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 William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton 12:00 am, 7th May 1975

As we reach the closing stages of this debate, I am reminded of the music hall song, which I think was a favourite with Marie Lloyd, who sang that she was always a bridesmaid and never a blushing bride. I recognise the risk of ambivalence in the coining of that phrase, but for the fourth time in a year I find myself following on behind. To change to a safer metaphor, I am a tail ender in the twilight when the best batting is over and I realise that the crowd is anxious to go home.

I have listened in vain for the powerful arguments I had expected either for the amendment or against the Government motion. We certainly did not have them in the cavalier speech of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) or in favour of the amendment standing in the names of a number of my hon. Friends.

I have heard many thoughtful speeches, and I have read those which I did not hear. I think that at many stages the debate has been very well argued. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) will not become nervous when I say that I thought that he made a singularly powerful speech, even when I did not agree with him.

I recognised the serious commitment of hon. Members who spoke in the debate ever, that sentiment was not aroused by ever, that sentiment was not expressed by the hon. Member for Woking.

When the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) was in full flood yesterday afternoon I counted 28 of his right hon. and hon. Friends present, which is one out of 10 of all Conservative Members, to support his massive attack. Nor have Government supporters been exactly thick on the ground. As I find substantial agreement with my analysis of this occasion I should like to believe that very soon we shall all tiptoe quietly away without any unnecessary votes. Until that quiet moment comes I must deal with some of the matters raised in the debate.

First I should like to refer to the further cut of £110 million which has been a proper subject for discussion and to which my right hon. Friend referred yesterday. Nobody will suppose that my right hon. Friend accepted this cut with a song in his heart. He said that this additional saving could not be painless. It was not painless to accept it. But he is not the first Minister in this or any other Government with responsibility for defence or any other spending Department who wished that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day should be forced to swallow a little of his own medicine, and my right hon. Friend will not be the last. It is the way of the world to fight hard against cuts but equally to recognise wider and inescapable necessities.

Very few hon. Members have questioned the Chancellor's decision to make massive reductions in public expenditure. Most have been saddened by what those cuts mean in areas close to their hearts. It is unreal to believe that defence could have escaped even after a major and thoroughgoing review, and especially in deteriorating economic circumstances.

The Opposition are entitled to make their debating points. In their shoes we would do the same. But let us recognise debating points for what they are. I thought that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), with all his experience and more than his usual caution, weighed his words carefully on this matter. A short time ago the hon. Member for Woking lacked such wisdom. In due course he may regret his remarks.

We have had a number of very wide-ranging contributions to the debate, and they have been very valuable in helping us to see the defence review in its international perspective. We had a speech which was firm, if not occasionally strenuous, from the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) which did not seem to me to be popular at all times with his successor, the hon. Member for Ayr. We had from the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) a thoughtful speech in which he said that he believed that we had got the balance about right. I welcome his support.

We had from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) his usual shrewd and broad perspective and analysis, and we had from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) his usual mixture of perception and perverseness. When the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the inevitability of arbitrariness, I found myself largely in agreement with him. But when he spoke later about an army of citizen volunteers, I wondered, and I felt that I must go away to reflect and to work out what that might really mean.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) spoke of no Finlandisation. I endorse that remark and many others that he made. The hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) talked of the work of his Select Committee. Like the hon. Member for Ayr, I regret that we shall lose the hon. and gallant Gentleman at the end of this Parliament. The whole House has welcomed the vigilance and hard work of his Select Committee. Although sometimes Ministers in the Defence Department find themselves sorely tried by his persistence and demands and those of his Committee, that is the proper function of his Committee, which this House has welcomed, and we shall all be better for it.

Then we had the remarks of the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber). I regret, though I am not surprised, that he was unable to endorse the White Paper, but he had much to contribute from his own patient experience of disarmament negotiations. I know that those who did not hear his remarks will read them with the greatest interest.

Finally, from the Government benches, we had from my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) a typically robust and deeply informed speech in which, among other things, he brought together the logic of the arguments of some of those who demand what we regard as excessive cuts in its implications for our commitment to NATO. This is a matter which I should like the House to explore on some future occasion. But, for the Government, I can merely repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said so many times. We are committed fully to NATO, and our defence review makes that plain.

I hope that time may be found, although these debates on international affairs are not always the most fruitful, to debate some of the other very large issues which have been in our minds today, even when we have not perhaps made them wholly explicit. Certainly the end of the United States rôle in Vietnam and the inevitable crisis of confidence and of pur- pose which the United States faces must give us pause, and nothing that Her Majesty's Government do or which the House would want done must lead the United States to weaken its commitment to Europe, with all the advantages for us that that commitment implies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) referred in his other remarks to the need to combat terrorism. I hope that he will understand if I say that, although I agree with him and although the Government have made plain that this is their view also, it will be widely agreed that the less said about the detailed provision that we make, the better on this occasion. But I note my hon. Friend's concern, and he was right to express it in the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Jackson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), at the end of his speech yesterday, paid tribute to the work of the British contingent in the United Nations forces in Cyprus. That contingent now numbers 970 men, and we are happy to endorse the welcome tribute to those involved in what continues to be a difficult task.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough referred to conditions in the sovereign base areas in Cyprus. I regret that we cannot yet let families live outside them. I do not want to minimise the problems that remain and the inconvenience of those living there, and we shall do all we possibly can to alleviate the situation.

