HC Deb 24 February 1964 vol 690 cc198-206

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

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

In this Adjournment debate, I intend to produce evidence to substantiate four charges. The first is that at a time when both America and Russia are cutting their arms budgets, we are increasing ours. Secondly, whilst strict, if not miserly, in their treatment of certain social services, the Government are extravagant, careless and, indeed, profligate when it comes to military expenditure. Thirdly, the Government are trying to hoodwink the electorate into thinking that they are in favour of arms cuts when they are deliberately moving in the opposite direction. Fourthly, the Government are suffering from illusions of military grandeur and are thinking in terms of the last century, when it was possible to send a gunboat to subdue some small country, at a time when it is impossible for Britain to become a great military Power vis-à-vis either America or Russia and when true greatness can only be obtained by leading the big two towards a peaceful settlement of their problems.

This evening, I received from the Minister of Health a reply to the following Question which I put to him earlier in the day: how much a year has been saved since the prices of children's welfare foods were increased in June, 1961; and what has been the decline in the use by children of orange juice, cod liver oil…since the charges were raised by the Government… The Answer was that £1.2 million a year has been saved. Orange juice issued to mothers and young children has been cut by 54 per cent. and cod liver oil by 64 per cent. So to save a miserable £1 million a year, the very poorest children have been made to suffer from the Government's meanness. Cabinet Ministers may have noted reports of cases of subclinical rickets now appearing in our country for the first time since 1945.

In sharp contrast, there is no suggestion of cutting our arms programme. Last year, there was an increase of no less than £117 million on the previous year. This year, there is an even bigger increase—£161 million—on last year's total. God knows what it will be next year. So not merely is military expenditure rising: the annual rate of increase is going up.

The rate of military expenditure is £65 per second, so that by the time the Minister has had his fifteen minutes and I have had mine, another £117,000 will have gone down the drain on arms. It is £65 per second now, but the sky is the limit. Indeed, this sum of the Government's expenditure on armaments excludes civil defence and millions of hidden expenditure which the Government know more about than we do. I need not retail the long list of missiles and planes scrapped before they saw the light of day, but hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on them. I need not retail them because the Minister knows them full well—not to mention the little "discrepancy", to use the Comptroller and Auditor General's word, of £2.7 million over the Ferranti affair.

Let us look at the Prime Minister's statements. During the by-election in Kinross and three times subsequently he hinted at arms cuts in Britain. Indeed, he went further. At Question Time on 17th December he declared, …our great objective is to turn the curve of armaments down "—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 17th December, 1963; Vol. 686, c. 1046.] The very next day the Government issued the White Paper showing the next three years' expenditure, and showed that they anticipated an increase of £265 million a year on military measures. I suggest they cannot have it both ways. Either the Prime Minister was a hypocrite in saying what he knew to be untrue, or alternatively he genuinely did not know. Perhaps, like his predecessor as Prime Minister, during the Profumo affair, "no one had told him." But it is one of these two alternatives, and in either case I suggest he is not fit to lead the country.

When I questioned the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject of this £65 million increase on arms he said that there was no Government decision to spend this sum; it was merely "an approximate calculation…on the basis of present policies and programmes." It seems that this was not an estimate; it was an under-estimate, for the Defence White Paper since published showed that an increase of £161 million plus the hidden expenditure to which I have referred is taking place in a single year. There is going to be a far greater increase than £265 million by 1967 if the present programme is maintained.

I now want to make my major point, that there is a unilateral cut in arms taking place both in America and Russia while we are indulging in unilateral increase. I believe that at the time of Cuba, 26th October, 1962, both President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev received a terrible shock. They both realised how close to the precipice mankind was standing. Both decided to take a step back, and there have been on both sides most hopeful developments since then. But it is terrifying, nevertheless, to think that if it was impossible to prevent a maniac from assassinating President Kennedy, despite all the precautions, it may also be impossible to prevent a maniac from pressing the button which would end in the death of everybody in this country, and also despite all the precautions. It could be that the story of Dr. Strangelove might be the epitaph of all of us.

I think the first important step was taken in the early summer last year when President Kennedy made a magnificent speech aimed at showing the American people that the only alternative to co-existence was non-existence. This was a courageous thing to do, because of the cold war propaganda which had bemused so many of his people. The most important thing in his speech, however, was the announcement that forthwith America was going to declare a moratorium on all nuclear tests in the atmosphere for so long as Russia did the same. This was action, not words. I believe it did more than anything else to bring about the nuclear test agreement of 5th August of that year.

