HL Deb 22 February 1966 vol 273 cc112-22

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to intervene to repeat a statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in another place on the Defence Review, details of which are set out in Part I of theStatement on Defence Estimates 1966/67,which has been available for an hour in the Printed Paper Office. The Statement is as follows:

" The House will recall that, on taking office 16 months ago, Her Majesty's Government set itself to halt the runaway growth in Britain's Defence expenditure by planning to limit the size of the Defence budget in 1969/70 to that of 1964/65—or£2,000 million at constant prices. As we stated in last year's Defence White Paper, we assumed responsibility for forces which were seriously overstretched and in certain respects dangerously under-equipped. It has been an equally important objective of the Defence Review to bring our commitments into balance with the manpower and equipment we could afford to have.

" We have already done better than the financial target of £2,000 million in the Estimates for 1966–67, since they represent only £1,972 million at 1964 prices. Part I of the White Paper indicates how we plan, not only to stay within the same financial target in three years' time, but also to undertake a major programme of re-equipment, and to reduce the over-stretch from which our forces still suffer. In order to ensure the achievement of these objectives we have had to make a new assessment of the part which our armed forces should play in supporting our foreign policy in the 1970s, and of what rôle Britain should play in world affairs. It has been essentially an exercise in political and military realism.

" The results may be summarised as follows. Broadly speaking, in cutting the previous Government's planned expenditure by 16 per cent. or£400 million, we have achieved three-quarters of our saving by getting better value for money and only one-quarter by reductions in our military capability. In order to reduce over-stretch we plan to cut our tasks overseas and then to keep a larger proportion of our forces in a home station and fewer abroad, and to rely more on reinforcement by air in an emergency. This has meant certain changes in our current political commitments overseas.

" We plan to reduce substantially the deployment of our forces in the Mediterranean; from 1968 we shall give up the Aden base and confine our presence in the Middle East to the Persian Gulf; in the Far East we shall cut the level of our forces once confrontation is over; and, within a few years, we shall maintain no forces permanently deployed in the Caribbean or Southern Africa. We shall be able to keep our forces in Germany at the present size only if the foreign exchange costs are met. We have made it clear that, in future, Britain will not accept commitments overseas which might require her to undertake major operations of war without the co-operation of allies; nor shall we attempt to main- tain defence facilities in any independent country against its wishes.

" Against this background we have taken certain major decisions on the equipment of our forces. The Canberra strike/reconnaissance aircraft must be replaced by 1970. The Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft, which is the core of our long-term operational and industrial aircraft programmes, will not be available until the mid-1970s. We have therefore decided that the only way of bridging the gap is to buy the smallest possible number of F.111As from the United States, and to supplement these aircraft with the V-bombers which will be released from their current strategic role when the Polaris submarine force is fully operational. The foreign exchange cost of the F.111A purchase will be met by sales of British equipment to the United States and third countries.

" We shall keep our existing carrier force as long as possible into the 1970s, but we shall not order a new carrier. In the light of the military tasks we envisage, and of the operational return we can expect from its cost of £1,400 million over the next 10 years, we do not believe that we should be justified in keeping a carrier force indefinitely. A new carrier could not become operational until 1973, when the rest of our carriers would be in the last phase of their active life. By the mid-1970s we should be able to reprovide the necessary elements of the carriers' capability more cheaply by other means.

" I believe that the majority of the House recognise that it has become essential to stop the automatic rise in British Defence expenditure. As a result of its Defence Review, Her Majesty's Government have found a way of doing so without defaulting on Britain's commitments to her allies and partners in the Commonwealth, and without abandoning her influence either inside or outsidé Europe. Those who believe we have failed to bring our commitments and resources into proper balance must have the courage to say whether in their view the Government should spend more on defence, and where they will get the money, or cut Britain's commitments further and, if so, where."

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will be obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for repeating this Statement. It is a very grave Statement which, in my view, will call into question, and does call into question, the whole of Britain's position throughout the world. My Lords, we on this side will ask for an early debate in which we can discuss these matters, and I will confine myself this afternoon to saying only three things.