The hon. Member for Woking, in his closing speech, and the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) earlier referred to the maritime Harrier, which was also discussed yesterday. I fully recognise the interest of the House in this question and the anxiety that it should be settled quickly but I would like to take the House rather quietly through the issues involved on this and other occasions when the Government are obliged to make difficult decisions.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border this afternoon referred quite explicitly, in a passage with which I could not disagree, to the need to get value for money in all the purchases we make and even the hon. Member for Woking found it right to use cautious words about the way in which Government decisions on equipment should be made. He said that no Government ought to buy equipment—and I believe that he was referring particularly to the maritime Harrier—simply because it is a marvellous new toy. He said the real test is whether a piece of equipment is needed. With those sentiments I do not disagree, and it is fair to say that all who have been involved in Government are aware of the awkward ifs and buts of this kind of decision. I believe that the previous Government were twice on the brink of taking a decision on the maritime Harrier but drew back in view of all the complexities involved.

What is essential is not that we should deny that it would be a valuable additional capability to the Navy, for we recognise that this would be so, even though it would be only one element in our anti-submarine force. What we have to consider is whether the operational case for the maritime Harrier is of sufficiently high priority to justify its place over and above other projects. In this we have to be very hard headed.

We have not overlooked the export potential of the maritime Harrier and it may well be that we can justify buying it for ourselves and that there will be a demand from other countries for it, but we cannot take that for granted. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart), in his remarks last night, referred to a massive export market for the maritime Harrier. I hope that he is right but, let us ask ourselves quite honestly, what about the existing Harrier? Of course the United States has bought it, but we have not so far been able to attract the support of our European partners in NATO either for V/STOL technology or the Harrier concept of operations. The point I am making is that enthusiasm and salesmanship must not lead us away from hard-headed calculation into wishful thinking about the prospects.

There has also been some confusion about the maritime Harrier, on the one hand, and other future developments in V/STOL technology on the other. I want to make clear that the current United States proposal to produce an improved version for their own Marine Corps—a so-called advanced Harrier— continues to be studied. The studies for this are being funded jointly by ourselves and the Americans. Hawker-Siddeley Aviation and Rolls Royce are participating fully and also have commercial agreements with their American counterparts to protect their interests.

The confusion which surrounds the question of defence procurement is well illustrated in the opening sentence of Chapman Pincher's story on Monday of this week in which he said that the Government were planning to spend £100 million on foreign weapons while claiming that they could not afford to spend a lesser sum on the all-British Harrier. In the first place, we are making no such claim. But the foolishness of this glib sentence lies in comparing like with unlike and the implied assumption that it is wrong by definition to buy foreign weapons and right by definition to buy British ones.

Life is not as simple as that. I and other Ministers wish it were. Of course the ideal solution would arise if we could provide all British weapons which precisely meet the needs of the Services, were the cheapest available and were then adopted as standard by our partners in NATO and sold in large quantities around the world. The reality is quite different. In the first place such an apparently legitimate ambition is shared equally by our major partners in NATO who we would wish to adopt our solution. Second, given the cost of producing sophisticated modern weapons, not even the United States could achieve such a monopoly position.

Third, for us even to try to do so would be to reverse the policy of successive Governments. Among other things, it makes nonsense of the Eurogroup meeting today which my right hon. Friend chaired. Our aim at all times must be to equip our forces in the best possible way consistent with what we can afford and our obligations to the alliance and to ensure as far as possible a steady and realistic level of employment in our own defence industries.

I mean by this that we must not try to compete in every area but must be prepared to buy equipment elsewhere on the basis of reciprocity. I welcome what the hon. and gallant Member for Eye said today on this subject. Equally, the hon. Member for Beckenham was fair last night, as was the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers). They recognised the difficulties in this area. The hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) did so in stressing the need to avoid duplication in NATO. This has been a consistent theme on both sides of the House for many years.

It would be wrong—and I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) say that it would be wrong—to abandon our commitment to a policy of standardisation and reciprocity at the first whiff of gunshot. A large number of our major equipment programmes are already collaborative projects. I would simply ask hon. Members to recognise that the principles I have attempted to spell out will be those which guide us throughout the further decisions we must make.

As hon. Members know, we shall shortly be making decisions on several new guided weapon systems for the Services. There was a reference to that today by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark). In making these decisions, the considerations I have mentioned will be very much in mind. Our first concern must be to provide the Services with the equipment they need for their operational rôle at the right time.

Second, we shall be concerned to ensure a strong British industry by giving it the maximum possible work. This does not mean that we should turn our backs on equipment, which the Services want and need and which is competitively prived, just because it is not British.

In view of some of my remarks about the problems of procurement may I say something to cheer up hon. Members I cannot for the moment see the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann)—