HC Deb 08 March 1934 vol 286 cc2153-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a number of Air Forces, not exceeding 31,000, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom at home and abroad, exclusive of those serv- ing in India (other than Aden), during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1935.

11.5 p.m.


This Vote deals with numbers, and without wishing to detain the Committee for more than a short time I would say one or two words upon it, as the most important element in Air as in all defence. The hon. and gallant Member for South Ayrshire (Captain MacAndrew) made a deeply interesting speech just now, as I am sure everyone agrees. He made the very interesting, and I believe accurate observation, that very likely all the machines which we build now will become obsolete in the first few weeks of war. What really matters is the training of the personnel. That is the matter covered by this Vote. We have been able to call upon a splendid spirit in this country with regard to personnel. It is shown, for instance, in the spirit which takes many of our young men to the service of the Auxiliary Air Squadrons. These are, I think, the first Air Estimates since a distinguished and gallant Member of this House gave his life in the service of one of the Auxiliary Air Squadrons. I refer to the late Lord Knebworth. He was a splendid example of the spirit which is shown in work and service of this kind for the country, and I think we ought to pay a tribute to his memory.

On this matter of personnel it is necessary to recognise the fact that leeway once gathered is very difficult to make up, and it is upon that point that some of us feel great anxiety. It is upon that point that I would like to make some allusion to what fell from the Lord President of the Council earlier to-day. In doing so, may I express my appreciation of the Prime Minister and of the Lord President for having paid attention to the feeling of their supporters and having returned to the Treasury Bench? I should like to repeat that in calling attention to the absence of a Cabinet Minister from the Front Bench I was making no reflection whatever on the way in which the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary for Air has conducted his part in these proceedings. He gave a most lucid and most authoritative account of his Estimates, and no one could wish for anything more courteous or more efficient than his conduct and his share in this Debate. But the Government followed an unusual course on a Service Estimate. The Lord President got up in the middle of it and made an extremely important declaration of policy. The fact that such a declaration was made in such a Debate shows the very close relation between Air policy and foreign policy at the present time. Everyone knows how delicate that connection is, and when a declaration of that kind has been made I think it is at least for us to ask that some Member of the Cabinet should be present to hear what Members have to say. I can quite understand that the Prime Minister and the Lord President might have other engagements, but in that case there are other Cabinet Ministers. There are the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Privy Seal, both very closely concerned in this Debate.

Having made that reference to explain what I did, let me return to the Lord President's speech. The Lord President gave us, as he nearly always does upon a subject of this kind, a speech of inspired common sense. I accept his appeal that we should not at this moment exaggerate. I agree that the danger is not actual or urgent at the present time. In fact I believe the greater danger is that we should do anything which would promote a new race in armaments. There is greater danger in that, than there is imminent danger to our cities or our coasts. It is right that we should try everything to get the Convention which the Government have laid before the other nations in Europe. It is right that we should avoid anything while these negotiations are still open—even to the last minute—that looks like breaking down the negotiations, or giving a handle to those who say that we are not sincere. But there must be a time limit to that process and it is on that point that many of us feel anxiety about the Government's position.

We would like an assurance from the Government to this effect, that sooner or later, and it must be within the next few weeks, it will be known whether the present approach to this disarmament problem is going to succeed or break down altogether. The moment will come when, if we are sincere about it, we should set about making a new approach. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) that the first step on the new approach must be to say that we will achieve parity—at whatever level other nations decree, but parity—and that we will not be content with less. Let us hope that it will be at a low level, but if they insist on making it a high level let us make it clear that we will have parity and have it, at the earliest possible moment, whatever level they may choose.


Including Germany?


Including Germany. I do not think it will be sufficient to leave it at that. Having made that declaration, which I believe would have its effect, which would I believe make a new setting for the discussions on the limitation of air arms, I hope the Government will go on, as the Lord President of the Council suggested, to see if they cannot get an Air Convention, even if they cannot get a wider convention in regard to all arms. But if they are going to approach this problem afresh, with any prospect of success, they will have to consider more closely the question of security. That seems to me a necessary element in any new approach. If we are to bring our Air Force up to parity, if in doing so we are going to strive for a new agreement, to limit air armaments, let us make it clear that we are prepared to put our Air Force into the common service in order to guarantee the convention which we seek. We cannot make that declaration on our own account. Clearly it is impossible to undertake a new obligation, a new commitment of that kind, even if it be limited to the air, without the support of the Dominions and India.

