HC Deb 25 February 1966 vol 725 cc858-68

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

For over 12 months I have wanted to raise in this House the significance of our east of Suez rôle and consequences associated with it. Like Bagehot, I see this House as a very important sounding board for the great issues which come before the country. Faced with the silence which has surrounded one of the most important aspects of British policy I have been endeavouring to obtain an Adjournment debate in recent months. It is ironic that I have been successful in the very week that the Defence Review has been published which covers some of the points and allays some of the deeper anxieties I have felt about our defence rôle.

The Defence Review in itself raises long-term issues as to what we shall do in the region east of Suez. My attitude to the military and international problems east of Suez has been very largely influenced by my view of the economic situation in which this country finds itself. Anyone interested in economic matters must examine the Ministry of Defence as one of the largest spending Departments and find whether the money is wisely spent and if it can afford all the tasks it undertakes. There are those who seek substantial savings in defence cuts through small economies here and there. These economies can be attempted but the savings will generally be small and of short duration. If we really wish to reduce our defence expenditure it is essential to reduce our commitments. If we wish to contain what we do within the limits of what we can afford it is important to search for a reduction in our commitments.

Page 4 of the Defence Review says in the first paragraph: Defence must be the servant of foreign policy, not its master. There is some confusion about the word "defence". If by "defence" we mean the direct defence of Britain, surely it is defence itself which must be the master, but if we mean by "defence" defence of world peace, then in certain distant areas where foreign policy might require an impossible defence policy, it is foreign policy itself which must be changed. In a peace-keeping rôle defence, foreign policy and our economic situation are all closely inter-linked and all must be taken into account. Instead of defence being the servant of foreign policy both must be the servants of our economic situation.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that there are no sacred cows in industry. The Prime Minister has recently added that neither are there any sacred cows in our defence expenditure. I would go even further and say that there should be no sacred cows in our defence commitments. Ultimately, it is essential, if we are to have substantial cuts in expenditure we have to have substantial cuts in commitments.

The total expenditure on our rôle east of Suez has been estimated at £320 million. This excludes overheads directly attributable to these operations, which involve a total cost not under £500 million and it may go as high as £600 million. With a foreign exchange element of over £100 million, it is well beyond our capacity to sustain. Not only this, this is in an area where our financial control is weakest, because of the distance between the area where the expense is incurred and where the control is asserted.

This is the area where over £1,000 a year is spent on each guard dog because of the weakness of such financial control. This is the area where the White Paper sees a large continuing rôle carrying on into the 1970s. The critical decisions about our future are being taken now and will decide our rô1e in this area over the next 10 years or more.

The decision has been taken not to proceed with aircraft carriers. I welcome this decision. One aircraft carrier alone is useless, except as a token of a further two, costing perhaps £1,400 million over the next 10 years. Such an extension of our military burden could be justifiable only if the enemy threatened our very gates. These carriers would only begin their active life in the 1970s and a decision to purchase them would be a decision to commit ourselves in the area, an area which should become more remote rather than less as our imperial past recedes.

Part I of the Defence Review, page 6, paragraph 16, says: …Britain shares with other countries a general interest in seeing peace maintained, so far as possible, throughout the world. It is this interest above all which justifies our military presence outside Europe. We may well share with other countries an interest in this peace, but very few of these countries share with us the desire to assist in our peace-keeping operation. This rôle which we arrogate to ourselves—that of the unpaid and unwanted policeman of the world—is one which singularly fails to impress those countries whose interests we might be supposed to be preserving. European countries are particularly unwilling to assist us in such operations; so much so we have difficulty in persuading them to accept our withdrawal of troops from Germany to take part in these operations.

Even Australia, whose interests might be supposed to be much greater than ours, supports us only to the extent of one brigade; and New Zealand not so much. Malaysia, the country most directly involved, has token forces which effectively do little. Support is indeed ludicrous from North Borneo, where the peoples cover the full range of human conditions right to those who live naked and earn their living fishing from hollow tree trunks.

