PROPAGANDA & THE WAR AGAINST TERRORISM – 8 December 2005

Dr Julian Lewis: I shall take a slightly different perspective from that which has developed so far – by asking people to look back at some historical parallels and to the problems of propaganda and counter-propaganda in war. I mean to look back a long way: to the autumn of 1914 when a photograph was prominently published on the front pages of a number of British newspapers showing what was obviously a Royal Navy battleship sinking beneath the waves. The headline was "An Audacious Picture". The battleship, as the Chamber may have guessed, was HMS Audacious, which had been holed by a mine. The reason that the Government were so upset about the picture being published was that they felt that the news of the loss of the battleship should be suppressed for fear of undermining morale at home in the early stages of the Great War. It was, of course, a forlorn hope that such a disaster could be concealed from the British public and, indeed, it was not.

By the Second World War, the Government had learned a great deal about warfare propaganda. When one looks at the films that were made during the war – many dealt with events in occupied European countries – one is struck by the fact that they were dauntingly realistic. The cavalry did not always come to the rescue. The paratroops did not always land in the nick of time. The tanks did not always roll through the defences just in time to save the partisans from the firing squads. On the contrary, those who played the freedom fighters and the men and women of the resistance in those films often paid with their fictional lives in those films, just as the people of the resistance and the freedom fighters in reality paid with their lives in the occupied countries that the films fictionally represented. Instead of the usual two-word ending, the films would often end with a defiant three words: "Not The End". In other words, the fight went on despite the sacrifices.

What has all that to do with the conflicts that have been so articulately discussed today? Quite a lot, I suggest. The belief has grown that war is something that can be waged cleanly, quickly and with minimal loss. In fact, it is horrible, unjust and dirty. It is extremely costly in lives and in the damage caused to all the countries involved, whether they are innocent bystanders and victims or aggressive nations that are being resisted. The battle that is being faced today would I suppose have been called low-intensity warfare in the 1960s and 1970s. It is therefore rather surprising that we do not seem to have learned all that much from the two main post-war conflicts in which Britain has been involved – namely, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which has already been mentioned, and the conflict in Malaya, which has not. One of those conflicts went on for three decades and the other for 12 years.

Some hon. Members will have received representations from servicemen anxious to know if they will be allowed to receive medals from the present Malaysian Government in gratitude for what they did then. What worries me is whether the Malay conflict could have been pressed to a successful conclusion, with the sort of tactics that had to be used over such a long period, had the spotlight of publicity been shining upon it, focusing day-by-day on every incident and every casualty.

It was said earlier that security alone did not bring peace to Northern Ireland, and that political solutions had to be found. That is a one-dimensional view of what solved the conflict – if, indeed, it has been solved. Political solutions would not have been found had it not been for the security presence and the political determination of successive British Governments to make it clear that no matter how many murders or atrocities took place – can one imagine anything more heinous, despicable and contemptible than blowing up the people at the Enniskillen war memorial on Remembrance Day? – the IRA would in the end have to conclude that they would not be able to bomb and kill their way to victory. Therefore, the political solution was contingent on the ongoing long-term security and military contribution, backed up by the political will to win.

It worries me greatly, when we consider the situation in Iraq, to hear people talking about bringing troops back soon, and saying: "Next year, before the election, we will hand over security to the local forces." That smacks not so much of the approach that was successful over a long period in Malaya and Northern Ireland, but of the process that was tried and failed in Vietnam. Let us face the fact that if we engage in a conflict with a combination of outside extremists and domestic insurgents, we will not be able, in the short term, to hand over the security situation to the indigenous forces.

Mike Gapes: Is there not a big difference between the situation in Iraq – or even that in Vietnam – and that which existed in Malaya? Malaya was a colony at the time, not an independent state, and it did not have a democratic process or a putative sovereign Government that was going to have its own views on whether and how it would get assistance from international forces. The hon. Gentleman's parallel is slightly wrong.

