HL Deb 18 March 1954 vol 186 cc517-25

4.28 p.m.

Debate resumed (according to Order), on the Motion moved on Tuesday last by Earl Alexander of Tunis, to resolve, That this House approves the Statement on Defence, 1954 (Cmd. 9075).


My Lords, this is the third day of a fascinating debate, and I am sure your Lordships do not want to hear a great many speeches, except the final speeches and, in particular, the reply which we shall have from the Government Front Bench. I shall therefore not detain your Lordships many moments—not only for that reason, indeed, but also because I am not very competent to speak on this subject, since my direct experience of defence matters has been confined to war time, and no one who is not in a special position can follow the problems that are dealt with in the White Paper. Therefore, I will make only one or two general remarks on the White Paper as a whole. First, I should like to thank the noble and gallant: Earl the Minister of Defence—this has already been said before, but I should like it to be said for noble Lords on these Benches—for the character of the White Paper which, to quote a national newspaper, treats the people of this country like adults, not as children. It has told them something of what is involved should a future war happen.

The statement made in the White Paper on this subject has been much discussed during the debate. I am not going to express an opinion on the question of the balance of forces, or the question of the balance as between conventional weapons and atomic warfare. But we on these Benches accept the general idea behind this concept, which is that this country has to face both preparations at the present time. Therefore it is idle to hope, heavy though the burden is (and it is indeed grave), for any substantial reduction in the standard of defence expenditure for some considerable time to come. We accept the consequences of the implication of the scheme as set out, though it is possible to have much difference of opinion as to how much weight should be given to the conventional weapon concept and how much to the atomic warfare concept.

That leads me to make just one point on the suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hills-borough, speaking from the Front Opposition Bench, about an investigation, and in particular that part of his suggestion that an independent inquiry should be made into our ability to carry the financial burden. I do not entirely follow and accept his proposal in that regard. But I think it is quite possible that much valuable work could be done in a more systematic effort—I am now speaking subject to correction from the Government Bench—to consider the impact of the increasing war potential on the economy of the country as a whole. I do not know what Department of the Government would be concerned with such an inquiry. I wonder whether the Ministry of Supply has a department which is considering that matter in relation to the placing of orders and so on, or whether it comes within the purview of the Ministry of Defence. But I conceive that much might be gained by such an inquiry in a situation in which we are accepting the earmarking of a great section of our economy for war purposes.

I hasten to add, however, that I do not think the economists or the statisticians can tell the country what it can afford in regard to armaments. That is putting the cart before the horse. After all, the percentage of the national income which, in various situations, has been devoted to armaments, has varied enormously over the years. The peak is clearly much higher for the United States than for Britain, and much higher for Britain than for a number of other countries. The richer the country the larger the proportion of its productivity that it can devote to armaments. We must not start at the wrong end of the stick. What we have to face, and what I believe the people of this country should be brought to realise, is that you must first decide what is essential for security and then try to make the burden as light as you cannot start from the other end. I do not want to labour that point, but it emphasises what I said just now. I think that if there is to be an independent group of people brought in to study this terrific problem of defence, it should be done with a view to lightening the impact of the burden—not to deciding what that burden should be.

I will add only one other general comment. As one who was engaged in the battle of the standards as long ago as April, 1917 (a battle which we lost at that time), and again in the autumn of 1940 (the same battle almost entirely lost perhaps), I should like with other speakers in this debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, to congratulate the noble and gallant Earl, the Minister of Defence, on having reached agreement on a standard small arms ammunition. It is not an immense step in the direction of standardisation, it is only a part of the way which we have to go; but it is very satisfactory to know that this first stage has been reached.

My purpose in speaking to-day is really to say a word on paragraph 6 of the White Paper. It has been said again and again in the course of this debate that Great Britain's defence is part of a greater whole and cannot be considered separately from the whole. The noble and gallant Earl, the Minister of Defence, in his speech two days ago quoted General Gruenther's Progress Report. It is a matter for immense comfort and satisfaction that General Gruenther was able to say that the defensive strength of N.A.T.O. to-day is three to four times what it was when General Eisenhower came over as Supreme Commander. Clearly, that increase has contributed enormously to the relaxation of tension. Those who have occasion to travel in Europe can see with their eyes the progress which has been made in respect of "infrastructure "—to use a word which the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, and I, also, very much dislike. But undoubtedly it is going ahead and the preparations which are being made can be seen. This is the greatest experiment ever made in international security—far and away the greatest. People who have had any experience of trying to build up international organisations will agree that those who have been concerned with building this up are immensely to be congratulated.

