HL Deb 01 April 1980 vol 407 cc1311-32

5.23 p.m.

Lord PAGET of NORTHAMPTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government

whether they will introduce some form of National Service. The noble Lord said: My Lords I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I do so because I am deeply concerned as to the defence of this country. By "defence" I mean defence as opposed to deterrence or of mere survival, defence in the sense of a will to defend ourselves. Of course, there is, and there can be, no such thing as nuclear defence. Here we rely on Polaris as a deterrent. I have always felt that there is an element of illogicality in those who talk about deterrence, for surely if we imagine that we can deter we must recognise that we can be deterred.

I remember at Rand in the Californian defence research establishment their working out very elaborately what it would take to knock Britain out as an effective and governable unit capable of waging war. Their conclusion was 11 medium-sized nuclear bombs. We are within range of, and indefensible from, certainly over 500. We are facing a fifty-fold overkill. Is that a deterrent? Is that sufficient to deter us from using a Polaris weapon? I should have thought so. If we really desire to lend any credibility to our Polarises, the least we can do is to appoint a dictator who is a certified homicidal lunatic, because in no other hands would a decision to use them be remotely credible.

However, we do have a deterrent. That deterrent has been given to us by Almighty God, who has always taken a very special interest in these islands. He has provided that the prevailing wind blows from us to them. That is a very formidable deterrent indeed. If we were reduced to nuclear rubble, for over 100 years that rubble would be blowing back to Russia, and all over Russia there would be continual and sporadic outbreaks of sterility, of freak children, of bone cancer, and all the troubles that come from nuclear injury. No nation would deliberately create a nuclear heap upwind of their country.

So I think we can say clearly that it would be only in extretmis that Russia could choose to place a nuclear dump here. Indeed, this should safeguard us from anything except our own folly. But that folly we seem anxious to provide. I cannot conceive any reason why Russia should plant nuclears here save that of meeting an immediate threat that nuclears from here would be planted on her. It could only be the acceptance of a long endured future evil in order to forestall an even more appalling immediate evil. I do not think that they would be worried into doing this either by our possession of Polarises or indeed of nuclear armed aircraft. They know very well that they can deter these. But cruise missiles? Cruise missiles whose single key is not in our hands, is not in our control but is in American control; cruise missiles that threaten all her European cities with their multiple heads; cruise missiles pinpointed here because we cannot prevent them from knowing just where they will be; cruise missiles that are quite indefensible and are waiting as a temptation to be taken out if the extreme happens, and that taking out would be our destruction?

It astonishes me to hear how lightly this decision has been taken. I am no CND marcher, nor have I ever been anything of the sort, but I do not know whether I am more shocked by the irresponsibility of a Government who abandon all control over so awful a choice within our own land, or by a people whose decadence is such they they prefer this grim abdication to accepting responsibility for their own defence and the National Service that would certainly involve.

We have no nuclear defence. We have no conventional defence, either. NATO is not, and never has been, capable of defence. I remember right at the beginning, in 1952, when these decisions had to be taken. We were advised by the chiefs of staff what the requirements to make Europe defensible were: 50 divisions at the ready, another 120 in so many days, 4,000 front-line aircraft and, more important than all, those forces should be held behind the Rhine where they could not be penetrated by a first wave. Europe considered that, but Europe was not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to raise the divisions, and the Germans were not prepared to donate their country as a nuclear battlefield. The result was that, instead of having a defence force, we had a deterrent, sometimes referred to as a tripwire: "If they attack these troops, there is something which will bring into action the massive intercontinental nuclear deterrent of the Americans. This threat exists so long as we are there on the frontier displaying —not because they can defend us but just because we are there —the determination to turn to this nuclear assault. "That was quite a convincing attitude when America had great nuclear superiority, but she has lost that superiority. In the SALT agreements she and the Russians have substantially agreed to bare their breasts to each other as the most convincing attitude to deter either from taking so grim a decision. SALT has been concerned mainly with not defending, rather than with reducing the means of attack.

