WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION – 15 March 2001

Dr Julian Lewis: There are two possible approaches to debating the great issues of defence and disarmament. One can theorise in a vacuum about the present, or try to learn the lessons of the past. If we do not try to do the latter, we condemn ourselves to making the same mistakes and paying the same price time and again.

I am not alone in believing that it is important that the record of past debates should not be airbrushed or forgotten; the BBC agrees with me. Last year, when the so-called Greenham Common peace camp finally passed into oblivion, the BBC helpfully included a subsection on Greenham Common in the "In-depth" section of its website. Part of it was entitled, "Timeline: key points". It tracked every development, no matter how piffling, petty, detailed or irrelevant that marked the Greenham Common women's campaign up to December 1983, when, it rightly recorded, the women encircling the base held their last big demonstration. Then, something rather curious happened. The next entry was dated August 1989:

"The first Cruise missile leaves Greenham Common".

The implication was obvious. The women's demonstrations had resulted in the cruise missiles leaving.

For those of us who were involved, professionally as I was or as volunteers, in opposing and undermining the movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain, so epitomised by those wretched women, there was a curious omission in that jumping from December 1983 to August 1989. What had been left out? Only the fact that, in 1987, several years after any significant protest by the Greenham women had fizzled out, a multilateral deal was concluded – the Intermediate Nuclear Forces deal; the Zero-Zero Option deal – which had been on the table from the Americans since 1981, and the achievement of which had been delayed only until after it had become obvious to the Soviet Union that the campaign for one-sided nuclear disarmament had failed.

The BBC, in its wisdom, had sought to airbrush out of existence the multilateral deal, which was the vindication of NATO's stance, and which led to the removal not only of nuclear weapons on this side of the then iron curtain, but of large numbers of SS20 nuclear missiles on the far side of the iron curtain. It chose to suggest instead that it had been a result of the unilateralist protests, which had somehow miraculously led to this happy outcome – the removal of cruise missiles – three years after the protests had finished.

Mr Richard Spring: Does my hon. Friend agree that probably the most fantastic misjudgment of global politics in the latter half of the 20th century was made by the party that is now in government, which embraced multilateral disarmament when the Cold War had come to an end?

Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, except I think that he meant to refer to unilateral disarmament, embraced during the Cold War by the Labour Party. He is absolutely right, and I shall be coming to that in a moment. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not have anything to be pleased about because their record in this matter is something of which many of them should be greatly ashamed.

Dr Phyllis Starkey: I am attempting to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's exegesis, which clearly his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Richard Spring), failed to follow.

I note that the hon. Gentleman is, as usual, wearing his gold pound sign. Is he suggesting that if, in the fullness of time, the British people, presented with a referendum on the issue, decided that we should go into the euro, that that would demonstrate that all his efforts were entirely nugatory and foolish and that he should attempt to airbrush them from his record? It is perfectly possible to hold views that are not held by the majority but are entirely honourable and for one to have absolutely no desire to airbrush them out of one's record.

Dr Lewis: I am happy to pay fulsome tribute – as I develop my argument, the hon. Lady will see this – to people who hold sincerely to the unilateralist views that they held at the time, and I have always done so. I shall not be drawn down the route of European defence or other European issues in that connection because I secured an Adjournment debate on those very subjects a little earlier this year. If the hon. Lady had been genuinely interested in those subjects, she could have attended that debate.

Dr Norman Godman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing characteristic courtesy in giving way. Might I point out to him that members of Scottish CND were delighted to see the departure of the American nuclear submarine fleet and the mother ship from Holy Loch on the firth of Clyde, but they do not claim that they were the principal decision-makers in that departure?

Dr Lewis: I am delighted to hear that Scottish CND does not make that claim. The hon. Gentleman had an honest commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, when this issue was at the centre of everyone's attention, and still holds to it today, whereas other participants in that debate do not show anything like the same consistency.

I was intrigued by the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Menzies Campbell). He said that he and the Liberals had not supported unilateralism. I shall read a few quotations.

"Let us be clear: this country does not need cruise and NATO does not need cruise. Cruise is the front end of the whole anti-nuclear struggle. It is the weapon we have to stop."

That was said by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) when he made his platform speech at CND's largest-ever demonstration at the height of the crisis.

"Britain's Trident deterrent is 'a monstrous folly which we should divest ourselves of as soon as possible'."

That was the right hon. Member for Yeovil quoted in the Morning Star in July 1984 at the height of the battle.

"I remain wholly opposed to nuclear weapons. I remain of the firm belief that Britain could afford to get rid of its nuclear weapons tomorrow and would not suffer in consequence."

That was the right hon. Gentleman quoted in the CND magazine Sanity in December 1985.

"I agree with the Liberal Party, which is the only British political party that has always opposed a British nuclear deterrent."

