Defence

Part of LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) BILL [Lords] (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1959.

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Photo of Mr George Brown Mr George Brown , Belper 12:00 am, 27th July 1959

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Bonham (Carter) talked a little earlier about "ad hoc-ing" along. He must have been thinking of the performance which he himself was making, because I have heard nothing better to describe it than that.

Like all hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) on the fact that we are having a debate on defence before the House rises. I congratulate him all the more because it is extremely difficult to get this done through the official channels. There are not enough Votes in defence, I suspect, for us to give it the attention officially which we ought to give it. We have far too few debates on this subject, and my hon. Friend is entitled to make whatever he can out of the fact that, but for him, the House would have risen without a recent debate on it.

Having said a nice thing about him, he will regard that as a proper opening for me to make my next comment. One of the things which always interests me about my hon. Friend is that, despite all the agreement which there is between him and me, he persists in picking on the little disagreement which there is between us and thus throwing me in the same bag as the Minister. Despite the small amount of agreement between the Minister and me and the large amount of disagreement, my hon. Friend persists in believing that there is no difference between us.

There are three people I include in this category. First, there is my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley. Secondly, there is my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), who has just left the House, no doubt to prepare the column which will appear in the Daily Mirror tomorrow or two days later. Thirdly, there is Mr. Massingham, who writes in the Sunday Observer and is probably the largest contributor to the increase in sales of the Sunday Times.

Those three gentlemen, by continually asserting that the Labour Party is in agreement with the Government on the major issues of defence, do a very grave disservice both to this party and to the real issues of defence. When I listened to my hon. Friend again talking about the 1957 White Paper and to his remarks that we were involved in it, too, I had to go out of the Chamber to look up HANSARD to remind myself of what I thought was true—that, on behalf of the Labour Party, I moved from this Box a Motion which said that the House declined to approve the White Paper for a number of reasons, one of which was the notorious paragraph 12 and the overemphasis by the Minister of Defence on the thermo-nuclear deterrent.

It is true that I have always accepted and still accept that a thermo-nuclear deterrent is essential to a defence policy for the west. It is perfectly true that I have always accepted that an independent deterrent on our part was also vital. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) and the hon. Member for Torrington raised the issue, which is an issue of foreign policy, in view of the changed situation, with the arrival of the fourth-Power problem in a real sense, whether it is appropriate as part of foreign policy to be willing to give up the advantages which I have always seen in terms of defence policy which stem from having our own independent deterrent in order to ensure that no fourth Power makes its own bomb and independently controls it.

It is quite true that this is a new position which our party has taken. It is no use pretending that the situation today is the same as that four years ago or even two years ago. It is an issue of foreign policy whether we try for multilateral disarmament with all the Powers of the world; and, if that fails, whether we do nothing or balance what we should lose by not having an independent deterrent of our own against what we should gain by eliminating the fourth-Power problem. We have to balance these things.

Only an idiot would stand at the Box this year and say that the fourth-Power problem has not come nearer, that we need not examine it and that we have not to balance the defence argument for one policy against the different argument for the other. This is the position of the non-nuclear club, and it is the position which we have tried to face. It has led us to produce the policy on foreign affairs to which reference has been made.

No Defence Minister has ever been or ever will be in a position to make his defence policy without regard to the foreign policy of the Government of which he is a member. As a famous gentleman once said, "Defence is only an extension of policy carried on by another means". Our defence policy will have to fit into the foreign policy which we make from time to time. We have said that we are not going back on what we said previously about the independent thermo-nuclear deterrent unless and until an agreement is reached great enough and sufficient enough in our eyes to pay for the change. If that does not arise, then the other proposition does not disappear; it remains until the new situation arises.

I therefore should have thought that there is no problem about this. If defence policy were to change for the Conservative Government, if an agreement were to be reached in Geneva by that Government, then the defence policy pursued by the Minister of Defence would have to change. That is the only sense in which we have put forward this new policy, and I think it is very sensible.

I have said this in order to get rid of the idea that we have wantonly thrown away our position. Having also got rid of the rather foolish argument that I am tied, and the Labour Party is tied, to the policy of the present Minister in his 1957 White Paper, let me return to other matters. I intervene in the debate partly because of some of the things said, of which that was one, and partly because this is possibly the final opportunity of placing on record—that lovely phrase which means placing it where we can read it but probably nobody else reads it—our judgment on the stewardship of this Government in defence.

The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely, who has remained with us, and the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Sir O. Prior-Palmer), who has not, both made references, one of them standing and the other sitting, to the position before the war and the fact that the Labour Party voted against the Service Estimates. I have said many times that for myself I will accept whatever guilt anybody wants to fasten on me for what happened before the war. I make no issue of it. I have my personal sense of guilt about it and nothing can wipe it out. I cannot say, as can my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, that I was a regular soldier. When all is said and done, however, the fact remains that the Conservative Party were the Government, that infallibly every year they were given their Supply and yet they sent the troops into action in 1939 with thirty tanks, or some similar ludicrous figure, in the British Army, hopelessly ill-equipped and under-armoured. They may blame us for not having been an Opposition as we should have been. The fact remains that the major guilt lies on the people who were the Government, who had the power, who spent the money, but who did not do the job. That, I think, is the answer to that kind of remark.

Further—and here, I think, the hon. and gallant Member did not listen carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley had to say—the reason why we go on raising this issue and lading ourselves open to the charge, which the hon. and gallant Member did not fail to make, about our spoiling the morale of the troops by raising doubts about their equipment, is that we have learned the lesson of the 'thirties. We, at least, are not walking that road again. Can the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely, with his hand on his heart, say that his party is not? This is our case and, with repect to him, he does not know enough about it to dispute it, whatever his son may tell him. He is in the same position as the rest of us. We get very little in the way of facts from the Government Front Bench.

So far as we can assess the position, we are very near that state of things again. This time, we are not acquiescing. We are not sharing the guilt. This time, we are making it perfectly clear that, whatever last-minute, death-bed attempts the Government may make to prepare plans that look better than their performance, the fact of the matter is that, in this year of grace, 1959, and, therefore, for several years ahead, the British Army is and will be under-provided in armour, equipment and transport.