Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st January 1963.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 31st January 1963

I should like to thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) for his courtesy and to sympathise with him. I think that we all know that he has sat in the House for two days intending to make a speech, which I am sure we shall now hear in the defence debate next month.

We are approaching the end of the first of a series of vital debates on the state of the nation. Next week we are to debate unemployment and the economic position and the following week the breakdown in the Common Market negotiations. This debate, I think the whole House will agree, has been serious and grave and important. There has been relatively little attempt to make party capital out of what is a grave national crisis. The Prime Minister will, however, at any rate allow me to say that of all the Government back benchers who have spoken only a minority have supported the Administration during this debate. While we shall go into the Division Lobby as a united party, the same cannot be said of the Government forces tonight.

This debate has raised three major issues, and it is to those that I want to address my remarks. First, there is the judgment of hon. Members on the adequacy, the Tightness, the correctness of the Bahamas Agreement and the exchange of Polaris for Skybolt. Secondly, the broader question, could Britain maintain the attempt to be an independent nuclear Power and, if not—if the attempt is, as we argue, a costly illusion—what are our defence priorities to be? The third question, the question which I think underlies the whole debate, which underlies the whole reappraisal which recent events have forced upon every hon. Member, of Britain's place in the world after Nassau, after Brussels and of its bearing on defence policy—I think this third issue is one which is relevant to what has been said by so many hon. Members.

I turn first to the Bahamas Agreement itself. Speaker after speaker, certainly from this side of the House and some from the other side, has made clear that what we are debating is the end of an era—of an illusion if hon. Members like to put it that way, certainly of the whole philosophy of the 1957 White Paper. Hon. Members have dwelt on the history of the 1957 policy. I shall refer to it only briefly.

That White Paper was, as we know, the Government's reaction to Suez. It was a conscious decision by a new Government headed by a new Prime Minister to undertake in the defence field a fundamental swing to reliance on thermo-nuclear policies. Since that White Paper we have had three Ministers. As it has happened, each of them has been prepared to chance our whole security on a single fallible weapon. The Commonwealth Secretary based everything on Blue Streak. The right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Watkinson) based his whole policy on Skybolt. The present Minister now bases his policy, or tells us he does, on Polaris.

I must remind the House, because this is relevant, that four years ago, in February, 1959, the Government consciously and deliberately rejected Polaris as the weapon on which our defence policy should be based. They made no secret of their reasons for doing so. The then Minister of Defence held a Press conference and briefed the Press very fully on why Polaris would be entirely unsuited to British defence policy. I have here an evening paper for 10th February, 1959, published just after the Prime Minister announced his mission to Moscow in February, 1959."Happy days", I suppose the right hon. Gentleman feels. This is what the headline says: Blue Streak wins. Britain rejects U.S. rocket. That was Polaris. Now Macmillan will talk from strength. "The Timesnext morning told us on the authority of the then Minister of Defence: Blue Streak is in. Polaris is out. We were told why, officially. This was said: Too little attention has been paid, it is said, to the limitations of missile-firing submarines. Why, for instance, should it be assumed that they will remain undetectable and invulnerable? Their numbers will be comparatively few because of their great cost, and the movements of a very limited force could be closely watched by an enemy. That was the considered judgment of the Government in 1959. Because of that considered judgment we have spent heaven knows how much on the development of other weapons. Now four years, three Ministers and £6,000 million later we have come back full circle. With"Faute de mieux"emblazoned on his standard, the Minister now affects to believe that Polaris is the answer to any Defence Minister's prayer, that we always wanted it and that if we did not we should have.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) reminded the House of the warnings we have given. The speeches of all of us on this side of the House are on record— in the Blue Streak debate, for example. I will not go over those arguments. I hope the Prime Minister will study them some day. I certainly remember the cry of rage last March when I asked Ministers if they really thought we were going to get Skybolt. Immediately the Press were told that messages had been sent to Washington asking that I should be repudiated; Washington would make clear that everything that I said was wrong. The silence from Washington was deafening. There was no repudiation.

