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Chief Of Defence Staff (Speech)

Volume 949: debated on Tuesday 2 May 1978

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he authorised the Chief of the Defence Staff to make a speech in Peking on 1st May; and whether he will make a statement.

The Chief of the Defence Staff's visit to China is an official visit the object of which is a broad exchange of views on defence matters. It is being made in response to an invitation extended to his predecessor.

The remarks made by Sir Neil Cameron in Peking yesterday were in reply to a speech of welcome by the commander of the Chinese Sixth Tank Division whose units he was visiting. The question of my authorising what were impromptu remarks therefore did not arise.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time when the Tory Party is deliberately seeking to incite disaffection amongst members of the Armed Forces for party political purposes, it is more important than ever that serving officers should adhere strictly to a constitutional convention whereby they do not announce changes in Government policy?

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance. I am satisfied that Sir Neil Cameron had no intention of changing in any way Government defence or foreign policy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put the matter in the right perspective in his remarks to the House a short time ago.

Was Sir Neil Cameron incorrect in referring to the Soviet Union as the only potential enemy which our forces in Europe are facing at present? [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say 'potential'."] I am not interested in what Sir Neil said but in what I say. If Sir Neil Cameron was wrong in referring to the Soviet Union as the only aggressor—if that pleases hon. Members opposite rather than the phrase "potential aggressor"—which our forces are facing, could the Secretary of State remind us which other Power we have in mind as a reason for keeping the large number of forces presently in Europe?

To the best of my information and knowledge, Sir Neil did not say what the hon. Member suggests that he said. Had I been able to advise him, I should have advised him not to use the word "enemy" because it gives rise to the type of misunderstandings that we have seen since then.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has long been secretly whispered by members of the senior council of NATO that they believe that the whole of our strategy should be based upon the military encirclement of the Soviet Union? Would it not therefore seem natural that our Chief of Staff, when visiting Peking, should put up one or two propositions for the sale of British military armaments in order to fulfil a function of that kind? Will my right hon. Friend dissociate himself totally from ideas leading to a strategy of that type? Will he give the House an assurance that it is not our purpose to sell these weapons to China in these circumstances?

From my own experience my hon. Friend could not be further from the truth in supposing that NATO circles are contemplating a strategy of that kind. On the question of the sale of equipment, Sir Neil Cameron has made it clear that he has not, in any sense, gone there in the capacity of salesman. As the Prime Minister made clear, we have had no indications from the Chinese Government about whether they do or do not wish to purchase any, or any particular, equipment. If they do make requests, these will, of course, be considered in line with international obligations.

On behalf of the Opposition I have three questions to put to the Secretary of State. First, will he say whether there is any country, other than the Soviet Union, that poses a conventional and nuclear threat to the peoples of Britain and Western Europe?

Secondly, will he confirm that nothing that the Chief of the Defence Staff said in his remarks in Peking was factually inaccurate? Thirdly, will he now give his public support to the remarks of the Chief of the Defence Staff and disavow the propaganda currently emanating from Moscow and from the Kremlin's fifth column in this country?

The hon. Member had the fortune, or misfortune, to hear my views on defence strategy at substantial length in defence debates and in a White Paper. It would be impossible to summarise them in answer to a supplementary question. There is nothing in the impromptu remarks that Sir Neil made that suggests that I should diminish my confidence in him as my chief military adviser as Chief of the Defence Staff.

Would the Secretary of State take time off to explain to some of his Friends below the Gangway what the Warsaw Pact is all about? Does he agree that the Chief of the Defence Staff would have been better advised had he used the word "potential"?

It is always difficult to correct speeches after they have been made. The House should see this matter in the proper and balanced perspective put to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Before further damage is done to disarmament, détente and peace, will the Secretary of State repudiate even more firmly and clearly than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just done this provocative war talk, and do that in the clearest way by dismissing this man who, like top civil servants, has no right to open his mouth in public on Government policy and to make new policy in this way?

I should again make it clear that I am quite satisfied that Sir Neil Cameron had no intention of trying to change, modify or in any way alter Government policy. My hon. Friend has somewhat exaggerated his fears that he has about the damage that may or may not have been done to disarmament and other very important matters. I do not feel that that is so. It is not my desire in any way to embellish the considered views of the Prime Minister on this matter.

Order. This is a Private Notice Question, I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side. This subject has had a good run, both now and during Prime Minister's Questions.

Does the Secretary of State recall that in his defence White Paper earlier this year he said:

"Theatre nuclear weapons are needed to deter the use of similar weapons by the Soviet Union."
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that that realistic remark was at least as hostile in its implications for the Soviet Union as anything said by the Chief of the Defence Staff in China?

It is only right that the House and the country should take the statement on the Defence Estimates as being the statement of Government defence policy.

Does it not always lead to trouble when politicians start to fancy themselves as military strategists and generals start to fancy themselves as world statesmen?

As two general propositions, there is a lot to be said for both of those suggestions. I do not believe that Sir Neil sees himself in the latter category, and if that supplementary question is an indication on the part of my hon. Friend and his hon. Friends that they renounce the first category, I shall, of course, be very pleased.

In view of the recent remarks by two Labour Back-Bench Members, does the Secretary of State agree with those Labour Right wingers and moderates who state that it is time for the Left wing to say on which side it is? What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the Left wing does not get increasing control over his activities?

I have no anxieties about being taken over by the Left wing or the Right wing of the party. I regard "Left" and "Right" as rather inexact and emotive terms.

There are those like myself who feel that the air marshal was right, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate for Sir Neil to make a political speech on such an occasion? Contrary to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister says, is it not necessary sometimes to choose between different Communist countries depending on whether they have peaceful or aggressive intentions? Will my right hon. Friend advise any generals who make such visits to make such speeches before the toast rather than after?

I should like to make one point absolutely clear. My knowledge of Sir Neil Cameron is such—and this would be borne out by everyone who has known him during a distinguished career—that I know that any suggestion that he was intoxicated could not be further from the truth.