First, those of us who sit on this side of the House think it quite wrong to tackle the admittedly costly and difficult problems of Defence by setting a financial target without regard to commitments. It may be politically popular, but it is thoroughly irresponsible. Secondly, so far as I can judge, the Government have cut no commitments of any consequence; and, consequently, the artificial financial ceiling will make it impossible to honour those commitments. If it be said that Aden is a cut in commitment, I would point out that it is not: it is a cut in the means of honouring our commitments. May I ask the noble Lord why it is necessary to say now, firmly, that we shall have no base in Aden in 1968? Is there anything more likely to cause political unrest in the intervening years than to announce in advance the creation of a military vacuum?

Lastly, my Lords, I view almost with despair the announcement of the decision not to order an aircraft carrier. This, in my view—and I speak with four years' experience as First Lord of the Admiralty—is the end of the Royal Navy as a force capable of global operation. How can it so operate when deprived of all its air reconnaissance and of all but a trivial part of its offensive armament? In the light of this decision, I do not believe that, for morale and other factors, the Fleet Air Arm can continue for more than a very short time.

My Lords, the Government seem determined to deprive themselves and, what is perhaps even more important, their successors of the flexibility and mobility of the Royal Navy and its comparative lack of dependence on foreign bases. I believe they are disastrously and wholly wrong, and we shall do everything in our power to reverse this decision.


My Lords, from these Benches I should like also to thank the noble Lord for his Statement. I think this position to-day shows the very clear division between the three Parties, for the smallest of which I speak. We, as the Liberal Party, would admire Her Majesty's Government for having taken the steps which they have taken, to some extent. We have said for a long time that our commitments are far too big and that the money available is far too small. We should therefore like to cut the money and the commitments, and we hope that Her Majesty's Government will see their way to doing this. Like the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I should not like to prolong this intimate debate. I think we must all have great personal sympathy for him, whom we all admire, as the last First Lord of the Admiralty, in taking the particular line which he has. But, my Lords, we are not the nation that we were. The world is changing; we cannot act in such a wide sense; nor shall we ever have the money again to act as widely as we should like.


My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington: we cannot debate this matter now. Clearly, in his careful statement, he has indicated the views of the Opposition in criticism of this Defence Review. I would appeal to your Lordships to read it very carefully. This Review is the result—and this is a definite fact—of the most intensive series of studies that has been put into effect in this country. I do not agree with the noble Lord when he says that we have not brought our commitments into line with our financial target. We could discuss this point at great length, but I hope when the time comes he will tell us how else he would have organised it.

The noble Lord asked me why it was necessary to make an announcement about Aden now. This is one of the most delicate political judgments that any Government can make; but it seems to me fundamental that, if we are to disengage from a certain area of the world, we should not mislead the people whom we hope, afterwards, will achieve an established and settled way of government. It seems to me that it is a matter both of honesty and of prudence that they should be told.

On the question of the carrier, I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—who, of course, was not the last First Lord; the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, was the last First Lord—feels very strongly, and in the circumstances I think it would be perfectly right to depart from the usual rule of not referring to the advice that is given by the Chiefs of Staff and to indicate that many of the Naval Board were not in favour of, and, indeed, were strongly opposed to, cutting the carriers. It seems to me quite right, in honesty to them and to the understanding of their position in the Service, that this should be said. I do not propose to pursue this point further than saying that their views did not prevail, and that in the very intensive series of studies the conclusion was arrived at that, unless we had a large force of carriers—and let me make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. and to the House that no new carrier has been ordered in the last 20 years—and unless we were to see a prolongation of the carrier force, followed by CVA 01 and followed by several other carriers, we were arriving at the least cost-effective solution to the problems. My Lords, we shall no doubt have an opportunity to discuss this, but I think the noble Lord. Lord Carrington, will find that not all those who sit on his Benches agree with him on this matter.


