Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th February 1967.

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Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford West 12:00 am, 28th February 1967

I wish to deal with the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friends and myself on the resolution passed at last year's Labour Party conference. However, before doing so, I should like to say a few words about the speech of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell).

I should have thought that those of us who were critical of the Government's east of Suez policy would have had his support. In his speech at the Tory Party conference two or three years ago, in his speech at the Young Conservatives' conference this year at Brighton, and in the speeches which he has been making at universities, and so on, he has pooh-poohed the Government's east of Suez policy. In this House, however, he does not say the same things as he says outside. He is supposed to be a man of undisputed character who follows his words right through. He cannot do that, because it is not the official policy of the party for which he is defence spokesman. However, he should be truthful and say what his personal views are about the Government's Far East policy, which is on record and is well known.

I should like to refer to the launching of the latest Polaris submarine, last Saturday. It was not a very edifying sight to me to see the wife of the Secretary of State for Defence of this Government launching such a weapon. I hope that when she reflects on the matter she will think that she could have done rather better things. I should have much preferred seeing her opening new blocks of flats and houses in my constituency with the money which could have been saved from such a venture as this.

That brings me to the issue of Britain's nuclear policy. We in the Labour Party fought the 1964 General Election on the basis of ending the independent nuclear deterrent. We are on record on that matter. Immediately after the 1964 election, the Prime Minister railed at the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) in relation to the independent nuclear deterrent and his policy of maintaining such a deterrent. But, unfortunately, the Labour Government are maintaining independent nuclear weapons and are building and launching nuclear submarines so that they can carry that policy forward.

This is in complete contradiction of what was said by those of us who fought the election. We spent a great deal of time prior to 1964 trying to get within the Labour Party an acceptable policy on nuclear weapons and to get rid of the independent nuclear deterrent. Yet here we are in 1967 launching submarines with weaponry to be supplied by the United States which are to cost this country about £80 to £90 million each when fully equipped.

In The Times of Monday this week David Wood quoted the Prime Minister's words about getting rid of the "expensive delusion of national grandeur" of the independent deterrent. It is very sad that we should be going ahead with this policy, since we were told by the Secretary of State yesterday that there are 7,000 nuclear weapons in Western Europe at present. What part can four Polaris submarines play in this issue? This does not make sense. The Foreign Secretary said today that the time when Britain fought wars independently is over. We all agree with him. Then what do we want an independent nuclear deterrent for? The British people will question this issue, because in 1964 they voted for the ending of this deterrent. It is about time that it went.

I come now to the question of Germany and support costs. I agree with much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) said. The Secretary of State for Defence said yesterday that a war in Europe was highly unlikely and that nobody thinks that it probable. We are, therefore, keeping up a façade in Germany and by maintaining the N.A.T.O. Alliance, which is long out-dated. It is a fluidity in Europe which should be exploited both in the West and in the East in order to get a genuine détente in Europe.

The Secretary of State said yesterday that if anything happened because of the nature of the weapons we should be in a nuclear situation possibly in a matter of days, if not hours. Therefore, to keep 55,000 British troops on the Rhine is an expense which this country cannot afford and which we can drastically reduce. I do not think that this has anything to do with European commitments. Whether one is for or against the Common Market, it should have nothing to do with Europe. If it has anything to do with it, it means that defence is at the bottom of the Treaty of Rome. Consequently, we should act completely independently.

I turn now to the question of South-East Asia. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) asked what those of us who oppose the policy have to offer. He said that this was a matter of foreign policy. The fact that the Foreign Secretary has spoken in the debate is an indication of how closely aligned defence and foreign policies are. They are indivisible. Therefore, those of us who tabled the Amendment say that it is not a question of getting cost-effectiveness, however important that is—it is important and I think that the present Minister has done more than anybody else in that respect—or of reducing our forces and commitments as much as possible in each area; it is a question of getting rid of the commitments. That is the basic political issue.It is the commitments that must be tackled. While we maintain commitments, we will overstretch our resources in trying to provide facilities and logistic support which is not feasible and suitable in any case. In consequence, we will still run down our resources at home.

It is interesting to note that in the Defence White Paper it is impossible to find the total of our foreign exchange costs of military expenditure. The total is not available because we have to await the outcome of the discussions with the United States Government and the Federal Republic of Germany. We know, however, that the figure is over £300 million. We know that the total of our foreign exchange problem is in the region of £470 million, including all our commitments. Our military foreign exchange cost is possibly about £330 million to £350 million. That is the issue with which we are concerned.

