HC Deb 22 May 1957 vol 570 cc1353-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. F. M. Bennett (Torquay)

May I, first, express my appreciation, Sir, not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of many of our kinsmen overseas in Bermuda, for the opportunity afforded to me tonight to put before this House a question which I believe has considerably more importance and more urgency than might at first sight appear? I am referring to the announcement only a few days ago of the impending removal, unless there is a last minute change of heart on the part of the Government, of our United Kingdom garrison from Bermuda.

It is unfortunate that we cannot view this question simply in isolation, as regards the feelings that have been aroused, and are being aroused, in Bermuda at this time. This flows almost directly from the fact that it is only a few months since the announcement was made that Admiralty House, the base of the C.-in-C. West Atlantic, which has been there constantly since 1830 without a break, has there had the White Ensign hauled down, and the people of Bermuda at that time already had to suffer the shock of seeing one of their oldest and most familiar institutions removed.

Now we have another stage in the removal of the signs of apparent United Kingdom interest in Bermuda in the announcement of the impending departure of our small garrison there. No one would pretend that the company of 100 men out there now, which represents our present garrison, could have any significant strategic or tactical rôle to play. I do not think there could be any such suggestion on my part, or any need for the Minister to deal with that in his reply but, as we all know, the presence of forces overseas is never limited only to a tactical and strategic rôle. Everyone appreciates that often they have a wider political rôle to play. There are three purposes outside normal purely military ones which are affected by this decision. I refer here to the question of prestige and tradition and to the departing symbols of their ties with this country.

First, as to prestige. It is impossible for a Bermudian to believe, when he sees on all sides very substantial forces and equipment of the United States Air, Navy and Army Forces, that we in this country now cannot afford even 100 men in the loyal Colony of Bermuda, even though it is appreciated that we are obviously a smaller and not such a rich Power as the United States.

It would be much easier if this great contrast between overwhelming military power—its presence felt every hour of the day—was not there to compare unfavourably with this example of our having to withdraw, for announced economic reasons, a force of 100 men. It is difficult to realise how much importance has been attached to their presence in the past by Bermudians. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Keegan), who is himself a Bermudian by descent, will confirm how much importance has been attached to the presence of the United Kingdom force as a tangible link with Britain.

I have sometimes seen their parades. I have seen how crowds—not just tourists, but Bermudians—gather to see the signs of this small but highly efficient and highly trained force. It is only a little while ago that the Prime Minister himself was welcomed not only by an American guard of honour, but by a British guard of honour when he went to Bermuda. I am in no way casting aspersions on our American allies when I say that every spectator there had no doubt, size apart, which was the better turned out, the better trained and the better looking guard of honour.

That is so far as prestige is concerned and I stress that one cannot overrate it. There does exist at present a contrast between, on the one side, the Power which occupies so large a part of the island in such strength and, on the other, the apparent removal of any active link with this country.

As to the value of tradition, I heard and applauded in this House the other day the reply of the Secretary of State for War when questioned about the small guard which marches up the Embankment to the Bank of England. The Minister was asked whether this guard had any tactical importance—I do not think it could be suggested that it could have any strategic importance—or even whether it served any materially useful purpose. The Minister replied that it was not enough to consider its actual usefulness; that tradition had to play a part, and he said there was every reason why the tradition should continue because it had gone on since 1780.

If there is a reason for continuing a tradition which started in 1780, surely there is a reason for maintaining something which started as did the Bermuda garrison seventy-nine years earlier. It would be a pity if the impression was given to people overseas that we value our traditions in this country, but that we have a different standard of values, a strictly economic standard, when we consider traditions overseas.

Most important of all is the question of symbolism and this, too, is difficult to exaggerate. Unlike many other Colonies, Dependencies and Protectorates there are no real economic ties binding Bermuda to this country. There are mainly ties of sentiment. That is not to say that Bermuda, small as it is, and a very junior member in population of the British Commonwealth of Nations, is not relatively a rich member. It is astonishing that a small country of only 40,000 people, comprising representatives of all races, should contribute annually about one-tenth of the dollars for the sterling area. Let us thus at once appreciate that the basic ties between Bermuda and this country from her to us are not those of self-interest. They are ties of loyalty and sentiment.

Those ties do not necessarily extend to British Governments. It is a loyalty to Britain as represented by the Crown. The people of Bermuda are intensely loyal and will remain so, but they are loyal to the Crown and not to any particular British Government. Canada, which comprises a large area of the British Commonwealth, although loyal and devoted to our Queen, is not in the sterling area, and Bermuda is a great deal nearer to Canada than to the United Kingdom.

The people of Bermuda have a voluntary restriction on their own dollar expenditure in order to help the sterling area as a whole and hence indirectly this country. Bearing these considerations in mind, can we doubt that in attempting to economise on this very small expenditure, if we are not being penny wise, pound foolish, at least we are being penny wise, dollar foolish?

