Defence Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th April 1956.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 20th April 1956

I beg to move, That, in view of the heavy burden of taxation and the need for reducing Government expenditure, this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make substantial reductions in expenditure on the Armed Forces and armaments. This is the time of the year when we hear a great deal from hon. Members on both sides about the need for economy and the heavy burden of national expenditure. By the luck of the Ballot I have been able to introduce this Motion, which I hope will receive wide support as well as criticism from both sides of the House, which look at the question from very different angles.

Defence is one of the heaviest burdens that fall upon the British taxpayer. It amounts, and has amounted during the last few years, to £1,500 million a year. It is difficult to explain this colossal sum in the abstract, but it works out at 12s. per person per week. A family of five has to pay £3 5s. per week for the defence burden at a time when a family of five in a municipal house can look forward to increased expenditure on rent and rates and an increase in the cost of living. It is a very substantial burden on the ordin-taxpayer. We are spending £125 million a month, or more than £30 million a week, or more than £4 million a day, upon the defence services and the Ministry of Supply.

There can be no argument that it is a very substantial sum. The need for its reduction should be apparent to every hon. Member. It means that we must have a big army of 750,000 men in the forces and another big army in industry estimated at more than half a million, as well as guns, tanks, planes, warships and all the equipment of war. It means also up to 1¼ or 1½ million men employed in non-productive work at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is stressing the importance of work and exports and the need to devote all our energies to the solving of our economic and financial problems.

The economic argument is that these men would be better employed producing the goods which are needed to pay for the raw materials for British industry. They would be better employed on productive and useful work than in the Armed Forces or preparing for the Armed Forces. We are being told about the need to compete in foreign markets with such countries as Western Germany, but we have to remember the colossal burden which is on the shoulders of the nation. On Tuesday, when the Chancellor introduced his Budget, I heard over the morning's wireless that the defence budget being introduced in Western Germany amounted to £510 million. We are spending three times that amount. There is still a great deal of mystery as to what is likely to be paid in future in respect of our occupation of Germany.

If we are to spend three times as much on defence preparations, the Armed Forces and other military preparations as Western Germany is spending, we shall be hopelessly handicapped in competition with Western Germany. Germany has lost two wars, but within the next decade, if we are not plunged into another war, Germany will be in a good position to win the economic fight for the markets of the world. We should, therefore, be stressing the need to reduce the economic burden. We are doing a service to the nation by examining the huge bill from every possible aspect.

The Chancellor told us on Tuesday that he had come to the conclusion that £100 million could be cut from national expenditure this year. It was interesting that he referred to that in his reference to the defence services. Many hon. Members examined all these Estimates in the debates earlier this year and we did not see the Chancellor taking any interest in economy then. As a matter of fact, I deputised for him and tried my best to impress upon the Service Ministers the need for economy and for less extravagant demands. It appears that, after all, I was right to some extent, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, "The House of Commons has given too much to the Armed Forces. We can lop off £100 million." He proceeds in that casual way to admit that the Ministries asked for too much. Many of us are beginning to wonder whether the defence Ministries are not exaggerating their needs and coming here with inflated Estimates. Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes along and knocks off what the Ministers really do not require.

I welcome this interest by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this huge bill. What is he going to do? He talked about the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer uniting to bring the Service Ministers on the mat and say, "Your Estimates are too heavy. Will you kindly reduce them?" One Minister that I see on the Front Bench now speaks for the Admiralty. I can imagine the Prime Minister and the Chancellor reading what we said in those debates, looking up HANSARD, and calling that Minister before them and saying, "You represent the Admiralty. What is this extravagance that they talk about concerning the 'Britannia'?".

They may put this question to the hon. Gentleman, "Why are you sending the 'Britannia' round the world at a cost of £1,250 a day?" Then the Minister will produce the argument which he produced to this House and will say, "It is really a hospital ship and it is necessary for it to go round the world on this tour." That is the sort of gruelling to which Ministers will be subjected when they examine these Estimates. I do not profess to know the answer to that one, nor does anybody else, in the Navy or out of it. It is impossible to justify expenditure of that kind on the assumption that the vessel is going round the world as a hospital ship.

The question is how we can substantially reduce this £1,500 million a year. Even if the Chancellor's proposals applied entirely to the Service Departments—and I understood that the £100 million was to be spread over all Departments, civil and otherwise—what does it mean? I rather think that when the Chancellor fights his battle with the Service Departments they will come out victors and that the £100 million reduction will be found to be at the expense of the social services and the Civil Estimates.

As far as I can remember, there has been only one Conservative Minister who has fought a determined fight against exorbitant military expenditure. That was Lord Randolph Churchill. I always thought that he was the most enlightened member of the Churchill dynasty. Unfortunately, he lost. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said that the military bills were too heavy. He won his battle against the Admiralty, which reduced its bill by £500,000, but he lost his argument with the War Office and was forced to resign. He was a really courageous and patriotic Chancellor. We have never had another Conservative Chancellor as intelligent as Lord Randolph Churchill.

