Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th February 1972.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher 12:00 am, 24th February 1972

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) wondered whether we were overplaying our hand in the Indian Ocean by making too much of a fuss about the Soviet presence there. The significant thing about the Soviet presence in the Indian Ocean is that it actually arrived in a place where it had never been before, in the same way that it arrived in the Mediterranean where it had never been before, and gradually increased its strength.

I too, pay tribute to the men of the Beira Patrol for their endurance in a somewhat fruitless task. I met them going on and off patrol in the Seychelles last summer and in the Persian Gulf the year before. If my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) had not pre-empted me, I was about to ask the hon. Gentleman what he thought about the previous plans for scrapping "Ark Royal". On the question of the "Eagle", I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could look at this from the other point of view—not at the prospect of keeping the "Eagle" but whether we want a viable carrier force and whether such a force is viable if we have only one carrier? A business with only one lorry will sooner or later have to take that lorry off the road or it may have a crash, and the business cannot be kept going.

I see my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) in his place. I do not intend to talk about the Persian Gulf but I agree with what he said, particularly at this time of a fuel crisis. I wonder about the wisdom of the previous Government in setting off a course of events which it has proved impossible to reverse. The present threat is twofold. One is the massive build up in Soviet conventional forces, particularly sea power, and the extension of their fleets in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the South Atlantic and particularly around the North Sea. The second threat is what one might call the subversive threat.

These two threats are now more deadly than the nuclear threat with which we have lived for so long. When one talks about the conventional threat, one has only to consider the events of two years ago, when the Soviets moved a million men in 24 hours into Czechoslovakia, without Western intelligence getting wind of what was going on. This is what they can do and will do if they have a mind to do it.

What will their navies do? They have the ability, as they are spread out in strategic positions around the world, not to launch direct attacks on our shipping, but perhaps to disrupt our shipping lanes and to engage in exercises across our sea routes which could prove extremely disruptive and could lead to a very awkward situation.

These are the tactics which I think they will follow. Power afloat is political power and the power to influence people who are impressed by such things, in exactly the same way as we used gunboat diplomacy so successfully years ago.

On the subversive side, the aim of the Communists, both the Chinese and the Soviets, is to set up subversive centres in target areas—which they have been very successful in doing. The obvious areas are Cairo, Cuba and Hanoi. Less obvious—the new target areas—are in Aden, the Gulf and Ireland. These subversive centres are growing like mushrooms and they will grow wherever the West relaxes its guard around the world.

The problem with Northern Ireland is that there are two things to look after—the cities, Belfast and Londonderry, and the Border; and we have only enough troops to look after the cities. If we are to look after the Border, we must either remove troops from this other task or bring in more. Do we need more troops to do the job, to prevent terrorists crossing the Border from their bases? Sadly, I believe we do. Where will they come from? We have mentioned the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland. I know that there are technical difficulties in calling up the Territorial Army, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State explained last night. But such difficulties are there to be overcome, as we overcame them in the Bill introduced and passed yesterday on another matter.

Perhaps it could be explained whether the difficulty is that these men have signed a contract which prevents them from being called up for part-time duty or even for a month at a time—or whether it is a parliamentary difficulty that we face. There are 3,000 men there, trained, organised and very ready to help in this situation. We are very short of manpower; we should overcome these difficulties and use this reservoir.

As my hon. Friend said, there are ways and means now of keeping surveillance on the Border. One can make it a normal international border, with the normal formalities of papers and passports, or one can turn it into a natural barrier. Although the difficulties are great, we must cut ourselves off from the sources of terrorism and, if necessary, form a cordon sanitaire.

We have had a taste of urban terrorism in the United Kingdom in the last few weeks, both in the riots in London and in the events in Aldershot. We have seen this in other parts of the world and we have now realised that Britain is not immune. What happened at Aldershot was even highly predictable. It happened during the previous campaign of 1938 and 1939.

Once this kind of thing has happened, events can move very swiftly, so any necessary precautions should be taken now. Our best defence is a strong Territorial Army. The Government are to be congratulated on increasing the strength of the T.A. by 10,000 men. Not only may they have to be called upon to guard vital points like power stations; they are a force with local loyalties and knowledge and they are a cohesive force.

We should consider some kind of rescue service for disasters of any kind. I hope that the Government will carefully consider resuscitating the Civil Defence, for which there are volunteers ready and waiting to be called into service again.

The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) mentioned the word "conscription". He asked my hon. Friend, "Surely you do not mean to introduce conscription?" My right hon. Friend said, "Of course, certainly not." The House then heaved a sigh of relief. The recruiting figures are very good and this is a good sign that the voluntary spirit is there. But it cannot just be left. It needs arousing and sustaining.

At a time of high unemployment and great social disturbances about the country, our society needs buttressing and reinforcing. I wonder whether the time is not ripe now, when we are, after all, facing something of a national emergency, for young people to be asked to do a period of voluntary service for the nation, actively encouraged by the Government, industry and the universities. There are a hundred and one different jobs outside the Services that they could do and at the same time they could be given the opportunity of work inside the Services as well.

The question is whether this should be compulsory or voluntary. I am surprised that we have never discussed this before. It has been discussed in another place and not so long ago in a paper by the R.U.S.I. called "Mobilisation of Youth; Voluntary Service or Conscription?" But we have not discussed it here and the time has come to consider the matter very carefully.

It is not as if there were great hostility in the country at large. General FarrarHockley, when he was at Exeter College, Oxford, discovered by means of a survey that, from the age of 70 down to 16, 84 per cent. said that they were in favour of the reintroduction of national service, either purely for the military or in a wider concept.

At our present stage, we should carefully consider whether we should do something on a voluntary or even compulsory basis. So many people say that youth has lost its way; this may be our chance to give them a lead and the opportunity for service. Possibly, they may jump at the chance.