So, with SALT, the whole basis of the NATO set-up has been negatived. The tripwire loses conviction when you take the bomb away, and that has happened, and instead of that defence, that threat of nuclears, we are left with an alliance —and what an alliance! The French have already contracted out; they have left NATO. The only action the French would take in this war would be to prevent our forces from escaping into France; and violating the neutrality which she would desperately assert, while her local communists gave her a new Government acceptable to the Russians. That would be France's contribution.

Then we turn to Italy. I cannot think of a war in which Italy started and ended on the same side. We then turn to Holland, where I understand their equivalent to Sandhurst has become the headquarters of their CND movement. Very sensible, and I only wish Sandhurst would hear; but, still, it does not make for serious soldiering. Then there is Germany. The Germans are magnificent fighters as we all know, but the West German army is quite hopelessly infiltrated, as again we know very well; any information passed to the Germans is across the frontier within 24 hours. We also know that the Germans are wholly convinced from their contacts with the East that it is much better to be red than dead. They would infinitely prefer to be of the West, they would like things to be as they are and they hope they will be as they are, long enough to see them out. But as for any intention of fighting, I can find none there at all.

That leaves it to the Americans and ourselves. The Americans are magni- ficent troops when they are hardened, but America has never been able to produce a peacetime army of any quality, and the only comments I get from Germany from people who have seen them is, "They are bloody awful". So we are left with the British Army, well trained and —maybe this is evidence of our stupidity —curiously determined to fight but in a position in which it is quite hopeless for them to do so. If the Russians were to move, it would be 10 days before they were on the Channel ports, and there their communications would be looked after and they would be Welcomed by a French Government who would certainly by then be communist. To meet them we would have two generations who have never pulled a trigger. It seems a terrifying prospect.

The Regular Army say they do not want a short-service army. That is a view very common to professional armies. It is much more fun to play with these marvellous and most expensive toys to their highest possible efficiency, and they are magnificently efficient. That is much more attractive than training a whole lot of troops who you will lose just before they are any use to anybody. Of course there are those attractions, but that point of view put forward by professional armies would be a whole lot more convincing if professional armies had a better track record. When did a professional army last win a war? They lost two in Vietnam, one in Algiers and one in Spanish Africa: the Portuguese and the Belgians. We in Ulster are still tied down after 10 years by a tiny force of irregulars, and the Russians look as though they are getting a very bloody nose indeed in Afghanistan.

In all those cases professional armies lost and citizen armies won. Where you have a will in people to resist being ruled by those from whom they will not tolerate rule, today those people can win it, and all over the world they have been demonstrating they can win. That is the will of the Swedes, a determination to defend their property but not to get involved in other people's alliances. It is the will of the Swiss. I believe that it should also be our will —our will to defend our country.

The kind of conscription that I should like to see would be quite independent of the Regular Army —or, at least, not quite independent, but it would be a very different job, a very different organisation. It would be home defence. I should like to see boys as they left school do a summer from April to September, of hard life under canvas, learning about their own district, learning to know every wood, every hedgerow in it, learning to work together, learning to use light arms, learning to know where those arms were, and learning how to make life utterly impossible for any invader who sought to set up government in our territory.

Having established that force, I would keep each of those battalions going for perhaps 10 years. They would be not merely military organisations, but social organisations, too. The other ranks would be comprised of the boys who probably left school at 16. The NCOs on the whole would be the slightly older boys who had stayed on longer at school. The junior officers and maybe the others would tend to be from the universities; they would do their service later. So there would be these groups, divided a little in age, but linked together, probably with a professional colonel, a professional adjutant, and perhaps half a dozen professional sergeants.

Here would be the kind of organisation which in the event of disaster could take over without it having any head to destroy, because there would be no real centre. This is the strength of a resistance movement: no head to cut off because all the cells everywhere work independently and have been trained independently. This is the force which I believe could give us security. I believe it would do something more. I think that it might bring us back the spirit that makes a nation. For the last five years, for the purposes of a book, I have been studying what makes nations and what destroys them. I have certainly come to the conclusion that the very act of being a nation is primarily an act of faith. A nation is something in which its citizens believe, in a sense something which they worship, in a sense something which they are willing to serve, and for which they are prepared to make sacrifice. That feeling does not merely spring out of nothing; it has got to be brought out.

