HC Deb 13 May 1958 vol 588 cc215-25
46. Mr. Wigg

asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the Chief of the Air Staff, together with other members of the Air Council, have publicly criticised the defence policy of Her Majesty's Government at a conference arranged by the Air Council in London on Tuesday, 6th May; and, in view of public concern, if he will redefine the limits of responsibility between the Ministry of Defence and the Air Ministry.

48. Mr. Mason

asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware of the constitutional issues which have arisen from senior officers of the Forces making public statements contrary to Government defence policy; and what action he is taking in this matter.

49. Mr. Emrys Hughes

asked the Prime Minister if he will redefine the extent to which the Minister of Defence is now responsible for co-ordinating the activities of the Air Ministry with those of the other Service Departments.

50. Mr. Lipton

asked the Prime Minister to what extent serving officers are permitted to express in public their opinions on the defence policy of Her Majesty's Government.

51. Mr. de Freitas

asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the continuing public controversy between the Minister of Defence and members of the Air Council as to the future of manned military aircraft is having an unsettling effect on the Royal Air Force and the aircraft industry; and whether he will make a statement.

53. Mr. G. Brown

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about the Royal Air Force Conference Prospect which was held on Tuesday, 6th May, 1958.

54. Mr. Short

asked the Prime Minister whether he will take steps to see that all Government Departments follow the technique of public relations used by the Royal Air Force in Conference Prospect.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

This was by no means the first conference of its kind to be held by one of the Services. Its purpose was to expound to a widely representative audience some of the problems which the Royal Air Force sees ahead—many of them a considerable way ahead—and to ventilate for discussion the various possible solutions to which thought is being given. I am assured that nothing that was said at the conference conflicted with the Government's declared defence policy.

As regards the responsibilities of the Minister of Defence I would refer hon. Members to what I said on Thursday last.

Mr. Wigg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a careful perusal of the hand-outs and Press reports reveals that the wisdom of holding these conferences can be called into question?

Is he also aware that there is no doubt that these distinguished officers, as they said, are very greatly concerned about the future of their Service and about the confusion in the public mind? Is he aware that the fact that this confusion exists can be ascribed only to the failure of the Government—and perhaps even to the House of Commons—to explain to the country the implications of the last two Defence White Papers?

If the right hon. Gentleman himself has looked at these Papers, does not he share the concern of these distinguished officers about the implications of the Government's defence policy, which might result in the country facing humiliating diplomatic or military defeat?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member has asked a good many supplementary questions. So far as I can recall them, I will do my best to answer them. He asked whether this kind of conference was wise. There are many reputable precedents for conferences of this kind, including in particular one held by Lord Tedder in 1949, and named Ariel. There are many arguments for and against having rather wider discussion and knowledge among the public and the Press. Some people might feel that it is better to keep all this completely secret; but, on the whole, although these experiments should be carefully watched, it is an advantage for these various conferences to have free and frank discussion of some of these difficult and in many cases distant problems.

With regard to the deductions drawn from some of the facts in both the Press and elsewhere, I have done my best, while having a good many other problems with which to deal, to read as carefully as I could all the records with which I have been provided. I want to call the attention of the House particularly to some of the points mainly criticised. I think that the premise upon which these speculations were based is not well understood. The Assistant Chief of Air Staff explained that he was considering a situation which might arise or would arise if a defence to the ballistic rocket were found; in other words, if science so progressed in the future that a defence to this form of weapon, against which there is no defence, so far as we now know, were found. This weapon would then be made of less importance and some new scientific device might reduce or take away its paramount or ultimate power.

If that should happen, he said, all questions of bombers and manned aircraft and all that would have to be reconsidered. I hope that the House and the country will understand that all this speculation was based on a premise which we have no reason at present to believe is likely to arise—certainly not in the near future.