I, therefore, venture to press on the Government, that if the present negotiations break down—and after all, the sands are running out—they will consider at once the importance of declaring that we are going to achieve parity at an early moment, and at the same time we are going to call an Imperial Conference to decide whether the whole Empire will not agree to play some part in the guarantee of security, without which we certainly will not get any limitation of armaments. This case has not been put to the Empire lately, and it should be put to the Empire. I may say in passing that such a conference would be useful at the present, moment. We have to enter another Naval Conference next year and it would be just as well to consult the Empire about that. I beg the Government therefore not to delay too long before they make this new start. All the time the power of expansion is being increased elsewhere. I have no doubt whatever that the power of expansion is being increased in Germany. The point one has to avoid is that in which a foreign nation having developed and put its faith in and built up its pride in an air force suddenly declares that it is a matter of honour not to reduce it. That was our great difficulty in our naval contest with Germany before the War. The point of honour which met every proposal made to Germany to limit her armaments was always the declaration, "That is a point we cannot discuss." The right hon. Gentleman, I am certain, will endorse that. There is a remarkable conversation recorded on this subject in one of our efforts to persuade Germany before the War to limit the building of her fleet. The conversation took place in 1908 when Sir Charles Hardinge, who was then Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, went with King Edward to meet the Kaiser at Konigsberg. It is a conversation recorded both from the English and the German side. The German Emperor's own record is this: Sir Charles Hardinge said: 'Surely an arrangement ought to be found for diminishing this construction, and we should stop, or build slower.' The Emperor: 'Then we shall fight for it as a question of national honour and dignity'"— and afterwards the Emperor said: You must always treat Englishmen thus. That is the real danger that we may get if this kind of spirit is alive, active and determined again in Germany. For that reason I beg the Government on this matter to come to this House very soon again with a definite declaration of policy, and on no account to let this country or other countries feel that there is any tendency to drift.

11.17 p.m.


I would like to draw attention to an historical fact which has so far escaped the attention of the House. This year has witnessed a very important event in British aviation. For the first time in our history the Secretary of State for Air during his tenure of office has become a pilot. In the early part of last year he went down to a London aerodrome. He started flying, at mid-summer he was flying by himself, and by the autumn he had taken his pilot's certificate. I feel that we ought to congratulate him on the magnificent record he has shown by his bravery, and I express the hope that other Members of this House will follow his excellent example.

There are two questions which I want to put to my right hon. Friend. The first is connected with the defence of this country. We have a slight increase in the Air Estimates. It is going to be just enough to annoy all the cranks like the hon. Member for West Leeds (Mr. V. Adams), and a large number of people like hon. Gentlemen below me, and it will do nothing to ensure the defence of this country. I ask my right hon. Friend if, as a result of these two extra squadrons for home defence, we are any safer in this country? Can he come down to this House and give an assurance that with these two extra squadrons he can, first of all, defend London against any hostile power; secondly, can he give an assurance that at the same time as he is defending London he can bring food ships up the Channel, and, thirdly, can he give an assurance that he is capable with the limited forces at his disposal of protecting the large number of aeroplane works in this country, the aerodromes, factories, railway centres and the docks? These are the places which will be attacked. Hostile bombers will not go out of their way to drop bombs on women and children; they would go for the nerve centres af the country. If he has these two extra squadrons, can he give us an assurance that he is capable of defending these nerve centres? If so, I shall support him; if he cannot then this insurance policy, which is costing this country £20,000,000, is pure waste.

The second question I want to ask is connected with the Memorandum. It makes various suggestions; it throws out various hints; it is very vague. It has been explained by the Lord President of the Council, but still simple country Members of this House, who are not familiar with Parliamentary procedure, are still a little vague as to what is actually meant. I understand that the policy of the Government is first to aim at universal disarmament in the air. Unfortunately, that has been found impossible to obtain and, therefore, they have retreated and now suggest in the Memorandum that we should try to get partial disarmament in the air and do what we can to persuade continental countries to come down to our level. Suppose this is found to be impossible, what I want to know is whether the hon. Member proposes to implement the hint in the Memorandum and take immediate steps—I cannot over emphasise the word "immediate"—to build up until we reach parity? Does it mean that he is going to introduce in the course of this year, if we are faced with a failure of the Disarmament Conference, a Supplementary Estimate? If so, then we know where we are. We vote for it or against it. We are now being asked to vote for something we do not know, something we cannot see, and something we do not understand. If he says, "Yes, if the conference fails I am going to introduce a Supplementary Estimate," this House will know where it is. If he says, "No," I suggest that this Memorandum which explains the Government's policy is a trick; the whole thing is humbug and nothing more or less than a false prospectus sent out to mislead the House and the country into a false sense of security.