For two generations we have had here people who have never been asked to serve this country, and in consequence they do not think of themselves primarily as Britons. They think of themselves as trade unionists, or as industrialists or as supporters of a football club. The idea of Englishness seems to have gone. We need this spirit, and we need the acceptance of order which alone comes from it. Certainly I know of no instance of a civilisation which has survived at the level of disorder which I see being displayed everywhere in the West.

5.44 p.m.

The Marquess of TWEEDDALE

My Lords, I think you will agree that that speech is a very hard speech to follow, but it is my unfortunate position to have to do this. This is my first speech in your Lordships' House, and I hope that I shall not be thought unctious if I put on record that I consider it a great honour to be heard here. I dare say that I may be surprised to hear certain expressions of welcome. I hope that these will be none the less sincere for its being April Fool's Day.

I have only once before attempted a contribution to public life. It was at a Festival of Light rally several years ago when I was both unemployed and roughly of military age. On that occasion I was foolish enough to hurl a very pink raw sausage at a certain venerable pate. Your Lordships' will probably have little difficulty in guessing to whom the pate belonged. It belonged to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that my aim was not good. Indeed, I think that to this day the noble Earl remains unaware of the incident. However, the event did not pass unnoticed by the forces of law, and I found myself being escorted from the scene. In case our burly doorkeepers may be cracking their knuckles in anticipation, I would assure them, and your Lordships, that I shall endeavour to be more articulate here.

That may not seem to be a very edifying tale. I offer it only as an illustration of the adage: the devil finds mischief for idle hands. Britain's youth seems to be becoming more numerous, more idle, and more bloody-minded every day. Voluntary work is all very well. But the problematic ones will not volunteer, nor will many who are willing; there are too many pressures.

I see two ways in which a conscripted force would be useful, and here I fear that I shall to some extent précis the very eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton. First, such a force would be useful as a civil defence force. We are shortly to hear from the Government about this, and I hope that they will bring us some much needed cheer. The outlook at present is fairly abysmal. I submit that a conscripted force, suitably trained, would be ideal as a civil defence force, particularly since its existence would help allay Left-Wing fears of an Army takeover in the event of a nuclear attack.

Secondly, I am of the opinion that we need more troops on the ground in Europe. I cannot speak from any position of great knowledge, but few would be optimistic in the event of a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO forces in Europe, at present strengths. I do not myself see such an attack as likely. Nevertheless, the threat does exist or, at very least, may exist. I think that we should be properly prepared to meet it. Furthermore, I do not believe that National Service would be unpopular. I think that a majority would probably welcome it. Polls taken in the past have shown public opinion moving in the wake of Government proposals to extend terms of service.

My Lords, as a relatively youthful Member of this House, who has made his speech even shorter than was intended I would join the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, in asking the Question, and I am respectfully grateful to him for putting it.

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, it is a very great privilege to be the first to speak after the noble Marquess, and to be in a position to congratulate him upon his admirable maiden speech, which was none the worse for being concise and full of military memoirs. The noble Marquess and I share a great-great-grandfather. As the Danish comedian Victor Borge said, He is dead now —at least I hope so. They buried him a very long time ago". It is all the more splendid to see the noble Marquess here because many of us remember his grandfather, who was killed in the Guards Chapel in the last year of the war. Many of us remember also the courage with which his late father fought the disease that killed him, the same courage as gained him the George Cross in the Merchant Navy during the war. For this and for many other reasons it is a privilege for me to be the mouthpiece of your Lordships in being the first to welcome the noble Marquess to this House, and in expressing what I know is your Lordships' view, that we shall see and hear him often in the Chamber.

I do not propose to follow the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, in what he said in the earlier part of his speech because he covered an enormous range of ground, which, although it led logically on to the Question, as one would expect from a Queen's Counsel, was not concerned primarily with National Service. I remember very well the noble Lord's visit to NATO, because I was serving in SHAPE in those days, 1951 to 1953. I remember that we lunched together, and there were several other people there. I have never forgotten the occasion. One of my colleagues who was lunching with me had been at school with the noble Lord. He was a gunner brigadier, but you know, my Lords, in that sort of job one has to mix with all sorts of people. This chap asked the noble Lord, Why did you join the Labour Party initially? The noble Lord replied, Well, initially, to annoy my tutor", which I have always thought was a very good answer.

