Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th May 1975.

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Photo of Mr Neville Sandelson Mr Neville Sandelson , Hillingdon Hayes and Harlington 12:00 am, 7th May 1975

The House always listens with the utmost respect to the hon. Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). I have no pretentions to being either a professional strategist or a logistics expert. The hon. Gentleman will therefore forgive me if I do not comment on his speech, except to say that I listened with considerable interest to his reference to Soviet nuclear submarine power and the menace that that poses around our coasts. I am sure that those remarks will have been taken to heart by many right hon. and hon. Members.

I wish to refer to some remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson). I am sorry that she is not in the Chamber, as she is one of the principal signatories to the somewhat bizarre amendment. She said that she deplored the build-up of the Warsaw Pact military power and the vast scale of its expenditure. No one will contradict her. She said that she felt that the scale of that expenditure came about because of the Soviet fear of the West. Neither Prague nor Budapest were in the West when the Soviet Union ruthlessly repressed the peoples in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and obliterated their freedoms. However, West Berlin is still, if somewhat tenuously, in the West, as is Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London. We do not wish, any more than do the peoples of those countries, to follow the fate of some of the peoples in Eastern Europe. The Russians are not frightened of us, but the West may have some reason to be frightened of the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact military might.

Many hon. Members must have asked themselves the question which I have posed to myself over the past two days. How much is too much? How little is too little? The burden is on those who complain that the Government are spending too much, or not enough, to give concrete and specific instances of either overspending or defence deficiencies. This debate has been revealing if only because of the lack of convincing argument against the Estimates either from the Opposition or from those who have put their names to the amendment.

Listening to the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who spoke yesterday for the Opposition, it seemed that the sky was the limit and that no economic imperatives or considerations would inhibit defence expenditure from the point of view of the Conservative Party. That approach seems as nonsensical to some Government supporters as does the attitude of some of my hon. Friends, whose speeches have revealed an obvious aversion to Labour Party policy. I think that the amendment is a pretty thin disguise and camouflage for a fundamental disagreement with the Labour Party's policy on defence. If I am right about that I wish that some of my hon. Friends would come clean and admit their dissent openly. The House would respect them if they did that rather than engage, as they appear to be doing, in a type of sniping exercise.

Labour Party policy cannot be repeated too often. It was set out in our two manifestos of last year. I am a great stickler for what is set out in those manifestos. I remind hon. Members of the clear language in which Labour policy is stated. In February the Labour Party spoke about progressively reducing the burden of Britain's defence. It also stated that we would achieve savings on defence expenditure of several hundred millions of pounds per annum over a period. That is precisely what these Estimates set out to do.

In this debate I have not heard any serious critical analysis using an honest yardstick—whatever comparative statistical approach is applied—which comes anywhere near demonstrating that the Government are failing in their declared objectives along the lines of Labour policy. I sympathise, although I cannot agree, with the criticisms of some of my hon. Friends about defence expenditure generally. The amendment is an emotional spasm for some of them and an ideological spasm for a few others. I wish that they would declare themselves. Nevertheless, there is no Government supporter who does not feel an abhorrence at the vast outpouring of our limited, and largely borrowed, resources on defence expenditure at a time when grave economic weakness is wreaking such damage on those social policies to which my hon. Friends and I subscribe. In recent weeks, massive cuts in grants to local authorities for housing modernising programmes alone have appalled many of my constituents whose houses were in a tumbledown condition.

Financial crisis is presenting a grave threat to our social services. Hospital and school administrators, teachers, including, now, university teachers, are all crying out, with justice, for more money and for higher salaries, simply to maintain existing standards. For that reason, we abhor every penny spent on military hardware and weaponry of any kind, unless it is necessary and justified.

In October, the Labour Party declared that its policy was one of détente and support for NATO. We said that the ultimate objective of the movement towards a satisfactory relationship in Europe must be the mutual and concurrent phasing out of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

I believe that the Government are pursuing, with much greater effect and success than their Conservative predecessors, foreign policies which are aimed at genuine détente, at agreements for mutual arms reductions, and international security arrangements generally. But we know the facts about the enormous buildup of military strength, and it is a continuing build-up both in conventional and nuclear striking power in the Warsaw Pact countries. We must ask ourselves why they are doing that and why they are spending such a vast amount of money in that direction.

Defence expenditure is not a matter to be decided in limbo. Unless defence is to be effective and our contribution to the NATO structure made an effective one, why spend anything at all? We are not looking for token defences or token contributions to NATO. We believe that NATO is vital to the defence of our country and of the people whom we represent. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to remember that the nation was deceived and let down by Governments and politicians in the 1930s. We dare not and must not repeat those errors.

To the Opposition, I say that the sky is not the limit. We are not at war. I hope that we are nowhere near the brink of it. There would be little point in having expensive military armoury in Europe if by doing so we were to precipitate economic collapse at home. If that were to happen, the enemy would quickly be in at the back door. The Opposition are adopting a fractious attitude to my right hon. Friend's Estimates. If they really believe that these cuts go too far, they should tell the country how much they would want to spend on defence rather than try to play a political game over this issue.

Since all but essential European commitments have been abandoned, or shortly will be given up, I cannot see where further cuts can be made without endangering our NATO rôle and our NATO relationships. It is possible that savings may be made in further collaboration and standardisation in weaponry with our European partners. As we know, standardisation of equipment allows flexibility in operational rôles, in terms of the use of airfields, ammunition, anti-tank missiles, and so on. There is a strong case for providing the British Army of the Rhine with Milan, but we must try to get agreement with the French and the Germans that, in return, they will place orders for British weapons systems in order to safeguard our own industry and employment in our constituencies.

I have vital constituency interests at stake in this connection. My constituents working on defence projects are numerous, highly skilled and very concerned about their jobs and the retention of defence contracts in a situation which they know cannot permit the abandonment of defence and defence manufacture.

In NATO, we already rely heavily on the strength of our partners, especially the German forces. Most of our partners are better equipped than are our own forces. Even with the switch in our defence rôle and commitment to NATO and the central European arena, our contribution is barely adequate, faced, as NATO is, with the massive build-up of men and weapons in the Warsaw Pact countries.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) said just now, the word "détente" means, roughly, "live and let live". I prefer to put it in this way: it means holding on to the present situation. However, it certainly does not mean retreat to a position of weakness.

Without a strong and resolute NATO structure, there would be no détente, no discussions on arms reductions, and no conference tables for our foreign Secretary or his colleagues to sit at later this year.

Aneurin Bevan, as Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, a year or two before his death, pleaded with his own friends at a Labour conference in a debate on unilateral disarmament not to send him naked to the conference table. I ask all my hon. Friends to be realistic about these issues, to support our Foreign Secretary by giving him at least a minimum of power to his elbow in the policies for peace that he is pursuing, and to vote with our Government tonight. That is what the vast mass of our Labour voters expect of us.