HC Deb 22 February 1966 vol 725 cc254-65
Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

It is an old and generous custom of the House to permit a Minister who has resigned to explain his position in a personal statement. I am grateful to the House for this opportunity.

I begin by wishing my successor well. As he knows, it was my strongly expressed hope that he would succeed me. He has already earned, and will certainly continue to receive, the full confidence of the Navy and he can be sure that in what I have to say now I shall do my utmost not to make his difficult task more difficult still.

I am afraid that he will feel severely the loss of the advice and support of Admiral Luce, whose help to the Admiralty Board and to the Navy and to myself personally I would regard as irreplaceable. One would have thought it impossible that the Fleet's long-held respect for Admiral Luce could be enhanced, were it not for the announcement which we have just heard this afternoon.

Anyone who has had, as I have had, responsibility for the management of the Royal Navy will always feel proud and grateful. I left with profound regret. Nevertheless, as I propose to show, decisions on defence have been taken by colleagues whom I respect, and who have treated me with kindness, which leave me no alternative but to resign.

I shall try to show that the approach to the Defence Review has been mistaken, that the proposed cuts in resources are not matched by the proposed cuts in commitments and that the result will be strain on the Armed Forces, or dependence on the United States beyond what this House should accept.

The principal mistake in the handling of the Defence Review was commitment to a world rôle with a presence east of Suez, and also to a budget of £2,000 million, before the review began. This was a very strange thing to do. No previous studies have been made to find out whether the two aims were compatible. It was simply assumed that they were and throughout the review the assumptions were never seriously challenged.

The figure of £2,000 million was a purely artificial one, simply a statistical projection of the cost of defence in 1964–65 into 1969–70. After it had been laid down the overseas Departments earnestly studied what should be our minimum commitments in the 1970s and the Ministry of Defence earnestly studied what would be the most economical way of meeting those commitments and then both came up with the figure which the Treasury first thought of.

The fact is that we have only to look back over the years of administration of the previous Government to see that far stricter Treasury control was needed over our defence expenditure. Experience has now shown that there is danger in the opposite direction, too, in laying down a defence budget too early and too rigidly before working out its implications in foreign policy and defence. For one thing, it immediately inhibits any considerations of a budget of less than the stated sum. Surely, never in the whole history of public administration has a Department been offered money by the Treasury and not found the need for it. In practice, throughout the whole Defence Review no serious study has been given to a defence budget of less than £2,000 million related to reduced commitments.

The rigid fixing of the budget in advance placed a heavy strain on inter-Service relations. In the old days there was a dangerous tendency for the Services to gang up together and collectively present a demand for a defence budget in excess of their needs. This was bad, but, again, there is a danger in going to the opposite extreme, by rigidly fixing in advance a level compelling each Service to fight for its own vital interests by attacking the vital interests of the other Services. The result is that too little collective decision is given to the question whether the total sum is enough for the Armed Forces as a whole.

Not that the inter-Service rivalry was on anything like the scale that public opinion has been led to believe. It should be placed to the credit of the Admiralty Board that from the beginning to the end of the Defence Review it stoutly maintained that if we were to remain east of Suez we should need F111As for the job as well as carriers.

Now the sums of the defence review have been worked out and it is plain that £2,000 million is a bad figure for a defence budget—it is too small if we want to stay east of Suez and much too big if we do not. It lands us with an in-between presence east of Suez, which is still extremely expensive, especially in foreign currency, involves us in considerable risks, military and politically, and makes no equivalent contribution to our real national interest.

This, then, was the beginning of the trouble—a rigid laying down in advance of two incompatible objectives, a world rôle and the £2,000 million. The inevitable consequence followed, cuts in resources out of all proportion to cuts in commitments. The House will not want me to spell out in detail the cuts involved in the reduction of £400 million in the planned budget for 1969. The House should note that not all these things are specified in the defence White Paper.

In the case of the Navy, they are much wider than merely the cancellation of the CVA01 but they are not specified. The cute apply to all three Services and amount to one-sixth of the total budget. Some of these reductions were to cut out waste. On the other hand, the cuts are overwhelmingly in the realm of equipment and weapons and not in the realm of administration, pay and pensions, which amount to one-half of the total budget. Thus, one-sixth of the total budget represents much more than one-sixth of the budget for arms weapons and equipment. It represents a very heavy cut indeed in military capabilities.

The most spectacular and controversial of the cuts was the cancellation of the new carrier. I would like to make it clear that my position throughout the defence review has been that if the Government insist on a world rôle east of Suez in the 1970s, then carriers are essential, and that my duty as Navy Minister was to fight for them.