Britain is in an economic crisis. She is in pawn to international bankers. She has to take from the United States and the International Monetary Fund a loan of £1,000 million because over the last 10 years our balance of payments has been, on average, approximately £125 million "in the red". We say that if we are to reduce that, if we want to do something about unemployment at home and about providing social services and housing, we have got to cut the defence expenditure. By "cutting" I do not meant getting cost-effectiveness, but cutting the commitments so that we can reduce the cost overall.

How long can Britain go on pretending that she can police two-thirds of the world? How many other Western nations still have the illusion that they are responsible for peace in the world, whether in the Middle East, Aden, West Germany, the Gulf or the Far East? How much longer can we have this delusion that we are so important and that we must maintain a nineteenth century attitude in the twentieth century?

Holland had overseas commitments. Belgium has cut her overseas commitments. What about France, of all countries? She was in South-East Asia, in Vietnam—Indo-China as it was then called. She was heavily defeated at Dien Bien Phu, in 1954. She was heavily committed in Algeria with, I think, the largest settler population that any country had ever had. Faced with the possibilities of a Fascist coup at home, France overthrew those commitments and recognised that she has an important part to play in the world, but a part which is not military or a military world rôle.

In consequence, France has the best balance of payments of all Western nations. She does not have the strain of the foreign bankers on her back. It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) to laugh about this, but facts are facts and my hon. Friend should face them. I listened to his arguments yesterday. His defence budget would cost more than the present defence budget.

The Defence White Paper is a delusion. It goes to great lengths at the beginning to say how much we have cut off the defence expenditure. But it has gone up this year by £33 million. Since 1960, under Conservative and Labour Governments, defence expenditure has gone up by approximately £100 million a year. I have the figures with me. So we are not cutting the Defence Estimates or defence.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington has arrived, because in an entertaining and very witty speech he took some of us genuinely to task about where we stand in relation to defence cuts. I remind him of two important points. He asked why we have such concern and why we carry it to such lengths. At least, that was the inference of what he said.

I remind my right hon. Friend that at the 1965 Labour Party conference he went to the rostrum and said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards), who moved a motion on arms reduction, "Do not push at an open door. The Parliamentary Labour Party has unanimously agreed that defence expenditure should be drastically cut, more so than in the programme. You have nothing to worry about. In consequence, the Government will tackle this issue." The Government have not tackled it. The defence budget is still escalating.

That motion was published and is common knowledge. The inference of it was that to keep the defence budget at £2,000 million at 1964 prices was not acceptable to the Parliamentary Labour Party, who wanted to go further and faster. My right hon. Friend the Member for Easington assured that Labour Party conference that that was exactly what the Government would do. Unfortunately, we have not done it, because the defence budget went up by £135 million last year and it is another £33 million higher this year. It continues to escalate.

That is the issue which my right hon. and hon. Friends who object to the defence budget are putting to the Government year after year. The Government are trying to maintain our commitments. We have not got rid of one basic commiment since we came into office in 1964. We are to get rid of Aden in 1967–68. We were to have run down our Malta commitment, but, unfortunately, I see that there is a possibility that even this might be extended.

As the editorial in the Daily Telegraph, on Monday, said: It is, in theory, ridiculous to dispense large sums of money under the heading of defence for the sole purpose of enabling the inhabitants of distant lands to remain profitably employed during the off-tourist season. I recognise that there is a problem when one has been for many years, perhaps centuries, in these territories. Everybody says how difficult it is. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary today made the case for Singapore as a Socialist democratic Government. We know how difficult it is, but we are asking for positive steps to be taken to end those commitments.

The Government are not ending those commitments. That was why we said in the Labour Party conference motion that these commitments should and must be ended by 1969–70. If people know that these commitments are then to be ended, we can start making genuine attempts to help to get their economy on a firm footing. It would be far cheaper to have the troops out and give them money than to maintain the escalation of the cost of forces, families and logistic weapons overseas continuously.

Why are we maintaining this Far East rôle? Is it because the Americans want us there? Is it because we have made definite arrangements with them? Is it because we are giving the Americans tacit support, in effect, for their war in Vietnam? This is the question which we must ask.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Easington mentioned Australia and New Zealand as being two Commonwealth countries with whom we have close ties. I agree, but I do not think that Britain's moving from the Far East will jeopardise them. We cannot stay in these areas for the rest of our lives on the assumption that they might be attacked by A, B, or C, or come under threat. It is much better to strengthen the United Nations and to see some form of security pact. It was a great pity that the Maphilindo concept was not developed in relation to South-East Asia.