Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd March 1949.

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Photo of Major Geoffrey Bing Major Geoffrey Bing , Hornchurch 12:00 am, 3rd March 1949

I think the right hon. Gentleman opposite will be satisfied to know that the result in both cases was almost identical. It will be remembered that there were five just persons found from Sodom and Gomorrah, and that the right hon. Gentleman found three Conservatives to go into the Lobby with him. Of course, his right hon. Friend voted on the other side. He may say that he was tied, that he was a Member of the Government, but not so the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden); he was not tied—he was no longer a Member of the Government—yet he voted on the other side. Therefore, on this side, at any rate, we ought to be a little careful in accepting these invitations to look at the thing in an all-party spirit when one sees how contemptuously a similar all-party appeal by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford was rejected by his own party.

The right hon. Member for West Bristol will remember that once when I was speaking on the Conservative Party, in dealing with something from the 19th century, he interrupted me by saying, "Wake me up, somebody, when we reach the 20th century." I must confess that I thought at the time that the right hon. Gentleman really considered it prudent, in order to continue to support his party with a good conscience, to close his ears to the lessons of history. But looking at it again, I see that I misjudged him and that what he was really doing was making an appeal to his own party. He had hit upon the trouble; we have reached the 20th century but it is impossible to wake up right hon. and hon. Members on the Front Bench opposite to it. When one looks at their arguments in regard to the Forces one sees this. Look how they are based on numerical questions. "Where," says the right hon. Member for Woodford, "are the divisions; why have we not so many men?" But defence, modern defence, is not a question of numbers of effective fighting men in that sense at all. It is a question of the economic organisation of the whole country, and to produce a large number of effectives standing under arms now merely heightens the international tension when we should do our best to lessen it and, if adopted by my right hon. Friend, would lead to a grave economic crisis here.

There are, of course, strong arguments on this side of the House for looking again at our commitments and considering in all sorts of ways whether we can revise the organisation of our Forces, but I do not think any of us needs the support of hon. Members opposite in that task. I do not think anything would be gained by passing confidential information to hon. Members opposite. Why should they have it? I think it is an impudent request. Before we trust them with information, we should look at their record in regard to defence—[An HON. MEMBER: "And yours."]—All the records, but let us start with the record of the party opposite.

After all, defence was our first nationalised enterprise and if one looks at it one sees that hon. Members opposite practise, in regard to defence, as a virtue, all the things which they now allege—I think quite wrongly—are evils in regard to the nationalised industries. I take one example from a Debate two days ago. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward), one of the backers of this Amendment, complained, rightly or wrongly, that we had uneconomic and makeshift aircraft. He wanted to bring the industry up to date, but what was the principal policy which occupied Question Time in the dark days of 1939 before the outbreak of hostilities? The hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore) wanted the Scots Greys to retain their horses. This was their method of making the Army up to date. Of course, that was a virtue; this was how it could be made a picturesque Service. Such was the view. Two days ago the appointment of Lord Douglas to a civil aviation post was criticised as a party appointment, but before the war where could one find a general who would not have been condemned by all his associates and friends if he had not pulled every string he possibly could to get his son into his own unit? It would have been said: "Here is a monstrous departure from regimental tradition."

The whole attitude of hon. Members opposite in this House is a thing which in itself, hinders recruiting because they insist on a sort of bias in the Services which we on this side of the House must do our utmost to get rid of. I suggest to hon. Members on all sides of the House that they might purchase a book, which is being "remaindered" now on the bookstalls. It is entitled, "Some talk of Alexander." I recommend it very strongly to hon. Members opposite. It deals in great detail with the life of an N.C.O. in the Guards during the late war. Even at that late date the test of a man's efficiency was judged by the shine on his boots and the mechanical precision of his movements. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) is not here to interrupt me, because he always interrupts any reference, however oblique, to the Brigade of Guards. It is the passing of this kind of tradition which is necessary if we are to have a type of officer who is not technically indifferent. There is still a kind of military lingua franca used to judge the efficiency of a unit merely by looking at its boots. One looks at the men's boots and says, "A fine turnout," or otherwise. It is that sort of tradition which hon. Members opposite stand for and which, in the Navy, for example, makes the question of the retention of the battleship a social problem rather than a question of naval efficiency.

It is these questions with which we have to deal as a party, and we are equipped in this party, whatever views we may have on defence, to deal with these questions, and without any help from hon. Members opposite. I would say to hon. Members on this side of the House that, whatever doubts we may have and whatever reservations we may have, in regard to particular aspects of defence, I hope we are all united in the belief that the party opposite, which so mismanaged defence when they had the opportunity not to criticise but to do something about it, should have no part whatever in planning now, and we on this side of the House will vote against their Amendment.