I cannot imagine that the present Chancellor and Prime Minister are going to win their battles with the powerfully entrenched vested interests at the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry. They are too orthodox and too conventional politicians to make fights of principle of that kind. I predict that they will lose unless they adopt some of the suggestions that I propose to make.

What is the overriding idea behind this huge bill? It is that we must continue the cold war and prepare for a possible hot war against the Soviet Union. I think everybody agrees that it would be a good thing if the conversations now taking place in London came to a head on the question of disarmament. I hope the Prime Minister will be able to persuade the leaders of the Soviet Union that they are spending too much on the U.S.S.R. armed forces, and I hope that, on the other hand, Mr. Bulganin and Mr. Khruschev will be able to explain to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that if they continue the present huge expenditure they will face an economic crisis and capitalism will disappear in that way without a war.

At any rate, I hope that we shall continue to press for substantial reductions in armaments in all countries of the world, realising that their needs are like ours. If the Soviet Union is to fulfil its five-year plan, it needs as many men as possible in productive work in order to rebuild the standard of life of the Soviet Union. The same applies here. I believe it would be a good thing for the Soviet Union to reduce her arms bill in the same way as I believe it would benefit our people if we did it here. The standard of life of the peoples of both countries would stand to gain as a result of such action.

We must not forget that, even with all the Chancellor's economies, our arms bill will still be £1,400 million a year. It will still mean 11s. per head of the population per week. A family of five in a municipal house will still be paying £2 15s. per week towards armaments.

We must try to peer into the future for five or ten years and look at the possibilities. Nobody could seriously argue that we are today winning the arms race against the Soviet Union. Somehow or other, the industrial and military potential and the technical resources of the Soviet Union are growing. General Gruenther has recently admitted that we are falling behind and that next year Russia's armed strength will be greater than before, and there is not the slightest reason for believing that in either 1960 or 1965 we shall be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

I do not want to go into very complicated figures, but I suggest that people who look at the matter from the point of view of the scientists in the nuclear age, and not from the point of view of military and naval men, who are still thinking on the basis of ten or fifteen years ago, realise that the tremendous advance in technical education in the Soviet Union means that if the arms race goes on, putting it very moderately indeed, we shall not be in a superior position in five or ten years' time.

Sir John Cockcroft told us last week that the output of graduate engineers in Britain is 2,800 a year, in the U.S.A. 23,000, and in the U.S.S.R. 53,000. Therefore, if we embark upon this tremendous expenditure in the nuclear age nobody can say with any confidence at all that as a result of spending thousands of millions of pounds between now and 1960 we shall then be in a position to negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of strength.

Sir John went on to say that Russia produces 78,000 technicians annually against Britain's 9,000. He went on to say, very significantly, that the power of the U.S.S.R. in a world where military power is stalemated may well in future depend more on its big battalions of technologists than on the classical methods of power politics.

Sir Miles Thomas, whose speech was reported in the same issue of the Daily Telegraph, said that for every 1 million of population we were turning out each year 57 new graduates in engineering compared with 70 in France, 82 in Switzerland, 86 in Western Germany, 136 in the United States and 280 in the U.S.S.R. It is from that background that we ought to examine all our military expenditure.

How far is our expenditure of £1,500 or £1,400 million relevant to strategical concepts and war in the atomic age? Looking at this matter, I believe that the economic general staff which the Chancellor is setting up would decide that the time had come when a very large part of this expenditure was completely irrelevant to the military situation existing in the world today. We should change our basic assumption; we should say that we rule out the idea of fighting the U.S.S.R. as being suicidal, just as we rule out the idea of fighting the United States.

I am very glad to note that some statesmen of the West, Ministers like M. Pineau and M. Mollet, are realising that the emphasis has not to be placed so much on defence expenditure as on a new diplomatic initiative and a new line in foreign policy. I suggest that if we examine that basic assumption, we will be able to make some contribution to the lessening of military expenditure.

What about the other kind of expenditure? For example, let us take the question of Cyprus, which the Americans have described as an example of the old type of 18th and 19th century colonialism. According to some figures given to me on Wednesday this week by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on our military expenditure on Cyprus, £20 million has been spent during the last 18 months—since July, 1954—on Cyprus, and we have not nearly begun the big scheme of capital expenditure which is envisaged for the next few years We are already committed to a very large expenditure in Cyprus, but what is it costing us per week now? When I asked a Question about six months ago we were told that this expenditure was £200,000 per week, but we are now told that it has gone up to £390,000 per week. This is not only a running Gore in international politics, but is also money going down the drain.

What are we getting for our £390,000 a week? If it is to continue, and there is no evidence that it is not going to continue, it means expenditure at the rate of £1,560,000 a month, or £18 million a year in Cyprus alone. We have taken on an enormous liability in Cyprus. In terms of manpower, it means 20,000 soldiers, 10,000 of whom are National Service men. These are young men, and 20,000 is a considerable number. I maintain that these men would be more usefully employed in British industry at the present time.

