Armed Forces

Part of Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1964.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Eden Mr John Eden , Bournemouth West 12:00 am, 14th December 1964

I wanted to make quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman got his answer out before the 100 days were up.

We must know the order of priority here. This used to be a major priority with the party opposite and, if it still is, very important factors flow from it. If it is not, we want to know about it.

It appears that recently—and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is amongst the number—the more thoughtful members of the party opposite have realised that the situation is changing and have concluded that their previous judgments may have been wrong. If the target is still to be 55,000 men, how is it to be achieved? In any case, whether it is 55,000 or less, the Government must clearly reserve the right to move units from B.A.O.R. to other spheres should the need arise.

The Deputy Secretary of State will recollect that we were criticised by the then Opposition for doing, or nearly doing, just that. I hope that this will not compel the present régime from regarding the placement of troops in B.A.O.R. as a fixed commitment, but able to be drawn on, should the need arise, to bolster our positions in other parts.

In opposition, we are inevitably bound to have some regard to newspaper stories. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister is, curiously enough for him, somewhat sensitive to stories in the newspapers. As Leader of the Oppotion, he both fed on them and fed them, and it therefore comes ill from him to criticise the newspapers for one or two occasional flights of fancy.

One story that certainly needs answering, and answering as soon as possible, is the story that in some way the Government are contemplating putting a body of British troops permanently into N.A.T.O.—into N.A.T.O. uniform, required to answer primarily to N.A.T.O., and never to be made available to the service of the Crown I hope that this is not so. I hope, at any rate, that they are not contemplating putting our men into the same category as the British nuclear shield, and handing them over irrevocably to N.A.T.O.

But if this were, in fact, to be the case, who would pay for the British military contribution? And would the Government make certain, if British troops were to be handed over on a permanent basis—if that could be achieved—that they would go with their full equipment? In that case, there is not likely to be much saving to be found here. But if it is the Government's intention, in concert with our allies, to seek some modification of our commitment in Europe, we must know how far they are prepared to go? Are they to try to negotiate for the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons? They will know that nothing on those lines can be achieved to alter the structure of N.A.T.O. without the full agreement of all our other partners in the organisation.

We cannot be absolutely certain, at so early a stage, what will be the policies of the new Russian régime, but I agree that, in Europe generally, there appear to be grounds for optimism. The situation is very much calmer. This is very substantially due to the progress made under our previous Government. Very little credit—indeed, quite unsufficient credit—has been given to the then Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, when Foreign Secretary. Their efforts led us to the Test Ban Treaty, which was not only the culmination of months of negotiation but was also a significant milestone on the long road to complete and controlled disarmament.

But the time is ripe, as the Prime Minister observed, for a fresh Western initiative, and that initiative will be taken by the United States of America and by this country together. We both have responsibility here because, if I may interject this in the debate, we are both major nuclear powers. All of us in the House would naturally, wish every possible success to attend any endeavour towards achieving a nuclear non-dissemination pact but, for the purposes of this debate, we must recognise that if something along those lines were to be achieved it must lead to substantial reappraisal of the rôle of our conventional forces in Europe.

At this time we see the emphasis in N.A.T.O. going the other way. Everyone seems to be pressing us to strengthen our position in Europe, to add to everything, to build up our conventional strength, to improve our armaments, and to join, probably at vast expense, some form of multilateral force. If this is the direction of Government policy, it seems clear that it can be achieved only at the expense of our effort elsewhere.

If it is not the intention of Government policy to add to and build up our strength in Europe, will some of the troops be withdrawn from Europe? If they are to be withdrawn, where are they to be withdrawn to? Will they be brought back home? In that case, we will have to build new barracks. The right hon. Gentleman said nothing about the Knightsbridge Barracks. Is that programme to go forward? The need for modernisation and improvement there has been apparent for some time.

The point I wish to stress is that, whatever the emphasis on policy which the Government may ultimately decide upon, there are not likely to be any savings found here. Further, if we are to reduce our commitments in Europe, we must recognise that this will not be just a military decision, but a major decision of foreign policy which will need to be taken in the closest possible consultation with our allies. Such consultation has not been helped by earlier decisions of the present Government.

