HL Deb 14 March 1963 vol 247 cc857-68

3.5 p.m.

Debate resumed (according to Order) on the Amendment moved yesterday by Earl Alexander of Hillsborough to the Motion moved by Lord Carrington, to resolve, That this House approves the Statement on Defence (Cmnd. 1936)—namely to leave out all the words after House and insert "regrets the failure of Her Majesty's Government to adopt a policy that will provide forces adequate for the defence of this country and for the discharge of its international and Commonwealth obligations."


My Lords, as I agree with so much that the Government have both said and done, perhaps I may be permitted to begin with a modest criticism of one of the statements of the Minister of Defence. He is reported as having said in another place in his main speech that the problems of geography remain much as they did a year ago". No doubt as a proposition in physical geography that is true. O'er each continent and island The dawn leads on another day". But it is not always the same day: the weather changes; people and policies change. I should have thought that, looking at the world to-day, internationally, economically, and therefore inevitably in Defence, which is inextricably linked up with both of those, so far from the problems being the same, we are facing a whole series of new situations and new problems. That may be a verbal criticism. But what really matters, and the real question in this debate is this: Are the Government doing the right things, and are they doing them in the right way? I must say that I think, on the whole, they are.

First of all, as one who has been an importunate advocate of an effective Minister of Defence in a succession of Defence debates, as have many of your Lordships, I would say how whole-heartedly I welcome the decision of the Government to recast the Ministry of Defence and make it into a really effective instrument for its purpose. So far as I can see from the statement which has been made, they are proceeding on the right lines. I am sure that we must have a Minister of Defence who is responsible for the whole range of defence policy. He must see the problem as a whole, and he must see it without sectional loyalties or sectional prejudices. He must be the author and the originator, and not an arbiter between three conflicting Services. I am sure most of your Lordships will agree that only too often in the past the Minister has been put in the position of an arbiter. You have had all three Services lining up with demands which it has been quite impossible to meet, with each Service asking for two-thirds or more of the cake, and then the fatally easy course has been to give everybody something, but nobody enough. That is not economy, my Lords; that is waste. Therefore, the last thing that we want the Minister to be is an arbiter.

The Minister must be (and, again, this is clearly proposed) served by a combined General Staff. And I think it is entirely right that the heads of the three Services, the Chiefs of Staff, should be on this combined Staff, but working under an independent Chairman, and solely responsible (and this I emphasise) to a single Minister. There was some criticism yesterday of having an independent Chairman—that he was a sort of fifth wheel to the coach. I do not accept that. I think he is a necessary fourth wheel; and that opinion is based on experience. I am not saying that the other arrangement did not work fairly well—it depended very much on who was the Chief of Staff in the chair; and I am not being personal now—but I think, on the whole, it would have been better to have an independent Chairman, and for this reason. In peace time, naturally, each of the Service Chiefs of Staff has his loyalties and is pulled by the interests of his own Service. If you have an independent Chairman, who certainly will never go back to one of the Services alter he has finished his job (this, I think is essential), then he can encourage and lead the three Chiefs of Staff to concentrate on combined and co-operative thought. That, therefore, seems to me to be right.

There is, however, one point about which, quite frankly, I am worried. It was referred to by the noble and gallant Field Marshal yesterday, and it is the right of appeal of a Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister. These Chiefs of Staff are to be responsible to the Minister of Defence. The Service Ministers, or whatever you call them, will be deputy Ministers under the Minister of Defence. They will be responsible to the Minister of Defence, and so will the Chiefs of Staff. I think it is a historical survival that a Chief of Staff has a right of appeal to the Prime Minister; but we need not necessarily, unless it is right, perpetuate something that has come to us from the past. What is the purpose of the Chiefs of Staff having this right of appeal, and what does it mean? Supposing the Chiefs of Staff disagree, 2 to 1, on some issue, does the Chief of Staff who has been overruled by his colleagues and the chairman have a right of appeal to the Prime Minister, and can he go to the Prime Minister as an arbiter? Surely that idea of the arbiter is exactly what we are trying to get rid of. And to make the Prime Minister an arbiter is even worse that having the Minister of Defence as an arbiter.

