Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st March 1948.

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Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough 12:00 am, 1st March 1948

I beg to move, That this House approves the Statement relating to Defence (Command Paper No. 7327) A little more than a year has passed since the Ministry of Defence was set up. In a great organisational development of this character, some years must elapse before wide results can be expected to mature, but the House will expect a progress report. I have no illusions about the character or difficulty of the intricate problems in the defence field which await solution in the months and years ahead; but I hope to convince the House that, in most difficult circumstances, we have grappled with our tasks in a spirit of realism in an endeavour to lay straight and true the foundations of this country's defensive strength in the years to come. That is the Government's purpose, and I feel sure it is the purpose of us all.

To give a detailed catalogue of the work of the Ministry of Defence, in association with the Service Departments, would presume unduly on the forbearance of the House, and I must to some extent shed the load in order to deal with the main questions in the defence field. There is an inevitable temptation in initiating a Debate of this kind to trench upon the general problems of the foreign situation, which form the necessary background against which our defence policy must be shaped. I hope I shall not incur your displeasure. Mr. Speaker, if I make a slight excursion into this field. Defence is essentially allied to foreign policy, and I am constantly encouraged in my daily work by knowing that it can be of assistance to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his patient efforts to bring order out of chaos and to secure for the peoples of the world those simple blessings which, while we were still at war, we assumed, perhaps too easily, would be the natural and happy issue out of all their afflictions. The House has shown on many occasions its general support of my right hon. Friend.

We shall delude ourselves if we think that the closer integration of Western Europe which we all desire can be effected if Britain shows herself infirm of purpose. Nowhere is this of more significance than in the defence field. Our policy has been, and is, to support the United Nations organisation, which has not, however, developed as we hoped it would. Until things are much clearer, we must keep up our defences. We cannot hope, or expect, to achieve our objects if we repeat the mistakes of the inter-war years and allow our Armed Forces to dwindle to the point where our word no longer commands respect. Britain must display the will to be strong. We should do scant service to ourselves and, dare I say, to humanity?—for the troubles of Western Europe may again engulf the world—if we fail to accept this simple and fundamental truth.

I make no apology for presenting this issue in stark and unequivocal terms. The fight of the peoples of Western Europe to re-establish their democratic freedom and recover their economic well-being is our fight, no less than theirs. We, too, believe that it is better to count heads than to break them; we know that disruptive and noisy minorities are at work to undo the painful efforts of men of good will to build up their shattered societies, and if a strong Britain can exercise a helpful stabilising influence, we should not begrudge the cost. No one can doubt that, in the difficult situation in the world today, we must have adequate defence Forces.

The House will observe the relation between the policy outlined in the White Paper and our economic situation. Modern warfare, as our recent experience has shown, engages the whole industrial and economic resources of the combatants. I shall not be challenged, therefore, if I say that the first element in any coherent defence policy is the establishment of a healthy national economy. The strongest forces would be immobilised in a short time unless nourished and sustained not only by an organised war potential but by a balanced national economy. In present circumstances, therefore, it is a necessary aim, and one not inconsistent with what I have said concerning foreign policy, to lighten as much as possible the burden on the nation for the maintenance of the Armed Forces. We have to relate the claims of those Forces in the matter of men and materials to the overall position as regards national income and expenditure. It is the responsibility of the Cabinet to reconcile and adjust the balance of claims on our national resources. We have to decide not merely what is desirable but what is practicable.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer carries a very heavy burden in these difficult times, and he has the right to task that those responsible for the Armed Forces should be alive to the balance of payments situation and to the need for taking those steps which will best ensure the country's economic recovery. I can assure the House that my colleagues the Service Ministers and I, therefore, accept the level of expenditure forecast for defence in 1948–49. Our balance of payments situation requires that the resources of the nation must to the greatest possible extent be bent to the tasks of production and of the earning of foreign currency. It is in the light of our economic situation that we have to decide what can be allocated to defence. The Government have already given proof that they accept this principle in relation to the Services. I would remind the House that this was demonstrated in the special manpower review which took place last autumn. As a result, the numbers in the Forces at 31st March will not be 1,087,000 as originally proposed, but 940,000. The same point is demonstrated by the marked reduction which has taken place in the total of our overseas military expenditure and by the steps which have been taken to economise in dollar imports of food and oil for the Services.

Let me outline to the House the cardinal issue which dominates our present position in the field of defence. Since the war ended, our mobilised strength of some 5,000,000 United Kingdom mea and women in uniform in the three Services has been reduced by an ordered process to under 1,000,000, and will by 31st March be down to 940,000. It will decline, by a further 224,000 in the next 12 months. Of the 700,000 men who will be in the Forces in March, 1949, only some 400,000 will be trained Regulars. Upon them will fall the brunt of the task of maintaining our essential commitments and of training the intakes of men called up under the National Service Act. It is inevitable at the end of a war, and one of long duration, that we cannot yet have available the same number of trained, long-service men as in more normal times. The essential difficulty is to find enough highly trained men to deal with recruits and National Service men. That is the state of unbalance which we face today. The House will see that this is a most difficult situation. The rundown of the Forces is not a simple business of mathematical calculations. The day to day maintenance of our Forces requires a high proportion of skilled and experienced technicians.

