Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1947.

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Photo of Mr Oliver Lyttelton Mr Oliver Lyttelton , Aldershot 12:00 am, 20th March 1947

Some two or three days' study of the White Paper would, I think, dilute the pure English stream of even a professor of literature, let alone my own. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Blackpool gave some interesting figures, which I do not think have been controverted, showing that the strength of the fighting men in the Army, in relation to the total strength has radically altered. He said that, before the war, there was one infantry battalion in the Army to every 1,500 men, and that the proportions are now one infantry battalion to 5,373 men. That is a very striking change, and an explanation is clearly due to us. I think that to a soldier it will seem simpler than to a layman, and I readily concede that the increased power and complicated nature of modern weapons, and the increased fire power of the infantry have a lot to do with it. Nevertheless, the changeover from one battalion of infantry to 1,500 men in prewar days, to one battalion to 5,373 men in the postwar Army, is sufficiently striking to deserve of an explanation.

There is always the great danger of over doing the rearward Services at the expense of the fighting man. During the whole of the war, the right hon. Gentleman and I were kept, as were other Ministers, under continuous pressure by the Prime Minister, the present Leader of the Opposition, on the subject of teeth and tail. It is not possible to keep the teeth and the tail in their proper relations by an occasional memorandum or by a quarterly review, or by looking at the subject now and again. It can only be done by a continuous and rather niggardly and parsimonious eye being turned every day upon this matter.

In the Royal Air Force, the percentage of men actually fighting in the air must, necessarily, be extremely small, in relation to the whole Force. It always has been, and it would not be far from the truth to say that, in the last war, never more than 5 per cent. of the Royal Air Force were fighting men in the strict sense of the word, although in the remaining 95 per cent. were included the air crews and pilots in training. I believe that those proportions are not very far out. I have the impression that this vigilance in achieving the size of the rearward Services is not being maintained now. The right hon. Gentleman has only been in his present office for quite a short time, and I ask him to take a leaf out of the book of the Leader of the Opposition and learn the technique of continually pressing that the rearward Services should be maintained on a ratio which can be defensible by argument and common sense.

I now come to the third point—the distribution of Forces. I think I must tread carefully on matters of Order when I refer to paragraph 31 of the White Paper, because the Service Estimates have been debated and passed. But I think I can make my points by couching them in terms of the future. We shall certainly require from the Minister of Defence much more information than he has yet vouchsafed, about the allocation of resources between the three Services. Great changes have passed across the face of war, and the effect of air power on land forces and naval forces has been sweeping. I think it was the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) who made a valuable contribution—not all of which I agree with—to this particular aspect of the subject. There have been great changes.

The German and the Japanese Navies are no longer afloat. The possibilities of Fleet action between battleship and battle cruisers are much mare remote than they were, I think, more remote than during the lifetime of anyone in this House. But, on the other hand, the function of the Royal Navy remains the same, as the hon. Member for Hereford was saying on Tuesday. The Royal Navy has to keep open and guard our lines of communication. That may well involve a larger deployment of Naval forces than before the air intruded its unwelcome attention upon warfare. I do not know. But, nevertheless, objective and scientific study of the relationship between the various parts of the Fighting Services is what we expect from the Minister of Defence, and from his White Paper, but we do not get it. We only get what I have already described. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to accept, as he is fitted by temperament to do, the fact that there are always risks in defence, just as there are in war. One cannot be safe all over the place. In a country like ours, which has been so hard hit economically, it is more than ever necessary to concentrate the largest sums of money upon that part of the Armed Forces which is likely to yield the best, and, possibly, the first, results if we are attacked, and if we again become involved in war.

There are two other matters upon which I wish to touch very shortly before I sit down. The first is that I should like to elicit some information about the change described in paragraph 7, under which the charges for production of equipment for the Armed Services are to be borne on the Votes of the respective Service Departments. If this means—and I do not suppose that it does—that there has been a change of policy, then I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman comes to reply he will tell us. As right hon. Gentlemen opposite know, I have always expressed doubt as to whether the best organisation for war was for the Ministry of Supply to act as the purveyor of weapons, and, in particular, such weapons as aircraft and tanks, for the Army and the Royal Air Force. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) made some interesting remarks from the Air Force angle during the Debate on the Air Estimates. This subject is one of the vital matters in defence, as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan).

