Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st August 1961.

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Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley 12:00 am, 1st August 1961

Two years ago I raised the subject of defence in the debate on the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill and last year there was an official debate. I do not apologise for doing now what I did two years ago, because we are on the eve of departing for the Summer Recess and it is important that our fellow-citizens should know what we are thinking and doing about this subject.

There are talks of crisis in Berlin. We have troops committed in Kuwait. We have had important speeches from President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev. We are half way through the year and we are going away and there will be no opportunity until the debate on the Queen's Speech to deal with this subject unless we seize this opportunity. I am grateful, therefore, to the Under-Secretary of State for War and I apologise to him for taking up his time. I am grateful to him not only for attending to the debate tonight but for many personal kindnesses shown to me and to my constituents from the Army who have come to see me.

If I have some hard things to say they are not addressed to the hon. Gentleman. They are over his head. My prime purpose is not to say hard things but to tell the truth as I see it, and to give the House, and, through HANSARD, my fellow countrymen the benefit of a debate on this matter because I am interested in it. I also have to thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) because I shall be able to make the same speech as I have made before. My conception of democracy does not arise from a belief in the sanctity of a majority decision but from my belief that there are only two ways of running human affairs, either by force or by persuasion. Because I believe in persuasion, I am by nature an educator and I want to elicit the facts.

There is a great lack of interest in this subject yet it seems to me to go right to the heart of our affairs. We have an economic crisis and yet during the lifetime of the present Administration £15,000 million have been spent on defence. If we now had only a fraction of that money all our economic difficulties would disappear. I believe that we cannot understand the controversy about the Common Market or the economic crisis unless we get to grips with two things. The first is the decision on German rearmament and the second the proposals in the 1957 White Paper.

My version of affairs in this connection runs something like this. Through the kindness of my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), I went to Washington and Brussels and sat in at the Defence Ministers' Conference when there had been a remit from the Foreign Ministers about acceptance of the principle of German rearmament. One the eve of that conference, M. Pleven came out with the Pleven Plan because France knew something about German militarism. The French came out with the preposterous suggestion of integration of German and French forces at unit level. It was a piece of nonsense which did not make any progress.

The French were frogmarched, as many in this House were frogmarched by ignorance of the facts, into acceptance of German rearmament on the basis of a pledge given by the Government, with the agreement of some of my hon. and right hon. Friends, in October, 1954, to maintain on the Continent of Euroep four divisions or their equivalent. I opposed it not because I am against the arming of Germans as such but because we knew from the start, on information about the military factors that we should welsh on that undertaking and because I believed that the consequences would be grave.

French opinion said, "Right. If we have to integrate with the Germans, let us tie our economies together". So we had the idea of the Common Market. The Foreign Office and the Treasury, true to form throughout my lifetime, managed to be wrong on every issue connected with it. Firstly, they did not believe that it would come off. Then they believed that if it did come off it would take a long time. Thirdly, they believed that if it did come off after a long time its effects would be limited. In fact, it has come quickly and it is overwhelmingly successful. The position now is that this country, "bust" economically and from the military point of view in a derisory situation, has to crawl on its belly into the Common Market because it is afraid of the consequences if it cannot fit itself in.

As for the four divisions, we cannot pay for them and we do not have them. The four divisions became over night 77,000 men. The 77,000 became 64,000. They became 55,000 and then they became 45,000. That was too much for the Council of N.A.T.O. and so we pay lip service to the 55,000 but have never had them there, though even today on the record they are 55,000. In fact, they are about 50,000 and from four divisions we have come down to less than three. It is nonsense to say that these are capable of fighting or holding an aggression. They could not fight for more than thirty days. They have no more than thirty days' supplies. They completely lack services and they are committed to fighting only one kind of war—an atomic war. We are told that we must arm to parley and must speak from strength. I believe that there is no way of getting this right except by getting the great mass of our fellow countrymen to understand to what they are committed. I reel off these figures but they are all available either in the White Paper or in Ministerial Answers. There are many other things about which there is ignorance on both sides of the House. As an example, I noticed in the Guardian of 20th July a report that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd), with representatives of A.S.S.E.T., were launching a campaign for a British supersonic transport aircraft. This struck a chord in my memory, and I looked up the OFFICIAL REPORT of another place of 9th May, 1957, when another place was debating the 1957 White Paper. On that occasion Lord Tedder said: I believe that"—