But, just because of our dependence upon N.A.T.O., it is important to examine some of the basic conditions in which N.A.T.O. is growing up. In particular, I wish to call attention to a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hore-Belisha, when, at the end of his remarkable speech two days ago, he emphasised, underlined and repeated the question of who is going to decide when the might of that organisation is brought into action, when the tremendous power of the atomic bomb is to be used. In that regard I want to raise a point relating to the constitutional structure of N.A.T.O. as illustrated by an incident that occurred a few months ago in connection with the crisis at Trieste. On October 19, the Italian Government moved two of their "crack" divisions towards the frontier with Yugoslavia and Zone A. At least one of those divisions—possibly two—had been assigned to N.A.T.O. command. But the troops were, apparently, placed under Italian command, and moved from their stations without consultation with the N.A.T.O. authorities. And, indeed, it is clear from the official statements issued to the Press that the British and American ambassadors in Rome and Admiral Carney's headquarters in Naples were informed after the event.

In calling attention to this incident, I want it to be clear that I am expressing no view at all about the Trieste crisis, itself. And I say, further, that there is nothing I can see in the N.A.T.O. Treaty itself, or in the actions taken and the experience in regard to N.A.T.O., since N.A.T.O. came into operation, to suggest that there is anything contrary to the rule or in any way improper in what was done by the Italian Government. Indeed, it was certainly not unprecedented. N.A.T.O. is a voluntary association, and it may be said, and with much force, that every individual nation must have the right to move its troops in its own country if it feels that its security is at stake. It is not surprising that that view is expressed, and expressed quite forcibly, by many countries. It is, indeed, expressed by many people in our own country. But if the Italian action were widely followed, it would undoubtedly weaken the N.A.T.O. alliance.

I am fully aware of the reasons for preserving the sovereign rights of members of N.A.T.O. But can you have it both ways? For it is N.A.T.O. which guarantees the integrity of the countries of Western Europe Under Clause 4 of the Treaty it is written that the parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any one of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened. The Treaty does not say whether that consultation is to take place before or whether it can take place after action has occurred. This particular incident has given a good deal more concern in some European circles than it has in this country, where it is not very well known, but it does underline the essential issue of the character of N.A.T.O.

Several times the problem of national action has been discussed in the course of this debate on a world-wide canvas, and on that scale a question is posed by the statements that have been made this week by President Eisenhower and Mr. Secretary Dulles—statements quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Hore-Belisha. That question is, where the responsibility rests for a decision that may involve global war. Mr. Wilson says he is sure the Allies will be consulted in the cases where their interests are involved. But, my Lords, with American air bases surrounding Russia, with troops on the Continent, it is surely inconceivable that the United States should engage in an isolated war with Russia; and, if this is the case, then in every development of that kind America's Allies are certainly involved. The United States is committed, like all of us, to this Treaty, which say that we will consult in the event of crisis. But it surely makes no sense at all if members of the Alliance are consulted after the explosion has taken place.

I do not want to pursue that on a world scale, but to return to the rather narrower issue raised by the Trieste incident. I should like to make three comments in that context. First, is it not possible to establish, either by a protocol to the Treaty or by precedent or in some resolution of the Council, that divisions that are assigned to N.A.T.O. can be moved only after consultation—other than by the command of the N.A.T.O. Command itself—and not in advance; in view of the fact that it is N.A.T.O. and the organisation which it is building up which has the responsibility for the integrity of the country concerned as well as the countries of all the Allies? Secondly, in the same context, is it not possible that the practice of assigning forces to N.A.T.O. can be made for a longer period of time? My first point is that it should not be done without consultation and my second that there should be some degree of security of tenure. Possibly I am: pushing at an open door so far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned, but, of course, it is for them to say.

Thirdly, the comment which naturally jumps to the minds of everyone who reflects is that the conditions which have obtained up to the present in N.A.T.O. make it 100 per cent. clear that the system is quite unsuitable as the structure within which German troops can be developed and controlled. In other words it is the strongest possible illustrative argument for the European Defence Community as the only possible organisation in which it is possible to include a German arms contribution. If that is so, I need hardly stop, at this stage of the debate, to argue with your Lordships that it is of the utmost importance that this country should do everything in its power to secure the ratification of E.D.C. I think myself that this ratification is probable; but it is certainly not certain; and if, unhappily, it were to fail, one of the first things that would have to be done—because you cannot long delay the rearmament of Germany—would be to reconstruct N.A.T.O. and, in effect, to make a European Section of N.A.T.O.—something like E.D.C.