There are some who, despite all the apathy in the area and despite all the appalling drain on our resources, might be prepared to accept our policy east of Suez if a unique and certain solution might be possible. But in the absurd tangle of relations denoted by the word "confrontation" there is a certain awareness that we may well be backing the wrong side. President Sukarno, with his great personal prestige, is able only with difficulty to keep order in his islands, and after his departure we and the United States may well regret his passing.

Attempts have been made to internationalise our responsibilities, and a likely ultimate solution might be that we retain responsibilities in our area in exchange for certain weapons and other assistance from the United States. I am one of those who believe in a close relationship with the United States as the cornerstone of British foreign policy, and in general I favour very close co-operation. But an alliance such as this can be extremely dangerous. If an action west of Singapore occurred which we could do little more than contain, the United States would be expected to assist. But if an action occurred elsewhere where we were not directly concerned, would it always be possible for us to withhold our assistance? The Prime Minister has referred to burden-sharing, but would we be happy following the United States into a deeper involvement in South-East Asia?

By comparison, all our commitments in the area, even all the United States commitments, are small in relation to the biggest commitment of all—indeed, one of the biggest commitments of the century—the containment of China. This increasingly powerful nation is feeling its way to the position of the third super-Power in the world. One of the attributes of a super-Power is the desire and capability to surround itself with a string of satellite countries. China, too, may eventually want its own version of an Eastern Europe, and if it wants hard enough and long enough it will eventually get it. The containment of China so near to its own frontier may prove a policy of immense effort which ultimately may be impossible to sustain. Our own policy must be the avoidance of a closer working alliance with the United States in this area and the consequent risk of being sucked into an impossible conflict that cannot be won.

I am not one of those constantly critical of the United States. If we are prepared to play little part in a joint military policy, our influence must be small, and I am satisfied that it should be so. But at the time that the United States commitment in the area is increasing, our participation looks like continuing indefinitely. The spheres of action between the United States and the United Kingdom are drawing very closely together, and attempts may be made to coalesce the policies of the two countries, leading to an attempt to contain China itself.

There are too many who are still obsessed by the wars of ideology fought this century. The battles with Nazism, Fascism and Communism have left indelible scars, but I do not believe that these ideologies are necessarily a permanent feature of this century. These wars by themselves may be drawing to a close. To base policy on this may be to propose the wrong solution.

The United States in this area has undertaken a long and indeterminate burden. For ourselves such a burden is so far beyond our capacity that it may require constant military and financial support from the United States, leading to a dependence which neither this country nor any country could accept. In this matter we may try so far to overreach ourselves, both economically and militarily, that we may come to appear a nation in crutches busy in the correction of the faults of others.

I consider that the Defence Review is the first step to a reappraisal of our east of Suez policy. The Minister of Defence has performed a task which has not even been attempted by his predecessors, and he should earn the gratitude of the nation for this. The decision not to purchase the carriers was the most critical of all decisions, and the choice was the right one.

In the Press conference of 22nd February, given by the Minister of Defence, it was stated, The review of defence expenditure by the Government is not over. From now onwards it will be a continuing process and a normal part of Government machinery. The next part of this continuing process of review, I believe, must be the refusal to create further bases. Aircraft carriers and further bases can be justified only if we are planning continuing a certain rôle in this area. Because of the great expense which these aircraft carriers and new bases involve, their purchase would be a proof of a long-term involvement far beyond anything envisaged in the White Paper. By comparison, the purchase of the F111, although I personally regret it, does not represent such a continuing involvement over so long a period of time.

The Minister of Defence has made a start in reducing the importance of our defence rôle east of Suez. My hope is that he will be persuaded to go further as he comes to understand that in the true interests of our country the myth of a substantial east of Suez rôle has no part to play.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Bruce Millan)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said, this is an extremely important subject and one which I think we shall have ample opportunity of discussing over the coming weeks in the debates on the Defence White Paper and in other ways. I am grateful for the general tone of his remarks and, in particular, for his tribute to the Defence Review and the very thorough review of our commitments and our general defence policy which the review has meant.

