HL Deb 10 February 1960 vol 220 cc1119-26

3.20 p.m.

LORD REA rose to call attention to the urgent need for formulating a positive and constructive policy in regard to disarmament; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving the Motion which stands in my name I am conscious that the Government White Paper on Defence is likely to be published in the fairly near future, and in some ways it might seem regrettable that this debate should be taken just before that publication and the debate in your Lordships' House, which will follow not immediately, but perhaps in a week or two. I would crave your Lordships' indulgence while I explain shortly what has happened and why this situation has come about.

In November last I had a Motion on both defence and disarmament down for debate in this House, but by approach through the usual channels I was asked whether I would delete the reference to defence and keep only disarmament. The reason I was given was that these were two perfectly different subjects, and that the debate on defence would come more appropriately when the Government proposal was made. I cannot quite agree that these two subjects are divorced in any strong sense, but of course I accepted the suggestion, and my Motion was accordingly reduced to one on disarmament, and I put it down for December 15. It so happened that on that date the pressure of Government Business—and I have almost persuaded myself that this was not part of some deep plot—was such that obviously the debate on my Motion would have continued so late in the evening that we might have had the spectacle of your Lordships' House being no more than a quorum of three noble Lords, each in turn addressing the others but not persuading the others. For those reasons the Motion is before you this afternoon.

Having placed the dichotomy between disarmament and defence squarely within the judication of the Government Front Bench—I hope I have—I have hopes that the noble Earl the Leader of the House will not suggest to me that it is imprudent to broach this matter so short a time before the relevant material is forthcoming. I hope that he will not say"Wait and see", a phrase which is familiar to me but the connotation of which has been distorted over the years. What that phrase really meant when it was originally used by Mr. Asquith was"I have a very pleasant surprise for you"—which indeed he had—and"I will shortly disclose it to you", which he did not, because his successor did it in his place. If the noble Earl means that he has a pleasant surprise for me I shall be glad to"wait and see."

I am asking Her Majesty's Government to formulate, if they will, a positive and constructive policy in regard to disarmament, because I think the absence of such a policy is manifest, and with two undesirable results. First, that the people of this country are becoming rather uneasy at the lack of clear indication by the Government as to their plans to implement, in greater or lesser degree, in short term or long term, the process of disarmament which I think I am right in saying has been endorsed, at least in principle, by the head of every major and responsible Government in the world, and notably of course by Mr. Khrushchev.

The second undesirable result is that of recent years this country has undoubtedly and regrettably, and I think unnecessarily, lost its pre-eminent position in the world, a position of leadership. I do not refer necessarily to leadership in military strength or in reserves of gold, or in vast acres of territory; not even to leadership in scientific or academic or industrial pre-eminence. The lost leadership to which I refer is the imponderable quality which instills confidence in an excellence which is instinctively known to be present, even if it is not apparent in actual supremacy in any given field. That type of leadership, which is surely the most worthy of all leaderships, is the one which this country enjoyed for centuries, the one which from our national character and national history I believe we are fitted to enjoy, and the one which I am convinced we can still enjoy.

But to re-attain that position it is esential that we give example and proof to the world that we do concern ourselves actively and creatively with such philosophic and moral principles as are contained in matters of world-wide and almost timeless influence and importance, like this matter of disarmament. That is the second reason why I ask for the immediate formulation of a positive and constructive policy. For that is the general field alone in which, in the world as it is to-day, we in this country can compete with success, and with, I think, benefit to the world. In other and material fields we can no longer compete for pre-eminence because conditions have so changed that only three countries in the world, America, Russia and China, have any pretext, or I might say excuse, to hope for complete domination in material affairs, a domination which, even if it were achieved, would surely not last very long.

But of the material fields, in all of which competition is so intense, I am addressing myself to-day to that of armaments, of the provision and maintenance, and even increase, of war material planned with the short-term but common aim of the destruction of human life. The share of this country in the world total of armaments is so small as to be nearly derisory. Yet, from motives of prestige and national pride and tradition—very understandable and sometimes very worthy motives—we as a country torture our own fiscal position to extract a sum of £1,500 million a year in order to maintain a recognised place at the table in the officers' mess. Yet if war were to come our contribution to it would not only be minute; it would be just as useless as the colossal efforts of the giant nations whose leaders know, but whose peoples I think do not know, that there is no victory for one side and defeat for the other but only defeat and vast irreparable suffering, if not annihilation, for both.

