Orders of the Day — Air Estimates, 1948–49

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1948.

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Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley 12:00 am, 4th March 1948

I said they were limited by range and accuracy. At short ranges they are reasonably accurate under the present development. At long ranges they are not at all accurate. Therefore, in those circumstances, the condition of the frontier becomes doubly important, compared with what it was before the war. This report, "Survival in the Air Age," which I hope will be circulated, goes in the greatest detail into the discussions of the American experts, who reached the conclusion that the present missile, with an atomic bomb, can be devastating, but the present missile with the present explosive cannot be effective, unless it is fired at short range. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger upon the exact point which, under present conditions, I was trying to make. In the development of such a force we need the closest possible collaboration with the Commonwealth for the expansion of the Force, for the dispersal of bases and for the training of crews in long-range flying. We are happy to see in this Memorandum that liaison with the Dominions is well established, but it must extend far beyond mere good will missions from the old country to a Dominion.

I would like to pay a tribute to the recent Polar flights by the Empire Air Navigation School and also to the other schools, the Empire Flying School, the Empire Air Armaments School, the Empire Radio School and the Empire Test Pilots School which are in this country. The common training given in these British units to officers of the Dominions is invaluable. What training is taking place in return in the Dominions themselves? The right hon. Gentleman has told us that the narrow confines of this island make training both in flying and the shooting of missiles, extremely difficult. What has happened to the old Joint Air Training Plan, under which Canada, Australia and South Africa trained a great number of men who played a very great role in the war? Apart from Rhodesia, where, I understand, it is carried on, are these other Dominions now assisting us?

Then we come to the question of bases. From where will our air striking force have to operate? From bases throughout the Commonwealth and Empire. It is a curious reflection that in early Victorian times the use of geography was taught by globes. Then there came, in my childhood and boyhood, the use of the Mercator map. The Mercator map is a most dangerous form of geography. We should revert to the early Victorian practice of the use of globes. By the use of globes, we can soon see what striking bases are within the confines of territory under our control. I remember that point being admirably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn (Mr. Max Aitken) in the Debate on the Estimates of 1946. He pointed out that any target in the world was within six hours' attack from some Empire base. This Empire interdependence, therefore, is greater than it has ever been before. It is more important than ever before, and in future it must be greater still.

Here, perhaps, I might be allowed to add my tribute to one of the most gallant and distinguished officers of the Royal Air Force, whose untimely death a few weeks ago has cast a great shadow over all who love the Service. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, "Mary" Coningham as he was known to a host of friends and admirers, was himself a most striking example of this great imperial tradition. Born in Australia, educated in New Zealand, he embodied it in his own person. He was, of course, a great tactical commander. By the side of Lord Tedder he was one of the main architects of the air side of the thorough integration of the three Fighting Forces. In North Africa and the Mediterranean, the pioneer work was done and the system was brought almost entirely to perfection. I shall always be grateful and proud that I was privileged to have seen something of his work and enjoyed his friendship. But perhaps Coningham will best be remembered, and would certainly best like to be remembered, as a friend and inspirer of youth. He never failed to inspire in youth his bold, broad and gallant conception of the Commonwealth and Empire which, to his dying day, he served so well.

I venture to pass from this imperial theme, and to say a few words about the new and unconventional weapons about which I was asked. Of course, atomic warfare occupies all our minds. It is strikingly dealt with in the Report to President Truman. The Commission reached the conclusion, after most careful consideration, that atom bombs in sufficient quantities, or other forms of weapons of that kind, will not be likely to be in the hands of potential enemies before the year 1952 or 1953. That is their calculation, and they consider it would be a great dereliction of duty if it were not regarded as likely that such weapons would be in the hands of potential enemies after that date. That is the date they fix.

When, if ever, such weapons become available, we have no hope of being able to maintain a high production of aircraft and other munitions of war in the United Kingdom during a period of war. We may as well face up to that. Once again, we are led to the imperial theme. We would be more likely to build bombers in Winnipeg than in Manchester. Dispersal, which we practised in a small way in our own country during the war, will now become a great strategic weapon in our hands. Forty years ago, Joseph Chamberlain urged this country to think imperially. He then spoke in terms of economies and trade. We must now think imperially in terms of strategy and defence.