I have always been impressed—and here, I have no doubt, I shall earn some praise from the right hon. Gentleman— by the Admiralty system whereby the Admiralty itself is responsible for the design and production, that is the placing of orders direct for ships and equipment. We all remember that the Controller of the Navy at the beginning of the war was Sir Bruce Fraser, who afterwards became Commander-in-Chief and had himself to fight in the ships for the design of which he had been responsible earlier in the war. I believe that there is great danger in having a civilian department interposed between the producers of weapons, on the one hand, and the soldier or airman who has to use them, on the other. The civilian producer, on the one hand, tends to become quite out of touch with the development of tactical thought or with modern tactics, and, on the other, the soldier and the airman do not realise either the wide possibilities, or, indeed, the limitations of modern science and modern production in relation to war, and thus they do not frame military plans so as to take full advantage of the industries which are to serve them.

This is not a political matter, and opinion is certainly divided on it. If we are going back on the previous policy, we should like to be told. I think that there would be a lot in such a change of policy. In the other case we get into a very curious hybrid sort of system. The Ministry of Supply is to be responsible for the production of weapons—that is to say, if there is not to be any change of policy—ordered by the Air Force and the Army. But since the cost of these weapons is to be borne on the Votes of the War Office and the Royal Air Force, the House will not always have the opportunity of calling in question the Minister who is really responsible for any waste or inefficient production which may have taken place. Indeed, the Army and the Royal Air Force will themselves be in the embarrassing position of defending the villain of the piece who will be passing his time in his office while they are being questioned about his misdeeds on the Floor of this House. That is only one instance of how the alteration of a perfectly sound system has put the Government into difficulties. I hope that, when he replies, the right hon. Gentleman will enlighten us as to whether there has been a change of policy, and, if there has not, how he is going to secure that Parliamentary supervision over this highly important policy will not be impaired, and how we are to avoid the playing off of Parliamentary questions by one department against another, a form of sport of which they are very fond.

My last point is to applaud—and it is about the only thing I do applaud in the White Paper—the prominence given by the Government to research and development. But I would like to make one point about it. Not only do research and development go a long way towards keeping industrial and military thought up to date, but, if properly used, they save money. There are many items of equipment in modern Forces which become obsolete with almost the same rapidity as women's fashions. The radar of 1945 is now completely out of date, and the same is true, to a lesser extent, of aircraft and tanks. I am sure that everyone in the House feels that development and research into weapons and equipment should be one of the first preoccupations of His Majesty's Government—I think the right hon. Gentleman agrees—and £60,000,000, even in these days of inflation, is no mean sum. This is one of the ways in which we can avoid manufacturing weapons which are obsolete almost the moment they come off the production lines. We must keep down the production of current weapons to the very minimum required to train the troops and Forces who are to use them.

I would also urge that a considerable part of this research and development expenditure should be devoted to planning the actual production of the weapons, and, if necessary, to ordering the specialised machine tools and putting them into places where they will be used, even if they are not used to capacity during peace. Anyone who, like myself, has had some knowledge of production in war, can hardly under-estimate the advantages to a belligerent of having not only the latest designs of weapons and equipment, but also a plan, thought out in advance, for tooling the factories which are to make them, and a plan for selecting the contractors who are to be made responsible for their production beforehand. I think that this is common ground.

One of the abiding weaknesses of democracy is the desire for retrenchment and for a reduction of the Armed Forces in times of peace. We are all agreed that our defence Forces should be cut to the minimum required, but to carry the idea beyond the realm of safety and into the realm of danger, because of an economic crisis, is quite nonsensical. We, on this side of the House, will at once support His Majesty's Government in keeping the Armed Forces at such a size that they can fulfil our commitments, and will join with His Majesty's Government's own followers in criticising them for the inefficient way—if it should prove to be necessary—in which those Forces are subdivided for the tasks which are necessary. That is all I have to say on the White Paper. It is a sorry document, and I hope we shall get a better one. If I were to discuss the things which are not in it, I should detain the House nearly as long as the right hon. Gentleman did. I beg him to try to pull things together. Where we expect a clear decision, we meet with generalities; where we expect firm crisp English we meet with jargon and circumlocution; where we expect a taut and muscular organisation and an imaginative division of national resources we only find evasion.

We are told that first things must be considered first. I am now descending to one of those glimpses of the obvious which are so numerous in the White Paper when I say that the first thing in preparation for war is to have a fully worked cut plan of mobilisation. I suggest that we have not got one. We are not at all sure where the right hon. Gentleman stands in this matter. I think that no one reading the Defence White Paper, or after reading the Debates on the Service Estimates would really gain the impression that we are in any state of preparation for war today. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman making the excuse that war is not imminent. It certainly is not, but that is no excuse for not keeping all our Forces in a state of preparation as though war might break out the day after tomorrow.