Defence Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 7th July 1981.

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Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion 6:39 pm, 7th July 1981

Not for the first time, I find myself in an almost embarrassing degree of agreement with the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). I am grateful to him for asking many of the questions that I had intended to ask. That will enable me to shorten my remarks.

Many forward-looking thoughts have been expressed in the debate. I hope that I shall not strike an unwelcome note if I ask the House to look back. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was foremost among those who denounced the threat of Soviet imperialism. That was before the invasion of Afghanistan and the intimidation of Poland. She accompanied her remarks with a call to strengthen our defences. Most of us thought that that meant strengthening our capability, not simply our financial contribution. I do not think that it was only innocent Back Benchers such as myself who thought that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, had exactly the same idea.

My right hon. Friend found that a 3 per cent. increase in real terms would not allow him to maintain what we might call the Mulley programme, let alone to strengthen our defences. With refreshing candour, he came to the House and said that cash limits could not apply to the defence programme. The Treasury team stepped in and my right hon. Friend was elevated to his present position, where the only harm that he can do to the Exchequer is involved in his influence over the Kitchen Committee or the pay of Members.

My right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Defence openly admitted—and the White Paper endorses it—that he would operate within cash limits. That was a condition of his employment. He was given the job on those terms. I suppose that somebody had to do the job. I admit that the good humour and skill with which he has presented the review has enhanced his reputation in the eyes of both the public and the House. He did it as well as anyone could, and with a certain gusto. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry embarks on massive neo-Keynesian policies, he does it with great reluctance, as though his teeth were being pulled. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence does it with all the enthusiasm of Premier Trudeau turning a cartwheel.

Given the cash limits set by his employers I shall not quarrel with the priorities, nor with the way in which my right hon. Friend has allocated the resources made available to him by the Treasury team. I am not surprised that, apart from the Trident programme, which was decided by his predecessor, there is nothing serious in the area of modernisation to be found in the White Paper. I have never known a White Paper to be produced so quickly by someone with so little knowledge of defence as my right hon. Friend, together with the Prime Minister with whom he works.

There are serious cuts in our overall capability. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North mentioned them. I shall touch upon three. There is to be no replacement for the Jaguar for the Royal Air Force. It will have to make do with the Harrier. I was involved in the development of both the Jaguar and the Harrier. There is no conceivable way in which the Harrier can take the place of the Jaguar. The reduction in the overall capability of the Navy has come out clearly in the debate and in the replies that my right hon. Friend has made to various questions.

I wish to deal with a point that has not been fully developed. We are proposing to cut the manpower of the Services by 18,000 to 20,000 men. I am not saying that all those men, who will now be shed, should be retained. Some of them may be in trades that we do not need. But 20,000 men are a lot of men. It is nearly half of our commitment to the BAOR under the Brussels Treaty. Many senior officers have told me that although their units are up to establishment, the establishment is fearfully tight.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a great show in Washington about how she wanted to support President Reagan in the rapid deployment force. With 20,000 men re-employed in the Services in the right way, we could huff-up the establishments of existing units. We might even produce a credible contribution to the rapid deployment force, instead of the purely cosmetic contribution to which the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) referred.

There have been many defence reviews during the time that I have been in the House. The Labour Government cut defence to the bone. My right hon. Friend is cutting it to the marrow. There is something rather inconsequential, rather Irish, about the timing. There is general agreement that the threat is the greatest that we have faced since the war. There is general agreement that the matter is urgent, that the window of opportunity is opening for the Russians and that for the next five, six or 10 years we shall be at our weakest. After that, I hope that the industrial power of the West will allow us to take a more relaxed view. This is the moment of danger. There is a general consensus that the threat may well develop outside NATO, as well as in Europe. All the external signs appear to dictate a strengthening of our capability, or at least maintaining it—certainly not cutting it.

Yet we are told that we cannot afford to maintain our capability, let alone strengthen it. The Russians appear to be able to do that, and their standard of living is about half of ours, if not lower. Of course, Russia has a dictatorship. It is easier to tell people what to do if there is a dictatorship. The United States, which is the greatest democracy in the world, and which has a Parliament much better equipped than ours to block the action of the Executive, is determined to increase its defence expenditure by a phenomenal proportion during the next two years. It is true that our European allies and Japanese friends spend a slightly smaller proportion of their gross domestic product on defence than does Britain. But the totals are much larger—1 per cent. of the Japanese GDP is about as much as we propose to spend.

Of course, we face severe, deep-seated problems that will not be easily solved. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North has some experience of that. But I think that he will agree that while the problems may in some ways be worse than at any time since the war, we are not in a crisis. There is no balance of payments crisis. Sterling is strong. We have all the problems of the recession and the problems that result from trying to deal with it. However, we are discussing a 10-year programme. Are my right hon. Friends really saying that looking 10 years ahead we have no option, even when the threat is higher than ever before, other than to cut defence expenditure? If they are saying that, they are putting in question not the management of the Ministry of Defence but the management of the economy. Have they really so little confidence in the economic policies to which they are pledged?

The White Paper is the best supporting argument that I have seen for the Opposition Party and for my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). Do we really not think that we can generate the resources under Conservative economic policies to enable us to spend £500 million more on defence each year during the next 10 years?

In the nuclear age, the name of the game is deterrence. Everything depends upon the ability to deter a nuclear attack, and, if there is a local attack, to prevent its becoming a nuclear attack. If there is a conflagration—and here I disagree with the right hon. Member for Down, South—there will not be much time to mobilise resources. The peace-time capability determines the ability to maintain survival—rather than to win a war. What we have now may prevent the conflagration. It is no good having it in the backyard. While the threat grows, the Government are cutting our capability—in the hope, I suppose, of reducing inflation and notching it down by another point or two. Frankly, I would rather survive.

I am concerned about the Prime Minister's position. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a particular job to do. He was put in by the Treasury team to do it. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gained worldwide respect as a result of her "Iron Lady" speech. She was seen as a real defender of the realm. A heavy responsibility rests upon my right hon. Friend. She moved my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from the Ministry of Defence and put in my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) to do the job.

The Chiefs of Staff have met my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on two occasions in the past six months. They have claimed their constitutional right of access to the Prime Minister. During 30 years in the House of Commons, several of them spent in defence departments, I cannot remember the Chiefs of Staff exercising that right so often. I understand that they left the Prime Minister having been overruled. We are told that Sir Winston Churchill never overruled the Chiefs of Staff. He argued with them for long hours through the night, but he never overruled them, because, unlike some of those who are now managing our defences, he had a lifetime of experience of defence.