Mr. G. Brown

As one of those who was there, may I ask the Prime Minister to accept from me that anybody there would find it very difficult to visualise that meeting being based wholly on the premise which the Prime Minister now puts forward? Has his attention been drawn to the fact that the first half of the morning session was wholly a political discussion on the philosophy of the rightness or wrongness of the nuclear deterrent, a discussion in which serving officers impersonated Members of Parliament and reproduced debates which had taken place here? May I say in justice to hon. Members opposite that their case was not as well presented as they have presented it. Does the Prime Minister feel that it is the function of a Service Department to provide an occasion for the reproduction of a political debate, or does he think that that ought to be done by us in Parliament?

Secondly; is he aware that the second half of the morning session was the half concerned with the discussion of Government policy for more or fewer manned bombers and fighters? Does the Prime Minister—assuming that it is his view that there ought to be discussion of Government decisions in this matter—feel that it is right for one Service Department to provide an occasion to discuss the rights and wrongs of the Government's decisions on manned and unmanned aircraft?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the first part of the supplementary question, I can only quote from the script with which I have been provided. The Assistant Chief of the Air Staff explained that he was considering the situation if a defence was found to the ballistic rocket. He said: It is obviously impossible for me to say here and now precisely what the answer will be. that is to say, if the ballistic rocket is found not, as we now believe to be the case, to be a weapon against which there is not a defence, but a weapon against which a defence could be devised. He went on to say: I suggest we will need what will amount to a second generation of these manned and unmanned weapons and they will continue to be complementary one to the other. This is not to say that we cling to the idea that we need a bigger and better bomber. That would be a reversal of decisions already taken and is not our intention. A manned vehicle, that is something retaining discretion, and not tied to large and vulnerable airfields … may be the answer. I repeat that all this was based on what would be, or should be, the right reply if this situation should develop; that is to say, if a defence which nobody now believes is possible were found to the ballistic rocket.

In regard to the second part of the right hon. Member's supplementary question, as to the propriety or wisdom of this kind of sketch, if I may call it that, opinions may vary, but I think we must not take too harsh a view of these arrangements. I think that hon. Members who were there probably felt that it added in a dramatic way to the discussion of an important question.

Mr. Mason

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole question of inspired Press leaks and adverse public comments by officers of the Forces is denigrating the status not only of Ministers and the Government, but of the whole House? If a civil servant had made comments of this kind publicly would not demotion have followed? Is not the course now clearly open to the Prime Minister to do exactly the same to these chaps?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I think it is a matter for discussion—certainly this particular matter will require consideration—how far this kind of exercise, which was only one in a considerable series, is wise or unwise. On the other hand, I have often heard it argued that these things are kept secret too much and that the public and the Press are not sufficiently brought into these matters. I do not think we ought to come to a too hasty conclusion on the principle.

Whether it was well carried out is another matter. Whether there is a general feeling that exercises of this kind are not good for the public and relations with the public we shall have to consider. As I say, it is not novel; this was one of a series. On the whole, although this was not the custom, certainly, when I first came to the House, it is felt that there ought to be closer association between the Services and the public.

Mr. de Freitas

Will the Prime Minister look at my Question No. 51? Is not the fact that there is this public controversy between the Minister of Defence and the Air Council due to the over-optimistic appreciation by the Minister of Defence of the state of development of missiles? Will not the Minister follow his retreat over Fighter Command by abandoning the project of the Thor missile in particular, which is widely regarded as obsolete?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. The whole point was on the assumption that the rocket would be found by some scientific modern devices to be something which might be destroyed before it could reach its target. If that is the argument, we have to consider what would be done in the bomber and fighter fields. It would create a new, element. The Assistant Chief of the Air Staff went on to say: It is the manned fighter which provides the most difficult conundrum. As you all know, a year ago it was officially announced that we would not develop another fighter. Circumstances change very rapidly though, and if we do find a reliable defence against the ballistic missile, we could easily have a changed threat which would call for a long-range fighter designed to intercept, identify, and destroy beyond the practical range of surface-to-air guided weapons. There again, it was governed by the premise that the ballistic rocket, against which at present, as far as I know, there is no possible defence, should be found to be a weapon which is not the ultimate weapon, but only one against which normal defensive weapons could be devised in future. He said that if that happens, some of these considerations will have to change.

