Orders of the Day — Defence.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 10th March 1936.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg , Altrincham

Let us take it at that. The right hon. Gentleman assumed that the negotiations with Germany and the other Powers, and more particularly with the signatories of the Locarno Treaties, had enabled us to arrive at an arrangement by which 25 years of peace is guaranteed. I have two observations to make as to the speech which he made, if that is what he wishes to secure. We shall not secure that objective without the co-operation and the assistance of France. If that is what we want to get, it is a mistake to begin by denouncing France. We are all entitled to our own views about French policy in the last 15 or 20 years, but I cannot, on this subject, forget that the first defaulter in the whole peace system was the United States. From the moment that the United States refused to come into the League and went out of the peace system it lost a balance which was intended from the very start, and denied security to France. With the absence of the United States went also our guarantee and that entitled France to take a very different course from that which she had promised on the assumption that all nations had carried out their undertakings under the Treaty of Versailles and the Covenant of the League. Let us never forget the fact when we talk of defaulting on Treaties, that France was not the first.

In any case, it is not much use, whatever view we take about it, indulging in recrimination. That will not help us at the present time. We have to deal with facts at the present moment, and very grave facts they are. What are they? Germany is re-armed, and, when people in this country and in other parts of Europe — Germany's neighbours — are asked to rely upon a guarantee of friendship from the German Government, it is essential to bear in mind one fact. Dictatorships always reach a dilemma in their affairs. There is nothing new about that. The reason why Signor Mussolini went into Abyssinia was not, in my opinion, any African argument; it was an internal argument. The reason why Herr Hitler has walked into the Rhineland is not that he thought that that was the best way of dealing with the European situation or the real needs of Germany; it was internal necessity—divisions in his own country and the difficulties that he had to face. Let us remember that these things recur. Dictatorships are going to be faced by these difficulties, because of the system which they impose upon peoples, whether we make treaties of friendship with them or not, and, therefore, do not let us be too hasty in counting upon their word—a word which they have found it exceed- ingly easy in the past to break. That being the dilemma by which dictatorships are invariably faced, we have to look to our friends in Europe to guarantee the peace of Europe while we are trying to work to those wider economic understandings which I believe to be ultimately essential to the maintenance of peace. We have to gain time in Europe, and we can only gain that time by what has been frequently called in this Debate collective or pooled security.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs referred to that. He said, "After all, what is the danger from Germany? Is not Germany ringed about by peoples who may oppose her? Cannot we, therefore, count on our friends? "I must say that the latter part of his speech does not help us to count on our friends; it is an encouragement to dictators to pursue violent courses, and it is a suggestion to those who might be friends with us that they cannot rely upon us. From that point of view, I deeply regret what he said. I agree with him, nevertheless, in believing that in all quarters of the House there is agreement that this country is not going to secure peace by its own armaments, but that it is only through a system of pooled security that it is going to get peace and any guarantee against a war which would mean economic distress on a terrible scale. In this country we have to decide how we are to get this pooled security to which everybody has paid tribute in this Debate. The right hon. Gentleman just now said "lip service," but I do not think that that is true; I think we are all absolutely whole-hearted in wishing to secure a system of pooled security. The only question is, how are we to secure it?

I suggest that there is no hope of securing an adequate system of pooled security in Europe at the present time unless we are prepared to do our share, unless we put into the pool resources equal to our great command of manufacturing power and of every other form of power in the world. How can we expect Powers whose financial resources are much less than ours, and whose resources even in population are much less than ours, to do more than we do and think we are sincere in talking of a system of pooled security? The reality of a system of security of that kind—and the peace of Europe may, and I believe will, depend on making it a reality in the next few weeks—turns entirely on the contribution which this country is prepared to make; and I am glad, therefore, that the White Paper definitely declares that this system of collective security remains the central purpose and object of our Government. My only regret, and it is upon this that I should like to address a question to the Government, is that the White Paper does not indicate exactly what contribution we are prepared to make to this system of pooled security. I think that that is its gravest omission, and I hope it will be repaired before long. Unless it is repaired, I do not believe that we can count on exercising an adequate influence in Europe in the near future.