That was the right hon. Gentleman also quoted in Sanity in December 1985. Finally, this is what the right hon. Gentleman said on "Newsnight" on the eve of the 1992 General Election:

"I never took the view that this country did not need an independent deterrent."

When I made those points to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife, his response was to say that because his right hon. Friend had a distinguished service record it was not appropriate to criticise his past views about nuclear deterrence. Today, everyone accepts that the people who supported disarmament and appeasement between the wars made a terrible mistake. Despite their best and sincere intentions, that stance did not lead to peace, but encouraged aggression and brought on a war that might have been avoided.

Many of those sincere people who advocated disarmament and appeasement had distinguished military records – even more distinguished than that of the former leader of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party. That did not mean that they were right about the issues then, any more than the answer given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman should insulate the former leader of his party from criticism of his party's position in the 1980s.

Mr Menzies Campbell: The hon. Gentleman clearly came prepared with those quotations; otherwise, he would not have been able to give them in such detail. In accordance with the conventions of the House, did he advise my right hon. Friend that he proposed to attack him personally?

Dr Lewis: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely wrong. I did not come prepared with those quotations. On the contrary, I left the Chamber for a short period during his speech to retrieve them from my desk, which is at the foot of the stairs leading from the Members Lobby. As a result of that, the rest of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's criticism is misplaced.

However, the intervention by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife illustrates a feature of the debate. Criticism of the individual records of parties and their leaders on policy issues is construed as a personal attack, but there is nothing personal in such criticism. I am sure that the number of times that Baroness Thatcher is criticised in this House now, as she was criticised in absentia when she was Prime Minister, is substantial. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has deployed a typical red herring.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Liberal Party did not support unilateralism. I think when we look at the record of what he actually said, we will see that the wording was carefully chosen and that the right hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal Democrats did not support unilateralism. With that, there is no problem. From the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point of view, there is only one snag – the Liberal Democrats did not exist before 1988. By that time, the argument about nuclear weapons, peace camps and cruise missiles had been resolved. Indeed, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987 had already been signed, vindicating the stance taken by NATO.

It is frankly disingenuous to say that there is no blame to be attached to a party because it did not come into existence until after the key events had taken place. In fact, the blame that should be attached is to that party's predecessor organisation, which was most certainly unilateralist throughout the crisis.

Mr Campbell: Will the hon. Gentleman point to a resolution of the Liberal Party that embraced the code of unilateralism to the extent of saying that the United Kingdom should rid itself of all nuclear weapons? That was what unilateralism was commonly regarded as meaning in the period that the hon. Gentleman has described. I challenge him to point to a resolution of the Liberal Party that said that.

Dr Lewis: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard me state what the leader of the Liberal Party publicly stated. Is he saying that the right hon. Member for Yeovil was wrong when he said that he agreed with the Liberal Party, which he described as

"the only British political party that has always opposed a British nuclear deterrent"?

If so –

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that I ought to tell the hon. Gentleman that, if he intends to dwell rather lengthily on what another Member has said, he would be advised to give prior notice to the Member in question – in this case, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown). Therefore, I think that the hon. Gentleman has probably said enough on that subject.

Dr Lewis: I thank you for that advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I remind the House that I had no intention of raising the subject until it was falsely claimed that a political party that had been committed at a key time in this country's history to one-sided nuclear disarmament, had not been so committed.

Mr Campbell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I can try to deal with this. I think that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) would probably wish to say, on reflection, that in his view a mistaken impression may have been given to the House, rather than a false one. I think that that is parliamentary good manners. However, if one hon. Member is persistently going to quote, as the hon. Gentleman is doing, what another Member has said, notice is usually advised. That is the case even if the hon. Member doing the quoting did not intend to do so at the beginning of the debate.

Dr Lewis: I thank you for that guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I fail to see how I could give notice about anything that I was going to say in a debate that I did not intend –

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not test the patience of the Chair in a matter of this kind. I have given him considerable leeway, and I have tried to make it clear that he should not have introduced this matter into the debate if he was unable to give notice to the right hon. Member for Yeovil.

Dr Lewis: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it was not me who introduced that matter: it was the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife.

In the course of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks, the Minister of State, made a facetious intervention to the effect that anyone should be worried about any weapons system that I support. I was a little surprised by that remark because, only on 28 February, after I and the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) had made speeches in a debate on Sierra Leone, he praised our "outstanding" contributions. I begin to wonder whether we on the Conservative Benches can expect, when we happen to support the Government because we genuinely agree with something that they are doing, to be regarded as making outstanding speeches, but to be subjected to unworthy criticisms of the sort that the Minister made in his intervention when we happen to disagree.

I was therefore minded to look back at the Minister's stance at the relevant time. I was interested to see that, as late as February 1989, he said in Tribune that he had "spent a substantial segment" of his life

"arguing the moral and political case against nuclear weapons".

