Orders of the Day — National Service Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st April 1947.

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Photo of Mr Frederick Cocks Mr Frederick Cocks , Broxtowe 12:00 am, 1st April 1947

I am answering the argument that this Bill is necessary to carry out our obligations to U.N.O., and that only. I am not talking about the rest of the world or the ordinary process of self-defence, but about the suggestion that we are committed to carry out our obligations to U.N.O. The agreements have not been negotiated, and the time to decide our contribution is when they are negotiated. In any case, that is not an argument for conscription either now or then.

As to our commitments, we do not know what they are. It is absolutely monstrous that this House should be asked to vote Estimates without being told where our troops or ships are stationed and in what numbers they are in different parts of the world. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I believe that if the public knew the size of the Forces we are keeping at the present moment in various parts of the world, there would be an instant demand for their reduction. That is possibly the real reason for this secrecy and the official reason that we have been given is not the real reason. That is the reason perhaps for the iron curtain which the Minister of Defence has dropped to conceal his proceedings.

In any case, whatever the number is, it is far too large. I do not believe that we can afford, in 1949, to keep a highly equipped Army of more than 250,000 men, which is 30,000 more than we had before the war. That Army would, of course, be supported in this island by territorial forces and reserves. To bring the Regular Army up to a total of 250,000 would mean recruitment, at the present time, of 4,000 per month, but after we had reached the 250,000 it would mean a monthly recruitment of only 2,800. I do not believe that we could not raise, voluntarily, 2,800 per month, especially when the general calling up, which is now going on, ceases, and our present huge Army is reduced. In my view, an Army of a quarter of a million, well equipped, is all we can afford, and all we can provide.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) makes many valuable contributions to our Debates. He is an industrious Member, and he speaks with authority on Service matters, although he sometimes reminds me of a new curate adopting the pontifical attitude of an archbishop. My hon. Friend was good enough to say, last night, that the supporters of the Amendment knew nothing about military warfare, and that we were misguided. Naturally, then, we turn to him for guidance. He disclosed to us a profound mystery which has been concealed even from the Minister of Defence, who has said that even he does not know the shape of things to come. But my hon. Friend the Member for Aston knew. He told us why we need millions of trained reserves in this country, in these days of long-range warfare. He visualised the scene, in the next war, when the heavens would be filled with shouting, and there would descend on this fair island, not a ghastly dew, but thousands of ferocious paratroopers. He said that we should have to have a large Army, armed with bombs and bayonets, to kill these paratroopers as they fell. My hon. Friend so delighted the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) that the latter said that my hon. Friend's speech ought to have been delivered from the Government Front Bench, whereupon I noticed that the Secretary of State for War seemed rather uneasy. When I asked my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Wing-Commander Millington) what he thought of this apocalyptic vision of descending furies and paratroopers, he said, "Give me a few squadrons of fighter planes, and I would drown the whole lot in the sea long before they got to this country." My hon. and gallant Friend explained that in the last war a few squadrons of Whirlwinds destroyed, in a few minutes, two divisions of Germans in the air. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about Crete?"] The Secretary of State for War will now feel easier but I hope that the readers of a certain Sunday newspaper will not lose faith in their military critic.

Then we come to the argument that we are no longer an island. Of course, we are not, but I ask the question which has been asked so many times during this Debate—whom are we going to fight? I am sure that Russia has no intention of attacking us, and I do not believe that she is in a position to do so if she wished. The Foreign Secretary has said that there is no conceivable reason why there should be any war between Britain and Russia. If it is suggested that we might have to support America in an attack on Russia, then I say, quite clearly, that the workers of this country would never support such an attack. I represent a mining constituency, and I am quite sure that the miners in my area would refuse to wind one ton of coal if such a situation occurred, and that the wives and daughters of the workers would refuse to make munitions. Any Government, Labour, Conservative or Coalition, which attempted such a project, would be swept from office within a week. If we want to be strong in the diplomatic field we must build up our industrial and economic power. Not by swollen Armies, but by productive pits and flourishing industries can our influence abroad be extended. The Foreign Secretary has said, "If only I had coal to offer to the world how much stronger my bargaining power would be." If we could export 20 million tons of coal to France today, it would be more welcome there than "an Army with banners," even although that Army were accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Aston and my hon. Friend the Member for East Coventry (Mr. Crossman).

The White Paper has stated that "those things which are fundamental to our national life must come first." Well, the thing which is fundamental to our national life is our industrial prosperity. If we fail to produce we fail in everything and our Armies will be utterly useless. In this crisis we can only save ourselves by limiting our commitments to those which can be sustained by voluntary service, and by concentrating the whole of our remaining manpower on productive work. Otherwise we shall only be "ruining down the infinite inane." The Conservative Party are voting for this Bill tonight. We are voting against the Conservative Party. It is true that the Leader of the Opposition may be accompanied into the Division Lobby by certain Members of the Government, and certain of their supporters, but we shall take no notice of that. We shall not ask them where they have been and we shall welcome them wholeheartedly when they return. I do not take such a tragic view of this Bill as some of my hon. Friends, because it is possible that it will never be operated at all. It is possible that when 1949 comes the pressure of public opinion, and the pressure of economic crisis, may render the idea of compulsory service utterly unthinkable. In any case, I say that the great Labour majority we were given at the last Election was given us so that we could build up in this land a prosperous Socialist State, not to produce a nation of bankrupt conscripts, or, in peacetime, to rivet upon a free people the shackles of military conscription.