I should like, first, to make a number of general comments. My hon. Friend mentioned that, as stated in the Defence White Paper, Great Britain, as well as other nations, has a general interest in seeing peace in the world and that, of course, includes that part of the world east of Suez as well as that part of the world nearer home. I should have thought that this was a sentiment which every hon. Member would share. It happens that, partly for reasons of history and partly because of our close Commonwealth connections, Britain at the moment has certain responsibilities and certain opportunities in peace-keeping which many of our allies in Europe do not have at this time. The question is not whether we should or should not give up these opportunities and responsibilities overnight, particularly as a number of our responsibilities consist of definite commitments freely entered into by this Government and by previous Governments—commitments which in all honour we are bound to discharge.

This is particularly true about our commitment to Malaysia, which is by far the most important and the most expensive in terms of men, effort and money which we have in the area east of Suez at present. It is worth stating again that this is a commitment by treaty arrangement and that there can be absolutely no question at all of Great Britain in any sense give up that commitment or ratting on that commitment as long as the Malaysia-Indonesia confrontation continues. I want to say a little more about Indonesia later, but the general point has to be made that we are in honour bound by certain commitments, and that we intend to see that those commitments are discharged.

On the other hand, there is a very considerable need for economy in our defence budget. One of the main purposes of the Defence Review was to get our defence expenditure in 1969–70 into relationship with the general economic strength of the country and to prevent our spending money on defence which we are quite unable economically to afford at present. This has been one of the main purposes of the review, and I think that my hon. Friend agrees that in that purpose we have very largely succeeded. This is something which affects our general defence posture east of Suez as well as in other parts of the world.

We have decided to limit our commitments in quite substantial ways. The Defence White Paper, on page 7, paragraph 19, sets out certain kinds of commitment which Britain will not take upon herself in the 1970s. First, for example: Britain will not undertake major operations of war except in co-operation with allies. Secondly, we will not accept an obligation to provide another country with military assistance unless it is prepared to provide us with the facilities we need to make such assistance effective in time. Finally, there will be no attempt to maintain defence facilities in an independent country against its wishes. I should like to point out the significance of these limitations in practice by giving an example which, as it happens, is also an example quoted by my hon. Friend. The whole argument about the future of Britain's carrier force depends upon the limitations of commitments which I have detailed. If we are to limit our commitments in this way, as we certainly intend to do, that means that there are certain kinds of military capability which we no longer require.

This was the essential point at issue in the decision not to proceed with the new carrier CVA01, because, as we point out at page 10 of the Defence White Paper, the only kind of operation in which the new carrier would provide a capability which we do not already have is in operations involving sophisticated opposition outside the range of land-based air cover and landing and withdrawal of troops in those circumstances.

Because of the limitations which we have laid down and the kind of commitments that we will be willing to undertake in the 1970s, we shall not be undertaking a commitment of that sort. Therefore, the new carrier is not necessary. This demonstrates the close connection between the limitation of commitments and the savings which it is possible then to get in military capability.

It is, however, part of our purpose—and we have been extremely careful on this—to ensure that our forces and commitments are in balance, so that there can be no question of our taking on or extending commitments in a way which will mean that our forces, if they were called upon to meet these commitments, will not have the military capability to discharge the tasks placed upon them.

Those are general considerations, and perhaps I might now say a word about particular commitments. There is, of course, the decision to withdrawn from Aden in 1968, which my hon. Friend did not mention, but which, as he will agree, represents a considerable reduction in commitments and will also represent a considerable reduction in military expenditure.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) rose

Mr. Millan

I am sorry; I cannot give way. I have only a limited time.

My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the question of Indonesia. I should like to make it absolutely clear that confrontation is not something for which the British Government are responsible. It is not something for which the Malaysians are responsible. It is something for which the direct and sole responsibility rests with the Indonesians.