I will not follow the noble Lord along those lines; I will go on to deal with National Service proper. Before I went to SHAPE, I was commanding the first battalion of the Black Watch, which was the pilot model infantry battalion in Germany, as there was a pilot model gunner regiment and a pilot model armoured regiment, to train the first National Servicemen. We were watched and much criticised. We came under the eye of everybody. A great many do-gooders in this country appeared to think that our chief purpose was to teach immorality to the young men. I asked the people who thought like this to come and stay with us to see what we were doing, and they all replied that they were too busy. I replied that they were all busybodies. None of them came. But, in fact, we had little trouble with the National Servicemen; and I think the noble Marquess was quite right when he said that he thought many of them enjoyed it. The people who did their National Service in this country were bored stiff, I think. Those who went overseas, even though it was only as far as Germany, enjoyed it. We worked them very hard, and we made sure they did enjoy it. I have met many of them since, and they have all said it was a good life. It did them good, too; I am not disputing that.

We had every sort of Scotsman in our unit, from Glasgow "cornerboys", who were not the best, to 80 young Gaelic-speakers from the Outer Islands, who resembled the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, in many ways except appearance. They never gave us any trouble at all except that they were never in time for anything. They subscribed fully to the old Highland saying, "The Lord made Time and plenty of it". It was a great cross-section. We got to know each other extremely well, and they enjoyed it. But it did not do the Army any good at all. The noble Lord, Lord Paget, with something which was not quite a sneer, said that professional soldiers did not like it because it took our eye off our toys. It did clog the machine, certainly in the Army, and probably the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well.

Another thing is that it dried up the supply of regular recruits completely. Who was going to join an Army where 90 per cent. of the other people were there under compulsion? We never got a decent regular recruit, except people from old regimental families, until National Service was a year or more behind us; and I believe that was true of the other Services as well. Let us get that straight to start with. It is not the job of the Army or of the Armed Forces to act as a social educator to the younger generation, however much good it may do the younger generation. That goes for the noble Lord's ultimate suggestion about a summer's training for everybody which I will come back to in a moment. I cannot accept what, again, was very nearly the sneer —I would call it a sneer if the noble Lord were not so nice —about professional armies failing to win wars in Vietnam, Algeria (both of which I saw, briefly) and other countries. If professional soldiers cannot do it, why is it so much more likely that amateur soldiers will be able to do so? I do not get that point, if I understood it correctly.

As to the idea of everybody doing a bit of training, that used to be the practice in New Zealand for 40 years. Everybody did National Service training part-time from the age of 14 up to the age of 21. It built up a bit of a reserve, but it was not the main function of the regular cadre to train them. I believe it is a nice idea, but I do not think it is on; and certainly it is not on in parallel with the training of a professional army. Furthermore, how on earth you officer it, I do not know. I think the noble Lord said something about people down from university doing a lot of it. My Lords, you cannot run a professional force that way. I do not think I need take up your Lordships' time any more, but I implore your Lordships to take my word for it, having had some experience: that does not do your Armed Forces any good, however much good it does to young men; and that is not what the Armed Forces are there for.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, it gives me much pleasure to be the first from these Benches to congratulate the noble Marquess, Lord Tweeddale, on his distinguished maiden speech. It had all the ingredients which a maiden speech should have; it was brief, it was factual, and when it is read it will be seen to be a model of clarity. The House will hope to hear from the noble Marquess on frequent occasions. The House will also be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paget, for enabling us to discuss a most interesting and important subject, even though, if I may say so to the noble Lord with respect, not everybody will completely agree with the conclusions which he drew. Like many of your Lordships I had experience of National Service, from 1945 to 1948, and I then did six years in the TAVR. All of it was served in the ranks, because if I had wished to take on a commission in the Army I would have had to sign on for two years, and I felt it was time for me to earn my living in a civilian capacity for most of the time but spend some time in what was then the Territorial Army.

