Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st March 1960.

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Photo of Mr Konni Zilliacus Mr Konni Zilliacus , Manchester, Gorton 12:00 am, 1st March 1960

The hon. and gallant Member for Horn-castle (Commander Maitland) covered a great deal of ground, and made many interesting points. I shall resist the temptation to comment on them because I want to attack the fundamentals of the Government's defence policy, and to some extent the policy expressed in the official Opposition Amendment. I speak as one of the six sponsors of the unofficial Labour Party Amendment, and, like the other hon. Members who have put their names to that Amendment. I shall vote against the Government policy, but I shall not vote on the official Opposition Amendment.

The two Amendments have a good deal in common. They both say that we are spending a vast deal of money without any effective defence. I also agree that there is weakness and vacillation in the Government's nuclear strategy. But I do not agree that it is possible to produce a nuclear strategy which is clear-headed and consistent and which provides an effective defence. To my mind "there ain't no such thing." It is like trying to square the circle, or invent a perpetual motion machine. The thing is an impossibility. I therefore support the unofficial Opposition Amendment, which renounces a nuclear strategy.

The Amendment represents a coalition between the Centre and Left of the Labour Party, and although that combination may as yet be in a minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party I am convinced that it is already in a majority among party members in the country. That fact will become more clear at the next annual conference. I do not envy my right hon. Friends the task of appearing as the last of the Mohicans on nuclear strategy of the Labour Party, because I do not think that it will go down very well, or be easy to defend. I have not been convinced by the speeches of my right hon. Friends that they possess the secret of a nuclear strategy, exempt from vacillation and confusion, and providing effective defence at less cost. I do not think that any fair-minded person could contend that any such case has been substantiated by their interventions to date.

The basic reason why I object to a nuclear strategy is that I believe that in nuclear weapons man's destructive power has outrun his capacity to survive and, therefore, that to use nuclear weapons today is the worst possible evil in any conceivable circumstances. There is no defence against them. Our people have woken up to that fact since the four minute warning system at the Fylingdales station was announced. I see that the Star ran a competition asking what people would do with the four minutes. Most seemed to favour prayer, but I dare say one or two of my right hon. Friends would use those four minutes to revise Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution. The Home Secretary will have to spend his four minutes evacuating 12 million people—he will have to work fast.

Believe it or not, that is still the official policy of the Government. On 21st November, 1957, I asked the Home Secretary whether, in view of the announcement that there would be only five minutes' warning of an atomic attack, he would state how he would carry out the announced policy of the Government to evacuate 40 to 45 per cent. of the population of the highly industrialised areas, amounting to about 12 million people. The Home Secretary said that he thought there would be longer advance notice than I realised, and that in any case the Government were having discussions with local authority associations, and as soon as they had finished their discussions on evacuation policy he would make a report to the House.

That was over two and a quarter years ago. Since then my hon. Friends and I have frequently but vainly pressed the Home Secretary to report the progress of those discussions. So far as I know, they are still going on.

In the meantime, it became clear from the 1957 Defence White Paper onward, that the Government had given up the idea of active civil defence, that is, any attempt to defend the population against nuclear attack. They said, quite bluntly and frankly, that the thing was impossible, and so they would not attempt to do it. Instead, they would concentrate on defending the missile and bomber bases, although they admitted that by stationing those bases here they would attract nuclear attack.

They went further than that. In the 1958 Defence White Paper the Government pinned themselves firmly down to resorting to nuclear weapons first, in case of an undefined major attack, with conventional arms, upon an Ally, and in the ensuing debate they stressed heavily that either we were prepared to do that or it was no use having nuclear weapons at all.

I then returned to the attack, and on 26th February last year I asked the Home Secretary, in view of the fact that there was no active civil defence, and that the Government would resort to nuclear weapons first in pursuance of their nuclear deterrent strategy, what measures they proposed to take to dispose of the dead resulting from the nuclear counter-attack. I got a reply which, as usual, was what is known in this country as "waffle" and in the United States as "gobbledygook". I therefore asked a supplementary question, in which I said: … is it not the fact that the Government's policy is to resort to nuclear weapons against a major attack on any allied country by conventional arms without any attempt to defend the civil population against the consequences of that policy? Will not the Government make clear the measures they propose to take to burn, bury or otherwise dispose of the tens of millions whom they propose to immolate on the altar of their nuclear deterrent strategy?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1959; Vol. 600, c. 1272.] The Home Secretary replied with some heat that he could not accept the interpretation of the Government's policy contained in my supplementary question.

If that interpretation is incorrect I very much hope that whoever replies to the debate will be good enough to answer three questions. First, do the Government stick to paragraph 12 of the 1958 Defence White Paper? Do they still understand a nuclear deterrent strategy to mean that we must be prepared to use nuclear weapons first in case of a major assault with conventional arms on an allied country? The whole country, and certainly hon. Members on both sides of the House, will be relieved to have a clear and straightforward reply on that issue. I hope that we shall get one, although I rather doubt it.

