Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th July 1953.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 29th July 1953

For a couple of hours we have been listening to a discussion of murder under the auspices of the Home Secretary. I wish to return to the discussion of murder under the auspices of the Minister of Defence. I do so because the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, in a previous debate, complained because no opportunity had been given to those of us who take the traditional attitude of the Labour Party towards defence and conscription to put our point of view in a defence debate He said that on 5th March.

We have had another defence debate today and, owing to the array of Under-Secretaries and Ministers who held office under the former Government, and who have spoken, no opportunity has yet been given to Members who wish to put the traditional points of view about conscription and those matters which, in times past, have been stated by such people as George Lansbury and James Maxton. I do not apologise for taking up the arguments of those of us who criticise the statements of policy of the Government and the Minister of Defence from a more fundamental point of view than that taken by the ex-Minister of Defence and his Under-Secretaries in the debate today.

I do so not because of any trivial reason, but because we have had a rather important speech today, from the Leader of the House, in which a rather important announcement slipped out on the whole issue of conscription. He gave us to understand that on this question of the continuation of National Service we are to have not legislation in the normal way but an Order in Council, which will be slipped through, probably after a few hours' debate, in which we shall have the usual panoply of gladiators coming along. I therefore presume that this is the only opportunity that we have to state our case against the continuation of the National Service Acts and the policy under which it is argued that they are necessary.

In his preliminary remarks about this issue the Leader of the House spoke about Korea and argued that the lessons of Korea seemed to be that we must continue conscription. I hope we shall not have any more wars on the pattern of Korea. I remember that when the previous Prime Minister said we were going into action in Korea I asked certain questions and was told rather brusquely that this was not a war at all but a "police action." That was how President Truman justified the hostilities in Korea in the first stages; it was not considered respectable to call it a war then; it was just some kind of action to prevent war, some kind of police action. We have had three years of this police action in Korea, and the fact that we have had this kind of military organisation is now used as one of the arguments why we should continue conscription. I hope the Lord Privy Seal will reconsider whether this is a justifiable argument for continuing the system of National Service.

Nobody has argued that this war in Korea was necessary in defence of this country. It has been said to be in defence of some principle called collec- tive security. I want to know whether our whole system of defence is now to be organised on the assumption that we are going into some other kind of action of this sort and that the pattern of Korea is likely to be repeated in other parts of the world. Will our defence organisation or our National Service men be used in, say, Indo-China as they were used in Korea?

I say that the Minister of Defence is not justified in arguing that the precedent of Korea is one which justifies us in continuing the elaborate military organisation and call up of a very large number of men for National Service in the way suggested. It is not good enough to justify these military preparations by having the sparring debating exhibition such as occurred between the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the former Minister of Defence.

I know that reference has been made to articles of the former Minister of Defence written in certain newspapers. The Parliamentary Secretary even said that what he called "the Shinwell system" was the policy of the Labour Party. I should like to tell him that that conglomeration of contradictions is not the policy of the Labour Party at all, and that a large amount of this verbal sparring between the Parliamentary Secretary and the former Minister does not seriously touch the question of the real organisation of defence.

I protest very strongly—and I hope there will be further protests from other parts of the House—against the way that, by a side door, the whole system of conscription is to be fastened on this nation for another five years. I have no doubt that after another five years the Government of the day will come along and find further reasons for continuing this conscription system. It will not be adequately dealt with by this Order in Council, because there are various phases of thought in opposition to conscription. Some people, like the ex-Minister of Defence, have now come to the conclusion that 18 months' conscription is a reasonable period for non-technical forces. There are other hon. Members who are quite prepared to agree to conscription for a period of 12 months and some of us who argue that the whole system of forced labour should be discontinued altogether. How are we to get these different points of view adequately expressed in a debate on an Order in Council, on which there is no opportunity to put forward Amendments?

I appeal to the Leader of the House to give this matter further consideration before this kind of procedure is adopted because fastening a period of two years' conscription on the youth of our country is something which at least deserves two or three days' debate in which every point of view can be expressed. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary has seen that an important trade union, the building trade workers, have this week called for a reduction to 12 months' conscription, arguing that the building trade is just as important to the national economy as other industries whose workers are exempt from military service. I suggest that there is now such keen anxiety on the part of hon. Members in all parts of the House to have the question of National Service adequately discussed that there is absolutely no excuse for rushing it through in this form of procedure which does not give every shade of opinion an opportunity to express its point of view.

When hon. Members who have now gone from the Chamber read the speeches in the OFFICIAL REPORT there is every reason to believe that they will want a full and complete discussion of the system of National Service before fastening it on the people of this country for, it may be, another generation. We are told that there are 8,000 out of the 20,000 National Service men in Korea. They are young men who have never had an opportunity of saying anything about Korea at all. They have just been conscripted, sent to Korea, and there they are.

Although the war is presumably over we have no hope given us today that those conscripts in Korea are to return home. Those 8,000 conscripts are to remain there—what for? Is it to protect Mr. Syngman Rhee? We have had no hope at all, although a truce has been declared in Korea, that these unfortunate young people dragged away under the system of forced labour, are ever to have an opportunity of seeing their homes again.

When we look back on our military record in Korea, of which the Leader of the House spoke today, we know that while no doubt many of those soldiers have performed deeds of great personal heroism the history of military intervention in Korea has been one of the most tragic and futile experiments in war in the whole history of war. This week we have had Ministers saying that we have won the war in Korea. The Russian leader, Malenkov, says they won the war in Korea. All we know is that the people we went out to liberate in Korea have lost the war. A huge military organisation, continuing armed forces and this kind of activity in that part of the world, is something we cannot justify.