It might be said that we could have a situation in which the Minister of Defence disagreed with the unanimous view of the three Chiefs of Staff and their Chairman. It is possible. I do not think it is very likely, but in a case like that without a doubt the Defence Minister would tell the Prime Minister. Even if he did not, the Prime Minister would know all about it; because he does not live in a vacuum. In the case of an important issue of that kind, clearly it would be one that would go to the Committee of Imperial Defence, what is now, I think, called the Defence Committee. I am sure I can have an assurance that the Defence Committee will continue under the new dispensation; and equally, of course, the Prime Minister must be the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and not only the titular head as he has sometimes been. I regard it as vitally important that the Prime Minister, unless it is physically impossible for him to do so, should always be there as Chairman of the Defence Committee. I have that criticism. I should like to hear the answer to this preservation of the right of the Chiefs of Staffs to have an appeal.


My Lords, I have listened very carefuly to the thoughtful statement of the noble Earl. Of course, from the very beginning the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which was set up by the Labour Government at the end of 1946, never found any real difficulty in dealing with such problems, for the very reasons which the noble Earl has stated. In fact, what happened in those conditions—although there were differences of opinion—was that the problems were always worked out under the decision of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet.


I am obliged to the noble Earl. He said that the Labour Government set up the Defence Committee. If I may say so, what they did was to give it a little baptismal regeneration. The Defence Committee was the old Committee of Imperial Defence on which both he and I served 30 years ago. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that it must have an adequate secretariat. I should be surprised if it had not got one. In my day, 35 years ago, and much more recently, it had an extremely effective secretariat. At one time Lord Hankey and Lord Ismay were part of it, and the Cabinet Secretariat and the Secretariat for the Committee of Defence were, in fact, one. I do not think there is any difference between us on that. Nor, I think, will there be any difference that it is right to preserve the three Services as individual Services. In training, in command and in action they will be more and more integrated and brought closer together. But it surely is unquestionably right that each of them should keep its own individuality, its own connections, its own traditions and its own loyalties. About that, I think, we shall all be agreed.

There is one other point that I must make. If we are to make this Ministry of Defence complete and effective, I hold most strongly that the Minister must be responsible for research and development. I am quite sure—and I am glad that the noble and gallant Field Marshal agrees—that we cannot separate research and development from strategic policy and production. From the initial conception, through development to production, the responsibility must rest with the Minister and the Combined General Staff: all my own experience bears that out. I see that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dowding, is present. I am sure he will agree that in our time together it was absolutely essential that research and development, the General Staff and the scientists should all work together. Without that, we should never have got radar, the development of the fighters and bombers, all the equipment and all the consequences that followed.

I am sure that we must give this responsibility to the Minister. It will be a very heavy load upon him, but I believe that it is the only way. Parliament must help the Minister to carry it. I am sure he must not be harried by a mass of Service detail and Service administration. In my view it is not quite so simple as the noble and gallant Field Marshal thinks, but I am sure it is not so complicated as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, would have had us believe yesterday. I believe it is possible to get a pretty effective halfway house, but on the condition that Parliament (and this applies even more to another place than to this House) accepts the deputy Ministers as the spokesmen on all these administrative and Service details, and does not always want to "hunt" the Minister of Defence. Otherwise, he will be snowed under and quite unable to do his job. I am not worried about that. One noble Lord asked yesterday, "But will the Ministers then carry out the policy?" Of course they would have to carry out the policy. The Ministers will be deputies, and they will be carrying out—and I am sure will loyally carry out—the policy which is laid down by the Minister of Defence and approved by the Cabinet. The Minister must be responsible for, and answerable for, but answerable only to Parliament for, the big questions of policy, and maybe, very important issues of action, too, which flow from these policy decisions. If Parliament will practice the self-denying ordnance that I have indicated, I think the new model will most certainly work.

Let me pass from the machinery to the policy. The debate yesterday naturally circled around the question of the independent deterrent. Is the independent deterrent still right? Let us remember that this has been the policy of successive Governments, Labour and Conservative. It was adopted and maintained primarily for our home defence; and the need for that is still there. But it was not only for our defence: it was our nuclear contribution to the Grand Alliance and to the defence of the Free World. Surely, the Alliance and the Free World need that contribution from us as much as ever. More than that—and I am sure that anybody who has had practical Ministerial experience will agree with this—the possession of the independent deterrent has given us a status and an influence in foreign policy and in disarmament policy which without it we could not claim and we could not enjoy. Can anybody say that the need for Great Britain in all this is not as great to-day as ever? I believe that it is greater than ever. Do your Lordships really want France to be the only nuclear Power in Europe? The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore (I hope I did not misunderstand him), said yesterday, as I followed him—and certainly the statements of Liberal policy are largely based on this view—"We can shelter behind America."