We have to think of two things. Like a boxer, I think our policy should have two arms, a left and a right; and assuming, as boxers do, that you lead with your left, I think we should be prepared with and have ready an immediate and effective contribution to joint action in Europe against any potential aggressor. I believe that the Government have every intention to take action of that kind; my only criticism of the White Paper itself is that it is not clear as to what that action is to be, and therefore I hope that, if not in this Debate, at any rate before long, we shall be told exactly what contribution this country is prepared to make to pooled security in Europe. I have spoken of the boxer's left; there must also be the boxer's right, and the function of the boxer's right is to protect the food and oil supplies upon which the life of this country, and, indeed, the movement of its forces, depend. Without that, our action in a system of pooled security would be absolutely paralysed. How are we to make this contribution? It is on that point that I would beg the Government as soon as possible to give a clear answer to the House. How are we to make this contribution to pooled security in Europe at the present time? I believe that the whole progress of this policy of rearmament in the country would be made very much easier if people understood exactly what contribution we are expected to make in this system of pooled security about which there is so much talk. Let us try to get that absolutely clear.

There is one essential factor to be remembered in talking about a contribution to pooled security at the present time, and that is the time factor. Military minds in Europe are thinking now only of rapid action and quick decision. I have not met any people, soldiers or otherwise, who are thinking of protracted war; everything is being aimed, everything is being designed, for the quick decision, and, of course, the possibility of that has been brought nearer and nearer by the increasing pre-eminence of the air arm. Decisions will be quick—so quick that, where we used to be able to think in months, and even in years, we have now to think in weeks, and even in days. That I believe to be the condition that we have to realise as an essential condition of effective intervention in Europe at the present time. How can it be achieved? Are we going to rely on the Navy to achieve it? Clearly, the Navy is an essential element in protecting our supplies, but I do not see how the Navy can contribute in any way to a decision in Europe. For offensive action, quite apart from defensive action, the Navy in Europe must rely upon the blockade, and the blockade is a very slowly developing process, which does not become effective until after a very considerable number of months, even if you have the complete support of a very large number of other Powers. I do not think, therefore, that we can look to the Navy to make possible our contribution to a system of pooled security in Europe at the present time.

Are we then to look to the Army? Here, I believe, is one of the vital decisions with which the Government are faced. Though I spent some years in that service, I should regret a decision of that kind. I do not sufficiently know the facts and I can only ask questions, which I hope the Government will be able to answer before very long. They are not answered in the White Paper. I should regret a decision to intervene by land in Europe, because I am convinced that it is dangerous and wrong for this country ever again to become involved in mass warfare on the Continent of Europe. If it could be made plain that that was not our intention, I believe again the course of the Government's programme in the country would be made much easier. It was against our traditions and against our instinct that we were forced, by a process of suction as it were, in 1914 into a war of position on the Continent, and I very much hope that we shall not take that kind of risk again. But, quite apart from that, and supposing that the only effective contribution that we can make to collective security is through the Army, we should have to get over old instincts of that kind.

What I would ask is this: Is it possible, if you decide that this country is to contribute to pooled security through an expeditionary force, to combine that with the Army system that we have had ever since the Cardwell system was introduced? I ask the question. I do not know the answer, though I very much doubt whether a highly trained Army, capable of moving at a few hours notice, with all its reserves behind it, capable of operating in close as well as open country, can be produced from what is left to us by the old Cardwell or linked battalion system. I believe that if we are going to rely on an expeditionary force, we have got to have some separate system which produces this highly specialised mechanised force ready for action at a few hours notice and with all its reserves behind it, without which it would be of no use.

If we have to face that necessity let us face it, but, remember, it is going to be a tremendous strain upon our industry and upon our need for men. At present on the existing system the Army is very short of men. I understand that the Regular Army is still 5,000 short and the Territorial Army is much shorter still. I only ask these questions. I have no final opinion on the matter, because I have not the means of forming a, judgment, but I am doubtful whether, apart from the question whether we form a special expeditionary force or not, we can find the men we want for our garrison system and our territorial system on the existing basis of enlistment. At any rate, I am sure it requires to be investigated thoroughly in view of the deficiencies that exist.

But let us go further. Let us suppose that it has been decided that we should intervene in this way. Let us suppose that we have transformed our Army system so that we can intervene and that we have a force ready of five or six divisions—it would be useless to have less. What then? Could we transport and supply them in modern conditions? Again, I do not know, but the answer ought to be given. We ought to know whether it is intended that we are to intervene in Europe at any time in this way. The White Paper uses a vague phrase. It says that the last function or duty of the Army is in time of emergency or war to provide a properly equipped force ready to proceed overseas wherever it may be wanted. There is the question where that Army can be taken, and whether it can be supplied under modern conditions of air and submarine attack. The conditions are quite different from those of 1914. Quite apart from the question of recruitment and the other questions of principle that I have raised, there ought to be a clear decision taken in the near future whether there is any possibility of transporting and supplying them within the very short period of time within which we should require to operate an expeditionary force of this kind. I think we should be told whether the Navy and the Air Force could guarantee the movement of a force of that kind.