He lamented the fact, regarding it as a "tragedy", that "historic opportunities" to abandon British nuclear weapons had previously been "squandered", but disagreed with the view that

"a Labour government without unilateralism is not worth having".

In other words, he was reluctantly accepting that Labour's unilateralist policies would have to go if it were ever to get back into power.

One has to wonder about the contrast between the attendance in a debate on this subject, which several hon. Members have said is vital to the future of the planet in 2001, and the likely attendance in the 1980s when the Chamber would have been filled with hon. Members arguing fiercely about whether to go down the peace through defence and deterrence route, or the peace through disarmament route. That is what those debates resolved themselves into time and again.

There are two basic ways of looking at international politics: we can look at it either as a situation in which, as a result of mutual fear and suspicion, nations that would not otherwise be hostile to each other end up in an action-and-reaction cycle of rearmament, which culminates in war breaking out; or as something analogous to individuals threatening to fight, where the best way to keep the peace is to show that the person who is threatening to attack has no chance of doing so without massive and unacceptable retribution.

Several hon. Members have referred to commitments involving the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI is often referred to and evidence that this country should be committed to the entire abolition of its nuclear defences. It commits the signatories

"to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date"

 – which has certainly been achieved –

"and to nuclear disarmament, and to a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control".

Nothing in the treaty states that the achievement of a nuclear-free world should be expected to arrive before the achievement of a conflict-free world. Listening to this debate, one might think that the Government, and Opposition Members other than Conservative Members, visualise a situation in which the problem is weapons themselves rather than the intentions of participants on the international stage.

The Government's view has been slowly shifting. When they were still in opposition, they were very resistant to giving up the policy of Britain alone getting rid of its nuclear weapons. Consequently, they tried to adopt a type of halfway house. They tried to say that, rather than giving up the British nuclear deterrent for nothing in return, they would negotiate away that deterrent in return for nuclear weapons being given up by the then Warsaw Pact. It was only under the most intense pressure that they finally gave a commitment in which they said that they would keep some nuclear weapons as long as other countries have nuclear weapons. I should like the Minister to tell us today whether the Government stand by that commitment. Is it still the Government's position that they will retain some British nuclear weapons as long as other countries have nuclear weapons that could threaten us? I hope that he will address that issue in his summation.

The commitment that the Labour Party made about that in its manifesto for the 1997 General Election fell some way short of the commitment that it made in the manifesto on which it unsuccessfully fought the 1992 General Election. However, although the Government say that we have reached the minimum capability necessary for nuclear deterrence, there seems to be some uncertainty about whether the Government would include nuclear weapons in arms reductions negotiations if other countries were prepared to reduce their nuclear weapons totals, but not to eliminate them. I want to be assured that we shall not be revisiting debates in the future that so many hon. Members in the Chamber do not seem happy to revisit now.

Paragraph 124 of the Select Committee report states:

"Britain as a nuclear weapon state, a permanent member of the Security Council, a leading member of NATO, and a member of the G8 and the EU has a key role and a key responsibility in trying to put all Weapons of Mass Destruction under international arms control regimes and in making progress towards their complete elimination. This must surely be one of the highest foreign policy priorities for the Government."

On the very last page of the Government's response to the report, they deal with that conclusion in a single sentence, which states:

"The Government agrees with the Committee's conclusion."

Let us therefore spend a little time examining that conclusion, which states that all weapons of mass destruction should be placed under international arms control regimes. What exactly do the Committee and the Government have in mind by that? I do not see how anything short of a world government, or a United Nations that is vastly different from the organisation that we have known, could properly take over the nuclear deterrents of the countries that currently possess nuclear weapons.

I am concerned that people who want the nuclear genie put back in the bottle fail to appreciate that the disinventing of nuclear weapons would be a thoroughly retrograde step. Does anybody seriously believe that more than 40 years of Cold War confrontation – at a level of intensity that would undoubtedly have spilled over into something more active – could have successfully been concluded if it had not been for the mutual terror of the nuclear weapons held by the superpowers? We must not refuse to recognise what happened – a potential world war was averted because dictatorships knew that they dared not attack democracies on account of the retribution that would undoubtedly follow. The lessons of that must be absorbed, yet they are being denied by the very people who are now trying to rewrite history about their behaviour and that of their parties during that period.

I want simple answers to two simple questions. Do the Government believe that nuclear deterrence helps to keep the peace by persuading dictators not to attack democracies? If so, do they commit themselves not to negotiate away our nuclear weapons as long as any other country has them, and certainly not to agree with the conclusion of this report that all nuclear forces should be placed under some sort of international arms control regime? That was nonsense when it was first proposed at the end of the Second World War; it was nonsense when it was revived as a result of various skewed disarmament initiatives periodically in the latter half of the 20th century; and it remains just as nonsensical today.