But one cardinal feature of their policy is that if only we would abandon our deterrent other countries would not develop one and other countries would follow suit. Does the noble Lord really believe that? Does he really believe that if we abandon the deterrent to-morrow General de Gaulle and Mao Tse-tung will follow suit? All I can say is that if he believes that, he will believe anything. For my part, I do not believe that any Government of this country, if they become faced with the responsibility, will abdicate their duty to Britain and the Free World.

If we are to have a deterrent, have the Government taken the right steps to give us the right weapons? I do not think anybody would to-day deny that in this small island our deterrent must be mobile and not static. The V-bombers to-day are a formidable and effective force and they will be so for some years to come. We all regret that Skybolt did not succeed; we all hoped that it would. The United States, I think, hoped it would quite as much as we did. After all, they spent an enormous sum of money in its development and their much larger bomber force was dependent upon Skybolt as its weapon. But once the United States had decided (and I do not believe this was just a political stunt) that the expense of going on with Skybolt was not justified and that they would not undertake it—even more, that Sky-bolt would fail them in the matter of time, when the time factor is enormously important—I am quite certain the Government here could not possibly have gone on with it.

In passing, may I ask the Foreign Secretary one question about this other aircraft, the TSR.2?


My Lords, before the noble Earl passes to the other subject, is it not a fact that of course the Government were warned over the course of two years about Skybolt, that there was not sufficient evidence to show that it would certainly be coming to be used by Britain? They were warned again and again and all the prophecies which were made in another place on that point came true, and the Government ought not to have gone on as they did.


No doubt. I know that an Opposition very often criticises; that is part of its job. The criticisms in this case happened to turn out right. But I do not think the noble Earl is being fair to the Government, who had to take this decision. I do not have first-hand knowledge about this, but possibly the noble Earl has. But, after all, what was important was what was thought in America, and there, as I understand it, not only the firm which was making Skybolt but the American Air Force, and indeed everybody in the Pentagon, thought that Sky-bolt was going to be a very great success. The noble Earl shakes his head. He may know; and certainly we shall ask the Government and they will tell us, and I am sure that they will tell us truly. If the Government say that I am wrong, of course I shall withdraw at once, but, so far as I know, all the evidence was that Skybolt was likely to succeed, and there are an enormous number of people still in America who say that if only they could go on with it, it would succeed and come out on time. I am certainly not going to pronounce on that, but I do say that I think the Government were wholly justified in going for it but that once America had decided to drop it the Government could not have gone forward with it.

May I now come to this point about the TSR.2 aircraft? The Air Force section of the White Paper this year says this: When the TSR.2 enters service its exceptional all-round performance will make it fully capable of playing a part in the strategic as well as the tactical nuclear rôle, not only before the introduction of the Polaris submarines but also, when required, to supplement the Polaris force". I do not want to ask for information which it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose, but this part about the strategic value of TSR.2 is also new. If the Government could give us a little more information about it, then I think we should all rather like to have it.


My Lords, is it not the noble Earl's opinion that, in a matter of this kind, in dealing with the deterrent, the more that is known of what the deterrent is and can do, in the way of such information as is published all the time from Russia and the United States, the greater is the essence of its being made a deterrent? Unless people know what is being done in this direction and what it means, these things are no longer a deterrent but just create a hazy fear.


This question possibly ought to be addressed to the Government rather than to me, but if the noble Earl appreciates and asks my opinion, I would say that one has to strike a rather nice balance in this matter. Obviously the enemy, or the potential aggressor, as I believe we call him, has to know enough about the deterrent to be deterred by it. That I fully agree. But, at the same time, if you proceed to disclose to the aggressor all the facts, particularly the secret facts, about your deterrent, then you may, far from increasing the deterrent power of it, make it much easier for him to defeat it and knock it out. Do not think that I am being an advocatus diaboli in this. The Government are capable of defending themselves—I beg the Government's pardon, I am not referring to them as the devil. But I would accept the judgment of the Government, whether it were this Government's or that of the noble Earl if he were Minister of Defence, as to what it was possible to disclose.

So far as I can see on the evidence, Polaris is right. It is mobile, which is essential for us; it is proved and effective. We can get it on what appear to be very fair terms. It costs an awful lot, but all these things do to-day. We shall build most of the submarines and the warheads. There is criticism that we ought to be 100 per cent. self-contained in design and production. That might be very nice if we could do it; and one of my noble friends said yesterday that it would cost only £1 million to go ahead and design a nice new thing that was to be shot from aeroplanes. I must say that I thought, though he has been closely associated with these things, that he was being a little optimistic on present costs of production as they turn out. But let us remember that the original atom bomb was a joint enterprise, and let us also remember that again to-day, after an unfortunate interlude, our scientists and our technicians are working more closely than ever with those of the United States, and politically as well as technically that is a tremendous advantage. And, economically, I would say that co-operation rather than self-sufficiency is really a necessity.

