ANNUAL DEFENCE DEBATE – 22 February 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: In his introduction to the Defence White Paper, the Secretary of State quotes Lord Robertson, his predecessor, praising the strategic defence review as

"providing a structure to deal with tomorrow's threats not yesterday's enemies."

The Secretary of State evidently likes that turn of phrase. In opening today's debate, he referred to the need for what he called "security architecture" to meet the threats that will face us in what he called "this century, not the last". In the time available, I should like to focus on three issues: predictability, the strategic deterrent and the Government's attitude to it, and the European security and defence identity.

Attention has already been drawn to paragraph 8 of the White Paper, which states:

"Although we still conclude, as did the SDR, that no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK and its interests will exist for some years, the US are consulting closely with us on their plans to improve their defences against a projected limited inter-continental ballistic missile threat from proliferators, and on their discussions with the Russians on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty."

In my maiden speech, and in the first speech that I ever made on a defence White Paper, in October 1997, I mentioned – like my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr Collins), whose brilliant speech touched on most of my main points, which makes my task much easier – the unpredictability of future crises, and the dreadful effects of the 10-year rule. This forecast that no war would begin for the decade ahead, and was rolled forward from 1919 until it was eventually abandoned in 1933. I also mentioned the fact that, throughout that period, each of the armed forces had entirely different countries in mind as its most likely potential enemy.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the 10-year "no war" rule. Recently, while doing some historical research, I had occasion to look at the Cabinet Office's file on the rule. In it, I found the following quotation from a memorandum from Sir Maurice Hankey, dated 9 January 1931. He argued that the rule was crippling our defences. What he said is worth listening to all these years later:

"As a nation we have been prone in the past to assume that the international outlook is in accordance with our desires rather than with the facts of the situation .... We are also apt to forget how suddenly war breaks out. In 1870, a fortnight before the event, we were not in the least expecting the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. The same was true in 1914. A fortnight after the murder of the Austrian Archduke, a debate took place in the House of Commons on foreign affairs. The European situation was hardly referred to at all. More attention was given to the preparations for the next Peace Conference! .... There was no statement made on the subject of the European crisis in Parliament until July 27".

Sir Maurice concluded:

"We really had, at the outside, not more than ten days' warning"

of the outbreak of the first world war.

I am worried about the Government's view of the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said about the strange omission of any mention of it in the White Paper. In a report that has been quoted several times today, the Select Committee – just before I joined it recently – referred to the eight defence missions mentioned in the strategic defence review. It is significant that the mission to protect Britain against a strategic attack on NATO is listed last. In paragraph 55, the Committee notes:

"Not all of these eight missions carry equal weight. The threat of a strategic attack on NATO is deemed at present to be remote and a lengthy warning period is assumed in which forces may be built up."

One might well say, "Here we go again".

I have been concerned about the Government's sliding away from their commitment to preserve the nuclear deterrent for as long as other countries have nuclear weapons. My concern was first prompted in January by a statement in Westminster Hall, when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said in an Adjournment debate:

"Work is in hand to develop expertise at Aldermaston in verifying the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons and we have made it clear that, when we are satisfied with progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in those negotiations." – [Official Report, Westminster Hall, 18 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 173WH.]

Because I was anxious about what the hon. Gentleman might be getting at in the long term, I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 20 January. I asked whether,

"pursuant to the oral statement made by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) on 18 January 2000 ... it remains Her Majesty's Government's policy to retain a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as other countries possess nuclear weapons."

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr Vaz), replied:

"We pledged in our election manifesto to retain Trident as the ultimate guarantee of the United Kingdom's security while pressing for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons."

However, he added:

"When we are satisfied with progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in negotiations." –[Official Report, 24 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 36W.]

I was still not happy because it is one thing to say that we will keep a nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have some nuclear weapons with which they could attack us in unforeseen circumstances at some unspecified time in the future, and another to say that, when we are satisfied that other countries have made progress towards disarmament, we will put ours into the negotiations. As we all know, ours is a strategic minimum nuclear deterrent. If we ever negotiated any of it away, we would negotiate it all away.

Therefore, only yesterday, I raised the matter in Defence questions with the Secretary of State himself. He said again:

"When we are satisfied that sufficient progress has been made to allow us to include British nuclear weapons in negotiations without endangering our security interests, we shall do so." – [Official Report, 21 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1222.]

The weasel words

"without endangering our security interests"

are not worth the paper that they are now printed on. One can never know whether one will endanger one's security interests if one gives up a weapons system, unless one has infallibility in looking to the future. One manifestly does not have that.

We have been there before, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale pointed out. I quote from a famous American columnist and commentator, Walter Lippman, who in 1943 wrote the following about disarmament:

"In the interval between the two great wars the United States sought to promote peace by denouncing war, even by `outlawing' it and by disarming itself, Great Britain, and France. The movement to limit armaments was, no doubt, inspired in considerable measure by sheer war-weariness and by the desire to save money. But the disinterested and idealistic theory of disarmament was that if everyone had less capacity to wage war, there would be a smaller likelihood of war. Big warships meant big wars. Smaller warships meant smaller wars. No warships might eventually mean no wars."

We know what dangerous nonsense that theory was. As Lippman noted:

"The net effect was to dissolve the alliance among the victors of the first World War, and to reduce them to almost disastrous impotence on the eve of the second World War."

Let us turn then to ESDI, which in its way may mirror the disastrous mistakes that were made then in undermining the potential security system that could have kept the peace. ESDI does not stand, as is commonly thought, for the European strategic defence initiative but for the European security and defence identity. The word "identity" gives the game away, as I said in an earlier intervention. I drew attention to article B of the Amsterdam treaty, which states that the European Union

"shall set itself the following objectives".

Top of the list is the following:

"to assert its identity on the international scene, in particular through the implementation of a common foreign and security policy including the progressive framing of a common defence policy."

Asserting the identity of the EU is no sound basis for tampering with tried and tested military structures. ESDI is a retrograde step in the direction of the inadequate balance of power politics that existed prior to each of the two world wars.

Time has almost run out, so I shall move briefly to a warning and a conclusion. The warning is this: we ignore at our peril the words of those people who are trying to construct a politically unified Europe, just as we ignored at our peril the words of the dictators when they set out their stalls in the interwar years.

Last October, Romano Prodi was quoted – quite accurately, I am sure – in The Times as describing the European Commission as the "government of Europe". Asked by The Times to justify the term "government of Europe", Signor Prodi said:

"But what is the Commission? We are here to take binding decisions as an executive power. If you don't like the term government for this, what other term do you suggest? Consultative commission? I speak of a European Government because we take government decisions."

I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will deal with some of these matters:

Will the United Kingdom continue to possess, and appropriately replace or upgrade, its strategic nuclear deterrent as long as other countries possess weapons of mass destruction?

Will the Government take to heart the lessons that disarmament and peace are not synonymous, that nuclear deterrence has played a key role in preserving the peace of Europe, and that a nuclear-free world will be a world made safe for conventional warfare for the largest powers, as it already is for the smaller ones?

Do the Government accept the unpredictability of future crises, and the risk that so-called "crisis management" – which is what the ESDI is supposed to be concerned with – could easily escalate into general war?

Above all, will the Government think again about the risks of creating alongside NATO another security system – one which lacks the deterrent effect of having American involvement right at the outset?