At the same time, although not my direct personal responsibility, I did not hesitate to question whether we should adopt that rôle, whether that was the right rôle for Britain in the 1970s. As long ago as April, 1963, after visiting the Far East and the Gulf as deputy spokesman for the then Opposition on foreign affairs, I sent a report to the present Prime Minister expressing the same doubts about this rôle that I propose to express later on, and recommending a policy of gradual long-term disengagement. It seems to be perfectly logical and honourable to hold doubts about remaining east of Suez in the 1970s, but, at the same time, to say, as Navy Minister, that if the Government insist on remaining east of Suez in the 1970s, the Navy will need new carriers.

I will now like to explain the reasons why a viable carrier force is absolutely essential if we are to stay east of Suez in the 1970s and why the plan for carriers given in the White Paper will not work. The four major reasons why the carriers would be essential are these. First, they enable us to exercise air power in any part of the ocean and not merely within an agreed manageable range of a land-air base. Outside this agreed range only carriers can provide the air strike and air defence to protect naval shipping or an amphibious force, or replenishment ships or merchant ships, and so on. Any military operation involving the use of such shipping must have carrier support, either British or American. That is agreed and no one disputes it. Outside of this range, without a carrier the Navy is unprotected. It is a "sitting duck" for any small country with a few Soviet bombers or missile patrol craft.

The second reason why carriers are essential if we are to stay east of Suez is that they provide essential reinsurance against the loss of a lang-air base. Land bases and carriers are both vulnerable. The most extensive analyses show that in Vietnam the carrier is less vulnerable and less expensive than the land-air base. Without the carrier one has all of one's eggs in one basket. Everything will depend on one air base. If it is sabotaged or mortared by guerrillas, one is left with no air cover at all.

The third reason why carriers are essential if we are to stay east of Suez is their deterrent power. This has been proved over and over again from practical experience and arises from the factors I have just mentioned. Phasing out the carriers will encourage our adversaries east of Suez at the very time that they will make it more difficult for us to cope with that challenge if it comes.

The fourth reason is that carriers are extremely flexible. They can provide air defence, ground attack and fulfil other functions which make them infinitely valuable for dealing with unpredictable occasions, as, again, has been shown in experience. Practically all our peacekeeping operations since the war were not, and could not have been, predicted

Those, then, are the reasons why, if we must stay east of Suez in the 1970s, we are, in my view, morally obliged to do so with a viable Navy and a viable carrier force. The cost is stated in the White Paper to be £1,400 million. This is misleading, because some of the carriers' functions are essential and cannot be replaced by other means, which the White Paper points out. What the White Paper does not do is to cost the reprovisioning of the essential functions of the carrier. If that is done, the total cost of the carrier comes down to a small fraction of the £1,400 million; and that is a factor to be borne in mind.

The facts which I have stated are, I think, broadly agreed in the White Paper. The factor that the carriers are of vital importance and that some of their functions are irreplaceable is reflected in the statement in the White Paper that …we attach great importance to continuing the existing carrier force as far as possible into the 1970s". But it is the considered professional view of the Navy and the unanimous opinion of the Board that the carrier plan in the White Paper is unworkable. The Fleet Air Arm is already short of air crew. The cancellation of CVA01 is bound to be a heavy blow to the members of the Fleet Air Arm. We cannot help but expect a bad effect on recruiting and re-engagement. With the maximum financial incentives and the greatest possible support from the Royal Air Force it might be possible to prolong the death throes of the Fleet Air Arm by three, perhaps four, years, but into the mid-1970s, no; that is impossible.

Meanwhile, when the carriers are phased out, where is the protection for the Fleet and how can honourable men be expected to take the risk to be personally, directly responsible in the posts, for example, of First Sea Lord, or of Minister, for a plan which their most expect professional advisers tell them is unworkable? Suppose that it is possible to carry on the old fleet of carriers into the mid-1970s. There are still operational disadvantages; I will not detail them now.

I cannot feel that it is right that a nation which considers itself strong enough to take on a world rôle and to act as peacemaker and guardian over other nations thousands of miles away can, at the same time, say that it is too poor to afford the sailors with the ships and equipment that they need for the tasks they are ordered to carry out. All the same, it would be absurd to say—and the White Paper is right to stress this—that the phasing out of the carriers will be the end of the Navy. The Navy will remain an essential part of our national defence. It will continue to offer a fine and honourable career.