Every day news comes from Cyprus of new bomb outrages and new shooting incidents. The Government defended the deportation of the Archbishop on the ground that it would help to restore law and order, but since the Archbishop was deported the weekly sum appears to have gone up. If it has gone up by about £100,000 a week since the Archbishop was deported, then I think it is time that we got some new strategic advisers and took our advice from the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than from the Colonial Secretary.

What are these men doing? They are searching houses, surrounding villages and chasing schoolboys, and there is hardly a newspaper in the world which has not had a picture of a comparatively small schoolboy being marched off under arrest by two soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry. This is not creating any good-will in the world. From the financial point of view, I suggest that Cyprus has become a liability and that the sooner we change our policy and bring back the Archbishop, the sooner will this expenditure be likely to cease.

I remember meeting the Archbishop at a meeting we had upstairs and discovering that the Archbishop himself was not against the military base in Cyprus. When the time for questions came at that meeting, I asked him, "As an Archbishop, why are you not against the base?" It was a rather surprising question for the Archbishop, but he rose to the occasion, for he replied, "Why is the Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of American bases in this country?" My opinion of the Archbishop as a politician went up as my opinion of him as a Christian went down. The financial and economic consequences of the deportation of the Archbishop amount to £18 million a year.

If any hon. Gentleman opposite had to give a long-term reason for keeping Cyprus, he would fall back on oil. I wonder if any hon. Members opposite have read the very interesting article in the Spectator, in which it is pointed out that there was no need to have a military base in Cyprus for the purpose of safeguarding the oil. One of the biggest consumers of oil in Europe is Sweden. The people of Sweden use oil and petrol for motor cars, motor cycles and motor boats to a greater extent per head than the population of this country. Sweden does not need an army in the Middle East in order to get her oil. Other countries in Western Europe have no military establishments in the Middle East, and the whole conception that we need a base in the Middle East from the economic point of view alone is, I submit, a delusion. When we begin to think in terms of economic and foreign policy and abandon some of these outworn strategic delusions, we will be on the way to reducing our defence expenditure to our economic advantage.

I suggest that the time has come when we are not entitled to spend the British taxpayers' money on the pretext of restoring law and order in Cyprus. About a fortnight after we had deported the Archbishop—because it would mean restoring law and order in Cyprus—a bomb was found in the bed of Sir John Harding, and a reward of £5,000 was offered for anyone who would give information. I suggest that the whole of our expenditure in Cyprus needs to be examined from the point of view of national economy.

What about our military expenditure in Germany? There is a good deal of mystery about it which, I hope, somebody will attempt to clear up. We are now operating a system of two years' National Service, but the Bundesrat has declared that in the new German Army there is to be a period of only 12 months' conscription. Are we going to send conscripts to Germany from this country for two years, incurring substantial expenditure, at least £50 million a year, while the Germans themselves have only 12 months' conscription? I think we need to re-examine entirely our expenditure in Germany to see whether we are getting our money's worth.

Apparently, in France, they have come to the conclusion that the whole question of N.A.T.O. needs to be reexamined, and if our Government look at the whole question involved in the Paris Agreements' again, they ought to think of the expenditure which this country is incurring. We are piling up huge bills. We are not taking soldiers away from Germany and sending them to Cyprus, but we are sending to Cyprus our young National Service men who are doing their two years, while, at the same time, France has told N.A.T.O., "We cannot keep our soldiers there, because they are wanted in North Africa; will you please now allow us to remove our soldiers from Germany and send them to North Africa?"

There is no reason for believing that the N.A.T.O. forces in Europe have been strengthened as a result of recent events. In fact, many of us have come to the conclusion—and in this we are joined by other people who do not share our point of view—that our whole commitments in Germany are a vast liability, unjustified on military or economic grounds, at a time when Germany is forging ahead, making inroads into our markets throughout the world.

If this is going on, if we are going to use our manpower in this way, Germany is going to win the economic battle and we shall be faced with a deteriorating standard of life in this country. The road will be open to a kind of Communism in this country—yet all this huge expenditure is sought to be justified on the ground that it is needed to prevent the growth of Communism.

I hope I have said enough to make hon. Members realise that there is great need for the Government to re-examine the whole question of their commitments, their military expenditure and their foreign policy. I could say a good deal more, but I am in a very moderate mood this morning. Hon. Members opposite in the defence debates made speeches which revealed a sense of grave disquiet about our present military expenditure. I notice that they have put down an Amendment which talks about preserving our military efficiency and meeting our essential commitments. What is military efficiency in these days? Judging from some of the speeches that were made from the benches opposite, there is not much military efficiency at present for this huge expenditure. When we are told in the Government White Paper on Defence that nobody really knows what could happen after a week of war, it is apparent that nobody knows what military efficiency means in the H bomb age.

Hon. Members who have put down this Amendment are retreating behind a smoke screen of platitudes and ambiguity. They talk about "our essential commitments". Our commitments are only essential in so far as they lead to the prosperity of the people of this country and to this country taking its part in the leadership of the world. Therefore, I believe that the House would be justified in giving very careful consideration to the Motion and that hon. Members opposite should give it their support.