Secondly, is it still the Government's policy not to attempt any active civil defence, but to say that since it is impossible to defend the civil population against nuclear attack they will confine themselves to trying to defend the bomber and missile bases? I believe that that still is their policy, but I should like to have a clear answer on that point.

Thirdly, what is the Government's passive civil defence policy? Has the Home Secretary achieved an agreement with the local authority associations about his evacuation policy? If so, will he tell us what that policy is, and how it relates to the four-minute warning of a rocket attack?

The mentality of the Government in this business baffles me. The present Defence Minister, when he was Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, made a statement so fantastic that on 19th November, 1957, I asked the Prime Minister: whether the speech made at Sunningdale last July by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to the effect that it was essential to resume the life of the country as quickly and smoothly as possible after a hydrogen bomb attack represents the policy of the Government. The Prime Minister replied: Yes, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1957; Vol. 578, c. 205.] Either he believes that that reply makes sense—in which case, without being irreverent, I would say that his head needs examining, or he does not believe it, and says it for the record and to appease public opinion—in which case his morals need taking to the cleaners.

Either way it is an intolerable situation. The Government's deterrent strategy means that they are prepared to plunge the population of this country into annihilation at short notice or with no notice whatever. They make no attempt at any policy for preserving the lives of the people. At the same time, in order to keep the people happy about this suicidal nuclear deterrent strategy, the Government go in for what the defence correspondent of The Times last year called a token civil defence policy. That is to keep the people happy with a lot of fun and games. I think that represents the acme of cynical frivolity and irresponsibility. I think it is quite wicked.

The whole of this defence debate has been appalling in its unreality. As I listened to the Minister of Defence making his speech it seemed to me that the right hon. Gentleman was mouthing clichès, platitudes and exploded fallacies with all the aplomb and assurance of a bishop uttering the eternal verities to his congregation. One exploded fallacy I find most difficult to endure is the crazy pretence that we shall prevent war by preparing for war—to deter war is the new phrase. We hear a lot about the great deterrent which will preserve the peace.

A perfectly adequate comment on this nonsense was contained in the speech made by Sir Anthony Eden in this House on 17th November, 1954, when he was the Foreign Secretary. That was at an earlier stage in this policy. The debate was on the subject of the inclusion in N.A.T.O. and the rearming of Germany. This is what Sir Anthony Eden said on that occasion: It seems to me that we are here engaged upon what has been for many of us, certainly for my generation in the House, a continuing task virtually all our lives. It is an effort to build an effective deterrent in Europe to any aggression. That was attempted before the 1914 war by the Entente, an act of statesmanship which, however, failed to prevent the First World War, … Again, after the First World War, … by what I suppose it would be right to describe as a revival of the Anglo-French alliance, by a Freudian slip he said "Anglo-German alliance" and had to be corrected— … we tried again to create a deterrent and once again we failed. This is yet another attempt to bring about the same result …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1954; Vol. 533, c. 397.] It will fail again. But whereas the deterrent on which we relied before the First World War was the dreadnought and the deterrent on which we relied before the Second World War was the bombing plane, today the deterrent, reliance upon which will land us in a third world war, is the hydrogen bomb. While we could survive the failure of the first two deterrent policies, there will not be many people left around to realise that they were wrong when the present deterrent policy brings about the inevitable result for the third time. Preparing for war is not the way to prevent war. It is a way to make war inevitable sooner or later, even when no one wants a war.

This deterrent policy is part of the policy of the balance of power, the policy of assuming that the vital interests of the other fellow are incompatible with your own, that he intends to try to impose his will on you by force and you intend to do the same thing to him. What we mean by "defence" is backing our own rights and interests by force and imposing our will on the other chap—"negotiation from strength" is what it used to be called. "Aggression" is when the other fellow tries to do the same thing to you. That is the classic ideology underlying every arms race. It underlay the last two. Every dispute becomes a diplomatic crisis, every diplomatic crisis becomes a threat to peace, and sooner or later there is a fatal incident. Sooner or later there is too much bluff and counter-bluff, someone's bluff is called too late for him to withdraw, and we are plunged into war.

That has been said by the Prime Minister and many other people. The right hon. Gentleman said it during his television interview with President Eisenhower on 1st September. He said that the danger was that in this situation of bluff and counter-bluff there would be a clash by mistake. The more we go on with this policy and build up a so-called deterrent which may be hair-triggered off, the easier it is for an accident to happen. Of course, an accident with nuclear weapons will be immediately fatal and irrevocable.

Is this appalling, futile and suicidal policy really necessary? Here is another extraordinary thing about this defence policy. There seems to be a new kind of Parkinson's Law operating—a sort of inverted one—that the bigger, the more tremendous, costly and deadly the military superstructure, the more puny the political reasons justifying it and the more contemptible are those reasons in terms of logic or reality. In Russian fairy stories one often hears of a witch dwelling in a cottage standing on chickens' legs. I believe that the fortress in which the witch doctors of N.A.T.O., S.E.A.T.O., and CENTO reside is resting on pipe stems, on justifications so flimsy, so baseless and foolish that they would be unbelievable if we had not actually heard them.