Our position, as it always has been, is that we would be delighted to see confrontation coming to an end. One of the assumptions of our defence posture for the 1970s is that confrontation will have come to an end by 1970. We certainly do not wish confrontation to continue any longer than is absolutely necessary. We would be willing to negotiate with the Indonesians for an end of confrontation of any kind.

To get negotiations going, however, means that there must be a willingness to negotiate on both sides. There is a willingness on our side. What we need now is a willingness on the side of the Indonesians. We must also take into consideration the important fact that Britain is by no means a free agent in this matter, which we bear in discharge of our responsibilities towards Malaysia. We are not there simply involved with Indonesia on our own. There are, of course, the interests of Malaysia, and we must work, in this as in other things, in co-operation with our Malaysian allies. So long as confrontation does continue, of course it is the purpose of the British Government—it is the purpose of this Government—to see that the actual level of military activity should be kept at the lowest possible level.

I think that it is perhaps worth quoting the actual casualties there have been in the confrontation from April, 1963, when it started, to December, 1965. The figures have been given on page 10 of Part II of the Defence White Paper. During that period 562 Indonesians have been killed, and 136 of the allied forces, including civilians, killed. I deplore very much the fact that there should have been any casualties in this area, but I do want to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the casualties have been very small indeed, particularly when we set these casualties beside the estimated 100,000 people who have lost their lives within Indonesia itself over the last few months, because of the troubled political situation in that country.

I think that from what has happened, in fact, in Indonesia since the autumn of last year in the confused political situation there we see some idea of the disastrous consequences there might have been in that part of the world if we had not gone to the assistance of Malaysia when it was attacked by the Indonesians. The fact is that our presence there, which has been expensive, from our point of view, in terms of men and money, has, nevertheless, managed to keep the level of military activity very small indeed and, fortunately, the number of casualties down to this very low figure which I have just quoted.

Of course, it is part of our policy in other parts of the world where there are dangers of military activity to see that that activity either is avoided altogether, or else that it is kept within strictly controllable limits.

Now perhaps I may just turn to some of the figures of costs which my hon. Friend mentioned. Of course, it is expensive at the present time. I would not deny that for one moment. In fact, it has been one of the starting points of the review of our present defence position. It is extremely costly, both in general terms, and particularly from the point of view of foreign exchange. My hon. Friend has quoted some of the figures for the expense of keeping our forces east of Suez. Since he has on a number of occasions in the last year asked that more information about these costs should be made available, I am sure that he will be grateful for the additional information which appears in Appendix H of the second part of the Defence White Paper. He will see from there that our total foreign exchange expenditure overseas at the present time is, net, about £250 million. I want to say to him that the figures for which we are planning in 1969–70 will at least be considerably less than that.

There is a difficulty at the moment, for security as well as for a number of other reasons, in putting forward exact figures for what is likely to be our foreign exchange expenditure in three years from now. But I want to give an assurance to my hon. Friend that these figures will come down quite considerably when the results of the Defence Review have been translated into actual policy between now and the 1970s.

I want to make one additional point about costs. My hon. Friend mentioned the cost of guard dogs, which I have had quoted at me on a number of occasions. In fact, I see that this is a Ques tion down for Monday of next week on the subject. The costs which have been quoted for guard dogs in the Far East and elsewhere are costs which include the pay and allowances of the Service men who handle the animals. They are not the costs of the dogs themselves. They are not costing £1,000 a year, or anything like that. They are an extremely cost-effective way of guarding military installations, and a way which is much more inexpensive than the use simply of Servicemen.

I only mention that to make the general point that we are extremely interested in seeing that all our military expenditure is cost-effective. A tremendous amount of effort has been put into that operation over the last year.

To sum up, therefore, we have certain responsibilities and commitments east of Suez at the moment. We have no intention of dishonouring any obligations that we have taken on. But we are very conscious of the need to limit our military expenditure, and it has been part of the function of the Defence Review to limit our expenditure while still discharging our obligations and retaining the influence for peace and the contribution towards peace-making which Britain is able to make in the world at the present time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.