Moreover, of course, in a world war this country would almost certainly be wiped out, despite our courage, despite our tradition, in a matter of minutes. There, in those few minutes, would evaporate all the many times £1,500 million raised, year after year, by painful excessive taxation, and obviously to the disadvantage year after year of our needy hospitals and prison services, of our old people and poor people, of education and of the reduction of an almost intolerable burden on industry and commerce to a point where general prosperity, instead of continual apprehension, might be found. And, perhaps most important of all, to the disadvantage of international relationship which does need large funds and which, in a continually shrinking world, is so vital to the future of us all.

My Lords, I think you would all agree that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer could put his hands upon a free extra £1,500 million a year this country would be a happier one, and possibly a better one. At this point I come face to face with the plain question: should we disarm? Partially or totally? Now or later? Unilaterally or along with others? I would briefly approach this problem, in its variation of degree, from two angles: the practical angle and the moral angle. Only the Government of the day, of course, can know all the threats to our well-being, and they take apparently conventional steps. I cannot possibly know the true value of Cyprus, for instance, as a military base. Whatever its proposed function, I can conceive that that function might be wiped out, through remote control by an enemy, in a matter of seconds; and the same applies, I should imagine, to any other defensive or offensive or staging post or base whether it be in Norfolk, Malaya or the Northern Territories of Canada. The only consolation is that we, with our Allies, can do exactly the same damage to the potential enemy. But that does not get us very far.

Then there is the classic question, if we disarm are we to go naked into the council chambers of the world? That question is not quite so difficult to answer, I think, since it would appear that we are already naked—like the Emperor who had no clothes or protection; it was just polite to pretend he had. And so are the bigger nations of the world, Russia, America, China, equally naked. All the power, plus wealth, plus armament, which exist in the world are now totally vulnerable to the trigger-finger of some irresponsible small State, or even of some little band of insurgents who possess, or will possess, those nuclear weapons which daily become more commonplace. These minority elements can destroy us all. And yet we see no concerted action taken to stop this diabolical nuclear instrument becoming available to country after country.

In this situation, my Lords, I see no ultimate loss, and only theoretical present loss, to us in the renunciation to a very large extent of our current unbearably heavy military commitments. Your Lordships may remember that the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, has urged that we should set a noble example to all countries other than America and Russia by renouncing all nuclear weapons. He was considered to be too far ahead of the times and was told that other nations would not follow suit. France has now, regrettably, gone the other way; and no doubt China and Germany will do the same. But whether other countries follow suit or not, we are all in the same boat. We are all naked Emperors.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has told us that a continuation of the present irresponsibility might see the end of civilisation and of mankind by the end of this century. That is only 40 years ahead. Yet there has been no real stand against what I regard as the blasphemy of this present generation—of all nations—in taking upon itself the unwarranted responsibility of the right to decide upon the obliteration of itself (which I suppose cannot be denied to it) but, additionally, the obliteration of all future generations with their potential retrospective heritage—if I may put it that way—and their own future; and on top of that the obliteration of the past, which is not hypothetical—of all philosophies and civilisations and religions, whose vast work of century upon century, and which we thought imperishable, will have gone for nothing—will be utterly valueless, with no civilised world left on which to make their quite invaluable impact.