My Lords, I do not want to continue this discussion, but the noble Lord very fairly said that many of the Naval Staff did not agree with this decision not to continue with the carriers. I think, in all fairness, he ought to say whether there were any who agreed with that decision.


My Lords, I think I have really gone as far as I can. Let me just say, "the members of the Navy Board ". The noble Lord, in fairness, must not press me. I have tried to be fair by indicating that the members of the Navy Board were opposed to this decision.


You said "many".


I think I said "many of the Naval Staff", but I am sorry; I will say "the members of the Navy Board". I hope the noble Lord will not press me on this matter, because, if so, I shall have to indicate that there are others, in all the Services, who fully agree with this decision.


My Lords, I do not, of course, want to press the noble Lord (I am not at all sure he should have said what he did, and I know he was trying to be helpful) but the implication of what he said—that many of the Navy Staff do not agree with this—was that some of them did, and I think that is very unlikely.


My Lords, could I also thank the noble Lord for repeating this Statement? It struck me as having a much higher political content than Statements of this sort, to which we are accustomed, normally do; and, indeed, to sound in certain respects more like an electioneering pamphlet than a considered Statement of Defence policy. Secondly, I should like to say that I take issue with the reference to the runaway costs of Defence under the last Administration. This bears very little relation to reality, and, here again, I feel it is another myth which Labour Party propagandists are anxious to foster at the present time.

Having said that, could I ask three questions of the noble Lord? I noted what he had said about the reduction in the deployment of our forces in the Mediterranean. Can he assure the House that, nevertheless, the Government will be able in the future fully to honour their obligations toward the CENTO Powers? Secondly, on the F111 buy, there was reference to the foreign exchange costs of the buy. Can he tell us what the foreign exchange costs will, in fact, amount to? Can he also, in that connection, assure the House that there is, in fact, a definite agreement with the French Government now to go ahead with the development of the variable geometry aircraft?—otherwise there may be serious disquiet in France about this particular decision. Thirdly, in echoing what the last First Lord but one has said about the disastrous decision regarding the carriers, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government really mean to say that the fully modernised "Eagle" and the fully modernised "Ark Royal" would not have been effective operationally within the latter half of the next decade?


My Lords, would the noble Lord perhaps agree that, given our existing resources, the real choice before Britain as revealed in this Review—which, I confess, like other noble Lords, I have had no more than a moment to glance at—is whether to become an effective European or an increasingly ineffective world Power? And, in the second place, would the noble Lord agree that there is no inherent reason—there is none so far as I can see—why we alone among the medium-sized Powers should voluntarily assume any individual world peace-keeping mission?


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord just two questions? He referred to the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft in his Statement, and he went on to say that both operationally and industrially this aircraft is the core of our long-term—I repeat, long-term—aircraft programme. In the White Paper it is said that this aircraft will come into service in the mid-1970s. Does he not think that possibly greater stress could have been placed on Anglo-French co-operation on an intermediate or immediate-term aircraft programme? Because as one goes through the White Paper one reads about the long-term implications of the Defence Review on the aircraft side and of co-operation with France, which is so important. But does the noble Lord not agree that greater stress could have been placed on intermediate or short-term objectives; and, for instance, would he not then think that greater attention could have been paid to the advantages of the Spey-Mirage which was available as from 1969, for otherwise we should become excessively dependent on American advanced technology?


My Lords, as my noble friend has been asked so many questions from the other side, may I ask him one or two more? First, is he not aware that all the patriots in this House are not on the other side? Secondly, is he not aware that if we were to lay down an aircraft carrier now it would probably take seven to ten years to build, and that by that time the progress in the building of killer submarines would be such that they could blow it out of the sea in ten minutes? Thirdly, is he not aware that the Party on the opposite side have left this country gravely undefended during the last thirteen years? And, fourthly, if it is so urgent that we should have an aircraft carrier built now, why was it not laid down in the last thirteen years?


