Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th February 1964.

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Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley 12:00 am, 26th February 1964

Yes, and a company of the Scots Guards was put in to make up the strength. They went in three companies strong, and there were 480 men.

I want to read a letter—I hope that hon. Members opposite will cheer this. It is from Headquarters, Southern Command, it is dated 15th August, 1959, and this is what the Commander-in-Chief wrote to all his commanding officers: You will have noticed the unsatisfactory trend in Regular recruiting during the last few months. Unless this is reversed, we shall find ourselves in a very serious situation in 1962 when we are due to reach our ceiling of 180,000 men. If we fail, either the strength of units which we believe to be the minimum will be reduced, or order of battle will need to be cut. The effect of any such action on our general efficiency and our ability to undertake our commitments must be clear to all of us. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Commander-in-Chief.

The facts are quite simple and clear. On 3rd March, 1959, the then Secretary of State for War, thinking the Cyprus crisis was over, used Cyprus as an example. I cannot think that he would have been so candid if he had thought there was any danger that the Cyprus crisis would return. He said that experience in Cyprus had shown that it was necessary to keep battalions at a strength of over 700 men. He said that he would raise the minimum ceiling strength of the Army from 165,000 to 180,000, the figure mentioned by General Poett in his letter. He said that 11,000 of that extra 15,000 would go to the "teeth" arms, that the figure for the infantry would be 8,440, and that the peace establishment would be raised to 774.

But we also have evidence from another newspaper the Daily Express. The author of that article was Field Marshal Lord Harding, who should know a little about Cyprus. On 29th July, 1960, he wrote an article headed, "My Urgent Memo to the New Cabinet". Perhaps the Cabinet did not receive it. The former Governor of Cyprus, and a former C.I.G.S., protested against the Duke of Wellington's Regiment going overseas with a strength of 635 and said that its low strength would affect its efficiency. That is also what the then Secretary of State for War said in March 1959.

But the present Government have sent out battalion after battalion to Cyprus and other stations with establishments much below minimum requirements. I know that some of my hon. Friends think this does not matter, so long as the men succeed in doing their job. They say that the proof of the pudding is in performance. Let us see what that means, in terms of a battalion which is under strength. The reason why Lord Harding protested, and why the Secretary of State for War said that a battalion of 700 was too low, is that before a weak battalion has served very long overseas its strength sags still further. Thus strengths are falling all the time and, with it, efficiency falls as well. The chaps remaining do one night on guard and one night in bed. They get "browned off". Already we have had signs of growing inefficiency in Cyprus. I put down a Question to the right hon. Gentleman about the theft of self-loading rifles from the S.S. "Livorno," in Cyprus. They were modern weapons, and 59 were stolen because there was no guard in Famagusta. I do not know what the circumstances were, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will set up a court of inquiry. Certainly there does not seem to have been any great efficiency in safeguarding those weapons. I blame nobody, but it is a warning sign.

Hon. Members opposite cheer at the prospect of battalions being sent to trouble spots overseas 25 per cent. or more below the figure that the Government themselves have said was the lowest figure for safety. They are taking risks—with what? With their political reputations? They are not risking anything there. No: as has been shown all through this century—and I have protested about this time after time—they are taking risks and are gambling with the efficiency and the safety of the Army. They did it at Chanak, in Palestine, in China, and in Egypt, and we found that they had done it when the war broke out. Sob stories were told in order to placate the feelings of hon. Members opposite. Their passions were aroused. One only needs to wave a Union Jack and they kept quiet. But the facts are there and cannot be disputed.

The battalions in Cyprus now will not get any stronger. I have the greatest sympathy and respect for the Secretary of State for War. He is in a hot spot because his recruiting figures are not good enough. His wastage this year is higher than it was last year. We were told that we would have 55,000 men in the Rhine Army, but there is no prospect of that, and there is no prospect of the minimum ceiling of 180,000 that General Poett talked about in his letter, being reached either this year or next year. Yet the bill goes up, or it is wangled in order to make it politically acceptable to Government supporters and to the country.

I now turn to the question of the deterrent. It is the oddest question, because the Government have succeeded in fooling their supporters—and, they hope, the country, but they will not succeed in that because Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that you cannot fool all the people all the time. What they do is to emphasise one word, and that is "abolish". They say that the Liberal Party and my right hon. and hon. Friends want to abolish the British independent deterrent. My case has always been—and it was not so very long ago that I was in a minority of one on this side of the House—that we "can't abolish what there ain't". For there never was an independent British deterrent. The trick was always played, and it has been played here again this afternoon—and the hon. Lady falls for it—that we are talking about that as if that is available now, when what we really mean is that we hope that it will be at some time in the future.

