Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th March 1953.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Birch Mr Nigel Birch , Flintshire West 12:00 am, 5th March 1953

I am sorry that so many hon. Members who wished to speak have been cut out of this debate. I can only plead that at any rate I am not a Privy Councillor. I listened with interest to the very helpful speech by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker), and the only fault I have to find with it is that it was rather interrogatory. I counted up to about four dozen questions. I hope I shall be able to deal with quite a few of them as I go along.

As it is rather outside the main debate perhaps I may say, about the Disarmament Commission, that the Minister of State is in very general sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's views and we shall see what progress we can make in that direction.

This White Paper sets out our defence policy, the main lines of which are the same as they were before. But there have been a great many alterations and adjustments in the armament programmes since the war. When the Leader of the Opposition spoke here on 12th September, 1950, he said: … the assumptions on which the estimates of our defence needs were formed before the end of the war were not fulfilled and plans made subsequently have had constantly to be revised or interrupted by the pressure of immediate requirements."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th September, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 952.] It may be that the expectations of many hon. Members on both sides of the House at the end of the war were unwarranted. In the event, their expectations of peace and safety in the world proved to be unwarranted. But that is old history now.

The basic position has not changed very much since the war. What has happened is that the people of the free world have realised what it means to be the neighbours—and to suffer the consequences of being the neighbours—of the leaders of a Communist revolution. That type of militant fraternity does not make them very happy neighbours. They have, therefore, realised that without unity and strength there can be no safety for the free world. Recent history—from the second rape of Czechoslovakia right up to the war in Korea—confirms that.

As a result of this growing realisation we have had a number of shopping lists and re-armament programmes, culminating in the £4,700 million programme. After that programme was announced we ran into some very heavy economic weather. 1 do not seek to blame the Opposition for all the trouble in which we became involved, because many of the events were completely outside their control. But it is fair to say that if we were to carry this colossal re-armament programme and ride the economic storm some pretty drastic steps had to be taken. They were not taken, and the result was a financial crisis.

The hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) talked about our bogus solvency, but there was certainly nothing bogus about our insolvency. We ran into a national crisis and the result was a General Election. That is how it came about that the Tory Party was left nursing this gargantuan baby, and this debate is concerned with how we have set about that task. First-aid measures were taken by the Chancellor. There were immediate cuts in the Estimates last year, and the Prime Minister announced in the debate a year ago that we had taken steps to slow down the programme. As soon as we had time to turn round we carried out a thorough strategic and economic examination.

There has been much talk of a three-year programme. I think that the talk of a three-year programme has led the public in this country to suppose that expenditure on arms would go on rising for three or at most four years and would then fall away very rapidly. When the costings were worked out they revealed that, under the plans we inherited, the expenditure in the fourth and fifth years would be very much higher than in the earlier years. In fact, if no adjustments had been made, defence expenditure in 1953–54, on the basis of the plans as we inherited them, would have been some-where between £1,900 million and £2,000 million.

I think the House, with the possible exception of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), will agree that that would have been an insupportable burden upon the country, if we had done nothing about it. A revision of the plan had to take place, therefore, and it has taken place in the light of four dominating considerations. These were, first, that we have with us the cold war, and we are fighting it now. Second, with the development of modern weapons, not only are deterrents to hot war more important than ever they were before, but they are likely to be far more effective. Third, the nature of a future war may be very different from the nature of the wars we have known in our time. Lastly, while our financial position has certainly much improved, it remains difficult.

These considerations give rise to conflicting claims upon our resources, and to strike a correct balance at any one time is a matter of great delicacy and difficulty. We have cold-war responsibilities. We have talked about them a lot today. We have troops deployed all over the world—the Far East, the Middle East, Germany and so on. All these troops are fully armed and fully equipped. The dominating fact of the cold war—and this is why it is such a burden upon us—is that it is fought by men, and that in this struggle the weapons of mass destruction are obviously irrelevant. Yet, if we lose the cold war, if we are edged out of one position after another, we lose all.

The question of manpower brings me to the question of National Service and the national Reserve, which has perhaps been the main subject of the debate. The Prime Minister deployed the main case, and I do not think the House would wish me to go over exactly the same ground as he did. I will, therefore, confine myself to trying to answer the main case made by hon. Members opposite. I was going to say that there had been criticism on three lines, but in fact we have heard criticism on only two lines, because the active body below the Gangway, the Pacifists, had no one called to speak. Nevertheless, they are perhaps entitled to a short answer, and I will make one comment upon their argument.