My Lords, before we get too far into the next General Election, I wonder whether the noble Lord could possibly answer my question.


My Lords, I think that perhaps this is turning into a debate, and if the noble Lord would reply, as he is only too anxious to do, I would hope that that would be an end of it for the moment.


My Lords, I am only too happy to reply. I was trying to save the time of the House by allowing noble Lords to ask their questions, which was a practice followed regularly when noble Lords on the other side sat on this side of the House. May I thank the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, for his extremely helpful questions, the answers to which, I think, are apparent to all noble Lords on this side and, I suspect, to some noble Lords on the other side. On the subject raised by the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, I should be willing to debate the merits of the Spey-Mirage 4 and the F 111; but I do not think there is time. I would only say, with absolute certainty, that it was the combined view of all those who studied this matter, that in fact the F 111 best meets our needs and best fits into the time-scale of the Anglo-French aircraft. I may say that I have no reason to suppose that the French Government do not fully understand our position; indeed, it has been explained, and I have not heard any criticism.

I should have acknowledged the helpful remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rea. I have been stimulated to say that the policy of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, certainly appeals to some people in the House and in the country, but it does not, in my view, represent the views of the other two political Parties; nor do I reckon that it represents the views wholly of his own Party. It seems to me that we are confronted with a series of difficult choices. We have attempted to arrive at the best answer which will enable us to fulfil our obligations—and they are very important obligations—in keeping the peace of the world. It is all very well to assume that we can just opt out; but I think we have a duty, and that it is in our own interests to contribute to maintaining the peace in areas of the world other than Europe.

The noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, was anxious to have an answer to his questions. It rather surprised me when he talked about elections and about the terms of the Statement—he is trying hard to be a good Conservative and I noticed this coming out in his opening remarks. I can only say that if the last Government considered that the views on runaway costs are different from those they believed, their realities were a dream world. This Government will be in a position to honour their obligations in the Mediterranean within the limits of our power; in fact, I would hope that we shall be in a better position to do so, because of the better and more efficient organisation of our defence forces.


My Lords, may I, while still attempting to be a good Conservative, as the noble Lord so politely suggested, ask the noble Lord what he really meant by that answer? Does he mean that we shall be able, after our withdrawal or reduction of forces in the Mediterranean, fully to discharge our obligations towards the CENTO alliance or not?


My Lords, this would trigger off a large debate. I am doubtful whether, in any event, with the forces that we had been left with by the previous Government, we were fully able to discharge them. It is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to honour our obligations to the best of our ability, and the steps we are taking to economise in regard to the Mediterranean do not reduce our capability of fulfilling our obligations to CENTO; or, indeed, of fulfilling other obligations. I am afraid that I cannot tell the noble Lord what the total figures are in relation to the F.111 buy. We have given a great deal more information in this Defence White Paper than has ever been previously given, both as regards number and unit costs, but I am afraid I am not in a position to give him an answer. I have already referred to the French Government and their co-operation in regard to the development not only of the variable geometric aircraft but also of the Jaguar. These, it is clear to anyone who reads the White Paper, play a major part in our future aircraft planning, and the French Government are well aware of our intention in this matter. We are in close touch with them, and from all the reports I have had they have a perfectly satisfactory understanding of our position.

I should like to debate the question of carriers, but there is a certain difficulty in that older emotions are liable to take effect. I find myself, not only as Minister of the Air Force, but also as a former member of the Air Force—and I have never concealed my personal attitude on this subject—in a certain difficulty in making the case against carriers to-day. There may be noble Lords who may wish to pursue this further. I can only say that this subject was most exhaustively considered. A decision has been taken and the Government believe it to be the best decision in terms of getting best value for money for this country, but I deprecate the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that this is the end of the Royal Navy. It is not. The Royal Navy has a great future and I am sure that it will flourish in future.


My Lords, I did not say that this was the end of the Royal Navy. I said that without the Fleet Air Arm the Royal Navy would he incapable playing a global rôle, and I believe that to be right.