Now Washington has taken its decision. Hon. Members have argued furiously for one or the other weapon system. Hon. and gallant Members here with great ability and great energy have argued the case for the aerial weapon. I sympathise with what they feel, but if the air lobby in Washington cannot reverse this decision hon. Members here have little hope.

Let me again state our position. We on this side of the House have not been arguing either for Polaris or for Skybolt. We support neither. However, I would ask the Prime Minister to be a little more forthcoming when he replies on the question of the costs that have been incurred, because the statement of the Minister of Defence this afternoon did not really satisfy any of our anxieties. The prospective British share of development costs on the A.3, the 2,500 sea mile range weapon, throws great doubt on the optimistic figures given both by the Minister of Defence and by the Prime Minister on television when they returned from Nassau.

The Timesonly yesterday said this: The question of Britain sharing the development costs of the Polaris missile was not raised at the Bahamas conference, it was learnt in Washington today. Indeed, the expectation of the Pentagon that costs are to be shared appears to have caused as much surprise in other interested departments here as it did in London. What is the decision? I think that the House has a right to know. For once, can we be told what we are in for before we start on the expense? I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Hon. Members who have served on that hard-working Committee will agree with me that we have spent too long reporting on case after case of optimistic estimates of missile costs which turned sour at the end of the day and involved a very, very heavy cost to the taxpayer. This afternoon my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) made what I thought was a damaging case on the question of costs. The Minister of Defence, if I may say so, was so busy with personalities that he never attempted to answer the points made by my right hon. Friend. I hope, therefore, that the Prime Minister, who negotiated this agreement, will make the facts clear to the House tonight.

I turn to my second, broader question; should we, as a nation, maintain the effort—be it reality or illusion—to remain an independent nuclear Power? The Government have presented their case— the whole of the Prime Minister's speech yesterday was really doing this—in terms of an answer to the question whether the missile we should have from the Americans should be Skybolt or Polaris. That is the question the right hon. Gentleman put and answered. Our criticism is not of the answer but that the question is wrong.

Let me restate our position. We can only make the contribution which it is our duty to make to Western defence if we cease these vain nuclear posturings. Britain's claim, her hope, of being an independent nuclear Power ended the day the Blue Streak project was scrapped, and my hon. Friends recognised that within a matter of hours. [Laughter.]It is on the record for hon. Members opposite to read. They can study the speeches we made and the Motion we tabled. They can also see how we voted—and there were no abstentions on this side of the House. From that moment nuclear status for this country became a costly pretence. How can one pretend to have an independent deterrent when one is depending on another nation—a reluctant one at that—-to supply one with the means of delivery? The Minister of Defence understands the point I am making. Although he is getting the means for his nuclear deterrent from the United States, only last April in Leicester he said: The Socialists and Liberals—there is little to choose between them"— How many hon. Members opposite fought under the label "Liberal-Conservative" or "Conservative-Liberal"? intend to rely for their defence in the main on the United States of America". That is what the right hon. Gentleman said. Is that not what the Nassau agreement is all about? The truth is, and I think that hon. Members opposite recognise this, that with the limited resources available to this country we cannot attempt all the separate and alternative missile systems one must go in for to have an adequate nuclear deterrent. The Americans can try twenty systems, and if three of them come off they are a nuclear Power. We tried one, Blue Streak, and it failed.

What is the argument for pretending to be an independent nuclear Power? Is it, firstly, because we want the right to use it in some private war of our own, independent of the Western alliance, against, perhaps, a non-nuclear nation— another Suez? Have not hon. Members opposite learnt? Have they in mind a war without allies, without the Commonwealth, condemned, as it would be, by world opinion? For my part, I acquit hon. Members opposite of that intention.

