Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th March 1952.

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Woodford 12:00 am, 5th March 1952

I beg to move, "That this House approves the Statement on Defence, 1952 (Command Paper No. 8475)."

Although I feel that it will be in the general convenience that I should make this statement, I can no longer speak as Minister of Defence. On the day when I accepted the late King's Commission to form a Government, I proposed the appointment of Lord Alexander to this office, and His Majesty was greatly attracted by the proposal. It was necessary, however, to obtain the assent of the Canadian Government and to enable them to make all necessary arrangements in due course.

I had foreseen this delay, even if Lord Alexander were willing to accept so onerous a task. In the meanwhile, I welcomed the opportunity of surveying again this scene, which six years ago I knew quite well, and noting the many changes which had taken place in the interval. I will now, Sir, on handing over these duties, commend this White Paper, which has been circulated for some days, to the attention of the House.

I must, however, put on record certain reserves which are necessary. It takes a long time, and much Departmental work, as right hon. Gentlemen opposite know, to prepare documents of this kind, and, for reasons which the House will under- stand, we had to hasten its presentation to Parliament. Meanwhile, events move constantly forward. Even the present Service Estimates and the White Paper now before us, must be subject to unceasing scrutiny to eliminate all waste and, of course, production may be affected by the non-delivery of machine tools and by the shortage of dollar purchasing power.

I shall not occupy the House at any length with the Amendment which I have heard that the Ministers mainly responsible in the late Parliament for the conduct of our armaments—conduct good or bad—have placed on the Paper. We said something like this about them last year and we shall certainly not be offended by any opinion they may form of us. Our opinion, however, was based upon several years' experience of their methods. Theirs can only be a guess, and I trust will not be a hope.

While we criticised the mistakes they made from time to time, and above all their repeated changes—vacillations, I think, was the word that was used—in the periods of compulsory National Service—now up, now down, now up again—we always gave them support in all necessary measures for national security. They always knew they had us with them if it ever came to a vote against their own tail. I do not suggest that we were with them yesterday morning. But this must have been a great help to any Government carrying on the business of the nation, especially as they were able at the same time to accuse us of seeking war and armament expansion whenever an election came along.

I hope that the Division which, I understand, we are to have tonight will not mean that the Socialist Party intend to revert to their pre-war practice of voting against necessary measures of defence, as they did against conscription before the war, and that they will at any rate consider themselves as bound to give general support to treasures for which they themselves were originally responsible.

I will now endeavour to give some general account of the British defence position as I leave it. When I spoke to the House on defence at the beginning of December. I mentioned that there would certainly be a lag in carrying out the £4,700 million programme to which the late Government had given their support, and which they had increased from their original £3,600 million programmme introduced earlier in the same year. This has manifested itself in a shortfall in 1951–52 of £120 million, as is shown in the White Paper.

After the £3,600 million programme was proposed by the Socialist Government, they accepted an interim offer of 112 million dollars of aid from the United States of America in respect of machine tools. They had, indeed, stipulated for much larger help and relied on securing it in due course through the so-called "burden-sharing exercise" then agreed in principle with the Americans. We are to receive this 112 million dollars progressively as machine tools are delivered, and delivery is only just beginning, but we hope it will be completed in about 15 months' time.

Meanwhile the £4,700 million programme on which we are now engaged has not received aid on a scale in keeping with the defence burden undertaken by the late Prime Minister or with our needs. Following the recent studies of the Temporary Council Committee—the "three wise men," as they are sometimes called—the United States Government have allotted to us a sum of 300 million dollars, none of which has yet been received. There is no question of reproaches on either side, but the fact remains, as I have foreshadowed, that the re-armament programme is much more likely to be carried out in four years than in three. Had it been carried out in three years as originally planned, the cost through the rise in prices would have been not less than £5,200 million. Of course, spread over a longer time the impact is less severe, but the total will be larger because of the added cost of the longer maintenance.

I should, however, be misleading the House if I led it to suppose that the delay which has taken place is due only to a shortfall in earnings by contractors for various reasons. We have pursued a definite policy of giving a somewhat higher measure of priority to materials needed for exports. The grave financial crisis under which we are labouring supplies more than sufficient explanation for this decision. We depend upon exports to purchase the imports of food and raw materials without which we can neither re-arm nor live as a solvent economic society.