11.23 p.m.


I think that the hon. Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Perkins) have done good service in trying to get a better explanation of the important announcement made by the Lord President to-day. The right hon. Gentleman gave us a decision of the Cabinet on a question which agitates us, that is our safety from the point of view of the air. What we are anxious about is this promise of getting parity one day is becoming a hardy annual with the Government. We heard it last year and the year before, but it is quite an old story and the country and the House of Commons are getting heartily sick of it. Nobody understands what the pronouncement actually means. I want to get a definite reply. If the Disarmament Conference fails, do the Government then intend to introduce legislation to keep us on a basis of parity before we start another Conference on the air, or are we to have an air conference after the Disarmament Conference and before we get parity? If the latter, we are two conferences away to-day from the point of getting parity, and that may spread into another year, judging by what happens with these conferences. I think it is high time this thing should be dealt with more quickly than that. We want to know, if the Disarmament Conference fails, whether that will be the time when this country is to be asked to come to parity before we go into another conference on air, and air alone.

11.26 p.m.

Vice-Admiral TAYLOR

The country will be very relieved when it learns of the most important statement made by the Lord President of the Council earlier in the day, but the importance of that statement lies in the fact that steps will be taken to carry it into effect. Time is of the utmost importance in this matter. Sufficient has already been said this evening to show the very grave condition of affairs upon the Continent. The very essence of the danger of attack from the air lies in the rapidity of that attack and the absence of any warning that that attack is about to take place, and we cannot therefore wait indefinitely before providing ourselves with the necessary Air Forces to give us security in comparison with the Air Forces of Continental countries. I hope the Government will enforce a time limit when the Convention which was mentioned by the Lord President of the Council takes place. I feel sure that if a time limit was imposed on the other nations within which they would have to make up their minds as to whether they were going to agree to our proposals or not, an agreement would be come to. At any rate, we should all know where we were, and we could carry out this policy of parity within a certain limit of time.

I desire to take part in this Debate in order to draw attention to the very serious danger in which our Mercantile Marine will be placed in any future war, due to its extreme vulnerability to attack from the air. In the Air Clauses of the Draft Disarmament Convention this country proposed to the nations of the world to do away altogether with air bombing. I hope that in any new Convention that will not be put forward to the nations of the world. It is entirely unpracticable, and it would never be carried out; if it was agreed to, when war came, it would never be carried out. I would like to remind the Committee what the Lord President of the Council said in regard to this matter in this House: Will any form of prohibition … treaty, agreement or anything you like, be effective in war? Frankly, I doubt it. He went on to say: If a man has a potential weapon and has his back to the wall and is going to be killed, he will use that weapon whatever it is and whatever undertaking he has given about it. Experience has shown us that the stern test of war will break down all conventions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1932; col. 634, Vol. 270.] I agree with every word of that statement, but I cannot understand how the Lord President, if be believes in it as he undoubtedly does, can agree that this country should put before the world so impracticable, almost hypocritical, a proposal as that we shall do away with bombing in the air, when he knows perfectly well, from what he himself said that it would never be carried out. If such proposals were put into any new convention by this country they would do an ill service to the cause of disarmament and peace. It only gives the nations of the world something to discuss and to talk about and to waste time over.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) has spoken about the bombing of civil populations. I totally disagree with what he has said with regard to that matter. I do not mean that I am in agreement with bombing civilians, but to-day war is not confined to the Army, Navy or the Air Force. The whole nation joins in war, every man and woman does war work, and it is certain that our industrial areas, our ports, our docks and this City of London, the most important centre for this country in time of war, will be subjected to bombing from the air. There is no doubt that our mercantile marine, in particular, will be liable to this form of attack, and we are not in a position to-day to defend the mercantile marine from such attack.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) spoke as if the era of the flying machine had displaced the era of the ship and the gun. I disagree with him. There is no question of any jealousy between one Service and another; each has its own particular function. In the late War the mercantile marine was liable to attack from the surface ship and the submarine, and they were protected from such attack by the men of war. That function of the Navy still exists to-day as it existed in the past. Therefore, it is necessary for this country to have a Navy just as strong and efficient is it was in the past in order to meet that particular form of attack, but, in addition, there is the menace of attack from the air on the mercantile marine, an attack which in the main, cannot be met by the ships of the Navy. It must be met by aeroplanes operating from shore stations.

