Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan , Cardiff South East 5:12 pm, 6th July 1982

We had atomic weapons at that time, but we were dependent on the Americans. My conclusion is different from that of the right hon. Member for Pavilion. We cannot fight a war unless the Americans agree that we should do so, or unless we have at least their acquiescence in what we are doing. That is as true today as it was at the time of Suez. It is not something that I necessarily welcome, but it happens to be the case.

For example, the crisis in Cyprus occurred at a time when America's attention was engaged in President Nixon's final resignation and Mr. Henry Kissinger had all his attention taken up by that. It was because we could not get the support of the Americans that we did not stop the Turks. The American fleet could have interposed itself. However, I do not wish to spend my whole speech on these issues, because I have other things that I wish to say.

I shall not vote for the Defence Estimates tonight. The Secretary of State can have the money that he wants—that is not the issue. The policy is wrong. I do not deny the Secretary of State the money, although I disagree with important parts of the policy. My particular point is that I disagree with the Secretary of State's assertion last week that we have a balanced mix of forces—Navy, Army and Air Force—which must not be abandoned, and which is appropriate to our needs. That is the central issue for me. I shall not discuss nuclear issues, because my views on them are well known and do not need repeating.

I agreed with the right hon. Member for Pavilion when he asked whether we had analysed the threat. It is to this that the House is turning its attention more and more. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) on the parts of his speech in which he discussed this matter. He came to the nub of it in a way that we have not done for some time in the past.

The truth is not, I regret to say, that we have a balanced mix of forces but that the structure of our forces has been unbalanced for some years, including the period when I was Prime Minister, that it is unbalanced at present and that the Government's new policy is making the problem worse and not better. That is my starting point.

The Government propose to reduce our aircraft carrier strength, cut down the number of frigates and destroyers, close dockyards and run down the strength of officers and naval ratings by 10,000 men, leaving us with the smallest Navy of the century. This policy has serious potential dangers for our country's safety. It is a misapplication of the proper division of resources between the Services. We do not have the right mix, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli said. I support him and I refuse to support the Defence Estimates as they have been published because they have that issue wrong.

I question the prevailing wisdom on two main subjects, both of which were touched on by my right hon. Friend for Llanelli and one which was touched on by the right hon. Member for Pavilion. I question that, in the vernacular, the Falklands was a "one-off' event and can be ignored, and I question the theory of the short, sharp war that will last for only days. That was something that was said before, in 1914 and in 1939.

I am reinforced in this because our maritime strategy policy has not been the result of a careful re-examination of the problems. It has been caused, as my right hon. Friend for Llanelli pointed out, by the fact that the Secretary of State, having been plucked from the obscurity of the Department of Trade, presumably because he was more biddable than the present Foreign Secretary, found himself with some issues that he was unable to touch. He could not touch Trident for particular reasons, he could not touch the troops in Germany for other reasons and so the whole of the expenditure savings that he was required to make fell on our maritime strategy.

There was no balanced judgment about our defence role, and it is this issue that the House as a whole ought to challenge and not merely accept. Just because these fixed constants were there, we do not have to accept what has happened to our surface fleet. We have cut ships large and small. I felt some shame when I heard that we were selling off ships—something that we have never done before in this way—out of the active Fleet to other countries.

We invited Chile to purchase HMS "Norfolk". We attempted to sell HMS "Invincible" to Australia. We asked the Americans whether they would like the Royal Fleet Auxiliary "Stromness", and they said "Yes" and grabbed it with both hands. We have never run our defence system in this way before. I felt rather humiliated when I heard that that was the way in which we intended to try to rake up the money to get within the limits. Nothing was spared.

Perhaps the greatest irresponsibility of all involved HMS "Endurance". I shall not discuss the matter this afternoon, except to say that she was sacrificed, despite repeated warnings from both sides of the House about the impact that it would have. We now know that Mr. Costa Mendez took it as a signal that we would not fight. I shall now leave the issue, but in my opinion, it was a classic example of penny wise, pound foolish.

It is clear from what has been said that there is serious and growing disagreement about our present defence strategy. Indeed, when I listen to my own Front Bench, I begin to feel that we are becoming a Navy party.