DEFENCE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM & TRIDENT – 26 March 2009

Dr Julian Lewis: One is sadly accustomed in these debates to paying tribute to Service personnel who have been killed in theatre, previously in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan. One did not expect to have to refer to the murder, for that is what it was, of two young soldiers in Northern Ireland on the eve of their bravely flying out into theatre in Afghanistan, where they would have faced danger from a more recognisable enemy. I would like to raise, in a gentle way, for Ministers’ consideration, one issue that has not been raised today. They may not be aware of a petition that has drawn attention to the fact that these two young soldiers have not been accorded the same sort of ceremonial honour in being returned to the mainland of the UK that they would have been accorded had they died on active service in Afghanistan. These young men did die on active service, just as much as if they had been killed in Afghanistan, and it is only right and proper that they should be accorded the same sort of ceremonial honours. I hope that something can be done in that respect, particularly as it appears that one of their last acts was selflessly to try to protect their comrades as they came under fire.

In this debate, one Minister and three Government Back Benchers have spoken, one Conservative Shadow Secretary of State and seven Conservative Back Benchers have spoken, and one Liberal defence spokesman has spoken. No Liberal Back Benchers have made a speech, despite the heroic efforts at in-flight refuelling by two Back Benchers making short interventions. In a debate on a subject of such breadth and importance, it behoves both the Government and those other parties that purport to be part of the Opposition to make sure that they are here in strength to speak up for their various views of the interests of the Armed Forces.

I come to the contributions that were made. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) examined in customary depth and detail the defence training project scheduled for his locality. It appears to have been a timely speech, given the likely contents of a report – still embargoed, but due out tomorrow – that might have taken the edge off it. The hon. Member for Stafford (David Kidney) spoke warmly of the support for the Armed Forces, and especially for the Gurkhas, shown by his constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Bob Walter) made a very persuasive speech. If anyone could persuade me that the European Security and Defence Policy could complement, rather than undermine, NATO it is he – but even he has some way to go before he manages to achieve that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who has just spoken, was, as usual, passionate in his campaign against the proposed amalgamation of RAF Lyneham and RAF Brize Norton, but he was also deeply realistic, saying to Ministers – I saw assent being indicated from those on the Treasury Bench on this matter – that if there is to be some sort of adverse decision, it is better that it should at least be made clear as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) stressed in encouraging detail the very high public support for the Services and for Service charities. He pointed out that we still have major global interests and therefore need global reach, and that of course relates to both the amphibious capabilities and the Future Aircraft Carriers. It must be said that he has a special interest – perhaps he ought to have declared a family interest – in the aircraft carriers, given the excellent news that his nephew has been recently appointed to command HMS Illustrious. He also made a very interesting point about the size of the defence budget and what we would like it to be. He has the freedom to make that point, but I do not, although I shall be returning to that area a little later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) asked about how state-on-state war would be paid for. The answer is that if it ever happened – God forbid that it should – it would not be paid for in any planned sort of way. We do not go out and about looking for state-on-state warfare: we tend to get involved in such warfare when we are attacked by large, hostile states. What we have to do then, frankly, is find the resources irrespective of whether we can afford them. What we have to do in times of peace is at least retain the nucleus for expansion across the spectrum of Armed Forces capabilities, so that if we ever do have to fight for our very lives in or around our homeland, we would at least have the potential for expansion, which we would not have if we closed things down, bulldozed the sites and said that we would never do anything other than counter-insurgency in the future.

I was greatly encouraged to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, that his Committee has decided that we are not under imminent threat of invasion from Russia. Indeed, I would have hoped that his Committee took the same view even throughout the Cold War. One of the reasons why we were never under threat of imminent invasion was that we were sensible enough to keep our defences strong, not least by retaining a nuclear deterrent that made it clear to any other power that, no matter how many times over they could obliterate this country, they would not be able to do it without paying an unacceptable price.

My right hon. Friend gave an appropriate and sombre warning about Afghanistan, but that does take us somewhat outside the scope of this debate. I agree that questions could be asked about the parameters of these debates. I have tended to look at this one not as ‘Defence in the UK’, but ‘Defence of the UK’, as it complements the subject of defence in the rest of the world. That is a commonsense way to look at it.

We heard a typically magisterial speech from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). He sets an example to the House of what it means to have experience, intelligence and fine judgment. His observations on the use of the reserves as a substitute – not from time to time or to fill particular gaps, but as a cheap alternative to adequate regular forces – were very well made indeed. The consequences of what he talked about – the under-resourcing of defence as a whole – are clear for all to see. One has only to look at the reports of the breakdown of relationships between the Service chiefs, when they spend time rubbishing the projects of the other Armed Services in order to try to get a better share of an inadequate cake, to realise the poisonous effect of what has been done to the harmony, efficiency and future potential of the Armed Forces.

