HC Deb 02 March 1921 vol 138 cc1965-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Sir R. Sanders.]

11.0 P.M.

Rear-Admiral ADAIR

Referring to the question I asked the Prime Minister at Question Time to-day as to the Naval policy in the coming year, I desire to draw the attention of the House to this most important matter, and my objects are twofold—first, to endeavour to persuade the Government to announce a decision which may save the country millions in ensuing years; and, secondly, if I may be permitted to do so, to create a greater interest among the Members of the House in good time before any Naval Vote comes before them. This matter is of such great international importance, and of such importance to the taxpayer, that I make no apology to those members who have been good enough to stop at this late hour for drawing attention to the subject. I beg the House to believe me when I say that in anything I may argue presently, I have always before me the fundamental fact that on the strength and efficiency of the Navy there depend mainly the safety, honour and the welfare of this Empire. There has been a Sub-committee of the Imperial Defence Committee considering recently the question of, I understand, battleships or battle cruiser building. I understand they have been considering it from a political and from a technical point of view. I do not wish to touch on the technical side at all, except to say that I am a confirmed believer in the supremacy of the surface ship and of the gun in naval warfare, but, as regards the political aspect of the case, I think it is high time we had a decision and announced it to the world.

This is a very critical moment, having regard to the naval programmes of other countries, and if we could announce a decision now which showed we were not going to start rivalry and competition in battleship building, it might save the country hundreds of millions in future years, and possibly, as an hon. Gentleman says, from war. But whatever decision the Government come to, I trust they will take the country at once into their confidence, let it know what their decision is, and give their reasons for it. I trust there will be no secrecy, no stealthy building of ships, and things of that sort, but that they will declare their policy courageously and boldly so that the world will know what we are going to do. We have only two other countries to consider—the United States and Japan. I am fully alive to our alliance with Japan and our Treaty with the United States; but it is as well for the House to remember that those Treaties are liable to come to an end, and that there are no less than five different combinations, or rather, sets of circumstances, which may arise as between the three Navies. I do not wish to enter into that at the present time; it would take far too long; but I will put one set of circumstances. Supposing that we resorted to war with the States, which God forbid, but it is always possible—we have been at war before—and supposing that Japan, seeing her opportunity whilst we two were at war, proposed to step in and expand, as she wishes to do. What would be the attitude of the two English-speaking nations towards that threat? That is only one set of circumstances which has to be considered. Whatever circumstances arise, the strategical aspect of the case bulks very largely as regards finance, and for this reason that if we build these huge battleships, costing £8,000,000 or £9,000,000 each, possibly, we shall have not only to keep and maintain attendant flotillas but we shall have to build bases overseas for them to work from. We shall have to develop at great cost at Halifax, Bermudas and Jamaica, and we shall have to go into the Pacific and find new bases on the West coast of Canada. We shall have to found a new Rosyth on the west coast of Canada, probably at Prince Rupert; Esquimalt and Vancouver are untenable against modern attack by gun or aircraft. We shall require another base somewhere in the neighbourhood of Port Moresby in New Guinea, and we shall have to develop Singapore into another Rosyth. Although we have secured these huge floating docks from Germany, it would land the country in an enormous bill for docks, coaling stations, oiling stations, ammunition depots and every imaginable thing necessary for battleship bases. And even if we had these bases it is questionable in my mind whether we could use battleships at all. For this reason, that the distances in the Pacific and Atlantic are so enormous. Japan is building as many battle cruisers as she is battleships, and I believe that for the reason that she appreciates what great distances these craft have got to move over. I desire to emphasise that point and bring it home to the House that in addition to the battleships themselves we have got to spend enormous sums of money on the bases which are essential for warlike operations if we are going to use these battleships.

We started in the old Dutch wars with bases in Deptford Creek, and after spreading all over the world ended up during the War with Germany with bases at Scapa Flow, Invergorden, and Rosyth. It shows how bases change their position, and there is no question that we shall have to build enormous bases in the Pacific, Caribbean and China Seas. I do not intend to-night to refer to the actual building programmes of these other countries. It is impossible to do it in the time. But I have obtained an answer from the Admiralty to a question I put the other day as to what were the actual facts as to the building of ships by the United States and by Japan. I am not going to enter into this, but I am satisfied of this: After examining this statement I say emphatically there is no occasion for us to lay down any battleships in this next financial year. Naturally this has been discussed by the naval advisers of the Imperial Defence Committee, and undoubtedly it must have been discussed by this Sub-Committee which has been sitting, and I think it is high time this Sub-Committee, if they have not already done so, should come to a conclusion on the subject, and that the Government should announce a decision which I hope is that which I have put before the House.