May I put it this way? As I see it, what really matters, what is really essential, is that we should have the best and that we should have it under our own control. And here again—this is perhaps in parenthesis, but these things seem to crop up in the most extraordinary way—could we have a little Information about this new proposal to put Polaris missiles on to surface ships?

If this proposal is really a sort of answer to prayer, it seems very odd that it never came up before; it does seem very odd that all the time the United States were designing and building their Polaris submarines nobody had the bright idea to put the missiles on a surface ship, of which there are plenty of old ones knocking about, if that really was the right answer.

This suggestion did not seem to find great favour yesterday with those who are much more expert than I am. There was the noble and gallant Admiral Lord Ashbourne, who said an aircraft carrier was dangerous enough and vulnerable enough—I was very glad to hear an Admiral say that. I quite agree you have to have them, but it seems to me this would be very vulnerable, and there may be a lot of other arguments, operational and otherwise, against this. At any rate, it does not seem to have been mentioned at the Bahamas meeting. This is a little strange. Perhaps we could have a definite view from the Government. I take it that it is their view that this afterthought (I hope I am not rude if I call it that) of the surface ship is not really for us an effective alternative to the submarine. If it is, and if the Government and their experts think there is a great deal in this, obviously it ought to be gone into.

I believe myself that the Polaris missile gives us the best weapon available and it gives it to us under our own control. And here, because having it under our own control is, I think, as important as having the best, I should like some clarification of what exactly is meant by this proposal for a NATO nuclear force. Apart altogether from what was done at the Bahamas, our nuclear deterrent has always been a NATO asset, one of great value, which exists primarily for our defence. But it exists also, and I would say equally, for the defence of the Free World. As I understand this NATO proposal (I am not now dealing with other ships manned by multilateral or multi-national crews) it may be a good idea, though it sounds to me just a little like the Tower of Babel; and I am old enough and irresponsible enough now to be able to say these things without embarrassment to the Government.

But, leaving that aside—I take it that certainly we are not going to put these forces in our bombers—it is in my view essential for our own defence, and indeed for the effective use of our bomber force, that we should be able to decide where our bomber forces should be stationed, and that they should be under our command. That, I think, is most important, and I hope that it can be made clear. And I assume that the same practice will apply to the Polaris submarines if and when we get them. May I say, before I leave this point, how very glad I am—I am sure we all are—that the Foreign Secretary himself is to attend the next meeting of the NATO Ministers.

May I say one final word about our other far-flung obligations and commitments? Obviously, what matters is the East. As I think I said during the last Defence debate—and events have proved it; it was not any remarkable foresight on my part—it is in those areas where we stand most alone that we are most likely to be subject to sudden and sporadic attack. Events which have happened have shown that our bases and the nature of our forces, their mobility, the inter-service integration and command are all on sound lines. At Brunei and in the Aden hinterland this has been tested and proved. In this connection I ask only for one assurance, and that is about the Gurkhas. They have been quite invaluable to us. I have a certain personal interest in this aspect. For although I never served with a Gurkha regiment, I did, with the noble Lord, Lord Harding of Petherton, make the agreement with Mr. Nehru, and, of course with the Nepal Government, under which recruiting of the Gurkhas takes place to-day.

We may have a long and serious situation developing in Borneo and Brunei. In Indonesia there is—it follows the Com- munist pattern; more the Chinese Communist pattern than the Russian Communist pattern—a Communist Government which is full of ideas of aggressive imperialism. It is a common combination. The Indonesian Communist Imperialist Government is busily engaged in recruiting and arming great numbers of guerrilla insurgents. We have had to take action against them in Brunei, and may have to take action against them elsewhere; and the struggle may last a long time. Could there be any better troops for this kind of operation than the Gurkhas? Therefore I most sincerely hope that we shall not hear that the Gurkhas are to be disbanded, or even reduced in numbers.

To sum up (I am sorry that I have been so long but there is a great deal of ground to cover), I believe that the Government are doing the right things, and doing them in the right way. I go further and I say this: that, however the Opposition may vote to-night, if they should ever have the responsibility for a situation like that facing the Government to-day, they would carry out exactly the same policy—indeed, they would find that they could do no other.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether the noble and learned Lord is now in a position to make the statement which was forecast? If not, would he be kind enough to wait until I have concluded my few remarks?


My Lords, I understand that my noble and learned friend is now ready to make a statement.