Is it that we think that this is an essential ingredient for Western defence? It represents a fraction, 1 or 2 per cent., of the Western striking power and the Polaris fleet—perhaps flotilla would be a better word—will be an ever smaller proportion.

We are told that the United States have a nuclear strength of 30,000 megatons T.N.T. equivalent. That is 150 tons T.N.T. equivalent for every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union. Are we really supposed to be making a significant contribution? Is there somewhere in the recesses of the Ministry of Defence a statistician carrying out his own contribution to the macabre calculus of megatons and mega-deaths, convincing Ministers that we are making a significant contribution to the defence of the West? If right hon. Gentlemen believe that our contribution is essential to Western defence, let me say that there is not a single one of our allies, or anyone else, who believes that argument, or takes it seriously.

Or is it the view that if we are in the nuclear club we shall be consulted; that we can claim that we are not as other men are; that we are a nuclear Power; that we shall be there when the big decisions are taken? Is that the argument? I should have thought that Cuba buried that illusion. Is it, then, the further argument that in this world of mutual deterrence we cannot trust our allies; that we must have the means unilaterally of triggering off a nuclear war that will ultimately force the hand of the Americans? If we thought that were the argument, we would reject it as fundamentally immoral—and, indeed, in this tightly-packed, vulnerable island, a prescription for suicide. That argument, again, I cannot think motivates right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I think that the answer is simpler— pathetic, perhaps, but not immoral. It is nostalgia. It is striving to relive our imperial greatness. Within the lifetime of older hon. Members we were once top nation, and it is not easy, even at heavy cost in terms of national security, to accept the facts of history, geography and economics. I think that the Prime Minister understands this. Nassau was not a willing agreement between partners; it was a reluctant sop thrown by the Americans to a Prime Minister who knew in his heart that what he was asking had no defence relevance, but who knew that he dare not return and face some of his more atavistic supporters without it. Even The Times,in its leading article last Wednesday, at long last and very belatedly, realises the essential fact that we should cease our attempt at nuclear pretension.

Having dealt with the arguments for, as put to us in this debate, let me repeat why, in our view—and I quote our own defence statement—Britain should cease the attempt to remain an independent nuclear Power. First, it is a wrong deployment of our national defence resources. Simply because we allocate our resources and equipment and our all-too-scarce scientific manpower to nuclear effort we have not the resources to honour our minimum national commitments. My right hon. and hon. Friends, and a number of hon. Members opposite, have in this debate, as they have in past debates, ruthlessly exposed the inadequacy of our conventional forces— their numbers, and the quality of their equipment—and all the evasions of the Minister of Defence will not conceal what our allies know to be true, and what a lot of hon. Members know to be true —that we are not making anything like our full contribution to N.A.T.O.

The Minister of Defence knows that perfectly well, and I put this to him. If he has any doubt about it, if he still thinks that we are making our full contribution to N.A.T.O., that our forces in Germany are properly equipped, mobile, and properly balanced—if he pretends that for a moment, I would suggest that he appoints a committee of hon. Members of both parties, and there are a number of them in all parts of the House who are widely respected for their military knowledge and judgment, from the Conservatives and Labour—and probably Liberals, too, for all I know. I suggest that he appoints that committee of hon. Members who are respected for their military knowledge, and that he gives them full facilities to make a tour of military installations in Germany and report back to this House— if necessary supplementing that report with a secret report for the Government.

I hope that when the Prime Minister replies he will tell us what he thinks of that suggestion, because there is a clear contradiction between the Government's complacency about our contribution to N.A.T.O. and the equipment of our forces, on the one hand, and what every hon. Member knows to be the fact on the other.

