‘This has been an exceptionally serious debate,’ said Denis Healey on Wednesday 16 April, in contributing to the principal occasion on which the House of Commons gave its mind to the American air strike on Tripoli and Ben Ghazi, two days before, and to the Prime Minister’s decision – with the minimum of Cabinet consultation – to play the part of an ally by sanctioning the use for that purpose of bases in Britain. The best of the debate justified Mr Healey’s words of praise, and those of other participants. A high standard of argument was achieved, there was far less of the usual bombast, posturing and silly uproar, and the essential issue was identified. Little doubt was expressed about the atrocities of Gaddafi, his ‘state-sponsored terrorism’: the debate turned on whether or not the strike would protect the peace of the world, such as it is. At the same time, the debate produced plenty of contributions of a kind which helps, even more than the uproars, to explain the distaste widely felt for the behaviour of MPs – a distaste to which they would do well to give more of their minds than they appear to. And if most of the good discussion, from all sides of the House, took the same negative view of Britain’s part in the raid that was exhibited by two-thirds of the country in a subsequent poll, the House nevertheless voted to support Mrs Thatcher. One way and another, this was an occasion which set the authority and significance of the House of Commons in an equivocal light, and it is worth reviewing Hansard’s record of what was said.
Some might think that, given the way the House voted, Mr Healey’s eloquence was wasted, and his wit misplaced. And it is true that there runs through the record the sense of a male club whose serious debate mattered to it just as much as did the serious subject of that debate, but who were more than ready for the odd joke. No women were heard from. And the bonding that went on had no trouble in backgrounding the rancours of Mr Ron Brown, MP for Edinburgh, Leith, for whom Gaddafi was at least not a drunkard and a womaniser, like a number of his colleagues. All the same, Denis Healey’s speech reads like a Parliamentary masterpiece which at no point fell short of its subject. It stressed the importance of the Palestinian community to the picture created by the raid. ‘The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, after appalling suffering during the past forty years, are the major recruiting ground for international terrorism,’ and ‘Dr Henry Kissinger and many other experts have been right to point out in recent days that in the list of governments supporting international terrorism, Gaddafi comes pretty low down.’ If he disappeared from the scene, ‘terrorism, as a result of the activities of the United States and Britain in the last two days, would continue, not diminish.’ The Foreign Office has been accustomed to argue that counter-terror is likely to be counter-productive, and Healey referred to the language used by the British Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the Israeli bombing raid on Tunisia: ‘arbitrary and disproportionate violence of this sort, even in retaliation’, was in ‘clear breach’ of an obligation stated in Article Two of the United Nations Charter. Healey went on to say that the Ambassador was right: ‘If he were not right, Britain would have been perfectly justified in bombing buildings in Boston or New York and Chicago, where known IRA terrorists have their residences.’ This is a point which could be seen as productive of others. We bomb Gaddafi, who has supplied the IRA, and we kill and injure his children, though we are not much inclined to mention that matter in House of Commons debates: but we do not bomb the strongholds and hiding-places of the IRA. One part of this is racism, an imagined superiority to certain other countries and colours. Another part is loss of sovereignty, and a subordination to the United States, with its state-sponsored terrorism in Central America.
The speech also made telling reference to the reversals into which ministers were forced, on the Monday, by the speed of Mrs Thatcher’s decision: it was a decision she agonised over, as she was to point out, but she had said initially, before prevarication set in, that a refusal of the Americans would, in such circumstances, have been ‘inconceivable’. Healey noted that on the Monday afternoon the Secretary of State for Defence told Radio Clyde: ‘My colleagues and I are very dubious as to whether a military strike is the best way of doing this. It is liable to hit the wrong people. It will create other tensions in the area.’ And he also noted that the Foreign Secretary spent the afternoon at the Hague ‘trying to persuade his European colleagues to draft a document which ended with an appeal for restraint to all concerned’. This was a speech which made it easier than ever to regret the Labour Party’s inability to take Healey as its leader.
An outstanding speech of similar purport came from Sir Ian Gilmour. ‘The chief consideration,’ he said, ‘is the utter futility of opposing terrorism with counter-terror. Israel has proved that repeatedly during the past twenty years and we have always condemned it. Has Palestinian terrorism been eradicated by the countless raids that Israel has carried out on Arab refugee camps?’ On the accuracy of the F111s, which had allowed Mrs Thatcher to speak in humanitarian fashion about the saving of civilian lives: ‘the F111s appear to have hit no less than four or five foreign embassies. It is difficult to believe that the A6s from the American Sixth Fleet would have hit any more.’