If that were the whole story the task, perhaps, would not be too difficult. But it is not. While striving to correct the state of unbalance in the Forces I am confronted with problems affecting the whole future structure of our Armed Forces. The tendency to which we, no less than some others, have in the past been prone—to plan for future defence in terms of the last war—is fraught with great dangers, especially for this island. I do not propose today to speculate on the wide range of interesting and vital problems which exist in this field—the future of the battleship, the new types of sub-marine, the development of guided missiles, advances in the field of chemical warfare, or that mesmeric innovation of physical science, the atom bomb. All these are factors, however, which I must have in mind, and which are engaging the close attention of the professional staffs.

On top of these problems we have to face our current responsibilities. Inevitably it is on the Army that the chief burden of these present commitments overseas must fall. The provision of Forces for our zone of occupation in Germany is the heaviest, but there are also requirements elsewhere. In addition, there are the garrisons for the vital links in our world wide communications system, especially our Forces in the Middle East. We shall secure the withdrawal of our Forces from Palestine by 1st August next, but the need to maintain adequate Forces in the Middle East will remain. It is a commonplace, which, after the lesson of two world wars, needs no further emphasis, that the general security of the Middle East is a vital British interest. All these commitments represent a substantial element in our defence budget and plans.

We cannot tell what the future is going to bring forth; and at present—as nobody knows, particularly in the technical arms of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, exactly what technical developments will emerge—plans, how- ever well we may lay them, cannot come to rapid completion. In the present position we have to have minimum Forces to meet emergencies, and these, for the time being, must be more or less of the conventional type. The only prudent course is to defer committing ourselves to definite lines of development until we can see the future with greater certainty, and, whilst retaining such Forces as are necessary, press on with research and development. The House will, I am sure, not expect me to enter into detail as to the research work now in progress; which will form the basis of decisions in the future. A large part of it is, of course, devoted to aeronautical, radar, and marine engineering research.

Great as have been the advances in the performance of aircraft during the war years, there are still greater developments to come, and we are sparing no effort to maintain the lead which was of such vital importance to us during the war. The House knows that British jet propulsion engines are admitted to be the best in the world. We owe this to the professional zeal and ability of Air-Commodore Whittle and his collaborators, to the high skill of British manufacturing firms, and to the steady Government policy of providing the money for research and development work when new and practical ideas emerge. Only last week the excellence of British aircraft construction and engine design was demonstrated by the performance of the Vickers Supermarine Attacker piloted by Mr. Lithgow which, at a speed of 564 miles per hour, handsomely beat the 100 kilometre close-circuit record already held in this country by the Gloster Meteor piloted by Squadron - Leader Waterton. I am sure the House noted this achievement with satisfaction. In passing, I must point out that much of the cost of development work for defence purposes yields results of immense value to industry and, therefore, to the peacetime economy of the country. It is a superficial and dangerous doctrine to pretend that the cost of defence research and development is too high. There is no field of defence expenditure likely to yield a better return for money spent. The Government regard it as a first charge on the defence budget.

The Government have drawn up the defence budget, which is presented in the White Paper, after careful weighing of the main elements upon which I have touched: the international situation, our economic position, and the requirements of the Services themselves. We plan to spend about £200 million less on defence than last year, and that, through the continued run-down of uniformed manpower in the Services, will make available for productive employment a net gain of more than 200,000 men and women during the coming year. This must be a considerable help towards economic recovery. I must further remind the House of the substantial element included in the total budget of £692 million, which represents terminal charges. This is a full £60 million, which covers items such as release benefits and the charges due to the termination of war contracts which will not recur.

So I may fairly claim, in the light of these figures, that the Services are striving to help in our recovery. These planned reductions of our Armed Forces, the curtailment of expenditure on production and works for the Services, and the addition of over 650,000 men to the labour force available for productive work between mid-1947 and the end of 1948 without any fully corresponding addition to incomes and expenditure, are all steps of a definitely anti-inflationary nature.

During the year the Armed Forces will run down to a total of 716,000 on 31st March, 1949; the estimated cost will be £692 million. Those are large figures; but it is, of course, idle to make direct comparison between 1948–49 and pre-war years. The general increase in costs affects every item of the defence budget. If I were to take only one example, the annual cost of maintaining a Serviceman has risen by more than 6o per cent. since 1938. As I am dealing with the strength of the Armed Forces may I say here that I notice that the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) has put clown on the Order Paper an Amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end, and to add: deeply concerned at the serious economic crisis facing this country, and the need to utilise the Nation's manpower in useful production, rejects the White Paper (Command Paper No. 7327), as the huge Defence commitments are crippling the Nation's recovery, and calls for the immediate cutting of the Armed Forces to 500,000. That suggested reduction of the Armed Forces to 500,00o is on the ostensible ground of assisting economic recovery. I think it is fairly clear why this Amendment has been put down. It seems; to us that the reason is the same as that which prompted the Russian proposals on disarmament in the United Nations' Assembly. What they want is that Britain and the other freedom-loving countries should, on some Such specious ground, deprive themselves of the means of defence against foes without and within, while the Soviet Union maintains large forces with which to work its will throughout the world.