Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1967.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 27th July 1967

Older hon. Members know that I have taken up critical attitudes towards Defence White Papers and Defence Ministers for the last 20 years. Each time a new White Paper comes along I become more critical. I cannot say that any of my speeches have had the slightest influence on the Government. They have been pearls thrown before empty benches, often in the early hours of the morning.

When in opposition I always maintained that no Labour Government could fulfil their pledges to the people—their promises of great social advances, of more schools, better education and a rising standard of living—unless they made drastic reductions in defence expenditure. I cannot say that my exhortations have had the slightest effect, but the economic facts and reality of the situation have. Now it has dawned on the people of Britain, if not on the Government, that the time has come when the Labour Party cannot fulfil its pledges unless it takes a far more drastic attitude to what are politely called Defence Estimates.

The situation tonight reminds me of the economic crisis and the defence argument of 1951. The Labour Government of that time went in for a great rearmament programme and, to pay for it, they cut the social services. We had the resignation of the present Prime Minister and of Mr. Aneurin Bevan. There followed a very prolonged argument within the Labour Party.

It looks as though this argument will go on through 1967, because we have now had the resignation of the Minister of Social Security. I shall not go into the reasons for that except to say that the right hon. Lady wanted more money for pensions, family endowments and other social services than the Government were Prepared to give. So the right hon. Lady, for whom I have a great admiration, symptomises the argument going on throughout the Labour movement: can we give to the people those things we promised if we continue to spend on defence as Conservative Governments have done in the past?

In this argument the Government may appear to have a great majority in the House, but that will not be reflected in the opinion of the country. I do not think that it is reflected now. The Government, in carrying on their expenditure at this rate, are getting into economic difficulties and, ultimately, if they do not fulfil their pledges, they will go down to overwhelming disaster, as they did in 1951.

That is the note of warning that I and my hon. Friends who have signed one of the Amendments are sounding. We demand further cuts in expenditure, and an entirely new orientation of thinking on what is politely called "defence". The background to this is, as nearly everyone will agree—it is agreed in the United States of America and in Russia—that the days of Britain as a great military Power are over; that she cannot continue with the kind of policy she has followed for the last two centuries, and that she has to realise that, and adopt a new policy.

These facts have revolutionary implications. Disarmament is in some ways like a political revolution—one cannot stop it halfway. Yet that is what the Government are trying to do. They are playing about with one improvisation after another and putting pragmatism in the place of principle. My hon. Friends and I who disagree with this policy believe that the Government deserve criticism from a different angle; not from the angle of the Conservative Party—whose Amendment we will, of course, oppose—but from the angle of the Labour Party when it was in opposition.

At Question Time today, the Prime Minister talked about atomic weapons. He said—I think that these were his words—that the Government were not going to embark on a new generation of nuclear weapons. We certainly do not want a new generation of nuclear weapons: what we want is more a effective birth control of these weapons.

When Members opposite were in office our criticism of their Government was that they were spending so much on Blue Streak, Thunderbolt and all the other things with fancy names. We put down a Motion saying that in 13 years of Tory Government they had wasted £20,000 million and had very little to show for it. There have been cuts, and I give the Government credit for that, but when Ministers talk about the 1970s and 1980s I wonder what they think the cost of so-called nuclear defence is likely to be if it continues at the present rate.

The hon. Member for Haltemprice said: thank God we are to have the Polaris in the 1970s.