What, then, is the Government's policy towards Britain's rôle in Europe? Perhaps, in winding up the debate, the Government spokesman can answer this specific point: do the Government agree with the views once expressed by the First Secretary of State, who called for a more effective contribution to N.A.T.O., or do they still hold to the views that the Prime Minister expressed in the House on 16th January of this year, when he said: If we are to deploy our full influence in the world, I would myself at the margin regard 1,000 men East of Suez, with the fullest provision of mobility … as preferable to another 1,000 in Germany."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th January, 1964; Vol. 687, c. 450.] May we have an answer to that?

In that comment the Prime Minister clearly recognised that, apart from Europe, we have a variety of other responsibilities. We do not need a balance-of-payments crisis to remind us that as a great trading nation our interests are world wide. The basis of our strength is and always has been transoceanic rather than continental. Trade can only flourish in conditions of peace, and in the past we backed up our early commercial activities with a firm resolve to prevent war and preserve order. Many of the undertakings and guarantees we then gave have come down to us today, and they are as valid now as they were then.

Although the realities of power have changed, the pattern of our worldwide interests is still essentially the same. Indeed, as new Commonwealth nations have emerged, we have found our commitments increasing rather than diminishing. So whether the major element of our strength is maritime or airborne, or, as it is at present, a balanced combination of the two, there is a clear need for a network of bases and satellite supply areas to supply British Forces.

Do the Government expect to find their savings in this sphere? This seemed to be what was implied by the recent remarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Do the Government intend to find substantial savings by eliminating bases overseas? I agree, of course, that savings along the lines outlined in a recent Estimates Report could be achieved in the management of bases. There is clear scope for greater efficiency. Many of the supply services to the Forces could be substantially reduced in cost by sharing between the Services. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is a matter of management, and there is obviously room for improvement here. In a number of minor developments, certain projects could be abandoned, but substantial savings will not be found.

We may even find that costs will tend to increase, because I suspect that there will be a need for additional forward base areas for servicing, refuelling and supply, rather like the Island of Gan. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about that base. We would like a definite assurance that the Island of Gan, a most important refuelling and supply base for the Far East, is firmly to be maintained by Her Majesty's Government. We are now virtually down to the minimum number of bases, and if any change is to take place at all it will most likely be towards an increase rather than a reduction. At least there must be no closure of the two main bases at either end of the Indian Ocean—Aden and Singapore.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies has experienced at first hand the importance that the people of South Arabia attach to the Aden base. We did not get from the right hon. Member the other day what was his assessment of its value. What is the Government's assessment of its value? They have been very careful in phrasing an Answer to a Question in this House. They have not committed themselves firmly to the maintenance of the British base in Aden. Surely the Government, and, in particular, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, have had clear evidence of Egypt's imperialist ambitions in that part of the world. There is vital necessity for a continued British military presence there. I hope, therefore, that the Government will at least take the opportunity of making their position abundantly clear. Will they assure the House that no time limit has been set to the tenure of the Aden base?

While on the subject of the Middle East, I hope that we are to avoid in future the sort of unseemly wrangle which took place between the Minister of Defence of the Royal Navy and his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. One was saying that the maintenance of the status quo in the Middle East is the prime need and the other, the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), was describing our treaty arrangements in the Persian Gulf as "anachronisms". I hope that there is no question of progressive British disengagement in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East went a little further than that. In a recent issue of a delightful little document called "Venture", I read that he described our presence in the Persian Gulf as a passing historical phase and not as a permanent peace-keeping rôle". Let us get the position absolutely clear. I hope that these are not in any way the views of the Government, but, if they are, they should realise what is at stake. I know they are the views of the hon. Member, but if they are the views of the Government of which he is now a member, I hope that they will realise exactly what is at stake. I hope that they will realise that it means the evacuation of this area by British military power and abandoning the whole of the Middle East to Nasser. If that is what they want, let them say so.