wish to have the words “tyrant” and “truant”—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Mr. Fairbairn

—and “dictator”—put upon their coat tails tonight, they must give us an explanation, and a true explanation, not only as to why I was banned and was given false explanations but as to who else will be and has hitherto been banned.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I think that we have here a case of great importance, because the Government are clearly in a complete and utter muddle over the guidelines that they may or may not have.

I should like to give evidence to the House of a position that has gravely affected me. I received an invitation to attend a weekend reserve officers’ course to address the officers and was told that I would not be allowed to do this. I then took the matter further with the Secretary of State, who told me that had they offered to give me dinner I could have attended happily.

It appears that, on the one hand, I would have been allowed to address those officers on a full stomach, and, on the other hand, if perhaps my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) had gone on an empty stomach, he might have been allowed to address the officers of HMS “Caledonia”.
Therefore we have a great muddle here. The Government do not know which way they are going. We look to the Minister to clarify the situation tonight.