Mr. Bellenger

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the Prime Minister quoting from a document which is not before the House? Should not the House be in possession of the whole of that document?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know what the document is. I do not think it is a State paper but a script.

Mr. Shinwell

Will not the Prime Minister agree that as a result of these Questions the House has been informed of several matters affecting the defence position about which hon. Members hitherto have not had any information? Can he say if the purpose of this conference was to furnish information on the air aspect of defence? Would not it be desirable that a wider audience might have been informed? Could he arrange that in future, if information of this character, or discussions of this kind, are to be continued, we might have the Central Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Westminster Hall or even the House of Commons for the purpose? In any event, why cannot it be done through the medium of the Minister of Defence?

The Prime Minister

I do not think the narrowness of the circles in which these discussions were held was really one of the most embarrassing parts of the matter.

Mr. Short

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is more than one opinion about this question? I was present at the conference and I think I heard every word of it. In my honest opinion, there was not a single word said which was either in conflict with the White Paper on Defence, or the Memorandum on the Air Estimates. Does not the Prime Minister agree that nowadays in discussing defence it is quite impossible to separate political and strategic considerations? Does he not think it would be a good thing if more Government Departments were to arrange such meetings to explain what they are doing and how they are spending the taxpayers' money?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member's intervention makes me feel glad that I have not reached a decision because, clearly, there are balancing arguments as to whether these forms of discussion are on the whole good or bad. It is very interesting to have his testimony, as I understand he was present there.

Mr. Strachey

Does not the Prime Minister agree, after studying these texts, that the conference was very clearly told that a defence against the ballistic missile would be found, and that, from that point onwards, the point of view presented in the playlets was the purely Departmental one in favour of manned aircraft, fighters and bombers, which may be right or wrong? Does he really think the presentation of a purely Departmental point of view at such conferences is desirable? If so, does he think, like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), that this should be done by all other Government Departments, and that, for instance, the Treasury should put on a little play in favour of inflation and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government should put on a little play in favour of higher rents?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps this matter can be further discussed when the right hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity of discussing it with his hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short). In regard to the technical side of the question—not the last part, which was very good merriment—I understand the position to be that it was said that throughout history, normally with every great weapon of offence, in time it is likely that some defence against it can be devised. That might happen. There is no sign of it at present. It is a long way ahead. It is a very big scientific question. If that should happen, then the premise upon which some of these decisions were taken no longer stands and the decisions will have to be reconsidered. It seems a very sensible point of view.

Sir N. Hulbert

Does the Prime Minister realise that hon. Members on the Government Benches were very appreciative of the invitation of the Air Council to attend this conference, which we found was most instructive? Does he also realise that we very much resent the futile endeavours of the Opposition to make party capital out of it? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Furthermore, and reverting to my right hon. Friend's original Answer, may I ask whether he agrees that it would be quite impossible for any Royal Air Force officer to impersonate members of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

All this goes to show to me how very good it is to collect evidence when different people who attended this demonstration take such diametrically opposed views about its value, and indeed about what happened there.

Mr. Lipton

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that it is clear that the Minister of Defence has not effective political control over his Service Chiefs of Staff? That is an important point that is worrying us here. If the Minister of Defence is not capable of giving effective political guidance to his Chiefs of Staff, has not the time come for him to join the serried ranks of ex-Ministers of Defence?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have heard some criticisms of my right hon. Friend, but I have not heard the criticism that he is of weak character and not in control of the Service Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the Prime Minister arrange either for the publication of the record of this conference or that it should at least be placed in the Library and be made available to hon. Members? Further, does he appreciate that what is really at issue here is the constitutional point, on which I should think there would be no difference of opinion in the House, whether it is appropriate for a Service Department to conduct a conference of this kind which has given the widespread impression that it was designed to present a purely Departmental view and not necessarily the point of view of the Government themselves? Would not it be most undesirable if there grew up in this country a custom, which is not unknown in the United States, of different defence Departments each putting its own point of view independently before the public?