I am not denying for one moment that National Service at that time did me and most young people anything but good. I recall, during my first few days, the rather hard-bitten drill sergeant looking down our ranks and saying, "My God! Thank goodness we have a Navy!" Possibly the Navy might have said the same thing, but I somehow doubt it. I may say that my wife was in the Women's Royal Naval Service. I think we have to look at this matter realistically. If, perchance, the Third World War should break out —and we must all hope that this will not take place —is it realistic to suppose that the average youngster, trained for National Service, will be able to cope? In the days when I and many of my age group did National Service, we had very conventional weapons —the sten gun, the bren gun, the Lee-Enfield rifle; weapons which were fairly easy to use even although, in some hands, including my own, they were somewhat dangerous at times. The weapons that are used today are of a much more technical nature; and the average period of time for National Service, at any rate, if it was to be re-introduced, would presumably be for not more than two years. It takes two years to train a person in the fairly basic elements of service life. Of course, Korea, Malaya and other theatres of war were then available for National Servicemen, who made a very distinguished contribution indeed in those theatres.

I well recall the experiment, which was started in 1950, I think it was, to bring in the Z-Reserves. That meant that 18 months were served in an ordinary Army or Service unit by National Servicemen and six months in the Territorial Army. I am bound to say that in my experience this was an unmitigated disaster, because one had to mix young conscripts with men who had served through the war and treat what was normally a volunteer organisation rather like a primary training centre. The result was that many very valuable and well-trained senior NCOs resigned and it was almost impossible to replace them; and the units concerned —and I am certain that the unit in which I served was not the only one —were put in a parlous situation. I realise that the Government of the time brought in this experiment with the very best of intentions, because there were complaints in some quarters that two years' full National Service was too long —although I certainly did not then and do not now subscribe to those views. The fact is that, particularly in the 1980s when we are at peace in most parts of the world, one cannot really combine the very fine regular army which we have now (even if it is, in some cases, under strength) with a conscript army. With the greatest respect, I cannot see that working properly.

I have tried to check how many countries in Europe still have National Service. One country which I have visited and which I know has national service is Finland. The Finns are outstanding soldiers. The early days of the last war proved that. They start National Service at the age of 20, they do eight to eleven months; and volunteers are selected for the United Nation's peace-keeping force particularly in Cyprus. There follows, after a period of about three to five years, a short refresher course. Of course Finland is a much less heavily populated country than ours and their army has much less of a commitment.

I do not think that today there are very many countries in Europe which still retain National Service as we know it. Presumably, we are talking about National Service, or some form of National Service, for both men and women. It has been suggested that men could be conscripted for the Voluntary Service Overseas organisation. I believe that people who joined such an organisation could, and would, do an excellent job. As for the women, I have heard it suggested that they could be conscripted into nursing. Heaven help the nursing profession if you have women and, indeed, men pushed into service like this against their will!

My Lords, I believe —and I hope that my noble friend will be able to comment on this —that what is now needed is to build up our volunteer forces, our TAVR, our Army, Navy and Air Force, nursing services and such organisations for the youngsters as the Boy Scouts, the Boys' Brigade and the Girl Guides; and that these are the kinds of organisations in which the youngsters can, and do, do a marvellous job. Last Sunday we had a church parade in our local church and I was a sidesman, as I am practically every other week. One saw these youngsters, very smart, coming into the church and doing a first-class job.

Of course, there are youngsters who wreck trains, as at Neasden recently, and who commit various other unsocial and often violent offences. It would be a wonderful thing if one could say that National Service would put that right. I do not believe that it would. I do not believe that the regiments of the army or the other services really want people like this. They might be able to give them something to do if they went off on a NATO exercise or something like that; but the expense of training these youngsters for such a short time would be immense.