The inadequacy of our contribution to N.A.T.O. is not disguised, either, by the fiction of our strategic reserve, this force supposedly so mobile that it can ensure that men are in two places at once. The strategic reserve which is required now in the Far East, now in the Middle East, now for some other trouble spot, perhaps in the Commonwealth, is going to be required at a moment's notice to be the balancing force needed to make our contribution to B.A.O.R. It can be one or the other, but it cannot be both. The old conception of a stage Army where half-a-dozen minor actors moving quickly behind the scenes can represent the whole of Caesar's legions may be all right for a second-rate repertory company, but it is not a sound basis for Britain's defence policy.

The events of this week have shown it. These moves of skeleton formations to the Far East may or may not be adequate for their task. I am not competent to say whether they are not, but once they are in the Far East they are not available to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. One cannot fight a bush fire in Borneo and be available at a moment's notice to fill a vital defence role on the Rhine—not at the same time anyhow. And crises have a habit of coming not singly but simultaneously.

Last March, in the defence debate, I warned the House against the facile assumption that we can solve our problems by depleting our garrisons in other parts of the world. I mentioned Hong Kong, and I wonder whether anyone would argue today that I was then too alarmist in referring to the problem of Hong Kong. We have a duty as a House of Commons. Our conventional troops are stretched out dangerously as a tenuous red line all over the world. Their security and their contribution to our still scattered defence effort should count more in the final reckoning than nuclear prestige.

Therefore, this is point No. 1. We can, with our limited resources, either pay for the pretence of the nuclear deterrent or honour our commitments in N.A.T.O. and elsewhere. But we cannot do both.

Secondly, if we are laggard in our contribution to N.A.T.O. we immensely increase the danger that a conventional outbreak in Europe—perhaps based on a mistake, a gamble, a misunderstood signal, or perhaps an impulsive intervention by West Germans to aid their compatriots in the East, as very nearly happened in 1953, or perhaps an incident across the Wall—any one of these could rapidly escalate into nuclear war if there were not enough conventional troops for a holding operation. This is one of the big dangers. If Cuba had one lesson above all others, it was the need for time—for time to pause, to think and to realise. It is a barely disguised implication of British defence policy that a conventional attack in Europe would escalate quickly, too quickly, into nuclear war.

Thirdly, and we have stressed this again and again, the insistence on a British nuclear deterrent, the French insistence on a French deterrent at which, let us be frank, we connived last summer in a vain attempt to buy our entry into the Common Market—these have been damaging, I hope not fatal, but certainly damaging, to the hopes in this country, in the United States and elsewhere of all those who believe that it is vital to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Because of us, and France, the hope is fast fading of an enforceable world agreement limiting nuclear weapons to the two major nuclear Powers. That is what we feel ought to happen until, as all of us hope, we secure a world-wide comprehensive, multilateral disarmament agreement which outlaws the bomb altogether. When we think of Egypt with the aid of German rocket experts producing the means of delivering nuclear weapons over a distance of 350 miles and the inevitable reaction of Israel, when we think of China and other countries, we must recognise that any nation which, for an inadequate reason, insists on its own nationalist position in maintaining nuclear weapons is imperilling the chance of world agreement.

For these three reasons—because we consider it essential to fulfil our obligations to N.A.T.O. and cannot, because we want to limit the danger of escalation from conventional to nuclear war, because we regard it as vital to stop the spread of nuclear weapons—we reject the very basis and inspiration of the Government's defence policy.

Before I turn to the third main subject of this debate, I wish to deal with one other much canvassed scheme, the idea of a European deterrent, with or without Britain. I am here referring not to proposals for a N.A.T.O. deterrent but to the idea of a purely European deterrent developed and operated by European Powers only, whether including or excluding Britain. We reject this proposal.

We reject it, first, because it would lead to a dangerous diversion and would distract urgently needed resources of energy from N.A.T.O. itself into the new nuclear grouping. Second, it would cause tremendous strains within the West, since there is nothing more debilitating than an alliance within an alliance. Third, it would speed the creation of what is already more than an embryonic danger, a third force in Europe, narrow, nationalistic, intransigent, irredentist, revanchiste.Fourth, it would face the Soviet Union with the most provocative challenge the West could in its folly devise, a nuclear force which included, and might be dominated by, Germany.

