Royal Navy Submarines 1901 To The Present Day

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The answer to the point that my right hon. Friend made in his reply to the intervention that he was good enough to allow me to make is that this country's defence and commercial maritime interests are wholly indissoluble. Underlining almost all the United Kingdom's trading activities is an inescapable maritime link, the most important element of which is merchant shipping. The British merchant fleet, and many other important elements, are now in such sharp decline —that is the point that the hon.

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Member for Clackmannan was making —that they face possible extinction within the next few years. The process is not a self-correcting one. It can only worsen if present policies are allowed to continue. We have it in our power to arrest the decline, to safeguard and create employment in our society and to enhance our defence capability. That is what I wish to argue for.

I have such respect for my right hon. Friend that I regret to have to make these points, but I am glad to make them in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The complacency of the Government and Ministers in this most serious situation is astounding. Member for Clackmannan referred to the great Dr. Pangloss of whom Francois-Marie Arouet—Monsieur de Voltaire, the phoney philosopher—wrote, and who said that everything was for the best in the best of possible worlds.

Friend said, we have had a report —no doubt most carefully worked on in his Department —but if ever a report was Panglossian, that was it. I give him an immediate answer to the point that he was making, after my intervention and that of my hon. Friends, if he believes that our merchant shipping capability is adequate for our defence needs. I shall give him one example of the way that it plainly is not.

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The whole House knows it is not. We could not mount another Falklands operation today. We do not have the ships. What are the facts? As the House is aware, and as the hon.

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Member for Clackmannan said, 10 years ago there were 1, ships of gross registered tonnes and upwards on the British register. Today, the number is not the that he mentioned; it is less. It is probably only , and the number continues to fall. The latest evidence was shown by BP flagging out the other day.

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What a blow that was for British maritime pride. The order book for new ships for the British fleet is now at rock bottom—a mere , tonnes. I have long felt, and often said, that we could have many more ships in the Royal Navy if only we went for simpler and cheaper ships. We often complicate matters of design. As a young man in the Navy, in the closing stages of the war I served in what was called a "Woolworth aircraft carrier". How effective were those cheaper ships.

They did an extremely good job. We badly need more naval ships. Friends face great difficulty in ordering them because of the expense. We all understand that. If there were a change of Government, the successor Government would face the same difficulty. That was one aspect of the teasing that went on earlier in the debate.

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If the designs were simpler and we had cheaper ships, we could undoubtedly have more. There are no ships in the distant water trawling fleet. I do not know how my right hon. Friend can, with a straight face, quote that report and say that we have an adequate defence capability while we have no ships in the distant water trawling fleet. If we have fewer ships, other industries suffer.

We heard an impassioned comment from the hon. Member for Jarrow Mr. Dixon about shipbuilding in a question to the Prime Minister earlier today.

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We see on the tape today that three north-eastern yards are going to amalgamate. We all know of what that is the first stage. One of them will close shortly. That is what that means. If there are fewer ships, other industries suffer —shipbuilding, ship repairing and those businesses which produce many kinds of marine technology and marine engines. The list of industries is long.

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Qualified seafarers—a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Clackmannan —have decreased over the same period from about 90, to 30, Five colleges of nautical education have closed. We are rapidly losing not just our material and financial assets, but our professional people who could do something to restore them. The capacity of our country, if not of Europe, to supply itself in time of war is now in doubt. There is a shortage of ships of all classes — minesweepers, troopers, tankers, general cargo carriers and ships for harbour duties. The list is long.

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The manpower reservoir for the Royal Navy is hopelessly inadequate. At the outbreak of war in , there were , people at sea. The number today is a mere quarter of that figure. On the economic side, the percentage weight of United Kingdom exports carried by British registered ships has fallen to about one quarter of the total. If we take the tonne-mile figure, it is now below 20 per cent. That means that the bulk of the United Kingdom trade —and the overwhelmingly greatest proportion of it by weight, 98 per cent.

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I do not know the view of right hon. Gentlemen, but I regard that as an intolerable and dangerous position. One might ask, what is the point of having a Royal Navy if we have no merchant marine to defend? There are many reasons for the decline of the British merchant fleet —the worldwide economic recession, changing trade patterns, the misjudgments that have been made, especially about tankers, depressed freight sales, protectionism and a lack of profitability. Right hon. Gentlemen could no doubt add to that list. I do not think that we would quarrel about any of the matters that we would put into the list.

The main underlying cause for the decline of the British merchant fleet is the impracticability of trading fairly in a market which is no longer governed by economics alone. Competitors will do anything to survive when far too many ships are chasing too little cargo. The commercial threat is equally important. It was Nye Bevan in a much quoted phrase who said, "Why look in the crystal when you can read the book?

Read the proceedings of the International Marine Conference in Peking in or the reports from the shipbuilding industry in South Korea in Our competitors in the free world seek to destroy our civilian maritime capacity, and that is a fact. In the admirable speech of my right hon. Friend at the beginning of the debate we heard of the immense increase in the activities of the Communists in maritime affairs.

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Friend was saying: look at the expansion in their merchant fleet, look at the expansion in their fishing fleets, and so on. We are under attack, therefore, from both sides —from those who should be our friends as well as those who are opposed to us politically and ideologically — and what do we do? Every right hon.