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 Nigel Birch Mr Nigel Birch , Flintshire West 12:00 am, 5th March 1952

There are many conditions, as we all know, for getting forces into the field, and that is one of the conditions which we hope will be fulfilled. Equipment is coming from the United States, particularly for the armies in Europe. The truth is that the conference at Lisbon was not a failure, that the strength of N.A.T.O. is being built up but that the strength of N.A.T.O. is not being built up quite as quickly as we had hoped it would be.

I think that very many hon. Members who have spoken have been worried about the economic effect of re-armament—and rightly—particularly the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). He made one of his most energetic speeches on this subject. We are engaged as we know, upon this £4,700 million programme and I should like to quote again the words of the Leader of the Opposition when he introduced this programme on 29th January last year. He said: … the measures we must now take will be far-reaching and will affect every citizen and almost every industry. There will have to be financial measures to check civilian demand. On these I will say nothing; the Chancellor of the Exchequer has them under consideration and will inform the House when he opens his Budget. But, in addition, there will have to be a series of more direct economic measures."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 585.] At the time the right hon. Gentleman said that our economy was already overloaded and therefore, if that statement meant anything, it meant that some such measures as the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now taking ought then to have been taken. After all, armaments have to be paid for; they do not come out of the air, and if we have an overloaded economy we have to make room for them somewhere.

If the proper measures had been taken then I think that the measures that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now taking would not have needed to be so severe. The idea that those measures would have to be taken was reinforced by the right hon. Gentleman later, when he said: … though the burden will be heavy, it is not more than we can bear. If we carry it in the way I have suggested, we shall not destroy the recovery we have made during the last few years; nor shall we imperil the future strength of our economy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 586.] As the House knows, very few measures of the sort which the Prime Minister had in mind were taken or, if they were taken, they were wholely ineffective. Consequently, a crisis became inevitable.

In the late spring of last year we started to run into a foreign exchange crisis, and the Government decided to postpone the crisis until after the Election. They had some reasons for doing so. That was the decision. Nothing whatever was done about it, and what was the result? The result was inflation, rising prices, lagging production, a balance of payments crisis and an accentuation of the raw material crisis. All these things were an inevitable result of not taking the economic measures which were a necessary corollary of the armaments programme.

The right hon. Member for Easington opened the debate. My right hon. Friend praised him very much last time but did not praise him so much this time. The right hon. Member for Easington feels that he is a mixture between the Duke of Wellington and Carnot. He said, "I am a great man, and I gave a tremendous lot of orders." Anyone can order things; anyone can go to a shop and order things, but the problem is to pay for them and to get them. Giving orders is not so difficult as the next stage. The fact that no room was made for the armaments programme is the main reason for the delay which has taken place, and I think it well justified our Motion against the Labour Party on their re-armament programme when we accused them of vacillation and delay, because that was exactly what occurred.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) has not spoken today; I believe that it is his self-denial week. He claims that he is a prophet and that he foresaw both the setback in the arms programme and the financial crisis. His hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East, is more modest; he says he did not foresee the intensity of the financial crisis. I believe that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale is right to this extent—that he rather mistrusted his colleagues' powers of planning.

We know that the right hon. Member does not believe in arithmetic, but he thought that the thing was not adding up and he believed his friends had not thought deeply enough about it. If we look at the way the re-armament programme was introduced, with three separate bites at the cherry, all rather close together, we can see that it was inevitable that many of the implications were not very deeply thought out.

Nevertheless, I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale on the main issue. The right hon. Gentleman is quite clever—very clever indeed; he is clever enough to know, of course, that if this re-armament programme were to be carried out there would have to be a tough economic policy and a tough Budget, and that there would have to be cuts; and he was determined to see that no such tough economic policy was carried out.

His right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench equally knew that a tough policy was necessary if this re-armament programme were to be carried out, but they lacked perhaps the power, perhaps the courage—I do not know; but at any rate, they lacked what it took to carry out that policy and, therefore, in the event, the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale was proved to be perfectly right. But I suggest that he won his race because he doped his rival's horse. I am told that that is a quite powerful way of backing the winner.

The right hon. Gentleman saw them carry out that policy, and he saw it was a failure, and it is now, of course, going very nicely his way. I must say I have some sympathy with the Leader of the Opposition. He always has a tough time. Not only in Opposition does he have a tough time, but he had a tough time when he was in the Government. He is like a ball thrown backward and forward between the various factions in his party— The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes. Inflation and the things that flow from it, such as the crisis in our balance of payments, have been the main factors in the setback to our arms programme, and it is the duty of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do what he can to put these things right, and he is now engaged upon doing so. The Services also have duties in this matter. The Estimates debates are coming on in the next two or three weeks, and my right hon. and hon. Friends will be talking on these matters. In the Services the greatest possible efforts are being made to economise, to cut down on things which are inessential, to cut down on unnecessary establishments and on unnecessary staffs.

I believe that we shall be able to do a very great deal in that respect, and I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends will have a good deal to say about all this in the Estimates debates. I was glad that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Derby, North (Group Captain Wilcock), who made a very interesting speech, raised the question of establishments and waste in the Services. He made some very sensible suggestions about the matter.

There have not in this debate been many detailed points raised concerning either the Army or the Navy and, therefore, as the Estimates are just coming on, I shall not talk about them tonight, although I should like to mention the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder). Tomorrow, the First Lord and his colleagues will be dealing with the points my hon. and gallant Friend had in mind.