I think that we have all referred at one time or another, some of us from quite deep personal knowledge, to the Russian obsession—I do not apologise for the word; it is understandable when one considers their history and their 20 million dead in the last war—about the Germans. I believe that to endow Germany with nuclear status would mean the end to our hope of easing East-West tension and a successful conclusion to the efforts now being made in East and West to make co-existence work. In spite of our preoccupation with weapons systems, which we have been debating this week, let us keep clearly before us the paramount aim, to mount successful negotiations between East and West.

We have a right to ask where the Government stand on these proposals for a European deterrent, including the nuclear rearmament of Germany. I make perfectly clear now where we stand. We are completely, utterly and unequivocally opposed, now and in all circumstances, to any suggestion that Germany, West Germany or East Germany, directly or indirectly, should have a finger on the nuclear trigger or any responsibility, direct or indirect, for deciding that nuclear weapons are to be used. That is a categorical statement, and I most earnestly press the Prime Minister tonight to make his reply equally categorical.

I turn, now, to the third question, what should our defence policy be against the background of our position in the world? If I look at it against the background of wider foreign policy issues, the House will, I know, agree that this is right. There is always a danger of these debates becoming so enmeshed in the details of weapon potentialities that we may miss the broader realities. When defence becomes the master of foreign policy, as it sometimes has in recent years, vision and realism alike are banished from our counsels. I make no apology, therefore, for widening, as, I believe, most hon. Members have in their speeches, the content of the debate to embrace our broader position and the foreign policy background of it.

First, as I have said before, and as all of us have said, we must make N.A.T.O.the centre of our defence policy in Europe. I ask the Prime Minister to deal with this in all seriousness and to be frank with the House.

What is our contribution in real terms to N.A.T.O.? How does the right hon. Gentleman assess it? Certainly not the four divisions of the 1954 commitment. Is he satisfied that it is anything like three in real and effective terms, having regard to equipment, balance and mobility, making no allowance, of course, for dependence on reserves in some miasmal background. Can he say whether we really have, or are likely to have, three divisions? Is he satisfied that we have two divisions in real and effective terms? I know that many hon. Members on both sides who have studied these matters would not answer categorically that we have effectively two divisions. This is why I press on the Prime Minister the necessity to send an all-party Committee to examine this and to report to the House.

I wish to ask the Prime Minister whether he knows that Germany's stated contribution to N.A.T.O. is twelve divisions and that there is a danger that it may be raised to eighteen if some people have their way. I beg the Prime Minister to tell us with all the authority of his office what in his view this would mean for Europe—for this country, too—if Germany has eighteen effective divisions with or without nuclear weapons and we have barely one-tenth of this in real terms.

Secondly, in all the discussions about the future structure and armament of N.A.T.O.—here I think we shall have a lot to discuss in future debates because the American proposals have not been fully worked out in any real sense—I think that we all agree that we must give a real priority to strengthening the machinery of political control. There is too much emphasis in current discussion about having more fingers on the nuclear button. This is the wrong approach. It is not more fingers on the button that we need; it is more fingers on the safety catch, more provision for consultation, for what an American defence chief recently called the consensus of the conditions in which the West's deterrent would be used, because we have to face this: Cuba proved our failure to devise methods of consultation in the West, and if the realities of the situation mean, as in our view they do mean, that the United States is the effective Western nuclear Power, the need for America to consult her allies is not less but greater.

