Oral Answers to Questions — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th May 1975.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Edinburgh Central 12:00 am, 6th May 1975

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who has since left the Chamber, laid about the defence proposals with great gusto and evident enthusiasm, but I think it would be wrong if the impression were left on the record that if the Conservatives had survived the last two elections there would have been no defence review this year and no defence cuts. The Defence Estimates were produced in the autumn of 1973 in a different economic climate, before the three-day week and before the oil crisis, and at a time when the Prime Minister was still talking about Britain suffering from the problems of affluence. It is wholly inconceivable that the Defence Estimates produced in those days would have survived intact in this year.

The hon. Gentleman baited me and the other hon. Members who have signed the amendment with the threat of the unemployment that would result from defence cuts. He cannot have been unaware that only last month we had a Budget in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that as a result of his Budget 20,000 men would lose their jobs within the next eight months. Clearly, the massive increase in defence expenditure which had been planned by the previous Conservative Government could not have been budgeted for by any Chancellor without additional unemployment on top of that figure.

I suspect that the hon. Member for Ayr was aware of that fact when he spoke, because there was one interesting and significant omission from his speech. At no stage in the 40 minutes in which he addressed us did he indicate which cuts in the defence review a Conservative Government would restore if they won an election in the next year or two. I think that we are entitled to ask, if the Conservative Party feel that items which are being stripped from our defence expenditure are essential to our survival, which items will it restore, what will be the cost, and what other item of public expenditure will it drop so as to make way for those defence items?

Last, if the hon. Member for Ayr remains in any doubt that a Conservative Government would hold a defence review, I would advise him to look at paragraph 7 of the latest report of the Expenditure Committee. The Committee is on record as saying that a defence review this year would have been inevitable. The reason is that the Estimates put in by the Conservative Government in 1973 were wildly irresponsible, in that they provided for a growth in expenditure which was totally unrealistic given any reasonable expectation of growth in the British economy. The consequences of that folly are still with us today.

I give one illustration. I invite hon. Members to consider the case of Nimrod. In 1972 the Conservative Government ordered additional Nimrods. In December 1973 they assured the Expenditure Committee that these additional numbers were vital to our security. Yet in April 1974 we were told that they were surplus to requirements, that they could be phased out, while the Expenditure Committee was left expressing the pathetic hope that another country could be found to buy the redundant aircraft.

I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney), who has now left the Chamber, that I do not think that a person has to be in the pay of the Kremlin to question whether that expenditure on the additional aircraft could not have been put to better purposes. My hon. Friend will wish to read Hansardto see the comments which were made after he left the Chamber. The mark of a civilised man in a democratic society is that he is prepared to accept that there are others in that society who sincerely hold different points of view from his without impugning their motives and their sincerity. Once we start to say that those who disagree with us are therefore necessarily traitors we are on the start of the slope which will end with the repressive society, which both my hon. Friend and I deplore.