That there should be National Service in time of war goes without saying. One hopes, as I said earlier, there will not be another war so that this experiment need not be tried again. It is an admirable thing that young people should join organisations which defend our nation, which look after our handicapped and which do a number of other very good things for the community; and many youngsters are already doing this. I believe, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Paget, that this is what we should aim for and, as I say, we should build up our Regular Army which has a first-class personnel, as do the RAF and the Royal Navy and also our Territorial Army, which is second to none.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting debate. My noble friend Lord Paget made, I think, a characteristic speech. I was not quite sure what he was trying to prove. He came down strongly, I thought, basically against conventional forces and he analysed the situation from the point of view of our ability to withstand a nuclear war. I thought that he exaggerated. I thought he was too defeatist. He criticised NATO, hut I believe that NATO is doing a good job. To criticise NATO in the present circumstances, I think, is deplorable. I know he made some very valid points. I thought he was becoming a nuclear disarmer. I suspect his sympathies are there. He may be right. I detect a drift from the old stand that he took when he and I were together in the Commons. He has never been a pacifist but I suspect he has become nearer to one. I would not condemn him for that.

There was a strange inconsistency in his speech but I am grateful that he raised the subject. The more we talk about defence, the better in many ways. That is why we look forward to the White Paper and why we looked forward to the debates we had previously; because defence has moved on. Most of us here tonight want adequate defence and want it to be well used and hope that it will deter. That is its purpose. I am still a great defender of NATO and it would be wrong for us to do anything to undermine the efficacy of NATO because I am sure it does deter. We have our allies in the United States. We must never forget that. We may disagree now and again, but they are still there with their vast nuclear umbrella and, above all, we are still in a situation of détente, despite what has happened in Afghanistan and despite what Carter has said in the United States. In fact, the Americans have said they still want the SALT negotiations to continue. I think this is a good thing. I do not want us to be in the situation where everything gets out of hand arid no one controls and we go on a dangerous path to war. I believe that there is still an opportunity for peace. That is why I strongly believe that we should be well armed and, as I have said, part of NATO and, above all, to have a bargaining position. I am sure that our allies in NATO would welcome our presence. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Paget in what he said about the quality of the armies in Europe. I feel that that is a slur on the activities of many people who are trying to build up their own national armies in difficult circumstances; but, above all, to make a contribution in NATO.

I must congratulate the noble Marquess, Lord Tweeddale. He said that the young people are bloody-minded these days. If their bloody-mindedness can sometimes be canalised into something positive, that is not so bad. Which sections are bloody-minded? I do not know. I watch young men playing football, and also there are the young men who play rugby, and they are not bloody-minded. I think that we have a good, young generation coming along. I am not pessimistic. After all, the noble Marquess is part of that genera- tion; he is one of the leaders of it. The noble Marquess made a fine intervention, and I hope that he will attend the House often and make other speeches of such a quality. The noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, paid him a marvellous tribute. l would always wish to have a tribute from the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, as he knows, because of his great record in war and his great record in peace.

This short debate enables us to pinpoint the essentials; but I hope that it will not prevent us having a major debate on defence very soon. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, who is in his place and is a great expert, will agree with me. I remember his ringing cry for adequate defence in a debate that we had not very long ago. I hope that very soon we shall be able to argue these matters out, despite what some people in Europe feel about the pessimism which has been engendered by a breakdown between the major powers. So I congratulate my noble friend —even though I disagree with him strongly —for raising the subject of defence in such an interesting and unusual way. I think he is wrong and I think most of the British people think so as well.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, for giving the House another opportunity to debate a defence topic. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Peart, has kindly answered the first 14 minutes of Lord Paget's speech for me so perhaps I may address myself to the Question that he put on the Order Paper. I have to confess some disappointment at the choice of National Service. I believe that those who are advocating the return of conscription, while they do so with the best of intentions, are sadly misguided. I dare say that it will be a disappointment but possibly no surprise to the noble Lord if I say that it is the Government's view that it simply would not make sense for us to reintroduce National Service. I shall attempt to explain why we believe this.

Before I embark on a substantive reply, I should like to associate myself with the eloquent congratulations to the noble Marquess, Lord Tweeddale, that were made in a characteristic manner by —I am not allowed to call him my noble friend because he is unwise enough to sit on the Cross-Benches, but he is my friend nevertheless —Lord Ballantrae. I assure the noble Marquess that he fully earned the accolade that he received, but not many of us are fortunate enough to receive such an elegant congratulation as he did.