Healey and Gilmour – and indeed Edward Heath and James Callaghan – may be thought to have spoken for those two-thirds of poll respondents who decided that Mrs Thatcher had been guilty of a brutal misjudgment: and for the many people who believe that she overrode a rational understanding on the use of counter-terror, together with the opinions of key ministers, in order to keep in with an American government bent on getting even with an enemy. There must be many who believe, too, that she has struck another of her blows at the practice of trying to settle international disputes peacefully, by means of the United Nations. UN mediation may not always have gone very well, but it seems a lot more promising than competitive appeals to international law, followed or preceded by bloodshed.
But the debate, as I have implied, was not all sweetness and light. Perhaps we should be grateful that it was not all Sir Eldon Griffiths, who did, however, manage to come out with: ‘It is wholly wrong to suggest, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr Heath), that the Americans were bombing cities. They were not.’ The ingratiating, bonding Norman St John-Stevas found much to agree with in the Leader of the Opposition’s condemnation of terrorism, while assuring him that ‘if the Prime Minister had been advised by those who know much more about the legality of these matters than I or the Leader of the Opposition that this was a clear breach of international law, she would never have given her support to the United States.’ A further point put by St John-Stevas was accompanied by an allusion to an allusion in Edward Heath’s speech to a rebarbative something said to him at the time of Suez, and ‘at the corner table of the Dining Room’, by Winston Churchill. The point was
that the purpose of British foreign policy is the advancement of British interests. No one feels more than I do the sentiment of affection, regard and kinship for the United States of America. I share this feeling with the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, and with the Prime Minister herself. But sentiment cannot determine foreign policy. It was Palmerston who said – and not, I say to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, to me at a dinner party at Brooks’s – that in foreign affairs friendships rise and fall but interests abide. I was delighted also to hear the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth make that point.
Fortunately, we may be meant to conclude here, British and American interests were to coincide in the launching of a Palmerstonian attack on Libya.
St John-Stevas did not accuse of cowardice those who objected to the attack. Sir Patrick Wall attended to that, referring to Europe’s ‘pussyfootedness’ in combating terrorism, and claiming that ‘if we had refused the United States request, the call for Fortress America would have grown, with very dangerous consequences for Europe.’ There could well be an element of cowardice in the fear of a Fortress America and in current protestations of love for that country. The patriots of the Conservative Party love America. Norman St John-Stevas loves America as much as anybody does or could. Rupert Murdoch’s Times loves America, where Rupert Murdoch is making large sums of money from the sale of his nightmare newspapers, and it applauds America’s raid. Not all of them are able to keep their temper when they detect an absence of their own sentiment of affection. But some of these Americanophile British jingos give the impression of loving America because they fear that the Britain of their patriotic talk is no longer able to stand on its own feet.
Mr Julian Amery, that fire-eater from the days of the Suez strike, should not be left out. He loves to contemplate launching attacks on foreign countries whose systems displease him: ‘It may be said that there were better ways of dealing with Gaddafi. As an old veteran of the Special Operations Executive, I would rather it had been done subversively or covertly, but often a totalitarian police state cannot be broken without first breaking up its infrastructure.’ The dear old destabiliser added: ‘The Sermon on the Mount undoubtedly sets the highest standards of individual behaviour that anyone could require, but it does not apply to those of us in the House who are responsible for the interests of millions of people.’
In the course of the debate James Callaghan called the Falklands conflict ‘an unnecessary war’. That was what this journal called it at the time, when almost all other British papers were in favour of it. The Belgrano was sunk in pursuit of a legitimate grievance, and the sinking was widely construed as, like the Libya strike, an act of self-defence. But neither of these decisions should have been made. And if the consequences of the Falklands engagement are no longer thought by British experts to threaten British interests, if for these experts the Belgrano has now at last been sunk for good, it is certain that the bombing of Libya will reverberate destructively and divisively for a long time to come. Some of those who were content with the Falklands war – such as David Owen – have baulked at the American attack: it is often more convenient to criticise the aggression of foreigners than that of your own nation, and Libya has been an American show, a Reagan spectacular, with the British input amounting to no more than an exercise of servility, a saying yes which made the thing look more respectable. It is to be hoped that criticism of the attack continues in Britain, that the opposition parties can play a convincing part in it and that it helps to bring to an end Mrs Thatcher’s dictatorial and now incompetent regime.