If it is considered that it is impossible to retain this garrison in Bermuda, and if a decision has not been finally made, may I take the opportunity to advance an alternative suggestion which, perhaps, might be considered before the blow actually falls? It has occurred to me that there might be a case, if the troops have to leave and more cannot be sent to Bermuda from a purely Army source, for a detachment of Marines to go there instead. I would ask the Under-Secretary of State for War seriously to consider this suggestion, for I gather that he is here not merely in his Army capacity but as representing the Ministry of Defence.

My suggestion, while managing to maintain the rôles which I have mentioned earlier of prestige and symbolism, and all the other intangible assets which come from having a definite sign of active British interest in the island, would mean that the Marines were also available as a quickly mobilised force with a tactical rôle for use in the Western or Southern Atlantic if local trouble arose. They could be transported there swiftly for the duties for which Marines are suitable.

It is an odd thing that I should be keeping the House tonight to make a plea for our forces to remain in a part of the world where they are truly wanted. There are many parts of the world which are rejecting us and are asking us to take our troops out, but here is a part of the Commonwealth which says, "Please stay." That is the very part where we are proposing to make a withdrawal of these 100 troops. If the history of the rise and decline of the British Empire be ever written, I cannot help feeling that the future historian will refer to this paradoxical example of the voluntary reduction of our tangible interest in the Empire, as an eminent example of the old classical maxim: Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. I would ask the Minister to remember that he will not be replying simply to the hon. Members for Torquay and Nottingham, South, but that his words will be carefully noted and reported overseas. He is, in fact, talking to the Bermudians overseas who will be extremely interested to note what sort of reaction is made to this plea which my hon. Friend and I are making on behalf of a large majority, if not of every one, of the people of that island.

I would close by quoting a letter which I received a few days ago. It came from a leading Bermudian, who is a member of the local Parliament. He is a member of an old Bermudian family and he wrote these words to me and underlined them: It will be a terrible shame if the English troops are withdrawn. Perhaps economy demands this, but it will not be without its price. As stated in the House of Commons, it will be very wrong and foolish further to weaken our symbolic ties with you. I was so impressed with that letter, which I received before the decision was made, that I sent it straight on to the Secretary of State for War. I got a sympathetic reply, from which I quote only the relevant words: There certainly has not been a negative decision yet"— this was a few days before the decision was announced— and I can tell you that the sentiments your correspondent expressed are much in our minds in our present discussions. It is not for me to know what happened between 30th April and, nevertheless, a negative announcement, but I still plead that second thoughts are quite often the best. If nothing complete and final has been decided, may I ask the Minister to consider the suggestion I have put up, or some other suggestion of that kind, sympathetically, in place of a complete withdrawal which can only cause harm to a valued Commonwealth connection?

10.15 p.m.

Mr. D. M. Keegan (Nottingham, South)

I wish to intervene in this debate for only a few minutes. I must, first, say how very much I appreciate being allowed to take part in it and to express my grateful thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. F. M. Bennett), who has brought the matter before the House.

I am a Bermudian by descent, my mother's family having lived in that Colony for about 150 years. I spent most of my childhood there and have returned there many times since. My earliest recollection of the United Kingdom garrison there was when I was asked to captain a cricket team to play against it when I was a schoolboy, aged 11. It was the first experience I had had of captaining a cricket team.

The officers of the garrison played left-hand or right-hand in opposition to the way they normally played and they kindly lost the match to the team I had gathered. They invited me to their camp at Warwick to fire the first rounds I ever fired from a rifle and also ten rounds from a Lewis gun. I have never played cricket at Lords, or shot at Bisley, and cannot say that I was taught to play cricket or to shoot by the garrison, but it has played a great part in the life of the Colony.

Bermuda is a great meeting place for Americans and British and that is very much in our minds in this debate tonight. Some very important people have recently visited Bermuda. It would be a very great pity if a Prime Minister were to be greeted in Bermuda only by an American guard of honour when he arrived there, or if a special contingent of British troops had to go out there to perform that ceremonial function. I beg my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of remember that the function of the Army, although primarily to defend us, is nevertheless, to show the British flag where it ought to be waved, in British Colonies, and it serves a very useful purpose in that respect. I ask him to look very critically at this question of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom garrison.

There is another anecdote that I could tell my hon. Friend about the garrison in Bermuda. I have seen serving members of our force in Bermuda playing rugby against American universities. I think that if we can teach the Americans how to play rugby football there is perhaps a great deal to be said in favour of preserving some remnants of the United Kingdom garrison in Bermuda. I ask my hon. Friend to give every sympathetic consideration to that.