Dr Lewis: Historical analogies are always debatable because, by definition, they are not identical to the situation that we face today. However, I do not believe that either of the factors that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) mentioned reflects on the principal point that the communist insurgents in Malaya did not have the external support that is enjoyed by today's insurgents in Iraq. They were therefore, in a weaker position, yet it still took 12 long years for them to be defeated.

Ms Gisela Stuart: One thing that I hope will come out of the report of our visit to Saudi Arabia is that we are engaged in a battle of minds. Frederick the Great said that one cannot ride on horseback against ideas, but at the moment we have to do so. Saudi Arabians are extremely proactive at dealing with the kind of extremist ideas that are developing, so the picture is not quite as depressing as it might appear to be.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that the hon. Lady made that intervention. It neatly brings me to the central point that I was about to make. That is that victories in such environments depend wholly on having the majority of the indigenous population – however much they have been terrorised, bullied and attacked by extremist minorities – on one's side. We have a long way to go in that respect.

I venture to suggest that the Government have not even begun seriously to address the issue. By that I mean that our military opponents are not physically strong. They are not exactly endowed with powerful weapons systems although, of course, we have to fear that they might acquire some. However, they are masters of propaganda, and we are not doing what we should be doing. We should be learning the lessons of the propagandists – I use the term non-pejoratively – of World War II. We should quite openly be going on the offensive with a propaganda operation to make it absolutely clear what the true situation is and what values we are fighting for.

The other day, there was a shock-horror story in the press. The Americans had been found to be paying a newspaper in Iraq to publish some good-news stories. All I can say is that I would be surprised and annoyed if they were not doing so, and I hope that they do more of it. We must not try to suppress bad news, because that will sink in the same way in which the attempt to suppress the loss of the Audacious did. We must actively promote the good news about what our forces are doing time after time. We must go on the offensive and detail name by name, incident by incident and atrocity by atrocity what our opponents are doing. We must highlight these facts, instead of glossing over the fact that 30 people have been killed in a suicide bombing in a restaurant or a market. We must publicise again and again the nature of the victims, who overwhelmingly will have been ordinary Iraqis.

There is one more thing we must do. We must ask whether it is our fault that extremists in Iraq are killing other Iraqis because of the Coalition's invasion and are trying to make us lose our nerve and pull out, or whether it is the fault of the extremists who do not mind killing the people whom we went in with a view to helping to build a peaceful and democratic state. One has only to pose the question to arrive at the correct answer.

Much has been said about the business of us not besmirching our own record by behaving unacceptably. That is certainly true, but it is also true, as I say time and again in these debates, that free societies cannot survive if they insist on tolerating the intolerant. There is something very wrong with our set-up when it takes us 10 years to extradite from the UK across the Channel to France someone who is strongly suspected of being a terrorist. The French Government and the French people were justifiably appalled at the way in which that extradition, which has at last happened, was spun out for so long and with so little justification.

There is also something wrong with a system such as ours in which we would not be able to extradite Osama bin Laden or his deputy to the United States of America, if, by some chance, they fell into our hands, unless we were assured that they would not face the death penalty there. This is where the asymmetry of this sort of conflict comes in, because there are groups which do not observe the laws of war and which put themselves outside all conventions, yet are the first to claim the protection of the legal systems of the countries that they seek to destroy when it looks as if they are being cornered.

Something was said about 7 July earlier in the debate. For me, the lasting image will be of the two suspects – I put it no higher than that – who were arrested on the balcony. Fearing for his life, the first words of one of them were: "I have my rights!" Okay, he has his rights, but must we be overly obsessed by the rights of people who want to destroy the very basis of a society that gives rights to anyone at all?

We must set up a systematic operation actively to promote the positive case for what the Coalition forces and the security services are doing. In promoting that case, we must not paint rosy pictures suggesting that victory is just around the corner; we must tell the British people the truth. If we do that, they will not let us down.