Orders of the Day — Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th December 1965.

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Photo of Mr Edmund Dell Mr Edmund Dell , Birkenhead 12:00 am, 20th December 1965

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) tried to dissuade my right hon. Friend from going to Latin America. He did so in a very interesting speech, and I should like to take out that point to try to encourage my right hon. Friend to persist in his current intentions, despite my hon. Friend's remarks. If my right hon. Friend goes there, I think he will find that the rate of increase of the Latin American population is not perhaps as great as he said in the course of his speech. I suspect that even the virility of Latin Americans will not be capable of producing 600 million Latin Americans in 20 years' time. Nevertheless, they are increasing fast. Their importance in world affairs is already great and is becoming greater, and I am sure that it is of the highest importance for this country to make our relations with Latin America very much closer and more friendly than they are at the present, and at the same time to develop much more trade between us than has been our recent experience.

I have intervened in this debate because I want briefly to discuss the connection between our foreign policy and our economic resources. Since the war we have been learning slowly the implications for our foreign and defence commitments of the fact of scarce resources, and perhaps the greatest of all the dilemmas which have confronted our post-war Governments have been those which have set economic necessity against defence commitments. This is a dilemma which, unfortunately, has not yet been successfully resolved.

Britain has a slow rate of economic growth, and perennial balance of payments difficulties, and she now has an enormous volume of debts which she has to pay off. Yet the demands placed upon her by the international situation have been as great as, if not greater than, any which she has had to face before in peacetime. The Times, in an editorial today, referring to this debate, says: The lessons of history make it necessary for Britain always to make the utmost use of her strength within those limits"— the limits referred to being those of prudence and book-keeping— rather than accepting them as an encouragement to an easy life. I am not speaking of an easy life. I am not speaking of promises concerning social security. My hon. Friend has referred to the importance of housing, but I am not speaking of that. I am speaking of getting out of debt and achieving the minimum rate of economic growth without which this country cannot maintain its defence capacity.

In Europe and in the North Atlantic the logic of our scarce resources has largely, although not entirely, been faced. As one hon. Member has said, we are working through groups. We have an alliance which is of a new kind. In the old days nations brought to alliances a full complement of defensive weapons. They could, if necessary, withdraw and still retain an all-round defensive armament, which meant that in a real sense they could be independent. In this new type of alliance—N.A.T.O.—no one, except perhaps United States of America, provides a complete defensive equipment. Certainly to do so would be far beyond United Kingdom resources.

We supply a component—not the whole thing, but a part—which means that we have sacrificed some sovereignty and the right to the determination of an independent foreign policy. We can influence alliance policy; we cannot decide it. We cannot withdraw from it without threatening the security not merely of our allies but of ourselves.

I wonder whether we have understood the logic of scarce resources in our policies east of Suez. There used to be an idea of an independent "east of Suez" rôle for this country—a rôle which would give us a seat at the world's top table. This idea included such proposals as a nuclear guarantee for India which would make it unnecessary for her to manufacture her own atomic weapons. I do not believe that the Indians would find such a guarantee from this country credible. In any case, the idea of an independent rôle for this country east of Suez is fading under the influence of the Defence Review.

The Defence Review makes explicit a principle long implicit in our affairs—that commitments must be limited by resources. The £2,000 million target expenditure for 1969–70 means that there are certain commitments which we cannot undertake, however desirable they may be. This £2,000 million—and in my opinion the figure is too high, although I am prepared to accept it, in the circumstances—must not be exceeded. I suspect that the Government are finding that the £2,000 million is even more restrictive of commitments that they can accept than they originally thought. I think that they are finding that even after the most favourable assumptions about getting out of Aden in 1968 and about the end of the confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia, what is left after making essential provision in Europe is very small indeed.

Certainly it is not enough to provide for an independent rôle for this country East of Suez—a rôle in which we would provide a complete military force, equipped with its own aircraft and aircraft carriers. I suspect that the Government are finding that it is barely enough for a significant component in an alliance. We shall hear more about the results of my right hon. Friend's visit to Washington tomorrow, but it is the implications of this situation that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been to Washington to discuss.

The American attitude seems fairly clear. They want us to remain East of Suez, first, because they find the Indian Ocean and the area beyond to be a very lonely place and, secondly, because there are certain areas—the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and East Africa—in which they believe we can do things that they might find difficult. The British Government, too, seems to want to remain, because to do so is a qualification for a seat at high table; because unless we do so the Commonwealth will lose a great deal of its substance, and because it is East of Suez today that the current major dangers to peace exist.

In short, the Americans want us to stay and the British Government wants us to stay. But the Defence Review shows, first, that we cannot afford an independent role and, secondly, that we can afford, at best, only a small component in an allied force.

Therefore, the proposal emerges for some sort of integrated or co-ordinated defence system in the area, in other words for a N.A.T.O. type of alliance east of Suez for which every one, again with the possible exception of the United States of America, provides merely a component, and in which some sovereignty and the right of independent determination of foreign policy is submerged. There is something of a dilemma here. It is our apparent independence in the area that equips us for the special rôle which the United States of America wishes us to perform. If we lose that appearance of independence we lose that special rôle and hence much of the reason for being in the area at all. Moreover, there are some very specific questions which must be asked about this proposal. The right hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Soames) put one of these questions, namely what are to be the political objectives of such an alliance, of such an integrated or co-ordinated defence system, if it is created?

I would like to put some further questions. Can this country provide the effective components for two such different forces in Europe and Asia? Can we share sovereignty in two such different alliances in different parts of the world without conflict arising as to where our prior commitments lie? Will we not be under continual pressure from our alliance partners east of Suez to add to our contribution? Is not such pressure an inevitable result of the very instablility in the area which calls for our presence there in the first place? Could we hope to meet such demands without unacceptable diversions from our commitments in Europe? Would it be possible to make such transferences from Europe without the most dangerous political consequences to our position in Europe? In the end we must be sure that we give primacy to British interests and that means that primacy must be given to our commitments in Europe.

Will we not be drawn reluctantly but inevitably beyond the £2,000 million limit which the Government have placed on defence expenditure in 1969–70? Perhaps this dilemma can be put a different way. We would have two pillars, one in Europe and one in Asia. To both of these we would have pledged our support. From the pillar in Europe we could not, in any circumstances, withdraw our support. From the pillar in Asia we would not wish to withdraw our support, at any rate without preparation. But, and this is the difference with the Asian pillar, if Britain were forced by an economic crisis to make a choice, it would be from the Asian pillar that we would withdraw, because for us Europe must have priority over Asia.

It would be utterly dishonourable to enter into commitments which we cannot fulfil, or for a longer term than we could fulfil them. The Government must ensure that whatever rôle remains to us for a few years east of Suez, is one that we can sustain and from which we do not have to withdraw precipitately, leaving behind us a vacuum which it might take a war to fill. It might be best if those two pillars could be brought together to sustain joint burdens. Unfortunately, for the moment, that does not seem likely and if it cannot be done we, too, will have to withdraw.

Meanwhile if our commitment is genuinely and severely limited and does not escalate we can perhaps stay a little longer. I fear that inevitable pressures will force costs upwards and in that case, if we cannot bring these two pillars together, we will have to go. We are a country with a world view, but without the resources to sustain a world role. I do not ask that we should put blinkers on and ignore the existence of problems merely because we cannot tackle them. But unless we husband our resources we shall end not as a participator in the determination of events but as a helpless victim of them.