The Prime Minister

I will consider the first part of that Question but I doubt whether there is a record actually of this kind, a verbal record. I have certain scripts which I got from what was said. I will consider that point. I have such an enormous list of people—from the House of Commons, the House of Lords, other Government Departments such as the Admiralty and the Ministry of Defence—that all kinds of people seem to have been there, and there must be a fairly wide knowledge of what took place, although different impressions were no doubt made on different people, as we have heard today. With regard to the constitutional point, it would be a mistake to exaggerate this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] When a Government have decided—I have seen something of it both in war and in peace and it applies to any Government—that a difficult decision has to be taken on defence policy, I have always found that the heads of the Services are the most loyal servants of the country and of any Government that is in office.

Mr. Bevan

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Minister of Defence was aware of the calling of this conference and whether he gave his consent? Was he aware of those who were invited to attend?

The Prime Minister

The Minister of Defence was aware of it. Unfortunately, both he and the Secretary of State for War were invited but were not able to attend.

Hon. Members


Mr. Bevan

Will the Prime Minister answer the second part of my Question? I understand that the Minister of Defence was aware of it; did he give his consent?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend informs me that he was both aware of it and raised no objection to it, and in that sense gave his consent.

Mr. Gaitskell

Did he know what was to be said?

The Prime Minister

Does the right hon. Gentleman know what is going to be said in Brighton?

Mr. Gaitskell

Is not the Prime Minister aware that that kind of silly retort—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—is no substitute—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."]—for answering a serious Question on an issue of constitutional importance which even some of his supporters ought to take a little more seriously?

The Prime Minister

Even with the troubles of the whole world, I think it is wise to temper solemnity with a little amusement.

Mr. Shinwell

On a point of order. May I direct your attention, Mr. Speaker, to Question No. 55 which is in my name and which asks whether this conference gained the Government's consent before it took place? Why do the Prime Minister and other Ministers jump the gun?

Mr. Speaker

I notice that the time is after half-past Three and I cannot allow more Questions. I ought to allow the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) to ask a supplementary question.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can the Prime Minister tell us whether the Minister of Defence is now writing a play in which he analyses this as a Communist plot? Could the Prime Minister assure us that if the demand of the Air Ministry leads to inflation he will oppose the air marshals with the same tenacity as he is opposing the busmen?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not ask Question No. 44. I do not know why he passed it by. Perhaps he was saving up this supplementary question. If so, he took a long time to think of it and a long time to put it.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. Arising out of these questions and answers, may I ask a supplementary question on a matter which concerns you, as Mr. Speaker, in your function of safeguarding the rights of back benchers? From the list of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who were invited to this conference, it is obvious that no hon. Member on either side of the House whose views are not acceptable to both Front Benches was invited? It is a matter of comment that there are on those benches two ex-Ministers of Defence, three ex-Secretaries of State for Air and there is my hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not invite anybody to the conference. I had no knowledge that it was about to take place. I can deal only with points of order, and that is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Wigg

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I am fully aware that you did not invite them. If you had done so, the list would have been a bit more fair. I am asking that in future when conferences of this kind take place to which hon. Members from both sides of the House are invited the list shall be drawn up and approved by you and not by the interests of both Front Benches.

Sir N. Hulbert

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would not it obviate difficulties in the future if you yourself attended and then reported impartially to this House?

Mr. Speaker

I am willing to undertake to the best of my ability any duties which the House places on me, but I hope they will not include that last suggestion.