Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th December 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Neville Trotter Mr Neville Trotter , Tynemouth 12:00 am, 16th December 1974

It is well known that the Government's attitude to defence was decided long before the defence review began. To use a medical term, I think that the instructions were to give the patient not a check-up but surgery. The Secretary of State for Defence has carried out those orders.

In his statement of 3rd December, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the various factors to be taken into account. I would refer to a similar statement by Admiral Gorshkov, head of the Soviet Navy, who has been at the head of that modern and expanding force for some 20 years. He has said: The condition of the economy determines the power of that most important weapon of poicy, the armed forces of a country, whose condition is a reflection of the economic might of the State. There is a great deal of truth in that. It is what has been said by Labour Members. But another factor has been left out of account—the political will of the leadership of a country to maintain adequate defences. That will is sadly lacking on the part of our Government.

The Secretary of State said on 3rd December that producing the defence review had been a tortuous exercise. I can well believe that it was very tortuous, bearing in mind the views expressed by so many of his colleagues behind him.

When visiting the Soviet Union, one cannot but be struck by the low standard of living. Yet that country, with a standard of living only a fraction of our own, continually spends more and more in real terms on armaments, largely of an offensive nature. The burden is all the heavier because of the low living standards of the ordinary people. Why then, do their leaders choose to spend money on tanks, not cars; on fighters, not holiday flights to the sun; on missiles, not houses; on submarines, not shops?

We can readily understand why the people accept the burden. They are better off than they have ever been, and they genuinely fear attack, because they are told by the propaganda machine that it is a real danger. They are ignorant of what they are missing in the way of living standards and of the true wishes of the people of the West, who want nothing more than to leave them in peace.

But why do the leaders, the hard-headed realists in the Kremlin, impose this burden on their people? They know full well that there is no intention in the West of attacking the Soviet Union, yet they have built up a great capability for war. We must consider their intentions. It would be folly not to. At present they talk of detente, but what do they do? They constantly increase both the quantity and quality of their armaments, and the gap between the West and the Soviet Union is constantly widening.

On 3rd December the Minister made great play of the fact that in the Warsaw Pact 85 per cent, of the strength were conscripts. I reply with two other facts. First, one can do more for one's money with conscripts. Secondly, and perhaps even more important, the army of Nazi Germany was also composed of conscripts, and that did not stop it over-running Europe in 1940.

I do not believe for a moment that at present the Soviet leaders wish to engage in an act of outright military aggression. They prefer to obtain their way by pressure and subversion. But if we allow the gap between us to widen too far there will be a process of intimidation. We shall encourage aggression. There will be a danger of a fait accompli, of aggression by incident and by accident.

The whole basis of the review is fallacious. It is fallacious to refer to the gross national product of our allies and their spending on defence. In 1954 we spent 10 per cent, of our GNP on defence. In 1964 defence spending was down to 6·7 per cent. This year it is 5·5 per cent. Now we are told that it is going down to 4·5 per cent.

It is interesting to note that in 1954 the expenditure amounted to about one-quarter of total public spending. Now it is down to only one-tenth. Has the world been any safer in the last 20 years, or, indeed, in the last 10? In fact, in the last 10 years, the world has become very much more unstable than it was.

We do not spend less on education or social services, nor propose to do so, just because our friends and allies are growing wealthier than we are. We should equally not accept that we must spend less on defence which is a first essential. The most important assurance the right hon. Gentleman could give today would be that there will be no further cuts during the period of the review on future grounds that the percentage of the gross national product spent by our allies has become greater than ours simply because they have again grown faster than we have.

It is sobering to think that this country spends more on drink and tobacco than on defence. We are spending about 50 per cent, more on booze and baccy than we do on defence. With those figures, I do not accept that we cannot afford to maintain an adequate level of defence.

The Secretary of State has said that the waters of the eastern Atlantic are crucial, and that is true. But does not he accept that equally crucial is the Cape route. Eighty per cent, of Europe's oil and 50 per cent, of its raw materials come along that route. There is a ship every 25 miles strung out over the thousands of miles between the Cape and British ports. I shall not enter into an argument about South Africa. Many things there do not appeal to me. But it is a fact of life that Simonstown is the only base with adequate facilities on this vital sea route.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) has reminded us of the evasiveness of the answers to the many Questions that we have put down about defence. Today I did obtain an answer which was more definite. I asked whether there ware any dry dock or dockyard facilities at Diego Garcia, and, if not, whether it was proposed to construct any. The Minister, in reply, said that there were no dry docks or dockyard facilities there and that there would be a modest expansion of the facilities for the United States Navy, including an improved anchorage and ship support facilities. He added that there were no plans for a dry dock. This is wholly inadequate as an alternative to the excellent facilities at Simonstown.

