The Army Game
By DAVID WATT A DISTINGUISHED Conser- vative back-bencher with sufficient leisure to haunt the doorsteps of his con- stituents after some years of forced neglect told me the other day that the thing he noticed on his return to this happy task 'was how much more widely spread the grievances of his flock had become. 'The ques- tions,' he said, 'are now as diverse as the house- holds, whereas it seldom used to be anything but Pensions or housing or National Service.' It wasn't clear whether he regarded this as progress, but his words cast some light on the political scufflings which have followed the reappearance on the political horizon last week of the dread words 'selective conscription'. The strategists of bath main parties have never forgotten that National Service was not long ago a national obsession, and the party Establishments have habitually drawn the conclusion that Army man- power is an issue far too explosive to be hurled back and forth between the parties and might as easily go off on one side as the other, and neither Is particularly pleased that the combination of electoral politics with the crises in Cyprus, Malaysia and Aden will force both sides to dice with the issue again.
The Government's instinct in the whole defence field has naturally been to try and avoid trouble at this stage. The official line of the Defence Ministry and War Office has been for months that the 180,000-man army and the defence expendi- ture of 7 per cent of the gross national product are quite adequate for foreseeable circumstances and there was every hope on the Government benches that it would withstand fate until next month's Defence White Paper, the last of this Govern- ment. Difficult political decisions about the exact balance of nuclear and conventional forces, the level of our forces in Germany and the extent of our commitment in various parts of the globe could be put off until after the election, while, meanwhile, the Prime Minister could claim the electoral credit for retaining the independent deterrent, policing the Commonwealth and generally keeping the Great in Great Britain.
This scheme cannot now survive the stretching of British army resources over Christmas and Particularly the possible moves of a brigade from Germany and battalions from Hong Kong. In the first place these events have confirmed the long- standing views of an exceedingly awkward group of Conservative back-benchers. Mr. Nigel Birch (whose voice has lost none of its customary Influence from his having backed the winner in the Tory leadership race), Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Mr. Brian Harrison, Mr. John Biffen and Mr. Julian Critchley were last heard in chorus about 1960 chanting the necessity of selective con- scription. For the fact that they were muted the Government had mainly to thank Mr. John Pro- fumo and his spectacularly successful recruitment drive. However, Mr. Profumo is no longer with us and troop shortages are. The influential defence correspondents of The Times and. (a new dramatic conversion) the Daily Telegraph have now taken up the cry again and we may sup- pose that Mr. Birch and Co. wil do likewise. The Opposition cannot afford to miss the chance of taking up this challenge, as they have done by demanding a defence debate next week. But the leaders are in a difficult dilemma. Some members on the left would like Mr. Wilson to make an outright declaration against conscrip- tion; the redoubtable Mr. George Wigg on the other hand is a passionate believer in it and does not mind who he gives trouble to. Mr. Wilson is certainly not going to back Mr. Wigg and he is painfully aware that in office he might be forced to bring back conscription himself. The problem is how to harry the Government without making embarrassing commitments, and this may prove hard to do. The intention is to claim that conven- tional forces have been neglected for the illusory grandeur of the British deterrent, but this thesis has to be maintained without saying that Labour thinks conventional forces should be more numerous (and therefore presumably con- scripted). The only way round the difficulty is to maintain that with wise foreign policy our pre- sent commitments would not have arisen—at any rate simultaneously. Unfortunately it would be reasonable to object that any Government, how- ever wise, might have to meet large claims for attention in different parts of the world at the same time and to this Mr. Healey will be forced to reply that we should press NATO to allow us to withdraw troops from Germany permanently —a move which might seriously alarm the Ameri- cans. At election time life is very complicated.
* Those delegates with any time to spare from more urgent preoccupations may have wondered what on earth that redoubtable right-winger and ex-Liberal Mr. Edward Martell was doing at such a Socialist-tainted gathering as the Blackpool Conference of the Conservative Party in October. I now discover that he was, and is, endeavouring to infiltrate the Tory Party with members of his Freedom Group.
Mr. Martell is perfectly frank about it. 'I don't think much of either main party,' he said, 'but the Conservatives are the lesser of the evils. I see no chance for us except by influencing the Tories. After all, they do tell us to come and change them from inside'. Suiting his actions to
this precept, Mr. Martell joined the Conservative Party last spring and in a meteoric rise to power has now become chairman of his ward in the Hastings division. He exhorts all his followers to do likewise and especially to try and influence the choice of Conservative parliamentary candidates. He claims eleven hundred members of the Free- dom Group in the Hastings constituency and is now setting out systematically to canvass in other right-wing areas. He is at present sending round a `referendum' in South Kensington in which ho invites voters to say which of the Freedom Group's policies should be included in the pro- gramme of the Government if they are to win the election. 'The Government should abandon its subservient attitude when negotiating with the United States, Germany, Russia and the Afro- Asian countries'. 'The prime financial aim of the Government should be to leave the people to spend their own money in their own way and not to collect much of it simply in order to hand it back in the form of expensively administered subsidies and State services.'
Mr. Martell claims some success. In. South Kensington 15,000 forms have been delivered. Todate 317 have been returned, of whom. seventy- two state they are willing to join the Conserva- tive Association in order to help persuade it back the programme. The same process is shortly to be tried in Wimbledon. Mr. Martell also main- tains that more than twenty Conservative MPs have promised their support.
Mr. Martell does not think much of the present Cabinet. He thinks Lord Home was probably the best choice available at the time and he has some respect for Mr. Powell; his idol is Mr. Selwyn Lloyd; the rest are pretty pink. I asked him whether he had had any encouragement from the Conservative Central Office in his campaign to win the election for the party. He replied that he could not honestly say they had been very forth- coming. 'But,' he added, 'since that man Macleod left, their attitude has been, shall I say, softer'.
One of Mr. Wilson's most-applauded moves has been to make greater use than his predecessor of the Fabian Society as a source of ideas and a forum in which new policies can be thrashed out. But two of the important studies which the Fabians have started for him appear to be hang- ing fire. The six-man committee, set up under Mr. Anthony Crosland to consider how the Planning Ministry (for which Mr. George Brown is supposed to be destined) and the Treasury should divide their responsibilities; was originally supposed to produce its results some time this month. An early report would have had the advantage from Mr. Brown's point of view of forcing Mr. Wilson's hand. It now seems unlikely to report before March and if there were an elec- tion in that month Mr. Wilson has a chance of being left with his hands entirely free.
The other committee, a much larger one, is concerned with the whole future of the Civil Service and its recruitment and organisation under a Labour Government. The work here is also extremely important but is going equally slowly. This is partly because of the unwieldy size of the group and partly because senior Civil Servants, giving evidence, object to doing so for the benefit of a number of junior Civil Servants who are on the committee.
* The Labour Party has discovered that the women's magazines refuse to take advertisements from the party for the election on the grounds that politics are of no interest to women as women. So much for Mr. Wilson's sex appeal.