Lastly, in that context, I should like to make one final observation. We often hear it said that this country will go as far as the United States will go but no farther. That is surely the most unsound proposition; it is unsound in history; it has not happened in the past. It is unsound in what we have done since the war. Act after act has been done by this country, quite rightly and quite properly, as an independent unit and in its own interest. It is only by developing the existing structure on the lines I have been suggesting, and in particular in regard to N.A.T.O., that we can hope to give solidarity and stability to the international structure which exists, but which really is only beginning to become an effective organisation. If we move in that direction, then I hope, with Lord Hore-Belisha, that future White Papers will deal not merely with what he calls the anachronism of purely national defence, but will contain a statement about Atlantic defences as a whole, which are our defences, and the united policy which will direct them.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, the fact that we have had two and a half days of very high-level debate on Defence matters is good evidence that there has been a pent-up demand in all quarters of this House for a discussion of the problems of Defence. It may be that that demand is due not merely to the importance of this Defence White Paper but also to the fact that noble Lords opposite have not so far thought fit, as we did when we were in Opposition, to put down Motions dealing with the White Papers accompanying the three Service Estimates. However that may be, I am quite sure noble Lords will agree that we have had a very good and high-level debate, although at the end of this debate there will still remain a number of questions which deserve a good deal of further examination in their own time. It is worth while remembering that this Defence White Paper was issued when the Berlin Conference was still in session. When I realised that, I began to wonder what would happen if Mr. Molotov, in a more than usually helpful mood, had conceded a number of things which, if conceded, would have put a new face on our defence policy. But that dream, like others, did not come true, and the words in the introduction to the White Paper, written before the Berlin Conference, hold good to-day, despite anything that happened there. In other words, my noble and gallant friend the Minister of Defence was backing the right horse all the time.

This White Paper is a great deal more informative than some of the White Papers we have had, but it is in the direct line of succession of all previous Papers on Defence since 1947. Just like earlier White Papers, we have two main themes running through this one: first, the strategic plan of this country and how it can be carried out; and secondly, interrelated with it, the problem of how we can recruit and look after the necessary numbers of men and women to implement that policy. On this occasion, the second point assumes an even greater importance than it has in previous years, because, as we all know, our troops in many parts of the world have been serving under very adverse conditions. I am sure that it would be wrong, however, to suggest that, because the going is tough for the Services in a great many parts of the world, we should abandon the plans which we have already made. The going has been tough for the British Services before in history, and nothing could be worse than to suggest that the going in Egypt, or anywhere else, is too tough for the Forces of the Crown to do their job. I hope that that is one thing at least which we shall get from this debate: that while we shall support in every way everything that can be done to make their lot easier, we will not give a moment's countenance to the suggestion that the job they have been set is too hard for them to carry out.

Another thing which emerges from the White Paper is that the plans which have been carried through during the last year, whilst I would not say they have been entirely successful, have gone their way towards success. Everybody knows—the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, mentioned it yesterday—that we are now engaged in a long pull, something which was never expected or realised when the first of this series of Defence White Papers was written. The fact that our expenditure, though still sadly high, is beginning to flatten out, that the forces in Western Europe are consolidating, and that we have an armistice in Korea, all go to show that in the long view our plans, and the plans of our Allies, are working out, slowly but none the less successfully. The 1948 White Paper started this train of thought. It said—rather naïvely it sounds now: Commitments in Europe have not been liquidated as rapidly as had been expected when Command Paper 7042 was issued. That was the 1947 Defence White Paper. That is true. On the other hand, we now have a long-term plan to which we have settled down. I think paragraph 13 of the White Paper gives us, possibly for the first time in the series, a definite conception of the sort of war for which we are preparing. That is an important step forward, because we now have a definite plan. Everybody knows what the plan is, and everybody can see how administrative measures taken fit into that plan, as explained in paragraph 13.

My noble and gallant friend on the Front Bench will remember, I expect, that passage in a military manual which says something like this: that even a moderate plan, boldly and resolutely carried out is much better than a brilliant plan carried forward in a hesitant manner. I am far from suggesting that this is a moderate plan—I would suggest the reverse but I. do say that in this White Paper we have a definite plan, and we can see what is being aimed at. And we are all much better for it.


My Lords, I think we ought now to adjourn during pleasure to make way for the Royal Commission.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.