HC Deb 17 December 1962 vol 669 cc893-900
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Peter Thorneycroft)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on my recent talks with Mr. McNamara in London on 11th December.

The principal subject discussed was, as the House knows, the future of the Skybolt missile. We have, of course, known from the outset of our association with the United States Government on this weapon that it constituted a formidable development problem. We knew of various difficulties that had arisen, and of the steps that were being taken to surmount them. Such difficulties, of course, were not unexpected, nor are they unusual even in simpler missiles.

However, when I visited the United States in September of this year, the situation was that while the increase in costs was causing concern, I was assured that American plans assumed delivery of Skybolt. It was not until the beginning of November that Mr. McNamara, while assuring me that no decision would be taken without the fullest consultation, informed me that the future of the weapon was under review. This consultation was carried a further stage last week, and will be continued between the Prime Minister and the President in the Bahamas.

From the point of view of the United States, the weapon is proving more expensive than originally estimated; secondly it looks as though it will be late and possibly not as efficient and reliable as had at first been hoped; and, thirdly, alternative weapon systems available to the United States Government have proved relatively more successful.

I have stressed throughout my talks with Mr. McNamara the serious consequences for the United Kingdom of a cancellation of this project, and I can assure the House that the United States Government can be in no doubt on that aspect of the matter. The discussions have, naturally, included the possibility that the United States Government might provide us with alternatives to Skybolt of which the most important is Polaris, but I would stress that no decisions either on Skybolt or on possible alternatives to it have been taken.

Since discussions between our two Governments have not been completed, I am sure that the House will accept that I cannot say any more at the present time. Indeed, as the Prime Minister said last week, it would not be in the interests of the country to do so.

Apart from Skybolt, my meeting with Mr. McNamara gave us an opportunity for informal and confidential discussion of a number of matters of joint concern to the two Governments.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Minister aware that this is a very grave statement, and that, for the first time, he has admitted today what his predecessor and other Service Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Air, have persistently denied, which is that from the outset the Government knew, as the Opposition knew, that this was no more than a gamble, with very grave difficulties in the way of meeting it? These are the words which the right hon. Gentleman used.

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that he has admitted that the Government, as well as the Opposition, have known what has been consistently denied—that more and more difficulties were arising in the development of this weapon and that it was giving rise to very great concern?

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of his statement today, this weapon, if it ever arrives, will be late—and the case for it always has been that it would be in time—that it will be less efficient and less reliable than we had hoped, and that other weapon systems are better? May I also ask what point there is in pressing the American Government to go on with it? Have we not had enough experience of equipping British forces with second and third-rate weapons by now?

Thirdly, in view of what the Minister says, would it not have been better to do what we have consistently urged, which was to face facts as they are, accept that there is now no possibility of us having an independent nuclear deterrent, and base our defence strategy in accordance with the facts and not in accordance with the political hopes of the party opposite?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I think that the right hon. Gentleman somewhat exaggerates his points. The development of any weapon systems of this kind is an incredibly complex matter, and to describe it as a gamble is an overstatement of the position. Every missile is under a constant storm of criticism from the moment of its inception, and this missile has been no exception. Nevertheless, up to now it has been in the American programme.

The question of the independent detterent is a wider point, and I do not think that it would be suitable, in ques- tion and answer, to go into the whole of that system.

Mr. Brown

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the second part of my question? In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has said today, that if Skybolt comes it will be late, and not as efficient and reliable as we had hoped, and that alternative systems are better, will he explain what benefit there is to British defence policy in going on with what is admittedly a second-rate or third-rate weapon?

Mr. Thorneycroft

The quotations which the right hon. Gentleman was giving were quotations from my statement, stating what the American view was on this matter.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the five successive failures of Skybolt were to some extent fringe failures? Is it not a fact that, at the same stage of development, Polaris had 13 successive failures? Will he also, confirm that as recently as September Mr. McNamara confirmed that this weapon was making good progress? Is it so, or not? Will he also convey to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the Bahamas that some of us on this side, who want to see Britain retain a nuclear deterrent, are highly suspicious of some of the American motives, in so far as they briefed members of the Opposition early last year in a completely different way from what they told the British Government, and say that the British people are tired of being pushed around?

Mr. Thorneycroft

So far as the British position is concerned, I can assure my hon. Friend that I have stated it as forcibly and as clearly as I can. I think the United States Government are in no doubt whatever where we stand in this matter. So far as the failures are concerned, it is a fair point to take that a number of the failures were fringe failures, or otherwise, in early firing, which are common experience with many missiles. I would not take the evidence of these failures as being, of itself, in any way conclusive, but, naturally, these are 'matters to be looked at in a wider context.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister seriously saying to the people of this country that the Government are going on with this policy, which has proved such a disastrous waste and failure? Are they going to encourage the American Government to go on with Skybolt, or to spend an astronomical sum of money on some alternative? Does not this mark the absolute failure of the policy of the independent deterrent? Is it not the case that everybody else in the world knew this, except the Conservative Party in this country? Is it not the case that the Americans gave up production of the B52, which was to carry Skybolt, nine months ago? Does the Minister of Defence read the evidence given before the Congressional Committee, which has been critical of Skybolt for 2½ years? Will he give an assurance to the House that we shall not embark on Polaris without a reasonable estimate of what it will cost, and a more reliable estimate of the chance of success being put before the people of this country?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I am aware that there are men who believe passionately that we should strip this country of her deterrent—[HON. MEMBERS: "We have not got one."]—and rely exclusively upon a deterrent controlled from the United States of America. I do not share this view. The question, in any event, seems to be quite wider and a separate issue from this missile.