I make no apology for reminding the House again of the, to many of us, fearsome comment of The TimesWashington correspondent at the height of the Cuba crisis, when he said: President Kennedy has dramatically emphasised his determination to act alone to defend United States and allied interests, wherever they may be threatened. The President has chosen to see the crisis as a direct confrontation of United States and Soviet power and, in effect, has assumed the supreme political authority that was always inherent in the American nuclear deterrent. If allies and neutrals should see a certain national arrogance in this posture, that is not the way the Administration views its actions. The firm belief is that as the leader of the alliance, with control of most of the nuclear power available to the West, it has a right and a duty to defend itself and its allies—-even to the extent of bringing about a nuclear exchange". These are very grave words for all of us, and I think the implication of them is not that America should not have the nuclear weapon nor that Britain should have the nuclear weapon, because we had one then, so we were told, and it made no difference to consultation. The implication is the urgency that there is for getting political consultation and political control in N.A.T.O. We must ask the Prime Minister: was this question discussed at Nassau? We must be told. Our American friends will understand in this vulnerable area of Europe in which we in this House live our preoccupation with the maxim "No annihilation without representation".

Third and last, we must come to terms with our real status in the world, and I know that the whole House will realise that neither past greatness nor present illusions will earn us either respect or influence in the world. The Prime Minister—and I always enjoy his historical references—frequently refers to Philip II of Spain. There is a lesson to be drawn from Philip II. Spain was not able to live long on nostalgia or on its past greatness. The respect that we earn and the influence which we can exert depend uniquely on the efforts that we ourselves make—and only we can make them—to build up our economic, political and military strength, because these are the true foundations of a country's strength.

A great British essayist once said: The most irrelevant thing in nature is a poor relation. The plain fact of Nassau is that the right hon. Gentleman was regarded as journeying there as a poor relation, and he need not have done and he need not have been, because in our view where Dean Acheson was wrong was to confuse the Britain we have become with the Britain we could be.

We shall soon be debating the lessons of Brussels. What we resent, and I am sure the whole House does and the Prime Minister showed it last night, is the spectacle of Britain being humiliated by nations which have exploited the image that we have given of a country which is exhausted, which is stale, which is incapable of putting forth her real strength whether in economic or defence terms.

Naked in the conference room is one thing; naked and shivering in the cold outside while others decide our fate is an intolerable humiliation. I said"image", for we do not accept that the image that they have gained of us is a picture of us as we really are. There is in this country an untapped resource of skill and craftsmanship, of science and technology, of design and ingenuity and of drive and determination which, if it could be mobilised by a calculated release of the nation's energies, could bring us once again to the leadership of the world. The same is true of defence policy. A wrong and pretentious defence policy leads to weakness. The right priorities in defence could immeasurably increase our influence.

A policy based on nostalgia means that we underrate where our real strength lies in the world today. I think—and I know that the Prime Minister does—that we could have a great deal more influence in Europe. One thing we have learned this week is that we have friends there as well as others. We could have a great influence in the Commonwealth. Our strength lies still in our potential leadership in the newly emerging world of nations which have come forward to nationhood in the last few years.

The Prime Minister has often said—and I am glad that he has said it and I do not mock him for it—that he desires to make Great Britain great. This is a noble aim and others share it. Our argument is about methods, not about the aim. We believe that a nation's greatness depends not on prestige military policies, but on the influence which we can exert in the forum of world opinion, and the forum of world opinion today is made up more and more by a lot of new nations not of the same colour as ourselves, but where we have the ability to influence decisions because of our unique contribution—and both parties have made it— to the retreat from imperialism, and because in the Commonwealth we have the greatest multi-racial community in the world.

This debate marks the collapse of a decade of policies which in our view have been wrongly conceived for the age in which we live. The Prime Minister in these last remaining months, or weeks, can make a unique contribution: he can make clear to the nation, with the authority which adheres to the office he holds, the true facts of our position in defence and in world affairs. He can do no more than that, because the crisis we face requires a united nation and a united Commonwealth, and for the past few months his Administration can no longer take the steps either to galvanise this nation or to unite the Commonwealth. His Administration is now too tired and too stale and the task must now pass into the hands of a party which bears no responsibility for the past, a party which is ready and able to face the challenge of the future.