There is another aspect to which I am anxious to draw attention. In his speech from the Throne His Majesty referred to our friendly relations with foreign Powers. Thank God it is so Do not let us jeopardise that happy state of affairs by any foolish and provocative action on our part by initiating or even entering into rivalry and competition with these other countries. If there is to be any such iniquity and wickedness perpetrated, let the reproach of it lie with them and not with us. That is the moral side of the question. Let me refer to the practical side. What this country wants is not battleships. It wants five years of steady devotion to the propagation of industry, a reduction of taxation, of the setting of our house in order, and not of building battleships and bases. Any money which is spent in the next five years should be confined to an Army, a Navy, and an air force of the smallest possible limits and to research; experiment and research, so that when we do enter upon a programme of capital ships—I do not say battleships, for no one really knows what the capital ship of the future will be—we shall ensure that these ships will not become obsolete in the course of a few years as ships have been doing recently. It will give us an opportunity to further investigate the proper positions for our bases in the foreign seas and of getting them ready for these ships.

It may shock the House to know that in respect of design in many points we were behind the Germans in 1914. In the safety of our ships against torpedoes our design was behind that of the Germans. The Germans in point of accuracy of their guns were superior to us and in point of armour-piercing shells they were distinctly ahead of us. That affected our naval operations very seriously. I want money spent on research and experiment to clear up all these points before we start building new ships.

I desire to draw the attention of the House to the contribution of the Overseas Dominions and our other Possessions towards the upkeep of the Imperial Navies—not the British Navy only, for there is an Australian Navy, a New Zealand Navy and a Canadian Navy, or there should be. Hitherto, in my opinion, the Overseas Dominions have not done half enough in this respect, excepting perhaps Australia and little New Zealand. In round figures there are 16,000,000 white British people in these overseas Dominions as against 48,000,000 in this country, and on that basis the overseas Dominions ought to contribute a fourth of the cost of the Navy. But perhaps the fairer way to arrive at the proportion of the overseas Dominions is the volume of trade. I do not want to go into details, but in 1913 the volume of trade of our overseas Dominions and Possessions was no less than £890,000,000. The overseas trade of our own United Kingdom was £1,400,000,000. Included in these two figures there is £500,000,000 of inter-trade between ourselves and the Dominions. On that basis, I think the overseas Dominions and our other Possessions should contribute nearly two-fifths of the cost of the Navies, including the Australian Navy and so on. But even in regard to Australia, let them consider their responsibility. They cry for a white Australia; what does that mean? It means a Navy in Australian waters comparable, at least, to that of Japan. The Australian Navy at present is insignificant compared with Japan's, but the responsibility for that lies with Australia. India, which did £327,000,000 of trade in 1913, has a small India Marine, but contributes mighty little to the Navy Estimates. The Navy of Canada is a lamentable failure.

The contribution of South Africa is ridiculous, having regard to their trade. The West Indies, the East Indies, Mauritius; and Hong Kong, from which a tremendous trade flows overseas, contribute nothing at all, and the sooner this matter is considered the sooner it will relieve our finances.

Apart from the iniquity of any competition in this matter with the United States, we cannot afford to enter into that competition unless our Dominions pay their fair contribution towards the cost. It would be foolish for us to enter into such a competition, because they are far richer, and they would soon leave us behind if they wished, nor do I for one moment believe that they wish it.

In conclusion, I wish to say that, after carefully considering the shipbuilding programmes of foreign countries, the moral aspect of the case, and, having regard to the necessity for retrenchment, I deprecate most strongly any battleship being included in the coming programme. There is an old adage that a stitch in time saves nine. A stitch in the shape of a declaration that we are not going to build any ships this year may save the country hundreds of millions in the ensuing year.


All that I can say is that I gather that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is anxious to have some statement of the Estimates for the coming year. May I remind him and the House that probably on Wednesday week the Estimates will be introduced in the ordinary way. After the preliminary of moving Mr. Speaker out of the Chair, the customary statement will be made, and under these circumstances my hon. and gallant Friend will recognise that it would be premature, and also improper, to anticipate the statement to be then made by giving any information in advance. I gather that the hon. and gallant Member's object in raising this question was to throw out suggestions which might influence the decisions to which we shall have to come. The views of service Members are always most welcome to myself and the Admiralty generally. May I first point out that when it comes to asking me to make a preliminary statement to-night, in face of the statement by the Leader of the House on two occasions, that the Cabinet decision, when arrived at, on the Report of the Committee of Imperial Defence would be conveyed to the House of Commons, when the Speaker would be moved out of the Chair, I think my hon. and gallant Friend will recognise that it would be quite impossible for me to say more than that the remarks he has made will be carefully perused with a view to assisting us in any decision that we may come to.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

There is one point which may lead to some misapprehension with regard to the present building programme. America is building 16 capital ships and Japan 6. The idea seems to be that it is only post-Jutland ships that will be of any use to us, but I believe the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree with me that our ships, with 13.5- and 15-inch guns, with the necessary modifications, are fully equal to the latest ships laid down by foreign Powers.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one minute after Eleven o'clock.