Mr. Eden

Is not this a very big letdown for us, particularly following upon the significant rôle of the bomber force of the Royal Air Force at the time of the Cuba crisis in support of the United States of America? Will not my right hon. Friend look seriously into the question of providing a British independent alternative to this particular weapon, and take every opportunity of seeking to associate other European countries with us in this?

Mr. Thorneycroft

It would be fair to say that the cancellation of this weapon would be a blow both to the United States and to Britain. So far as alternatives are concerned, naturally full consideration is being given to that matter.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Would the Minister tell us whether Mr. McNamara has not completely called the bluff of the Government by offering the Government the Skybolt missile, and offering to let them take it over themselves at an astronomical cost? Will he tell us whether he is going to America to refuse this offer, or to accept it? Is he aware that it is very humiliating indeed to see the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister going cap-in-band, crawling to the Americans, for something that is no use, and which will prove exorbitantly expensive to the people of this country?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I do not think that there is anything degrading in seeing allies discussing together matters of mutual concern.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Although the Leader of the Liberal Party may not care, is not British independence in as great danger now as ever since 1940? Will the Government act on the precedent of 1940 and tell Parliament and the people squarely what we are up against and what sacrifices may be needed to keep British and European nuclear power and British national independence?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I think that I have already, on other occasions, stated my views about Britain's independent position, but I ask the House to have some consideration for the fact that I am leaving tonight to help in these discussions. I really do not think it very helpful to pursue them too far.

Mr. Shinwell

At any time in the Government's consideration of the possible purchase of Skybolt have they ever considered placing a ceiling on the expenditure that they would like to accept as a commitment in order to obtain this missile? Since the right hon. Gentleman said in his statement that he visited the United States in September and then learned that the expenditure was likely to exceed the estimate, did not he have any reaction as a result of that revised estimate? How far are the Government prepared to go?

Mr. Thorneycroft

The reaction was of some understanding and sympathy for the United States Government, who were, of course, in the main, bearing this additional expense.

Captain Litchfield

As a graduate of the National War College of the United States, may I ask my right hon. Friend to make it abundantly clear to his American opposite number that the handling of this matter by the American Administration, and, in particular, their treatment of Her Majesty's Government, has caused a most unfortunate impression in the minds of those who are the strongest supporters of Anglo-American co-operation?

Mr. Thorneycroft

We are speaking of, perhaps, our closest ally in this matter and we are about to confront this problem together. I am sure that we will find a way through it, and I ask not to be pressed to comment on it.

Mr. Wigg

Before the right hon. Gentleman accepts some of the strictures of the United States Administration involving the cancellation of Sky-bolt, will he have another look at his own record and that of the Government? Does he recollect, for example, that the House had not risen for ten days for the Summer Recess when the Government cancelled Blue Water, leaving the Army without a tactical weapon, or any prospect of getting one, and that last Christmas they cancelled PT428?

Is it not a fact that the humiliation which this country now suffers arises from the fact that the 1957 White Paper and the White Papers which followed it were political documents? Is it not time that this country—all parties and all sections of opinion—faced up to the realities of defence? Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman took the lead in endeavouring to persuade all sections of opinion, not only in this House but in the country, that we must face the fact that we have great needs and very limited resources and that there has to be a balance between the two, otherwise the humiliation which we suffer today will not be the last or greatest, and that, perhaps, worse has yet to come?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I agree that one must relate one's forces to the resources which are available. I have not criticised anybody in the course of my statement, no one at all. All I have said is that here is a common problem, and that it is a very great problem, both to the United States and to the United Kingdom, and that we might be allowed a few days to try to solve it.

Mr. G. Brown

In view of the Minister's emotive words about people wanting to strip the country's defences, may we have this perfectly clear? This is a weapon that still does not exist. How can the right hon. Gentleman talk about stripping us of something that we have not got?

Secondly, will he make it perfectly plain that, even if his right hon. Friend is successful in persuading the Americans to go on with this project, there is still no certainty, or anything like it, that the weapon will ever be brought to fruition?

Mr. Thorneycroft

My purpose is to see that the British forces are equipped with the best deterrent weapons that are available. At one time I had the wholehearted support of the right hon. Gentleman in this matter. I hope I have it still.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We cannot pursue this further today.