Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 14th November 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 5:10 pm, 14th November 2002

My Lords, I have often wondered why foreign affairs and defence are given such priority in our debates on the gracious Speech when for many years governments have rather sought to withdraw from the international world, perhaps post-Suez.

But I wonder even more today, when we have accepted that international events are of greater importance than ever, that we should be the only House debating this issue. I learnt today that Members of the other place consider it insufficiently important to devote attention to. They have therefore left themselves entirely in the hands of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, which I think is a wise decision.

I wonder what it would have been like in the past when we were a great nation and one had to report on events of the year. With a certain whiff of schizophrenia I imagine myself in the other place standing on the Front Bench, or sitting on it, or standing before the Box. I put on my glasses, take up a piece of paper prepared by my officials and, in stentorian tones, I would advise the other place of the following.

In the Balkans riots between Croats and Serbians led to martial law in the Croatian capital, Agram. In the Gulf we sent a British warship to patrol and to keep the peace following the quarrel between the ruler of Kuwait and Bin Rashid who had proclaimed himself King of Arabia. In Iran, Major Showers captured the fort of Mobiz and broke up a terrorist band under Muhammed Ali, who was killed. In Baluchistan, Major MacMahon took a force to sort out the Perso/Afghan border dispute. In Afghanistan the new ruler, Habibullah, released 8,000 prisoners on the occasion of his coronation and then tried to introduce compulsory military service. The natives felt that they would rather join the British native levy.

In the North-West Frontier, General Egerton took four columns of 700 men into Mashud territory to combat terrorist raids and thefts of arms by the Afridis. In Somaliland the Mad Mullah, Abdullah Mohamed, resumed his raids on the British Protectorate, and Colonel Swaine and his native levies restored stability but with heavy losses of men and camels. In Kano, Nigeria, diplomatic efforts failed and the Emir assembled 1,000 mounted men and fortified the city. Colonel Moreland, with 1,200 men of the West Africa frontier force, restored order. There were no problems in Lagos or Sierra Leone.

In South America revolutions in Venezuela and Colombia continued and British trading vessels were seized. Lord Lansdowne, with German support, blockaded the coast and seized Venezuelan warships. Customary political unrest continued in Uruguay. In the Caribbean there were major eruptions of volcanoes in Martinique and St Vincent that required humanitarian support. In South Africa, Kitchener confirmed the end of the Boer war and a peace-keeping contingent of Commonwealth troops left Australia for the Cape. In London there was speculation that the bank rate might fall from 3.5 to 3 per cent.

I refer to the year 1902, 100 years ago. Dare I use the French language for a moment and say, Plus ca change? We were active around the world at that time for reasons of trade, our requirements for raw materials and for economic benefit. In those days the British Army consisted of 615,000 men, apart from native levies. There were 96,000 in the British Navy, but there was, of course, none in the RAF. Is the situation today as serious or as difficult as it was then? Today we have only 215,000 people in the British Army. One wonders, therefore, what we shall be able to do if the activities that we hear are likely to take place—I refer also to those that have taken place—arise. Will we have enough troops?

As my noble friend on the Front Bench is wearing with pride his brigade tie, I recount an event that took place a couple of weeks ago when I was asked by the Grenadier Guards to address their association down in Cheltenham—a pretty blue territory. I thought that there would be a couple of battalions. When I was in the navy a battalion was meant to comprise 1,000 men and one chap called the colonel. There were 520 men—only one battalion. So these days a regiment is only half a battalion. The Grenadier Guards has probably as great a name as any regiment. Its men had just been off on exercise in a flat-bottomed boat to Norway. There they trained in the mountains in preparation for an attack on Afghanistan, Baluchistan or somewhere else mountainous.

When we discussed the firemen's strike I suddenly realised that there are six men in the front and six in the back of a Green Goddess and therefore we need 20 regiments to operate them. Is that right? How many regiments do we need to be able to take action around the world if we are required to do so? Has not the moment arisen when men are more important than machines? To keep the Grenadiers alive for a year is the price of one unequipped Apache helicopter. I refer to machines that are kept in sheds, as we do not have the ability to train people to operate them to full capacity. Why is that?

The Grenadiers told me that these days the average length of service is three years and therefore one-third of the personnel leave every year. That seems to contradict the idea that men need to be highly trained, with five or six years' service, before they can fight. Perhaps that was the case when they had to participate in sophisticated activities in major conflicts or potential major conflicts. I could raise a regiment with a capitation cost of £40,000 per man. When there were five battalions, the fifth battalion was always voluntary or was raised by someone who sat on what is known as the Barons' Bench. If we are to perform our role in the world in future, we shall need more men.

I turn to a separate point. Your Lordships will be aware that in the First World War some 4 million Commonwealth troops fought alongside us and 5.5 million in the Second World War. Your Lordships will know that today the total of the American armed forces stands at about 1.3 million. NATO has 1.7 million and the Commonwealth has 2.8 million. I ask the noble Baroness whether, as regards the current resolution of the United Nations, consultation has taken place with the Commonwealth? Surely when 40 countries of the UN are members of the Commonwealth we might be able to demonstrate that we, the British, with 40 historic allies, blood brothers, or whatever we may call them, have great political clout as well as having the armed forces of men on our side. I am not suggesting that we should raise native levies but, if we think of the alternative, we know that the machinery does not work. We know that in general the sort of equipment that is available is unsuitable for walking around in the mountains with packs on one's back. We need men and we need a stronger army.

As, formerly, the most junior naval officer, always temporary—rather like in your Lordships' House—and as some form of chinless wonder standing on the Back Benches, I say that we should look for greater recruitment. That is all I have to say. I never thought that I would stand here supporting wholeheartedly the Grenadier Guards.