The White Paper lists the new ships and equipment which will come into service in the years ahead. By "new" I do not mean that they have been added to the programme. I mean that they have not been taken out of the programme. Of the 10 items listed, all except two have always been in our future programme. Moreover, as I have said, the White Paper does not specify the full range of cuts either in the Navy or in the other Services.

So much for the cuts in capability. What now of the cuts in commitments and the limitations on our military action east of Suez which are held to justify these very substantial cuts? The White Paper mentions Aden. But it also states that we intend to maintain our treaties with Libya and Malta and our commitments to N.A.T.O., S.E.A.T.O., CENTO, in the Gulf, in Gibraltar, in Hong Kong, in the island territories of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, in Cyprus and in Singapore. The undertaking to remain in Singapore as long as possible commits us to the defence of Malaysia and Singapore and may make more difficult and postpone the end of confrontation which is an essential assumption behind the Government's whole defence planning. The White Paper also notes our growing commitments in Africa.

We must note, too, that the power of our possible adversaries east of Suez is growing. As the White Paper points out, the arms race is continuing among smaller countries. Other countries are following the lead of Indonesia, which, with Soviet help, has made itself a formidable military proposition in only five years. Thus, all the time the challenge is growing, the task increases and our resources dwindle. It is quite plain that the defence policy set out in the White Paper will open up a vast gap in the 1970s between what the Service men are expected to do and what they are given to do the job with.

I come to the review's last line of defence: our allies—that is to say, the Americans—will help us out. This assumption is contained in the White Paper's statement that …Britain will not undertake major operations of war except in co-operation with allies". I hope that the implications of this statement will be very fully studied. First, it involves distinguishing in advance between a major military operation and a minor one. We promise only to undertake minor military operations alone. But the distinction is an extremely difficult one to make in advance. For example, how can we be sure that a minor operation will not escalate into a major operation? This is, in fact, how most major operations usually begin. Vietnam began as a minor operation in a small country.

Nor can we be sure that the minor operations which we undertake alone do not escalate. How can we? What do we do if they do escalate? Either we can withdraw and leave in the lurch those whom we have gone to help, which would be dishonourable, or we can ask our troops to go on fighting, having provided them, as the White Paper's own admission makes clear, without the resources necessary to enable them to get victory, which would be more dishonourable still. Or—and this is the heart of the matter—we could run to the Americans for help. But this means, in practice, that before even a minor operation is undertaken by us alone we shall need to get the agreement of the Americans and to make contingency plans with them in case things go wrong.

In practice, I believe that, unless we were to take unacceptable risks, the White Paper policy would mean virtually taking no action at all on our own initiative, even if appealed to by those whom we are supposed to be supporting. If they appeal for our help, we shall stand idly by. Alternatively, we shall act with the consent and support, or promised support, of our vastly more powerful ally, the United States, and the more we act the more we shall depend on their support. We shall be acting not as a power in our own right, but as an extension of United States power—not as allies, but as auxiliaries of the United States.

Even this assumes that we have solved the operational and logistic difficulties of interrelating American military support and carrier support with our own forces. These practical difficulties have not yet been studied, nor has any suggestion been made that they should be studied. Nor is there any assurance that in a situation in which we might need American support it would be physically available. There would certainly be no American carriers available to us today.

More serious, however, are the political implications of what is proposed. How can we suppose that the Americans will always come to our aid and not ask us to come to their aid? They have come to the aid of the Australians with substantial military aid and, in return, quite naturally, the Australians have sent a battalion to Vietnam. In my view, the degree of military dependence involved in the Government's new plans would present serious problems even if there were solid political agreement with the Americans on the basic issues in the Far East.

But is that, in fact, true? In Europe, in the 1940s and 1950s, the situation was totally different. In a very minor way, I played a small part in helping the late Ernest Bevin to bring the Americans into an alliance in Europe at that time. But, of course, we and the Americans agreed about Stalin, and in that partnership there were European countries, too, with substantial military potential which helped as a counterweight to the overwhelming force, strength and influence of the United States.

Today in the Far East it is totally different. We do not agree with the United States about Communist China. We do not support the Formosan Government. We have a different emphasis in our interpretation of the problem of containing Communism there. Moreover, in military terms we are virtually alone in an absurdly unequal relationship with the vast power of the United States.

I have been, and still am, a warm supporter of the present Anglo-American Alliance. I respect and admire the United States. It would, however, be in the interests of both countries that if we stay east of Suez we should do so with a force with a substantial degree of self-sufficiency—that is, not wholly dependent upon the United States; a force including both F111As and carriers, a force costing substantially more than £2,000 million.

