Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th February 1961.

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Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East 12:00 am, 28th February 1961

He said that the major part of the capital had been spent already—that in a decade scientific evolution was so fast that every year weapons were made obsolescent. This House will no longer accept that. We have had such remarks year after year, and year after year they have been falsified by events.

Tonight I want to deal only with two other problems, and those are the two great issues of this debate—atomic tactical weapons in Europe and manpower. I regard these as far the most difficult things the House has to face. The House has to face them with responsibility.

I would remind the House of where we have come in the four years since 1957. That was the year in which the Government launched their great five-year defence plan—what one might call the thermo-nuclear-Sandys period. We were then assured that we were to rely on the "big bang" for defence; we were to launch hydrogen bombs in the event of Russian attack. It was then pointed out from these benches below the Gangway that this was not only immoral but futile, because it was incredible for a country of Britain's size to make boasts like that.

In 1958 came the modification of the "big bang". We were, in addition, to have tactical weapons which were to be a substitute, from top to bottom, for conventional forces. We were to scrap, and we have scrapped, most of our conventional forces in order to substitute "nuclear streamlined forces". We were to substitute nuclear fire power for conventional fire power, not only at the top level of the strategic forces but right down to the division and the battalion.

This was a wonderful device for the Minister, because he would not need conscription. This was a delicious substitute for trained manpower. Even then, one or two of us simple "rats" and people with "guilt complexes" on both sides of the House begged leave to doubt whether it would work. We begged leave to point out to the Government in 1958 that the idea that we could rely on atomic tactical weapons as substitutes for conventional forces in Europe was an illusion because, quite simply, the Russians, too, would have the whole scala, and as soon as the Russians had them, any advantage was out. This was pointed out in speech after speech on this side of the House, but the Government pushed those speeches aside and said, "No, it is all right. These weapons will be an effective substitute for conventional forces."

After 1958, the policy was carried into effect. I must say that I laughed at the time, because this reliance was on weapons that did not exist. We were scrapping the weapons that did exist in order to rely on weapons that did not exist.

Now, in 1961, they are just beginning to come into the front line. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) on an admirable and terrifying description, which was not denied in any particular, of how these weapons are dispersed in Western Europe today.

Right down to battalion level and battalion targets we have atomic tactical weapons on our side, on the Western side—not on the Russian side—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members would listen to me, I am repeating an assertion that has been made, because I want to hear whether their information agrees with ours. My information is that the Russians have concentrated their tactical weapons under a separate command and keep a careful distinction between their conventional and their tactical atomic forces.

1 am told that in B.A.O.R. no such distinction is made because we are so weak, our conventional equipment is so bad, that we have to rely on the atomic tactical weapon in substitution for the tanks and anti-tank guns that we ought to possess. I make these assertions because they must be confirmed or denied by the Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Manpower."] I shall not shirk the question of manpower—we must face that, too—but we must first discuss the situation.

Is it or is it not the fact that the British Army on the Rhine has to rely and is relying on these atomic weapons today as substitutes for conventional weapons? Is it not the fact, as I am told, that the troops are trained there on the assumption that they cannot fight without those weapons? If it is not the fact, I shall be greatly relieved indeed that the strategy of the British Army on the Rhine is to fight a conventional war and its troops are to be trained to do so without reliance on tactical atomic weapons.

Because if this country's concept degenerates into a strategy where we are to rely on threatening genocide and not rely on conventional weapons, it is not only immoral but folly. After that, we shall have none of the morale of which the Minister spoke. We shall not raise the morale of the British people by telling them that we have organised them so that they cannot defend themselves without launching genocide—total anihilation. If the Minister tells me that he is confident that a tactical atomic weapon can be used against a tactical target on the partition line in Germany without launching a third world war, I will listen, but I shall need much persuading.

There are many people, not only here but in America, who have come to the conclusion that we cannot rely on the tactical weapon without the risk that it will escalate to the big bang. We think that because of the risk of the escalation from the small weapon to the big weapon we must not rely on these tactical weapons in the first instance but on conventional weapons to defend ourselves. That is the situation, and that is the challenge—and to it we have these juvenile debating replies about "rats" and "complexes".

Let us talk now about manpower, because the problem is whether we can get back to a decent defence strategy and get N.A.T.O. to recast its strategy without drastically changing our manpower demands.

There are people who quite genuinely believe that we should not do anything drastic about abandoning reliance on the nuclear weapons until we have the conventional weapons. But the truth is that we will never get rid of our dependence on nuclear weapons until we repudiate the strategy that requires their use.