It has been said this evening already —but it bears repeating —that, unlike many of our allies, we do not have a long tradition of conscripted forces. We adopted conscription as an emergency measure during two world wars, and we could not wait to abandon it afterwards. Our experience with National Service after the Second World War (which quite a number of us still remember) did not show it to be a better choice for us than reliance on volunteers. In the 1950s conscription was becoming an uneconomic choice. The short period of service meant rapid turnover of men with the result that the training organisation required and the administrative back-up were disproportionately large —a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae.

This is an interesting figure; in 1957 no fewer than 150,000 men out of a total of 700,000 —over 20 per cent. —were engaged either in training or being trained. As against that, regular engagements can be much longer. Now a period of three years is the minimum engagement that we offer, and we do this in order to get a reasonable return for the training which is involved. Of course, for some of the skilled trades the minimum is longer. People such as service engineers and pilots, in particular, come to mind. It is also true to say that many service personnel stay for much longer than their original commitment. Obviously that means that we require fewer recruits to maintain the Armed Forces at a given size. If we look at this another way, even if we allow for the greater expertise, morale and dedication of the professionals, fewer men are required to do the same job. The training organisations can be relatively smaller and, therefore, that means that the front line can be relatively larger.

There is a further point which I have made before: equipment has increased in sophistication since National Service days. This has made longer periods of training necessary. Anybody coming back to the defence field, having left it at the end of the Second World War, cannot fail to be struck what an extremely different game we are now in in terms of the complication of the equipment. So six months under a national training scheme would be, we believe, totally inadequate, particularly in the technical trade.

It is a short-term issue, but if we returned to conscription, it would take some time to expand the training organisation. Also, a very high proportion of our existing front-line organisation, and a high proportion of the front-line personnel, would have to be diverted to the training task, so that we would actually be worse off in the short term by reducing the strength of the front line which we would be able to deploy. The higher throughput of personnel under National Service generates a need for more basic equipment and more consumables, such as ammunition which is used in training. It is misleading to assume that National Servicemen are cheaper even if it should come about —as it does in some countries —that they are paid less than the regular rates.

The abolition of National Service enabled large administrative savings to be achieved through the rationalisation of establishments, concentrating work in fewer places and reducing holdings of stores. In our present situation, we no longer have a legacy of the war-time facilities and stores which were available to us for use by National Servicemen at that time. Everything would have to be bought at great expense. At the moment we spend 24 per cent. of our defence budget on major new equipment: that is the highest proportion in NATO, and substantially higher than many of our allies with conscript forces. I suggest that there is a connection between those two figures. We certainly do not believe that we could maintain such a ratio of equipment if we returned to the National Service system.

However, the effect on the defence budget is not the only economic consideration. Here I should like to ask your Lordships to consider our previous experience. Industry suffered from the loss for up to two years of so many young men —it was of the order of 200,000 a year who were conscripted, and that included skilled engineers and qualified scientists, so badly needed in industry. Of course, there have been many changes since then but I think there would still be problems. It is true that unemployment among school leavers is a problem but that does not mean that many firms would not have difficulty in replacing employees if they were to be called up for National Service. That is particularly true, of course, of the skilled and qualified people, who are needed just as much in industry as they are in the Services. Some of your Lordships might say: "In that case, exclude the skilled and the qualified or those still in part-time education." I think perhaps the best response I could make to that would be to suggest to them a study of the speech made recently in another place by Mr. Bruce George, a member of the party opposite. He spoke eloquently of the injustice of imposing a burden of conscription on only some sections of society; and many of us will recall the jealousy which the concept of reserved occupations created at the time of conscription.

Of course, this is not merely a question of money, although that is a very important part of it. I have already referred to the rise in professional standards which followed the return to the all-regular Army. I am not in any way disputing that conscripts have fought well and bravely, but I do not believe that would be sufficient today. A short period of conscription —two years or less —allowed time for only a minimum of training followed by 18 months of service. That was a point which was made by my noble friend Lord Auckland. The additional skills required today would mean that the ratio of training to useful service would be even more adverse. We believe that what we are seeking is a body of experts who acquire their expertise in the job as well as in training. They work as a closely-knit team with high morale, because every man is a volunteer who knows his job and takes a pride in it.