On the practical issue of maintaining more armaments, therefore, it seems to me that on the credit side there is no gain and no profit, for in time of peace armaments are cripplingly expensive, and in time of nuclear war they simply blow up without any possibility of achieving either victory or defence, as we have been told on the highest military authority. On the debit side, it seems to me that the same arguments apply: the whole picture is one of debit and loss; and so the only pawn left in the game is the very doubtful and short-term stake of what is called the deterrent. I agree that if two hostile tigers meet and snarl and bare their teeth there is possibly just time for a disinterested third party to make a discreet and rapid getaway. But unfortunately there is no third party rôle for us. We must inevitably be a tiger, or at least part of a tiger. And it is surely self-deception to imagine that the snarls and the bared teeth of deterrence can possibly hold a situation for more than a short time—any tiger would agree to that. That is clutching at a straw. Until we know where we are, a straw is of course better than a holocaust; but the conception of a deterrent as a long-term policy seems to me to be fantastic and unrealistic. As a short-term policy it is doubtless unavoidable; it is either that or nothing.

On the other side—the moral side—is the question: if armaments and killing and war are wrong, how is it that we have accepted and developed these things throughout the evolution of man? Again, I think the answer is not very difficult. Competition, whether between animals, from whom we are developed, or between children in the nursery, from whom we also develop, has quite naturally found that physical force in sufficient quantity is the easiest and most effective method of getting what you want. That is a simple and obvious premise. From the beginning of the world until just a few years ago force, as a thing in itself, ranged from the muscular superiority of one individual to the only just comprehensible power of the high explosive missiles which we endured during the last war. But since the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic power, the whole situation has changed, and force, even though still more or less controlled by man, is now, in its vastness, obviously about to overcome, or is threatening to overcome, the pattern of balanced human control in this world. In other words, it is possible that in the near future a tiny and irresponsible minority may have the power to destroy everything.

It is because of this that I say that the conception of the use of force, armaments, power and military might, by great nations or small nations, to implement national or international policies, or even civilised ideals, has suddenly and in our lifetime to-day become meaningless, for there is no longer any supremacy attached to physical force. The physically or morally weakest among us may become the nuclear strongest in the wink of an eye.

My Lords, I am not a pacifist, and I believe that a police force, preferably an international police force, will always be needed, with adequate conventional weapons. But taking together the practical barrenness which we now see of preparing for war—the utter futility of it—and the age-old moral conviction of all great religions and philosophies that strife and destruction are evil and that peace is good, I can myself find that only two miracles have occurred actually in our own time and in this generation—and they are puzzling miracles to many of us. The first is that war was glorious and it is no longer glorious; it destroys both sides, for modern war will be nuclear war. The second miracle is that, after tens of thousands of years, it is for the first time expedient, and not inexpedient, that both individually and communally we actually put into practice the basic peaceful ideals of our age-old philosophies and religions.

This whole issue is tremendous and immediate; and I consider that, for the reasons which I have mentioned in my opening remarks, this country has a very responsible position and a grave responsibility of example. Many of our people in this country are not facing the implication of total horror which a nuclear war would bring. Those of them who are young shrug it off as a temporary muddle which their elders are responsible for, and which they will rectify when they come to take the place of their elders. Those who are old are imbued from birth and from all the generations behind them with the conviction that Britain will be all right in the end; that this nuclear scare is comparable more or less to the invention of gunpowder, and that it will fall into place in the old scheme, in time. I respect their stand and their loyalty to many past eras of glory. But these are now in danger of obliteration from the memory of a non-existent mankind.

In foreign countries I believe that the menace is in general known only to the governing sectors. Most of Europe is more or less preoccupied with internal affairs. The vast population of China and the Far East are not informed. The Russian masses are curtained off, and, like the United States, are still in the secondary stages of emergence, through a mere 300 years, from the birth of their own new world. It is hard for a young civilisation to take a long view and a short view together. We alone, more than any other nation, have suffered throughout our country the torments of anxiety and dread which for long months or years precede the outbreak of war, together with the daily and nightly and hourly propinquity with death and mutilation and terror for years on end. For this reason, if for no other, we should be aware of the horrors which may lie ahead and which, in my opinion, are daily being made more likely to arrive by a trend everywhere towards further armament and the absence of a real lead towards disarmament.

My Lords, I speak for myself alone. Nobody is bound by what I say. But for the reasons which I have tried to give, I do ask Her Majesty's Government for action—for inspiring action; for a positive and constructive policy on disarmament; and for world wide publicity for such a programme when it is found. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.