After all, one has only to look at the form. In 1957 everything was going to be added unto us by the independent British ballistic missile. First, it was not British. I said it in our party meetings, and defence group, and in the House, but nobody paid much attention. They were all persuaded, because everyone was arguing from his own political position, that it was British and that it would he independent. It was, in fact, the American Atlas, which, incidentally, the Americans are now phasing out because it is obsolete. Thus, if we had succeeded in 1957 with Blue Streak we should have produced the biggest white elephant that the world has ever seen, and at even greater cost than the £100 million it cost to cancel it.

Then we had Blue Streak and when that was cancelled we had Skybolt. Hon. Members opposite presented that weapon as if it were a plane-borne version of Blue Streak. But all they have to do is to borrow a copy of Mr. McNamara's speech, which spells it all out. Skybolt was not a weapon in the sense that Blue Streak was a weapon. It was a defence suppressent and at a range of 1,000 miles it would have destroyed the defence which the aircraft would have had to meet. Skybolt thus presented the possibility of an aircraft being able to bomb over the target.

The hon. Gentleman frowns, as if he does not understand. That probably means that he has never read Mr. McNamara's defence speech. This is what Mr. McNamara spelled out. When Skybolt goes up comes Polaris, the very thing that years before they had taken every opportunity to denigrate. Then of course when a little gap opens up we have Blue Steel, and fall back on the Press again. The Manchester Guardian, which ought to know better, and the Evening Standard, which never does, come out with stories that Blue Steel has a range of hundreds of miles. If Blue Steel were able to go more than 140 miles, the plane's pilot would have to spit on it to make it go a little faster and further. It is impassible that it could have such a range, and the idea that it adds anything to the British independent deterrent or that it adds to our prestige in the Kremlin or the Pentagon is nonsense. Affairs in those places are directed by people who know what it is about.

In any case facts known about atomic weapons are not put out for consumption in Russia or America any more than facts about the strength of units in Cyprus are put over for consumption abroad. Obviously the Russians know the strength of the units in Cyprus and so do the Americans. The only people who are not allowed to know are the British public and hon. Members of this House. Never in any circumstances must they be told. Again, my hon. Friend made a comparison between what Mr. McNamara told the Americans and what be gave to the Americans, for he gave information weapon by weapon, service by service and related details to general principles —because Mr. McNamara treats the Americans and American Congressmen as if they are adults. He wants their support and he wants them to know the facts. He realises the difficulties of defence politics and wants the Americans to help him. But here decisions are made in the light of expediency. At all costs the truth must not be given because it would be too ghastly for Conservative candidates to face the electorate with the necessity of telling them the truth. So what we get involved in, and caught up in, year after year, is arguing about a picture which is as remote from the facts as possible. This means the bill is high and the defence results low.

Before brig my hon. Friends will be speaking from the Government Dispatch Box. Let them now promise nothing. There are difficulties which will have to be faced and the country must face them, for there is no quick answer, and anyone who goes onto a platform and says that all that is necessary is to vote Labour and then everything in the defence field will be put right is telling an untruth. It cannot be done.

The problem is one of a legacy of 12 years of sloth and ignorance. I will not say more than that—it is enough to get on with. The consequences are apparent. Hon. Members opposite twit us, as one hon. Gentleman did today, and ask where we stand about conscription. But anyone who asks that question should read the Army Reserve Act of 1962, for it is the only thing which enables the Government to be cocky for they could call up the National Service men or the "Ever-readies", if they had the guts to do so, but they cannot do even that.

Ideas advocated by hon. Members opposite or by me in the past have little relevance in the existing circumstances. For if overnight we introduced selective service of a more positive and sensible kind than is implicit in the Government's 1962 Reserve Act, that would not increase the strength of the battalions in Cyprus or in Borneo for a long time to come. It would not recall the 51st Brigade from Borneo and replace it on Salisbury Plain. Neither would it bring back the Gurkhas. It certainly would not fill in our manpower gaps in 1964. The weaknesses are there in terms of equipment and manpower. The only thing which the country can do is to get rid of right hon. Gentlemen opposite in the quickest possible time and then honesty and patriotism will demand that right hon. Gentlemen opposite give us support to put right the mess which they have left for us to inherit.