It did not lead only to the 5th August agreement. We have had the agreement about the "hot" telephone line between the Kremlin and the Pentagon which may yet save the lives of the people of the world. There has also been the ban on nuclear missiles in space. But this was only the beginning. In August Mr. Khrushchev gave an interview to an eminent American newspaperman. It was printed in certain evening newspapers in this country, but in no national newspapers. In the interview it was said: Whether the American Government cuts its arms burden or not, we are going to cut ours. We will compete in economic affairs but not in war preparations. Mr. Khrushchev went on to say: The generals are never satisfied. It seemed to me that he was referring not only to the American and British generals but to his own generals, too. That was in August.

In December of last year Mr. Khrushchev put his promise into effect and slashed the Russian arms programme by £240 million. It may have escaped the attention of the House that last week Hungary cut her arms programme by £13½ million a year. I have an idea that most of the Eastern European countries act in concert, and I should not be at all surprised if Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria cut their arms programmes too.

Let us look at the American side, because this has produced reaction there. On 2nd August, speaking in the Senate, the senator for South Dakota, Mr. McGovern, made a very long and remarkable speech, in which he drew attention to the fact that both America and Russia had "overkill"—the power to decimate the other side 10 times over. He said that the tremendous arms expenditure was causing increased tension in the world and was producing a distortion of the American economy. He proposed that there should be a reduction of 10 per cent.—5,000 million dollars—in the American expenditure. Senator McGovern said that this would cause economic problems where one had States like California with one-third of the population on arms work, and that there should therefore be set up in every large enterprise with large arms contracts a commission devoted to turning great factories from war work to peace work without causing unemployment.

Since then, on 30th December, the President, Mr. Johnson—who seems to me, to my pleasure, and, I may say, my surprise, to be doing even better than President Kennedy—announced a cut of £360 million in the American arms ex- penditure. He ordered that the production of enriched uranium would be cut by 25 per cent. On 29th January, Mr. MacNamara promised "a new round of base closures to be expected by the end of March"—next month. Again, this has produced its reciprocal reaction on the Russian side. The Russian Government are offering further reductions of 10-15 per cent.

I rejoice at this process, this process of "mutual example", as it has been called, or, as some of us would put it, limited unilateral action. It is good in itself. It is reducing the tension between the nations of the world; and it may lead, and I hope it will, to multilateral agreement.

What are the British Government doing in this most hopeful circumstance? We who should be taking the initiative are proving the stumbling block. On both sides, the East and the West, the leaders are saying that it is Britain who is holding up disarmament. It is very largely true.

11.10 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Julian Ridsdale)

The call to reduce defence expenditure in time of peace is one which is bound to be attractive, particularly in a democracy, and especially so in an era when there are so many other demands on the public purse. It is exactly the call which was made by the Labour Party in the 1930s. But their leaders, who made this mistake, said after the last war that they would never make the same mistake again.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in fact the Labour Party stood for multilateral disarmament in the 1930s and demanded proper defence measures after it became plain that Hitler was going to make a war?

Mr. Ridsdale

I will deal with that intervention later in my speech. But the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) seems to be forgetting that painful lesson.

While I certainly do not agree with all the arguments of the hon. Member for Salford, East, I recognise that Her Majesty's Government are accountable to the nation for the sums spent on defence. We estimate that this expenditure will rise in the next few years, although it should not rise relatively either to public expenditure as a whole or to the gross national product.

I should like to make one thing clear at the outset. The size of the defence budget is not determined by the demands of any imagined military, industrial or political pressure groups. It derives from the view taken by the Government of the commitments which this country has to meet.

These are not confined to the problems of keeping British territory at home and overseas safe from invasion and the seas clear for our trade. We have important obligations to the Commonwealth and to the three great alliances—N.A.T.O., Cento and S.E.A.T.O.—to which we subscribe, and special responsibilities in addition, for example, in the Persian Gulf.

Finally, we have in our hands our own nuclear deterrent. The hon. Member and his friends deplore this ultimate weapon in our armoury but it costs considerably less than 10 per cent. of the annual defence budget in any year. This will pay for the V-bombers, Polaris submarines and their weapons. We can without much financial difficulty maintain it until well into the 1980s if we wish. Once the capital costs are met, as they already have been in the case of the V-bombers, and as they will have been by 1970 in the case of the Polaris submarines, the maintenance costs of the deterrent are much smaller.

For the remaining portion of their life, the V-bombers will cost an average of less than two per cent. of the defence budget each year. It has been suggested recently that the cost of these bombers would be £2,000 million over the next 10 years. This was clearly a mistake, being based on 10 per cent. of the defence budget, when, as I have said, the correct figure for the V-bombers is two per cent.

It would be wrong to suggest that the panacea for rising defence expenditure lies in the abandonment of the nuclear deterrent. This is true even before we proceed to the other side of the equation, the question of what additional conventional armaments we would need to maintain some small part of the power to influence affairs which we would surrender with the deterrent. Nobody has suggested that it would not be a very expensive alternative indeed.