10.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Julian Amery)

I should like at the outset to thank my two hon. Friends who have raised this subject for the way in which they have tackled a very delicate matter. We are very well aware of the long and glorious ties that have linked Bermuda with this country and the British Army. I beg my hon. Friends to believe that what I have to say is said with the strongest sympathy for the sentiments which have inspired their interventions this evening.

I think that it may help to put the problem in perspective if I recall briefly the story of the Bermuda garrison since the war. Until March, 1948, there was a permanent British garrison in the island. It consisted of one infantry company and a headquarters unit, and the total strength was about 250 men. In 1948 the company was withdrawn for service in British Honduras. It was not replaced. Some four years later, in November 1952, it was decided to withdraw the remainder of the garrison, and that withdrawal was completed on 1st May, 1953.

The decision taken at the time to withdraw all Army units from Bermuda was taken on military grounds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr F. M. Bennett) stressed, there was no operational reason to keep a garrison there. The cost per man was high, and the logical course seemed to be to bring away the troops and send them where they would be needed: but the withdrawal of our troops was deeply regretted by the Government and people of Bermuda, and their very strong feelings on this point and some of the other more practical and cogent arguments deployed by my hon. Friend were represented to my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) at the time of the first Bermuda Conference in December, 1953. As a result of those representations, the Government of the day decided to reverse their earlier decision, and the garrison of one company of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, together with headquarters and administrative elements, was accordingly reestablished in Bermuda.

That decision was, I think, perfectly justified in the circumstances of the time, but, as my hon. Friend will be aware, all that was done when we had an Army of more than 400,000 men. Now the background to the 1953 decision has been transformed. The Government have decided to cut the Army's manpower to less than half the 1953 total, and every man in the new Army is to be a volunteer. This revolution in our military structure—it is nothing less than a revolution—imposes correspondingly far-reaching changes in our military organisation.

If we are to sustain our influence as a world Power with less than half the number of men we had under arms in 1953, every man must be in his right place and every commitment which is not essential will have to be cut. If the Army is to build up a central reserve in this country to back up our political influence throughout the world, overseas garrisons will have to be reduced to the minimum consistent with safety. If we are to equip our new model Army with the latest weapons, if we are to provide that Army with living conditions which will attract volunteers, and if, at the same time, we are to keep the economic burdens on this country within bounds, then we shall have to save every penny we can.

These generalisations are the background of thinking against which we have re-examined the decision to restore a garrison in Bermuda. Where has this re-examination led us? On the one side we have the weighty arguments which my hon. Friends have advanced in favour of keeping the garrison. I can assure them that these have been, and continue to be, very much in our minds.

But the arguments the other way have their weight as well. I do not want to stress the manpower or the money aspect overmuch. Two hundred and fifty men may not seem very many, though even 250 is a significant figure when every one is a volunteer. The money involved is not very much either, though in our present circumstances every penny counts. The main point, as I see it, is this: there is no operational justification for keeping a garrison in Bermuda. There is no internal security commitment there. There are already two territorial units in Bermuda—a battery of the Bermuda Militia Artillery and a Headquarters and Rifle Company of the Bermuda Rifles— and a British Army element will remain with them in a training rôle.

Nor is there any question of the withdrawal of the British forces from the West Atlantic area. We have two other battalions there, one British and one of the Jamaica Regiment. They have elements which are, admittedly, not so far north, but they are in Jamaica, British Honduras and Guiana.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that we are living in a time when garrisons are being cut in other parts of the world less sheltered from the cold war and the tensions of rising nationalism than is Bermuda. We have weighed the different arguments for and against withdrawal with great care and sympathy, and we have been forced nevertheless to the conclusion that the Army cannot afford to maintain a garrison in Bermuda. What was possible and, indeed, right for an Army of 400,000 men is not possible, and would be wrong, for the Army envisaged in the White Paper. We have accordingly decided to withdraw the 5th com- pany of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry by the end of this month.

I have sought so far to explain the background of the problem, and to give the reasons why the Army has decided— and, I may say, reluctantly decided—to withdraw the Army garrison from Bermuda. We have reached that decision with the utmost reluctance. I say this, not just for the record but because of another suggestion that my hon. Friend made.

He suggested that it might be possible to substitute a garrison of Marines for the Army garrison, and was good enough to give me notice of his intention to raise this point. I am afraid that I am not yet in a position to give him a reply. The representation of the Services in the Western Hemisphere generally is still under consideration as part of the study of our defence policy. I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that his proposal will be very carefully studied. My hon. Friends will not, however, expect me to attempt tonight to forecast the results of that study.

Meanwhile, I am sure that, much as the people of Bermuda may regret the withdrawal of the Army garrison, they will recognise that in sacrificing something which they have greatly prized, they will also be making a contribution to strengthening the thing they care most about—the independence and greatness of the Commonwealth and Empire, with which they have had such a long and illustrious connection.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.