Then there is a final question. Clearly, if we are to undertake reorganisation of the Army, it will not be a matter of months. It will be a matter of years. You cannot create an expeditionary force of that kind in a short time. It means special training and special equipment in the way particularly of mechanism for transport for troops. I do not prejudge these questions; I merely ask them. We should make up our minds ourselves and we should make it clear to the other members of the League, and particularly to the signatories of the Locarno Treaty, whether we are prepared to make our contribution to pooled security with an expeditionary force, on the ground, or on wings. I very much hope that some clear decision of that kind will be arrived at before very long.

There is another essential. I do not propose to go into the very difficult question of co-operation between the Navy and the Air Force in the protection of our food and oil supplies. Of course, the Navy must play a predominant role, but there is a sentence in the White Paper which fails to answer the question that many of us have been asking about the protection of our food and oil supplies. The White Paper speaks of the overwhelming importance of the Navy in preserving our sea communications and ensuring the supplies of sea-borne food and raw materials on which our existence depends. Clearly the Navy must always play its historic role in defending our food and oil supplies. But that role no longer belongs to the Navy alone. As our merchant ships converge from the South and West upon these islands they must become more exposed to attack from the air, and that attack increases in range every year with the increase in the range and carrying power of aircraft and, while that danger grows with every mile by which they approach our shores, it is, of course, greatest in the home ports. We have to look to the Government to give us some assurance that a scheme of cooperation definitely defining the duty of each has been worked out between the Navy and the Air Force. I am convinced that the problem is being studied, but there is no assurance of that kind in the White Paper, and that is why I raise the question. I should like to add my support, for what it may be worth, to the plea made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping and the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs for a great increase of destroyers. That seems to be by far the greatest naval need. I do not know how the treaty situation affects that, but I believe that we are free from the treaty at the end of this year, and I hope that arrangements will be made accordingly to increase a form of craft which can be rapidly produced and cannot be regarded as aggressive.

Considering the difficulty of these questions which have to be answered, considering the great importance of coming to an early decision on exactly what contribution we propose to make to the pooled system of security of Europe, I find myself driven to certain conclusions. They are much the same conclusions as those which other right hon. and hon. Members have arrived. In the first place I was glad to notice a phrase on that subject which fell from the Prime Minister yesterday. I am quite convinced that this task, taking the defence side and the industrial side as parts of one task, is beyond any one man. No man born of woman can do both of these things at the same time, and I believe that the duty of co-ordination in the near future will have to be entrusted to one Minister and the industrial problem to another. The difficulty is great on both sides, and the difficulty of the industrial side has been stressed by other speakers. That is appreciated by the Government, as the White Paper shows. I hope, therefore, that the Government will consider the advisability of appointing a Minister to deal with the co-ordination of our defence plans and another who will set up something in the nature of a nucleus Ministry of Munitions. That is the best way of dealing with this double problem.

There is another point on which I hesitate to express a view, and yet feel rather strongly. It is this: I rather doubt whether any Minister entrusted with the work of co-ordination at the present time can successfully achieve it without some greater share of executive authority than the White Paper appears to give him. It is an exceedingly delicate and difficult question, but when the White Paper speaks of his duties it uses the following phrase: The co-ordination of executive action. I do not know how anybody is to coordinate executive action without executive authority of his own. If that attempt is made, I think that it will be only too easy for that Minister to be offering advice which no one is prepared to take. He will flit from Department to Department, and, like the poet Shelley, end his time beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. The responsibility of the heads of the separate Service Departments must remain, and where they feel that their responsibility has been in any way challenged by the co-ordinator's decision or his work, they will have their appeal to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. But I do not see how without executive authority a co-ordinating Minister is to co-ordinate executive work.

I would end with an appeal to the Government. The Prime Minister has led us through two great crises, the General Strike of 1926, and, with the assistance of the Lord President of the Council, the financial crisis of 1931. The Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1931 has built up our financial resources so that, as the Prime Minister rightly said yesterday, there is no other Power which can successfully challenge us in the matter of financial strength and power. What is needed is that we should hasten our plan of action, and particularly the contribution we are to make to the system of security in Europe. That is not made plain in the White Paper. I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer cannot possibly deal with a point of that kind tonight, but I hope that he will be able to say that the Government will by Whitsuntide give some definite indication to the House of the plans by which it intends to play its part in a system of pooled security. I believe that that would help very much in Europe at the present time.