I shall repeat what I have said every time that I have had the privilege of making a speech in one of these defence debates. We cannot go on as we are. We were spending 2.5 per cent. on defence when we went into Afghanistan and, as Tony Blair said in his valedictory speech on HMS Albion, we are still spending 2.5 per cent. on defence if the extra cost of Iraq and Afghanistan is added. We have, therefore, been engaging in two medium-scale conflicts on effectively a peacetime defence budget.

I do not know yet what final determination will be made by the leader of my party and the Shadow Cabinet on pledges before the next election. One thing that I have been allowed to say repeatedly, however, and I say it again – there is nothing so good in counter-propaganda as repetition – is that a future Conservative Government will fully fund the defence commitments that we undertake. That is not happening at the moment, and it must mean that there will have to be either greater funding in the future or fewer commitments. Which of those two it will be, or whether it will be some point in between, will be revealed nearer the time. However, there will not be a continuation of fighting wars in a way that undermines the future viability of the core Armed Forces.

James Arbuthnot: Does my hon. Friend remember that, before the 1997 General Election, the Labour Party pledged that we would reduce the proportion of spending on the defence budget to the European average of gross domestic product? Luckily, when European countries started to reduce their defence budgets as dramatically as they did, even this Government decided that they could not keep up with them in the downward spiral.

Dr Lewis: I do indeed. I also remember during the Cold War years – like many middle-aged men who were involved in those arguments at the time, I am prone to looking back to that time too often – the argument was always to ask why Britain was spending a greater proportion on defence than most of our NATO partners when our European colleagues and partners in NATO were spending much less. In fact, we were spending more than just about all of them except for the Americans. As somebody once pointed out, that was the wrong comparison. Those other countries were on our side. We should have been looking at what was being spent by our potential adversaries rather than what was being spent by our allies. We have to spend as much as the country can afford to fulfil as many military commitments as we need to undertake. We must not be guided by what other countries do, especially if they are on our side rather than our potential adversaries.

I now come to the question of the nuclear deterrent. It was pleasant to hear the traditional voice of Labour unilateralism coming in an intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Peter Kilfoyle), who spoke of the letter in The Times from three retired generals, and from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who was concerned that other countries would follow the UK’s example if we do not get rid of our nuclear weapons, presumably by acquiring nuclear weapons of their own, and claimed that such projects are historically far more expensive than when planned.

I have to correct the hon. Lady on both points. Both Trident and Polaris are famous, if not unique in MOD terms, for having come in on time and on budget and, in at least one case, under budget. As for other countries, they will not make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons because Britain, an existing nuclear power, continues to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent as long as other countries still have nuclear weapons themselves. Whether countries acquire nuclear weapons or not is a matter of their hard-headed interpretations of their own strategic interests. Throughout the Cold War and subsequently, whenever people on that side of the argument were challenged to name a particular nuclear or near-nuclear country that would follow suit if we unilaterally gave up our nuclear deterrent, they have never been able to give an example.

As for the letter from the three generals, I would like to think of one of the three, Sir Hugh Beach, as a friend of mine. He is a very gallant and courteous man, who won a Military Cross fighting the Nazis in World War Two. I think very highly of him, but he has always been against Britain’s having an independent nuclear deterrent. I was pleased that, when the Royal United Services Institute invited him to write a long article for its Journal, I was encouraged to write the rejoinder for the opposite side of the case. I invite anoraks on this subject to get hold of the February 2009 edition and immerse themselves in those two articles.

As well as being one of the most decent Members of this House, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Julian Brazier) is certainly one of the most respected on the subject of reserves, but I want to concentrate on another aspect of his excellent speech. He went to the heart of the matter when he pointed out that virtually all the wars and conflicts in which we have been engaged in recent history took us completely by surprise. He gave a long and extremely impressive list, but I should like to add one more example. In the 1920s, this country’s Armed Forces were so unclear about where the next war was likely to come from that each of them prepared its own hypothetical contingency plans against entirely different potential enemies – the Royal Navy against Japan, the Army against Russia, and the Royal Air Force against France. At least one of them got it right, but I leave it to hon. Members to decide which.

I turn now to the contribution made by the Minister for the Armed Forces. I was surprised at his feeble attempt to suggest that the Conservative policy on the maintenance of Trident was unclear. The Conservative Party is only major party in this House that has supported the maintenance of the strategic nuclear deterrent ever since Britain acquired one.

