Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1968.

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Photo of Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe , Windsor 12:00 am, 25th July 1968

The House always listens to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) with great interest on matters of defence. We know of his distinguished record of service and we know that he talks a great deal of sense about the territorial army. All on this side of the House, and I suspect a good many hon. Genlemen opposite, agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I was amused by the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) who spoke for the Liberal Party. I have heard many different arguments in favour of retaining forces in the Middle and Far East, but I have never before heard the argument— I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member has left the Chamber—that one reason why we should not have all the troops returned home is that they might at some future date take over the Government. This is an entirely new argument. I can only say, in the absence of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, that almost any well organised platoon could take over the Liberal Party.

It is right and appropriate that we should debate defence on the last day but one before the House rises for the Summer Recess in the light of a very big question mark, namely, what will happen in Czechoslovakia? This overhangs all our deliberations. The hon. Member for Toxteth has rightly drawn attention to the serious issues involved for us, for N.A.T.O. and for the Warsaw Pact countries, with almost unlimited implications.

Turning to the White Paper, really one need only read the last sentence of paragraph 14. Having read it, I do not think one need read any further. The last sentence of paragraph 14 on page 4, relating to our commitments to S.E.A.T.O., reads: When we have completed the withdrawal, we shall not declare forces to these contingency plans, although we shall remain members of the organisation. In other words, this is complete window-dressing. We are to belong to a club, but pay no subscriptions and abide by none of the rules and obligations. We are to be an ally without assets so far as S.E.A.T.O. is concerned, and if one is an ally without assets, one is not an ally at all.

I do not believe that our capability to help Singapore and Malaysia after 1971 is credible. I do not believe that Ministers have begun to think this out, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and others have put some pertinent questions to which I hope we shall receive a reply. I believe that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who concocted these plans in the Ministry of Defence are going on the basis that they hope everything will be all right on the night. I do not believe that there has been any contingency planning at all.

I have grave doubts about the wisdom of our withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. I have said before, and I say it again, that by far the cheapest form of aid is stability, and by withdrawing prematurely we have gravely endangered stability. Moreover, I dislike the way in which we have carried out a unilateral abrogation of many treaties. We have behaved as though we were a landlord who has told a tenant that he proposes to tear up the lease and to get him to sign a fresh lease transferring all the landlord's liabilities to the tenant. This is not the way to behave, and this is not the way to increase our reputation commercially, militarily, or in any other way. I want a great deal of convincing, far more than anything that we heard from the Secretary of State for Defence today, that the world is so safe and secure, be it in the Middle East, the Far East, or, above all, in Europe, as to warrant the sort of rundown in our Forces, Army, Navy and Air, which this document envisages.

I hope that when the Minister replies he will say a word or two about these alleged savings. I have never been clear about how much money is supposed to be saved by this withdrawal. The crucial point was put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, that it is in the next two years when the savings are necessary, and after that, if the Government's plans come off and the economy is more secure, the economic crisis will be over. But these cuts do not take effect until 1971. The Government are therefore confusing something which is on the doorstep now with something which is some way down the garden path, and they are in the process of leading themselves and many others up the garden path.

During the debate on 5th March the right hon. Gentleman said that every £100 saved in annual expenditure in the Far East would require capital expenditure here of £500, and every £100 saved by bringing back troops from Germany would require capital expenditure of £2,000 in the United Kingdom. I think that that is right, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I am quoting from his speech

Those figures do not seem to make very much sense, because of what we are leaving behind. The Government have spent more than £14 million on building accommodation of various sorts at Bahrein and Sharjah. Equipment, installations, and other assets, valued at more than £30 million are being abandoned in Aden. What the figure is for Singapore is anybody's guess. It is enormous. I do not think that anybody could begin to assess it. It is simply huge. But already —according to the right hon. Gentleman —by 6th March the Government had spent £30 million in this country in building extra accommodation and acquiring married quarters to house the troops that had already been brought back.

I have a shrewd suspicion and a horrible lingering fear that the figure to which our forces will be run down is nothing to do with the minimum requirement for the safety of the country. That idea was dispelled from the very lips of the Minister of Defence some time ago. I suspect that the figure depends principally upon the barrack and married quarters accommodation available in this country. If more troops are brought back and are not to be demobilised and disbanded, and there is no accommodation for them here, the saving is only marginal. It is not a redeployment to help Europe. All that is hooey; it is simply a demobilisation to the level of barrack and married quarters accommodation.

I would have thought, in the light of our commitments in 1970 and 1971 in Europe, the Middle East or the Far East —commitments that the Government say they are quite prepared to fulfil, although we do not know how—that the one arm not to reduce beyond a certain level would be the infantry, because the infantry is at once the most versatile and adaptable arm. The infantry is always called for when first-aid operations have to be carried out, and first-aid operations almost invariably occur at an unexpected time, and not always singly. They often occur in pairs, and in different parts of the world.

Let us suppose that the Government were asked to fulfil two or three unexpected fire brigade operations and, at the same time, there was a request to strengthen B.A.O.R. Where would the reserves come from? How would they be sent to the required areas, and how would they be built up?

Moreover, the cuts in the infantry have been executed in a remarkable way. The Government appear to have forgotten about quality and proceeded solely on the principle of Buggins' turn, a rule-of-thumb basis. Some of the finest regiments, with the best traditions and outstanding records in war and peace, for discipline and recruitment, have gone. Hardly anybody on the benches opposite seems to mind except, very properly, the hon. Member for Toxteth. This is a terrible thing.

I must declare a personal interest because in the Light Division, the third Battalion of the Green Jackets, is to be eleminated: I do not mind confessing that I have family associations with that regiment for nearly 100 years, and I had the privilege of serving in it for most of the war. I would be less than human if I did not feel this acutely. I understood that the policy has been that the Light Division should contain two large regiments which would be made a success. No one can deny—certainly the right hon. Gentleman will not deny it—that all concerned have done their utmost to make those two large regiments a success, and have succeeded. What has been our reward? There have been further cuts making the cut in the Light Division in general and the Green Jackets in particular proportionately higher than anyone else.

The regimental tradition which is now laughed upon in certain quarters is the envy of friend and foe alike. Throughout British history British troops have been asked to conduct almost impossible operations, often in almost impossible circumstances and in pretty awful places, due to the vacillation, stupidity, change of mind and ineptitude of Governments of all kinds whether it be in respect of Corunna, the Crimea, Gallipoli or Salonika in the First World War, Dunkirk or Burma in the Second World War, or Aden recently. Never mind; time and time again what appeared to be almost certain disaster has been averted and ultimately turned into victory.

I fancy that the element which played the biggest part was not the corps, however able the corps commander might have been, nor the division, no matter how able the divisional commander might have been, but was fundamentally the regiment. I am not in the least impressed with the argument that the elimination of famous regiments with long traditions does not affect recruiting. I simply do not accept it. The Secretary of State directed our attention to the recruiting figures and said that people do not mind whether they join the infantry, the gunners or the sappers; they merely queue up and say that they want to join the Army.