Should we, however, find more than £2,000 million for defence? If we insist upon a world rôle, I am sure that we must. Had agreement been reached on this basis, my direct personal responsibility for the Navy would have been met and my personal position would, in my judgment, have been tolerable.

I am bound to say that I should still have had serious misgivings about a rôle so far beyond our economic strength. Surely, there would have been something totally incongruous about a nation performing a proud world rôle of peacekeeping on borrowed money with the sound of our gunfire drowned by the rattling of our collection boxes.

As I have explained, as has long been known to my friends, I have had doubts about this rôle east of Suez in itself. I seriously doubt whether, in the 1970s, with the growth of nationalism and racialism, any white nation, either alone or with others, can perform an effective peacekeeping task east of Suez. Already, the political and psychological obstacles to Western military deployment, let alone Western military action, in Asia and the Middle East are extremely strong. By the 1970s, they may well have become crippling.

While we sympathise with the United States in the harrowing experience which they have in Vietnam, ought we not also to learn from it and to draw the lessons of it? Should we not clearly take note that for all their gigantic military effort, the United States have so far been unable to contain North Vietnam—not China, but North Vietnam? May it not be, therefore, in the 1970s that the first white-faced soldier, sailor or airman who sets foot on the mainland of Asia or the Middle East will automatically unite against himself and his Government the coloured people whom he has come to help? Indeed, would we not feel the same in their shoes?

There is no specific mention in the White Paper of the policy of containing China. Is this one of the objectives of our policy or not? If it is, it should be stated. If it is not, that should be made quite plain to the United States, the Australians and the New Zealanders. Meanwhile, since, I think, the Government are not committed to that policy, I will not state my serious misgivings about the policy of containing China on the narrow basis of two or three white nations.

Plainly, in the 1970s we shall still have some colonial responsibilities—for example, in Hong Kong—and also a moral commitment to the Australians and the New Zealanders to help in the defence of their territories. Apart from these things, however, we need have no commitment east of Suez in the 1970s, moral or otherwise, except as members of the United Nations.

That does not mean sudden or unilateral abandonment of obligations. We are not talking about this year or next year or even the year after. We are talking about the 1970s. It would be perfectly honourable and sensible for us now to decide to adjust ourselves to a changed world. In my view, it is no sign of vitality in a nation that it clings stubbornly to positions which it already holds. Indeed, not many years ago we criticised the French and the Dutch for a similar kind of stubbornness in the Far East.

A surer sign of vitality in a nation is an ability to take hard decisions to adapt ourselves to new circumstances. I should feel much greater faith in this country's future if we firmly decided now to withdraw over the years ahead from our increasingly exposed positions overseas.

The approach which I have suggested would make possible a defence budget below £1,800 million in 1969–70. This would help us immensely to put our own affairs in order. We should pay more attention to growing opportunities in Europe. We could extend our influence overseas out of the substantial saving of foreign currency which we could make.

If we decide to take some such course as this, now must be the moment to take the decision, because the Government's proposals to go east of Suez and to carry on east of Suez in this new joint basis will morally commit us to stay there for years and years to come. It is, in fact, a new commitment which we shall be taking on east of Suez. Therefore, if we are to decide this great matter, now is the moment to decide it and to make up our minds for ourselves.

The basic mistake of the Defence Review has been the classic crime of peacetime British Governments of giving the Armed Forces too large tasks and too few resources. The overseas Departments have laid down a proud defence rôle for Britain, the Treasury has laid down a humble defence budget for Britain, and the Service men "carry the can".

This has all happened before. It happened in 1939, when both parties were to blame. Admittedly, we then had a commitment that we could not possibly avoid, but then, again, we placed upon the Services a task far beyond the resources we had given them. I was myself a member of the first Territorial unit to land in France in September, 1939. We had field guns of an ancient design—converted 18-pounders. Equipped as we were, and trained as we were, we should never had been sent abroad on active service at all. Many of us had jobs which were quite unfamiliar to us. For several weeks, I was an officer's batman, and a very poor, patient officer he was.

Most of the men whom I knew then came back safely through Dunkirk. But more would have come back if they had had the tanks and air support which they needed and deserved, if they had not been let down by the nation, by Parliament and by their Service Ministers. I am convinced that the House will never allow that kind of thing to happen again.

Let us have a full and bold debate on all these great issues in the House and in the country, and God grant that we choose right for our nation.