What does this attack on the mercantile marine really amount to? If we take the radius of action of a bombing machine or torpedo-carrying machine as some 300 miles, and if hon. Members will look at a chart of the world on which is shown the trade routes, they will be astonished to find over how large an area throughout the world our mercantile marine would be subject to attack by aircraft from one or other of the great Powers. The area would include the whole of the North Sea, of course; the docks and harbours of this country; the approaches to the Channel; the whole of the trade route from the Channel to Gibraltar; every yard of the way from Gibraltar to the Suez Canal. Outside those closed waters, the trade coming from the Cape of Good Hope and South America converging as it does off the West Coast of Africa would be liable to attack from Dakkar. Singapore and its approaches are liable to attack; our trade in Far Eastern waters and in the Caribbean Sea would also be in danger. What steps have been taken to counter the danger?

Are the Government satisfied that they can give reasonable security to our mercantile marine? No country in the world is so dependent on the safe arrival of cargoes of foodstuffs and other commodities in our ports as we are. It is useless to convoy our merchant vessels in safety to the Channel and into port if, on their arrival, they are to be destroyed by bombs or torpedoes from air craft. And it is equally useless to have a large air force is this country and in the strategic bases we hold throughout the world in order to protect our merchant ships on arrival in port unless we have sufficient naval forces to guard them until they reach those enclosed waters or ports. Only by having a sufficiency of both aircraft and naval vessels shall we be able to give reasonable protection to our trade.

What provision is being made at our strategic bases to counter air attack? Have we sufficient air forces at Gibraltar, at Malta, at Suez, at the Cape of Good Hope, at Singapore—at all these important links in the chain of our communications throughout the world? Let us be thankful that we have those vital links, in our long line of communications, but we must provide them with the aircraft necessary to deal with any possible enemy aerial attack. Unless we are prepared to deal with this menace I can visualise the possibility of the Mediterranean being closed entirely to our trade. Such a contingency would force our vessels to take the Cape route, which would mean longer voyages, and the necessity for a larger mercantile marine if our country was to be kept supplied with all that it requires. I think this is a form of defence in which the Dominions and the Colonies might play a greater part. They could make a very valuable contribution to Imperial Defence if they would bear a greater share of the burden of defending our long lines of communications by developing the aerial arm. I hope the Government will take steps without delay to give reasonable security to our trade over our long lines of communications, because our existence depends on keeping them open. This matter is so important from the point of view of the security of this country and the Empire that I urge the Government not to delay but to fix definitely a time limit within which agreement among the nations must be come to—failing which we must take all the measures which are necessary to place our aerial defences in the state in which they should be for our security.

11.40 p.m

Captain GUEST

I shall not speak for more than a few minutes, as I know that there are other Votes to be taken, but I cannot lose the opportunity of the presence of the Prime Minister and the Lord President of the Council to endorse the very simple question which has been put to them as to what the Committee can understand by the statement made this evening, a statement of the gravest importance and one in which every supporter of the Government is desirous and having the greatest faith and to which they desire to give the greatest support. But hon. Members have to work outside this House; they have to go to their constituents and to say something in simple language to the electors whom they represent. I submit with great respect to the Treasury Bench that we have not got the little simple thing that we want and I know that it is easy to reply that nobody can give a date for anything in this world; nobody can say "Tuesday next," or "Tuesday fortnight," or "Tuesday threeweeks." We know that perfectly well; but there must be some conceivable space of time which will be ample for the consideration of this great problem of international disarmament agreement abroad, and yet will give us something here, which we can tell to our constituents and which they will understand and believe. The Lord President of the Council has said enough to give us great encouragement, but it is not definite enough. I cannot pursue the argument at this time of night; it would be a mistake to do so, probably. I can only submit with great respect to the Prime Minister and the Lord President, who are the two leaders of the party to which I belong, that if we cannot have something more definite than has been so far said to-night, I, as a member of the party, will find myself unable to support Vote A.

11.42 p.m.


I have always been under the impression that when I try to make a clear statement to this House it can be understood by every Member of the House, and I cannot help feeling that any hon. Member who to-morrow reads carefully what I said will understand what I meant. I have nothing to add to that statement, which was made with deliberation and with care. I should say that in every line of my speech there was a consciousness on the part of the Government that they realise the gravity of the situation and that they are prepared to deal with it. If any Member of the House reads anything different from that into it, he is reading something which is not in it. If any Member of the House thinks that my observations were not expressing fully the intentions of the Government or that we do not realise the gravity of the situation; and if he feels that we are not to be trusted to deal with this matter now in our own manner, obviously the only thing he has to do is to vote against the Government.

Question put, and agreed to.