The increase of £265 million, at 1963 prices, forecast in the White Paper, represents an annual growth rate in defence expenditure of about 3.3 per cent. over the four years in question. This compares with a forecast annual growth rate of 4.1 per cent. for public expenditure as a whole and the 4 per cent. target for the annual growth of the economy. We are not outstripping the economy in our defence planning. There is no reason to believe that the country four years from now will be any less able to sustain the planned rate of defence expenditure than it is today.

The increase which is foreseen is based on the continuation of present plans and policies. These figures are a reflection of the fact that in an era of advancing technology it will cost more to arm and equip the armed forces up to the required standards in the years ahead than it does now. Similarly, as living standards rise, to attract and retain the required numbers of men in voluntary forces demands increased expenditure on many of the things, both for the servicemen and their families for which the White Paper forecasts increased expenditure in the civilian sector—housing, education, health and welfare among them. The alternative is either to let the Services have second-rate arms or equipment—a course which no responsible Government could follow—or to let the living standards of the Servicemen and their families drop progressively below those in civilian life, which could very quickly lead to a fall in recruiting and an unavoidable return to conscription.

There is only one way of reducing defence expenditure which does not involve a degradation of the quality of the Serviceman's equipment or living conditions, and that is to reduce the size of the Armed Forces. This we have surely taken as far as we can. For example, seven years ago there were more than 700,000 officers and men in the three Services; today there are fewer than 400,000. Certainly our commitments have not diminished proportionately to this reduction. The main means by which this has been brought about are, first, by the switch to all-Regular forces which demand smaller overheads in manpower such as training and supernumeraries than do conscript forces; and, secondly, by a concentration on the means of swift transport to bring comparatively small forces to the scene of trouble very quickly. From British Guiana, through Cyprus and East Africa to Borneo, the application of that policy has shown its results in the last few months. Yet one fact is inescapable, and that is that this policy costs money. All-Regular Forces cannot be paid, fed, maintained and equipped on the cheap.

Transport aircraft, ready to fly anywhere in the world at a few hours' notice, commando carriers, helicopters, and all the other paraphernalia of mobility, are effective but expensive. Here we come to the question of why, if Russia and the United States can reduce their arms expenditure at the present juncture, we cannot do the same. The answer to this is two-fold.

First, over the last decade, we have done more than any other major Power to reduce the demands of defence on the economy. Not only have we, by ending National Service, increased the civil labour force by more than 300,000 young men who would otherwise have been in the Services, but we have reduced the proportion of the gross national product spent on defence from 9.8 per cent. in 1952–53 to just under 7 per cent. in 1963–64. Russia, at 13 per cent. of her gross national product—in so far as her accounts allow it to be calculated—and the United States at 9 per cent., both have a very long way to go before they can match the sort of economies we have made.

Secondly, in absolute terms, because the economic resources of both those countries are so much larger than our own, their expenditure on defence is far greater. The United States defence budget is about ten times as large as our own; and the Russian, about six times as large. Yet, looking at the world today, and the roles of the armed forces of those three countries in the world today, can anybody say that the British contribution to peace and security is less effective than that of the others? Examine our contribution in four continents and consider whether it is not remarkable that the expenditure of 7 per cent. of this small island's resources should be producing such returns.

Complete disarmament is our ultimate goal. The test ban treaty was the first small step on that road, the more significant because it shows that there is a general realisation that the effects of nuclear war would be terrible indeed. We hope that further steps indicative of a slackening of mutual distrust will follow the first, and all our endeavours are constantly directed towards that end.

In the meantime, though, we have our duty to ourselves and to our Allies, and, against the background of all that we have done to reduce our armed forces in recent years to the minimum consistent with the performance of those duties, any further reduction at the present time would be worse than a meaningless gesture. It would imply that we were no longer willing to play our proper part on the world stage, and it would be hard to imagine a more positive disservice than that to the cause of peace.

The hon. Gentleman would do well to recall the words spoken by Labour leaders about their conduct in the 'thirties, and this is my reply to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker). On 4th December, 1941 Ernest Bevin said that: …all of us agreed to save 6d. on the Income Tax by breaking up the Army in peace time and not having it prepared when war broke out. That has been one of our big troubles. When this war is over, let us remember that. I will never be a party to it again, after what I have seen in this war."—[OFFICIAL RIPORT, 4th December, 1941; Vol. 376, c. 1336. In July, 1942, Herbert Morrison said: Never again while the risk of war remains must we allow ourselves to neglect our land weapons. We were all responsible for the treatment th2.t the Army received between the last war and this. I have condemned myself and accept my share of the responsibility and blame as a citizen and as a Member of Parliament. What applied to the Army in those war days and before applies equally to our soldiers, sailors, and airmen today. We must see that they are properly armed and equipped both with nuclear and conventional weapons. I deplore the fact that once again the hon. Gentleman has made defence the cockpit of party politics.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.