Yet the Soviet navy is increasing rapidly and is now a most formidable and modern force. The "Ark Royal" is now being phased out. When it is to go is a secret, and we must not be told, apparently— but I hazard a guess that the "Ark Royal" will go at about the same time as the first proper Soviet aircraft carrier takes to the high seas. It is an ironical situation. It might be fitting for the Minister to arrange for a photograph to be taken of the two ships passing each other—the "Ark Royal" going to the scrapyard and the "Kiev ", or whatever it may be called, proceeding to the high seas.

The United Kingdom is particularly vulnerable to attack on its sea lanes. I do not agree that because our NATO allies have devoted their resources to land armies rather than to their navies it is an excuse for our not providing adequate naval forces. If the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) would delve further into his statistics he would find that the armies of France and Germany are much bigger than our own, but that, instead, we have concentrated—understandably, in view of our tradition, geographical situation and pattern of trade— on the Royal Navy.

I turn now to the effect of the cuts on the shipyards, particularly the civilian yards. There was an awkward political problem of how to keep open the four naval dockyards as the Navy's ships are to be reduced greatly in number. We are told that the solution is for the naval dockyards to have moved into them work which is at present carried out in civilian yards. But all that this will mean is shifting unemployment from Portsmouth and Chatham to the North-East and Scotland. That is neither desirable not creditable. However, it fulfils promises made by the Government during the General Election—promises made in Portsmouth and Chatham, but certainly not made on Tyneside, which will suffer seriously as a result of this move.

The NATO flanks are particularly weak. We are not just talking about the Arctic wastes of Norway, important as they are to those who think deeply about the implications of a possible conflict. Nor are we talking just about the mountains of Thrace. We are also talking of the Baltic, because it is one of the flanks just as much as are the north of Norway and Thrace.

Today, there has been a NATO communiqué about the situation in the Mediterranean. It refers to the instability there as causing grave disquiet, and adds that there is need for special vigilance in that part of the world. How are we to react? We are to bring home our planes, our ships and our commandos, reduce our naval capabilities, withdraw from Malta, and cut our forces in Cyprus.

The defence review has been described as the most extensive and thorough in peacetime. One intriguing aspect is that there appears to be not one single direction in which it has been found desirable or necessary, as a result of the review, to increase the strength of our forces. That is surely a tremendous tribute to the last Conservative Government. It is amazing that there is nothing at all that requires strengthening after this searching review.

The details of the review are vague. It seems that they have not yet been worked out. My right hon. Friend mentioned the sort of answer we have been getting—" not in a position to say", "under review", "the implications are still under consideration", "too soon to say", or, simply, "cannot say". However, there have been two exceptions. I have been informed, in reply to questions, that the University Air Squadrons will continue and we shall not be giving up the sovereign base a Dekhelia. But, in considering the detail, how can the Secretory of State impose a cut of 12,000 men in the Army without knowing what sort of units will be disbanded? How can he say that after the cuts we shall have an Army of optimum strength?

The Secretary of State has left two particular mysteries. Those of us who listened to him today are none the wiser about why the Government are getting rid of a battalion of Gurkhas. There has been no explanation. Why are we coming out of Brunei? There has been no explanation of that. It costs us nothing to be there. We do not even know how many Gurkhas the Government are getting rid of. That, we are told, has also not yet been decided.

The second mystery concerns the Parachute Regiment. May we be assured that it will continue? Why the mystery? If it is to continue, why not say so? In the last 10 years, nine out of 10 of the exercises in which the regiment has taken part abroad have been in Germany or Denmark. It has not been in the habit of going to far distant places. It has been in the centre of Europe.

I have a suspicion that after the internal dogfight in the Labour Party a total was arbitrarily arrived at, and that total was shared out between each Service in about the same percentages as they are now getting. I shall table a Question on this point, as I wish to be enlightened, but no doubt I shall get an evasive answer. I suggest that the Army, because it retains a lot of men, is to have cuts made in its equipment; that the RAF, because it is to have much new equipment, is to have large cuts in the number of men; while the Royal Navy is to end up with smaller cuts in the number of men and larger cuts in the number of ships. There has been no explanation of the way in which the fundamental balance between the three Services and their cuts has been arrived at, while the details seem to be largely undecided.

This review will be more welcome in the Kremlin than in the capitals of our allies.

There have been protestations that the consultations with allies will be genuine but I fear that in fact they will be much more of a charade. I wonder about Brunei. If the Government of Bruei and our other allies in that area wish the Gurkha battalion to remain at their expense, will it be allowed to do so? I suggest to the House that if we had maintained our modest presence in the Persian Gulf, at the expense of the local State, instead of having it removed by a previous Socialist Defence Minister, we may not have seen the development of the oil crisis to the present extent.

I suggest that we might well set up a Select Committee of the House to consider the future of the Armed Services following the example of the Dutch Government. All the options could be considered. We have not been told what the options are. After considering the opinions of our allies and after open discussion the Committee could put forward its proposals on this matter of great importance.