Defence

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

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Mr. Beltenger:

Just like the divisions we had to defeat Germany, so, many of the Russian divisions have disappeared in demobilisation. Without attempting to underestimate the military forces of Russia, I would say that my hon. Friend the Member for East Coventry does not do his argument any good, or support it in any way which can be accepted in this House, by using figures which, I think, on investigation can be shown to bear no relation to reality.

I agree with my hon. Friend in some respects. It is quite obvious that military force alone is not sufficient to deter an aggressor. We have always to assume that there is an aggressor about. I think my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that Russia is an aggressor in the realm of thought. Communism is bound to be that. It believes in world revolution. Believing in that, it is bound to attempt to undermine all settled forms of government, so that it can attain what it is setting out to achieve—whatever that may be.

I am not, however, one of those who supposes that we shall stop any creed or doctrine like that merely by setting up what my hon. Friend calls social and economic plans—which are all very good in their way, of course—and by ignoring our military defence. It may be that the old doctrine of turning the other cheek can be effective; it may have been 2,000 years ago. I do not know. However, with the experience of two world wars behind me, I am quite certain that we in this country cannot afford to do anything else but to back up our diplomacy and economic policy with armed force. Twice we have been caught with insufficient armed forces. Who knows now, considering the evidence coming out in the Nuremberg trials, whether Hitler might not have been stopped with far less forces than we could mobilise against him, but forces—had they been there—for which he must have had respect?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not resent this attempt on the part of the House to probe very deeply into his White Paper and what lies behind it. I regret, however, that the Opposition have found it necessary to place on the Order Paper an Amendment to the Motion, an Amendment which, I presume, they will take to a Division tonight. I do not think that the time is opportune for us to have a complete picture of what my right hon. Friend's Ministry is doing, because his Department is a new Department, very much in the state of trial and error. However, 'we are bound to ask that the period of trial does not last too long, and that the errors are not too many. I myself should have deferred taking the step which the Opposition are apparently going to take tonight, because on this matter, as, indeed, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) would be the first to admit, there ought to be no divisions on party lines.

Too often before the last war—and I was a Member of this House then—there were deep divisions, not only on the foreign policy of the Government, but on the Government's defence measures. Looking back to those days, we can see that we had reasons then to doubt the Government's policy, and to doubt the adequacy of the Armed Forces. The information in the White Paper, supplemented by the information which we shall have when the Service Ministers present their Estimates, is enough to convince the House that, although we have not completely balanced the Forces to fight the next war, if that should occur, with modern weapons—I think that no nation in the world has such Forces today—nevertheless, we have got a good many teeth, as well as that tail about which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) talks so often and sometimes so glibly.

There has been a tendency since the end of the last war to reduce the burden of the Defence Services. I think that is right, and I think there would be no division of opinion about the way it has been done. It has not been a helter-skelter policy: it has been a carefully planned policy, which has transferred our men back to civilian life with very little industrial upheaval, and also without too much upheaval in the Armed Forces. We are bound to assume certain things. We are hound to assume that there will be a period during which there will be no major conflict. Although the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington wanted to know whether an instruction to that effect had been given by my right hon. Friend to the Service Ministers, and although he disclaimed any desire to ascertain what that period is, I think he can take it that the Chiefs of Staff have their views on that matter and that they have communicated them to my right hon. Friend and also to the Cabinet.

The present times are not peaceful ones. There are shadows drawing over Europe—ever-lengthening shadows—and we are bound to take note of them. If the whole armed might of Russia and her satellites were thrown into action tomorrow, of course England would not be in a position to meet it. Indeed, I should say that in the minds of the Chiefs of Staff there must always be present the hypothesis that Britain cannot enter a major war without powerful allies. All that my right hon. Friend is doing today is to say what Britain is prepared to do, in concert with other peace-loving nations, to deter aggression, and, if that is not successful, to resist it with the might of those combined allies.

In reviewing the Estimates of the Ministry of Defence we are entitled to ask whether we are getting full value for money. I do not for a moment dispute—I do not think Members of the Government would either—that hon. Members opposite when they ask for more information than that which is contained in the White Paper, have a right to do so. That has been the tactics of Oppositions throughout the ages. That is what the Opposition are there for. They cannot sit silent, as they have on so many occasions, and not say anything; for it might be alleged against them that they had no interest in the defence of this country. I am bound to say that, although I do not for one moment doubt their interest, their accomplishments before the war did not equal their interest. However I think it is a little too early to have a complete picture of the modernisation of the weapons and equipment of the Services.

But I am a little disturbed by what I read in the White Paper about the effect of the economic crisis—as I suppose: it must be called—on what my right hon. Friend called the "highest priority." Of course, when cuts have to be made in the civil economy, the Services cannot hope to avoid whatever austerity is going, but I would ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to say a little more than did my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence about methods of defence against possible attack on this country. The progress which has been made in the methods of attack, particularly from the air, is not equalled by progress in the methods of defelce. Methods of defence against air attack are bound to lag behind to a certain extent, I think. The high-speed bomber, which can drop its bombs from a high elevation, is a very formidable weapon of offence, and although radar and other equipment like that can give us notice of its coming, nevertheless, the weapons with which to bring the bomber down before it reaches this country are not so adequate as I had hoped they might Lave been.

In that respect, I think that perhaps the technical personnel, even to service the highly scientific and intricate equipment which we had left over from the war, are not there, and I hope that the Secretary of State for War—who, incidentally, has been threatened by the ton. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) with an all-night Sitting, which I trust will not mature—will be able to say something about that when he presents his Estimates. Today we can look at only the broad outlines, and we must hope that the Service Ministers will fill in the details when they speak.

One question I wish to ask is: How far are the Minister of Defence and his Ministry able to ensure the working out of an integrated defence plan? The Ministry has not been long in existence. It has been recruited, to a large extent, from the Service Departments, and we know that the Service and other Departments do not like parting too easily with their best men. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defence has been able to recruit a body of able civil servants, but I believe—and I have had an opportunity of watching this from the inside—the Ministry of Defence is not yet able to cope with some of those vested interests which have grown up in Service Departments during past decades. The Minister of Defence will need to bring his very powerful guns to bear on some of those interests—and, indeed, to overrule them on occasion—if he is ever to achieve an integrated form of defence.