Nothing but superficialities and fripperies, on the issue of re-armament, have been discussed here today. The whole economic issue related to rearmament has been evaded by the House, and by both sides of the House; but it has not been evaded by "The Times." In two of three very interesting leading articles last week, "The Times" discussed the economics of re-armament, and argued about some of the figures which the Leader of the House gave this afternoon; namely, that the burden of this so-called re-armament and defence is now so heavy that it is going to land us inevitably into an economic crisis.

That was the view of "The Times" last week, and I found no fault with the logic that if we are to continue this armaments programme, then we are going to be faced with an economic crisis from which we shall all suffer very severely. I do not know whether the Leader of the House ever has the opportunity to look at the television programmes; but last week-end there was the news of an item which should make every serious-minded person think. It depicted the new German exhibition in Canada, with motor cars and bicycles on show in an effort to gain the markets of Canada.

That is one way in which the Germans can compete, probably successfully, in the Canadian markets, because at present our own motor industry and our export industry are burdened with this colossal expenditure on armaments, while the Germans take full advantage of the situation and capture our markets; and not only in Canada, but probably in South America as well, while we go on trying to hide the disagreeable facts.

There is no promise that we shall spend less on armaments under this Government because it is continuing what has been done before, with the excuse that it is simply following the programme set out by the Labour Government. In all these Service debates we are then told that, after all this expenditure, we have no division here to defend us against any air attack by the Russians, and that the country has less real defence than it has had for the last 50 years.

The Leader of the House has told us that three years ago Russia could have swept over Europe because we were defenceless, and we are told that the Russians have a plan of aggression. If they had that three years ago, then they could have swept over Europe, but they did not. I never really believed that this bogy of the 175 divisions in Eastern Germany was the kind of military activity which justified us in embarking on a huge programme of re-armament such as was indulged in by the Labour Government. It is these serious realities, and not the cheap party fripperies that are worrying the serious-minded people in this country. They are not worrying about the "Shinwell system," or the gyrations of various politicians. No student of economics can fail to be worried and perplexed about conditions in this country, which is crushed under the burden of re-armament. But we ignore these issues and decide to carry on as usual.

I tried to make an interjection during the speech of the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt). He saw not only the 175 divisions but another 30 or 40 which did not enter into the calculations of the Minister of Defence. He made a point which was also made by the Leader of the House. It is always made after hon. Gentlemen talk about the possibility of coming to an agreement with the Russians. They say, "The Russians are more agreeable to talk but we must not relax."

I am in favour of relaxing. When one is suffering from heart strain and this country is suffering from a kind of economic heart strain, the remedy is to relax. But we proceed as usual. The Russians will say "If we are to get peace and argue from strength we must not relax either," so in a few months' time we shall be in the same position again.

When the hon. Member for Aston, who disappears after giving the pontifical advice of a former Parliamentary Secretary, talks about having to meet the Russians in strength his counter-part in the Soviet Union will speak in the same way. We can quite understand the military-minded men in the Soviet Union saying, "Why should we relax? The other side are not." So the people of the Soviet Union and the people of the West are crushed under this burden of rearmament, but the Governments carry on as usual and pretend that these problems do not exist.

It is curious that there was hardly a mention of the atom bomb in this whole debate. I remember when it was difficult to mention the atom bomb in this House. I was told it was out of order to mention it when we discussed the Army and it was out of order when we were discussing the Navy. I was once nearly ruled out of order for suggesting that it came under the Air Ministry. We have completely ignored this vital fact in modern war, but when that is ruled out all talk of rearmament is simply irrelevant nonsense.

The only prominent politician who has ever faced up to the fact of the atom bomb as one of the deciding factors of modern warfare is the Prime Minister. In defence debates he used to say that allowing American bases in this country had put us in greater danger, and that six atomic bombs could destroy our economy. That was three years ago and the development of the atom bomb has gone on in Russia. I fail to see what defence scheme for this country is relevant if it neglects the prospects of another war and the probability of attack from the air.

What is the defence against the atom bomb? What is the defence against guided missiles? There is hardly one deep shelter in the whole of the country to which people could resort in the event of an atom bomb attack. The Home Secretary is present. This is murder on a bigger scale than that we discussed earlier. The Home Secretary has some responsibility for defence against atom bomb attack. I should like to know what steps he is taking to bring to the notice of the Government the fact that if we get an atom bomb attack, by the Russians or anybody else, we have hardly any means of defence in the way of deep shetlers.

The Government are still dithering about what to do about deep shelters. Great industrial cities like Glasgow have none. There we have a population of one million people almost defenceless in the event of atomic attack. These are considerations which should have emerged in the debate. They have been ignored. We have merely had a political sparring match. This is not defence policy at all.

We had an interlude from the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer), who argued that gigantic tanks were out of date. He said that we needed mobile anti-tank guns. Presumably, mobile anti-tank guns are needed for defence against tanks. The hon. and gallant Gentleman did not deal with the question that if the other people realise that the tanks are out of date the antitank guns will be unnecessary. In all these debates we have confused superficiality.

We are regimenting, mobilising and imposing a system of militarism on the country for no useful purpose at all. If we continue in this way, if we take manpower away from useful industry, if we take materials and skill away, we shall inevitably go into an industrial crisis from which no amount of rearmament is likely to save us. These are the considerations which should dominate the debate. We are not getting these matters attended to in a spirit of realism. The time has come when the Government should adopt a more realistic policy.