Defence Estimates 1980

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:12 pm on 29th April 1980.

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Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North 6:12 pm, 29th April 1980

That may be so. However, the Soviets now have a submarine fleet which is far greater than that which Germany had in either of the two wars.

I know that it will be said, perhaps by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), as indeed it was often said before 1939, the none of this will ever happen and that the Soviet Union is interested only in self-defence, and, of course, the Soviet is entitled to defend itself. One might have believed that 15 years ago. But now, why is it that the Soviets have built over 200 submarines, many of them nuclear powered, at vast cost to themselves? Submarines are the least defensive of weapons. Why have the Soviets spent the past 10 years of detente—as many of us believed it to be—in adding this huge offensive force to nuclear strength as great as, if not greater than, that of the United States, and to land forces far greater than those in the West? In addition, why are there the interventions in Africa and the Yemen and the wholly inexcusable invasion of Afghanistan?

None of us knows for certain what are Soviet motives and intentions. But we can be fairly sure of this: that since the United States evacuation of Vietnam the Soviet Union has become an expansionist military Power. Secondly, we cannot safely assume, at least unless and until Afghanistan is evacuated, that further adventures will not follow.

Again, some people may say—and I quite understand this—that there is no analogy here with pre-war Germany and no real evidence of further expansionist intentions on the part of the Soviet Union. The right hon. Member for Pavilion talked about Marxism, and it remains a basic tenet of Marxist philosophy that Communism will gradually but inevitably spread all over the world; and when someone believes that something is inevitable it does not, of course, appear to be morally or legally wrong—in Afghanistan, for instance.

Once, in the 1950s, I spent some evenings in the Kremlin with the British Ambassador to Russia observing the Soviet marshals in all their evening glory—and they are a very resplendent body of men. On my way home one evening I asked the ambassador if those magnificent marshals really believed in Marxism. He replied "Well, they probably do, in the same sense as Field Marshal Montgomery believes in Christianity." I suspect that there is a good deal of truth in that.

It must appear to those marshals in the Kremlin today that everything, according to their doctrine, is now coming their way. Quite apart from nuclear weapons, they have a huge naval fleet, which could surely threaten all our North Sea oil supplies, all our oil tankers and food ships in the Atlantic and many in the Indian Ocean in a very short time. Indeed, looked at from Moscow's point of view, all that stands between the Soviet forces and the Middle East oil reserves of the West at present is Iran.

What is the right course for this country in these circumstances? Most of us, I think, naturally approach the whole issue of nuclear weapons with horror, but it is no good dilating on that today. The question is how we should approach the dilemma in present circumstances, and my practical conclusions are these.

The first priority of United Kingdom policy, I believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) said from the Front Bench, is still to do all we can to get the SALT II agreement ratified in due course—it has only been wrecked for the moment by the folly of the Afghanistan invasion—and to pursue all the other suggestions on arms control which my hon. Friend so constructively made.

But the overwhelming moral for this country is that our safety and our liberties, despite all the present difficulties, depend on the strength of NATO and on our good relations with the United States. We all know that if the Soviet Union ever threatened the ultimate interests of this country or of our close allies we should appeal to the United States for help, because there would be nothing else we could do. That is one reason, incidentally, why I think any attempt to turn the EEC into some sort of defence organisation would be a threat to NATO, because it would blur responsibilities. Indeed, the United States might one day say "If you are creating a rival defence organisation in Western Europe, perhaps you had better defend yourselves and not look to us."

Next, it follows that if we expect the American deterrent to deter others from attacking us we cannot at the same time refuse the United States the chance to have bases in this country in order that that deterrent could be used. I therefore support the Government's decision to permit cruise missile bases in this country. It does not seem to me to be a morally defensible attitude, whether this is a partisan attitude or not, to say to the United States that we regard nuclear weapons as so immoral and dangerous that we are asking them to use theirs on our behalf. I do not think that we could possibly adopt that attitude.

However, I welcomed the Defence Minister's statement yesterday—if I understood him correctly—that any use of those missile bases in this country would be a matter for joint decision by both nations and that, therefore, there would be, as it were, a double veto on their use.

It also follows from all this that as long as Soviet military power is being still further increased NATO is bound to follow suit, and we must therefore honour the 3 per cent. increase in real defence expenditure.

My complaint against the Government, however—which may not please hon. Members opposite—is that, given their present economic policy of contracting and eroding British industry, this simply is not possible. I am pressing the Government to adopt an economic policy of industrial growth and full employment in order that we may strengthen our defences without sacrificing everything else. This would mean, in particular, in the case of steel exploring the possibility of keeping as many plants as possible on a care and maintenance basis—not demolishing them—and charging the expense of that to the defence bill. And in the even more important case of shipbuilding there would be no real economic cost in using unemployed shipbuilding capacity in this country, including the Royal dockyards, of which we have heard in this debate, to build up a much larger fleet of anti-submarine ships than the 65 frigates and destroyers mentioned in the White Paper. Thus we would preserve in both these industries our basic war potential. It is something to hear that we have 65 frigates and destroyers, but in the week after Dunkirk there were 70 destroyers under repair at the same time, so 65 is not as great a number as it might seem.

Whatever Soviet intentions may be in South-West Asia, it is surely essential that the United States, this country and other NATO members should work out in advance, while there is time, some concerted and agreed plan of action for what they propose to do if further adventures occur in that area. I have some sympathy with those who say that if NATO's responsibilities are still to be confined to its present limited geographical area some other method will have to be worked out for ensuring that we are not taken unawares and left without any power of decision in parts of the world which now seem to be even more important.

Lastly, the White Paper inevitably faces us with the question whether we should preserve our independent British nuclear deterrent as well. Whatever we think about that, let us at least decide this on the right grounds. It depends, it seems to me, on whether in an ultimate crisis we are prepared to be wholly dependent on the United States. I would certainly rather be thus dependent on the United States than on almost any other nation in the contemporary world. But when I reflect on the uncertainty of the future, and, indeed, on the unpredictability of all human affairs, I confess that I reach the conclusion on balance that I am not prepared to put this country wholly at the mercy of any other nation whatever.