It is sometimes claimed that the conscript system produces a large and valuable pool of reservists, but it is worth pointing out that our system, as it stands, produces reservists and the regular reservists in particular are fully trained as a result of their professional experience. In fact, in the case of the Army, the total number of reserves —that is Territorials and so-called Regulars —exceeds the Regular strength itself. It is 186,000 versus 160,000 at the present time, so let us not run away with the idea that we have not got a large cadre of reserves available to us. I would agree with my noble friend Lord Auckland regarding the importance we attach to the reserves. We want to get the right people into the reserves and we want to give them the right training. We believe that what we have done to increase the interest taken in the ex-regular reserves and to increase support for the Territorial Army will give us the kind of reserve forces that we need.

I should now like to turn to the point made most eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae. It is true that the reactions of those who served as conscripts were somewhat mixed, to the extent —and I was very glad to hear what the noble Lord said —that the Services now believe that the presence of National Servicemen was, on the whole, bad for the morale of the Services and, most particularly, of the Army. For some, Service life turned out to be a period of boredom: others welcomed the opportunity to enjoy travel, to exercise responsibility and to receive training. It is even true that some National Servicemen endured great emotional distress and had to be discharged. That was bad, of course, not only for the conscripts but also for the Regulars who were training them. That had its effect on the Services in that they acquired a reputation for tedium and excessive discipline, which was very largely undeserved. Therefore, the Armed Forces would not now wish to lose the high esprit de corps and the high reputation they feel they have gained since the ending of National Service.


My Lords, would the noble Lord permit me to intervene? I would entirely agree with him that National Servicemen and Regular units do not mix, and I made that point very strongly.


That is one thing at least upon which we agree, my Lords. But I believe that some of these points are overlooked by those who argue that National Service would bring social benefits. I do not think the issues are very clear-cut. Of course school leavers would be employed for a year or two, but the resulting increases in public spending would increase the burden of taxation and perhaps lead to jobs being lost elsewhere.

It is claimed that crime would be reduced as young people experienced the discipline of the Forces —a point which has been referred to by a number of speakers. I agree, of course, with the noble Lord, Lord Peart, that we must not run away with the idea that all youngsters are hooligans. They are not. The overwhelming majority are responsible citizens who do a useful job, so let us not over-estimate the benefits of National Service. It would be a difficult matter—indeed, it proved to be so —to keep a large number of conscripts profitably occupied; and sitting around in a remote camp is not a very beneficial occupation.

At this point I should like to indulge in a brief semantic argument about the words "National Service", which we have been interpreting this evening as being "compulsory military service". It could equally mean to some people voluntary service to the public in the general sense of the word, and there are at least theoretical attractions in that context, some of which have been referred to this evening.

However, I want to make a point that cropped up when a Question was asked about this by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. We have to recognise the danger of introducing an element that might have the effect of killing off precisely the admirable instinct in the young, which is a willingness to serve their fellows, if voluntary service is turned into a compulsory function. But even if we did conclude that, on balance, there were social benefits, we have to think of this primarily as a defence issue. The military judgment is that an all-volunteer force is right for the United Kingdom, and it would be rash in the extreme to reintroduce conscription in the hope of social gains, but to the detriment of our security.

The noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, made the excellent point that it was much more difficult to enlist into the regular army at the time when we had conscripted services. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the arguments are sufficiently strong that we would consider conscript- tion only in the event of a clear failure to find sufficient volunteers. We have in the past, in general, always managed to find recruits of the right quality.

I have no wish to dwell on recent problems, and I should like to end on an optimistic note and to tell the House that, when the final returns are in, the 1979 –80 recruiting year, which ended yesterday, will prove to be one of the best since the end of conscription. We expect to have achieved 49,000 recruits—perhaps a little more —against 43,366 in the previous year. That does not fully meet our requirements and we ought, I suppose, to say that one swallow does not make a summer, but it represents very encouraging progress. At the same time, retention has improved and there has been a sharp drop in the level of premature voluntary release.

We still have a few shortages, particularly of skilled and experienced men, and these will take some years to make good. But we believe that the services can be restored to their planned strengths without resort to conscription. However, to achieve this it is important to keep up the momentum of our recruiting performance and to do everything possible to retain our skilled personnel.