The Prime Minister complained on Monday night, a little peevishly I thought, of the difficulty of co-operation with the Dominions. Of course, we understand that Great Britain cannot summon conferences at her own will. We understand that Great Britain cannot dictate; but Great Britain can still lead. The Statute of Westminster does not deprive the Government of the United Kingdom of the right or duty to take the lead in imperial affairs. At the end of his speech, the Prime Minister told us of the leadership which we were going to give to the 16 nations of Western Europe. The whole House was most gratified. Surely, if we can give a lead to Europe, we can give a lead to our own Dominions and Colonies? It is not necessary, in order to be a good European, to be a little Englander. Everyone knows that, in the modern world, the potential war capacity of the Empire must be treated as a whole. I am convinced that, if the Prime Minister will take the lead in the light of present events—for much has happened in the last few months—the leaders of the Dominions will not be slow to follow.

There was a Debate last night in another place such as has seldom, if ever, taken place in time of peace. I cannot remember in time of peace a Debate such as that, with statements of that character made on behalf of the Government of the day. It is against this sombre background that we must examine these Estimates. We must lose no time in building up the nucleus of our component of the Empire Air Striking Force. We must concentrate on training that nucleus to the highest possible pitch of efficiency and organise it so that it may be quickly expanded.

There are a few observations I wish to make of a little different character. Of the total strength of 325,000 or 270,000, whichever way we have it, only 100,000 are Regulars. That means that this small Regular component has to administer and train more than 200,000 National Service men and at the same time provide the aircrews and the men on the operational units, who are almost all Regulars. It rightly states in the Memorandum that: Efficiency and economy can only be restored when the training effort can be limited to meeting normal replacements in a stable force. That really means that the one year National Service men can play little useful part in the Air Force. They play some role, but the danger is that so much effort will be taken from the Regulars towards their training as to deflect them from other duties. The Royal Navy is taking only 2,000 National Service men next year, and the Air Force only 48,000. I think the second figure will be reduced still more. Therefore, it is clear that, so far as the Air Force is concerned, National Service men cannot be relied upon to play a maximum or even an important role. I do not say that about the Army. I am sure that there it is necessary for national defence: I am not complaining of that. We must proceed with the recruitment of the Regular Forces as rapidly as possible, and make such arrangements to attract men to the Regular Forces as will bring them up to the highest level that we require.

I would like to ask a few questions on other subjects. The Estimates provide for nearly £39 million to be spent on aircraft. According to the memorandum, most of this will go on new fighter aircraft. Presumably, this means that the bomber component of the air striking force, if it exists, is composed of wartime aircraft. How many of these are truly operational? What new bombers are projected? When can we expect operational squadrons to be equipped with them? What advance do they make? I understand that the Lincoln is merely an improvement upon the Lancaster. It is the Lancaster brought up to date, with only comparatively small additions either to its speed or load-carrying capacity. Still, it is better than nothing. However, in the interim period we must assure ourselves that this striking force is available in an efficient form.

What of the future? We are told that in the long run there will be the new supersonic bomber which will replace the present types, but although we must not delay research and development to obtain the supersonic bomber, we must not sacrifice present security to those future needs. There was rather an interesting passage in the American document, which I will read to the House. It says: It takes four to seven years to develop a new plane from the engineering board to production. It takes longer than that to develop many of the weapons which will be used in any future war. No airplane was used by the United States in World War II which had not been designed before we entered the war. An air force will probably fight a war which does not last a long time with the general types of equipment it has on hand when the war begins. That is important and very true. Important as are research and development for the far-distant future unconventional types, it is also important that we should not be caught between two stools.

The duties and responsibilities that lie upon an Opposition, particularly a Conservative Opposition, in matters of defence affect very heavily their thoughts and consciences. Those duties are not easy to carry out with due regard to the opposing claims of the need to sound a warning and the fear of causing alarm. I trust that nothing I have said will be of any encouragement to the forces of disintegration in Europe which are now ranging themselves against us. I am sure I have said nothing which is not well known to them, or which has not been published in various documents. I have only spoken in this mood in order to impress upon the Government and my fellow countrymen the grave dangers which confront us unless we grasp the situation firmly. We are voting large sums of money and large numbers of men and women. If the Government tell us that they require more, I am sure this House of Commons will vote them more, but, with the information which is at present before us, we are not quite happy that the best use is being made of that money or the men.

Ministers enjoy a great majority in this House, but majorities carry with them corresponding responsibilities. They are fond of reminding us of the sins of omission and commission of prewar Governments. Indeed, like the White Queen in "Alice," they have almost persuaded themselves that before the war they were the protagonists of rearmament on an immense scale. They were then in opposition. They are now in power. If they believe that the claims of security prevent the full disclosure of the present situation to the House of Commons, the remedy is clear. The House may meet, as in war, in secret session. One thing is certain. If, in the new dangers that lie before us, after two tragedies within a single generation, Parliament and Ministers fail to learn and apply the lesson, they will earn the condemnation and contempt of all future generations.