The expenditure set forth in the White Paper on Defence, and the Estimates of the three Service Departments which will shortly be brought before the House, represent the utmost that we can do during the present year; and it is certainly much more than any other country in the free world, except the United States of America, has attempted.

I am not suggesting that it is sufficient for our safety in the event of war, and I rely on the rapidly growing and already overwhelming power of the United States in the atomic bomb to provide the deterrents against an act of aggression during the period of forming a defensive front in Western Europe. I hope and I believe that this will deter; but, of course, I cannot make promises or prophecies, or give guarantees. I accept responsibility only for doing all that was possible, having regard to the state of our defences and economic position when, after an interval of more than six years, the Conservative Party resumed office 19 weeks ago.

My first impression on looking round the scene at home in November as Minister of Defence was a sense of extreme nakedness such as I had never felt before in peace or war—almost as though I was living in a nudist colony. When the 6th Armoured and the 3rd Infantry Divisions had left the country in pursuance of orders given or policies decided upon in the days of the late Administration, we had not a single Regular combat formation in the country; and although a seaborne invasion does not seem likely in view of our and Allied naval power in surface ships, I thought it right to take what precautions were possible against paratroop descents, and I spoke, as the House may remember, about the importance of our showing the back of a hedgehog rather than the paunch of a rabbit to any unfriendly eye that might contemplate our island from above.

There were at that time a quarter of a million—249,000 was the exact figure—of officers and men in depôts and training centres of many kinds. Most of these men, though uniformed British soldiers, had little combatant organisation or value. They were engaged in preparing and maintaining the considerable Forces which had been spread about the world. in Europe, Asia and Africa. I considered it imperative to impart a combatant value to this potentially powerful body of British soldiers costing at least £400 a year each. Rapid progress has been made with this policy. All these men are now supplied with rifles and machine guns and with ammunition, and they are organised into effective fighting groups which now comprise 502 mobile columns.

These Forces are not, indeed, of the efficiency of the units on the Continent and overseas. Nor do they need to be. They are capable of giving a good account of themselves and of imposing a considerable deterrent upon any airborne adventure by being able to kill or capture the ones who land. The process has been greatly strengthened by the sailors ashore and the Air Force ground men, who also make important contributions. I am told by the weekly reports for which I called that morale is high, and that all ranks understand and have welcomed the reality and importance of their new duties, and that they like to feel that they are guarding their homes and their fellow countrymen as well as learning or teaching.

About two months ago, on the same line of thought, we started registration for the Home Guard. Since then 30,000 men have registered. This result is solid so far as it goes, but we still need many more volunteers. It may well be that many who have joined have felt that the likelihood of war has somewhat receded, and they think they can make up their minds later on. They must be careful not to leave it too late. If war should come, it will be with violent speed and suddenness, and here at home, with almost all our Regular Army overseas, we must rely to an unusual extent on the Home Guard. Enough resolute men must be armed and ready to aid all the other forms of protection against raids, descents and sabotage.

Although I had felt unable at first sight to provide the Home Guard with uniforms, and even with greatcoats or boots, I decided upon consideration to draw upon our mobilisation reserves to the extent necessary to clothe at least the first 50,000. My successor may do better later on. I have directed the War Office to place, as speedily as possible, all orders for which their Estimates provide in the coming year with the clothing trade, in which a certain amount of unemployment and under-employment, especially in Northern Ireland, had begun to appear.

Thirdly, we have been able, by a severe combing of the tail—not the tail I mentioned just now, but nevertheless a very desirable and necessary process—to produce seven more Regular second battalions of famous regiments which had been imprudently disbanded. I would not use the word "imprudently" if I had not long studied all the economic advantages of the Cardwell system, with a battalion abroad and a battalion at home, and an inter-flow of reserves and reinforcements between them. These battalions now raised, in one of which the hon. Member for Ayrshire, South (Mr. Emrys Hughes) took so much interest—the Black, what was it?