We all know that M.C. 70 was the N.A.T.O. directive in 1958 by which N.A.T.O. made itself dependent on these nuclear weapons and organised and trained units of all armies, including the German Army, in the use of these dual-purpose weapons. Today we are operating under that directive which trains Germans and ourselves in the use of these weapons in the field and bases all strategy on first-strike use. As long as that is the strategy of N.A.T.O. it does not matter how many conventional forces there are—that will be the strategy.

Our first job as a nation, therefore, is to scrap that strategy. We have to persuade our allies that the present strategy is suicidal—and many of them do not need persuasion. I know some Germans to whom the prospect of being given the first opportunity of firing these weapons against Leipzig and Dresden is not at all welcome. They do not either want to launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles from their country and then be wiped out by the Russians. I have not found any enthusiasm in Germany for the nuclear strategy of N.A.T.O. I have found Germans who will say, "As long as we have the strategy we will join in with the others". But many say that the sooner we get rid of a mad strategy like this the better for all concerned.

If we are prepared to tell N.A.T.O. that we want to adopt a non-nuclear strategy in Europe and are prepared to consult our allies frankly and honestly about the manpower required, I am sure we would get a tremendous response from everyone on this side of the world. And from the Americans as well because the Americans also have seen the danger of this nuclear strategy and they, too, want to see strong conventional forces in Europe.

We therefore come to the problem of manpower. Here, I agree entirely with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East. But since the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), in a speech that I was sorry to miss, challenged my personal position, I must remind the right hon. Gentleman of something. It is quite true that in 1957, when we had not yet got rid of conscription, I was one of those who warned the House against the policy of depending on nuclear weapons. I said that if by postponing the end of conscription for two or three years we could avoid a strategy depending on nuclear weapons I was prepared to consider it, if that was the price that had to be paid. It seemed fair and sensible to me, and I wish that more had said it then.

Now, that is over. To be realistic, in peacetime I do not see conscription as a practical possibility, even if it was desirable to restore it. That is my opinion. I therefore do not think we can have it now. But we must find other ways of doing the job. I must, however, tell the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw that that means one thing. As I said at that time, without extra men raised by conscription the combination of a decent conventional force in Europe and the maintenance of our imperial commitments is totally impossible.

That is our trouble, and that is the trouble in which the Tories find themselves. If we do not want conscription to come back we shall have to cut our overseas commitments faster even than the Prime Minister is doing—and he is moving quite quickly. Those commitments will go even faster, because if there is one thing worse than cutting a commitment it is theoretically keeping it but not being able to fulfil it.

What is the good of saying that we promise to defend Hong Kong, Singapore, the Maldive Islands, Aden, the Persian Gulf, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar and Central Africa when our promise is valueless because we simply have not the manpower, first, to fulfil our pledge to N.A.T.O. and to save N.A.T.O. from nuclear strategy by introducing conventional weapons there, and, secondly, to man up all these overseas commitments?

I have said outside the House, and I repeat it now, that for me the solution is relatively easy. As a Socialist I see no difficulty in getting rid of a number of what I might call "fag end" Imperial commitments. I do not say all of them, but in my view a great many of these commitments bear no military reality at all. I do not believe that in any future war the security of Australia and New Zealand would be assisted from this country by a base in Singapore. I do not see us playing a rôle in Far Eastern strategy with the kind of forces the Government intend to have. It makes no sense at all. If we are to have a tiny Regular Army, that is the kind of commitment we should consider very carefully.

I say something else. It is no good pledging oneself to defend law and order in Central Rhodesia if one has not the men with which to do it. The Government will have to make up their mind either to introduce legislation to get the men, or to stop promising to do what they cannot do without general mobilisation. That is the fact which hon. Members on both sides of the House ought to push into the Government's head. The Government cannot fulfil these commitments. The right hon. Gentleman laughs when he is told that he cannot do it, but let the Minister get up and show how, with that number of troops, they could deal with even two minor troubles outside Europe. Look at what happened with Suez. Who says that the forces we have now are much better, or stronger, or more effective than they were at the time of Suez?

There is the choice. It is not a choice for the Opposition, but a choice for the Government. They have spent the last four years on their great five-year plan. They started by promising cheaper and better defence, and no need for extra manpower. Every one of their promises has gone wrong. Defence costs more, and not less. Instead of having a great big deterrent, we doubt whether they will have an independent deterrent, after wasting millions on it, within the next few years. As for getting on without men, they are now in the situation where, because of their colonial policy, they are on the edge of a crisis in Africa, knowing that if two divisions were required there they could not put them there. It is their crisis. The function of a defence debate is to concentrate on this question and compel the Government to answer it, That is why this Motion of censure has been moved.