I take the Minister back to that happy day of 14 March 2007, when this House voted by 409 votes to 161 to proceed with the steps necessary to renew Trident and keep the nuclear deterrent for a new generation. On that day, 87 Labour MPs joined the Liberal Democrats in opposing the motion. If the Conservative Party had done what the Liberal Democrats did and found an excuse to vote against the Government, the Government would have been defeated. So it really ill behoves the Government to say that the Conservative Party, which saved their correct policy to go on with the nuclear deterrent, is in any way uncertain about the matter. If the Minister had any doubts in that regard before today, the excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr Liam Fox), the Shadow Secretary of State, means that he can have no more in the future.

Mr Bob Ainsworth: All I was seeking was clarification.

Dr Fox: Well, you got it!

Mr Ainsworth: Absolutely, we certainly have it now, but it is something that the Shadow Chancellor will have to bear in mind when he draws up his plans. As I said, the Conservative Party must somehow stretch its ambitions around the money that it is applying, and the two do not match.

Dr Lewis: Here is a litmus test for the Minister: when he sees that my hon. Friends the Members for Woodspring (Dr Fox) and for Aldershot (Gerald Howarth) – and, I venture to say, myself – have been quietly shifted away from the defence portfolio to other responsibilities, he may have some grounds for suggesting that there is something in what he has said. One never knows, as all such matters are in the lap of the gods – or, in this case, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (David Cameron), the leader of my party, whom we all greatly admire and respect.

I particularly admire and respect my right hon. Friend because I remember his excellent response to Tony Blair at the end of 2006, when the statement about the Government’s intention to go on with a new generation of the nuclear deterrent was made. I was somewhat involved in the drafting of that reply and my right hon. Friend made only two alterations, both of which made it even tougher than it had been in the original draft. I therefore have no doubts whatsoever on that matter.

I turn now to the contribution from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I think that I dealt at the time with his bizarre claim that his party had been vindicated by the fact that a timetable had been set for withdrawal from Iraq, now that the insurgency has been brought so massively under control. The Liberal Democrats were advocating a timetable for withdrawal while the outcome of the conflict was still in doubt. I have argued before that counter-insurgency involves four elements: identification of the enemy, isolation of the enemy, neutralisation of the enemy and negotiation with realistic parts of the enemy to deal with the irreconcilables so that peace can then prevail. That is precisely what has happened in this case.

The hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the protesters were well made and his commitment to a Strategic Defence Review is good. It is a pity that it came so long after my party’s calls for one, not only now but every four years. One of the interventions made during his speech seemed to suggest that we needed a Strategic Defence Review because the last one had been tailored to the Cold War. That is the opposite of the truth: the last Strategic Defence Review, which we all, on both sides of the House, said at the time was a pretty good piece of work, was precisely tailored to the post-Cold War world.

Nick Harvey: Yes.

Dr Julian Lewis: I am glad the hon. Gentleman sees that. Perhaps that was why he described the intervention as “interesting” rather than giving it more positive support.

My time is all but up but I should like to say a word or two – [Bob Ainsworth: “It is up.”] Okay. I shall say a word and a half about the carrier project. In a written statement on 11 December, the Secretary of State said:

“We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the Joint Combat Aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by one to two years.” – [Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]

However, although Lockheed Martin confirmed that it was ready to deliver the first aircraft by 2014 the company was told by the MOD that it would not need the aircraft until 2017. The Minister with responsibility for defence equipment stated on 23 February that

“the re-profiling of the carrier programme was in no sense due to any delays in the JSF programme”. – [Official Report, 23 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 10.]

I have been referred by the Prime Minister in written answers to questions that were not reached on a Wednesday, both yesterday and last month, to each of those answers, so I should be very grateful indeed if the Minister would give us the reason why the aircraft carrier programme was delayed. It has not been made clear yet.

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Kevan Jones): As usual, the debate has been wide-ranging. The contributions were not only well informed but covered interesting subjects.

Today, on the Conservative Front Bench we saw the neo-cons versus the Cameroons. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) is a strong advocate for the nuclear deterrent – I would recommend to anyone his pamphlet arguing the case for it. It would be interesting if there were a Conservative Government – I shall not say that I look forward to the day – and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) was at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the hon. Member for New Forest, East at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr Fox) running some bit of Government equivalent to a Siberian power station.

Today, the Conservatives have set out clearly that the nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation. The reason that clarity is important is that sad anoraks, such as me, who read ConservativeHome, can see that the central hierarchy of the party are trying to test the water – to find out whether negotiation would be possible. The clarity we have heard today is very important ... ]