CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE WORLD (FRONT BENCH) – 4 June 2009

Dr Julian Lewis: I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on what he has just said. I was proud to sign his early-day motion and I would like to reassure him about one thing. I do not know what the parliamentary term for "scum" is, but when people such as those in the British National Party behave in the way he described, we can be all the more reassured about how right we are to condemn, oppose and disrespect them and all their works. I only hope that, despite all the provocations from Westminster to our constituents, they nevertheless have the maturity and good sense to do the same to the BNP in the elections today.

However, in the spirit of partisanship, which I cannot entirely resist, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if it were not for the Liberal Democrats' policy of proportional representation, the prospects of the BNP leader entering the European Parliament would be much smaller.

In March 2008 I had the privilege of giving a joint presentation – I must stress that I was very much the junior partner – to a group called First Defence, of which I was the Parliamentary Chairman. The presentation was entitled 'Counter-Insurgency in Principle and Practice'. I was talking about some of the principles of counter-insurgency, but the person everyone came to listen to was Dr David Kilcullen, who was talking about his experiences in practice in Iraq.

One of the most important points about people such as Dr Kilcullen – who was, among other things, a special adviser to General Petraeus and subsequently to Condoleezza Rice – is that the architects of what we hope will be the ultimately successful strategy in Iraq are also some of the people who are least dogmatic about the methods that one can adopt to deal with terrorists and insurgents.

In his book The Accidental Guerrilla, which has just been published, Dr Kilcullen says that in many cases the people against whom we find ourselves fighting would not have taken up arms against us had we not gone into their countries in the first place. That is a message that one gets from all parts of the House, although it is at the same time acknowledged that sometimes, even though such fighting is a consequence of our having had to go into those countries, we had little alternative. However, as Dr Kilcullen stresses, we should do so only as a last resort.

I have pointed out previously that there are some similarities between orthodox political campaigning and the methods used by terrorist groups, albeit not in the moral dimension. There are at least five principles that terrorist groups adopt. I shall quickly list them. The first is:

"Always fight on ground where you are strongest and your opponent weakest".

The next two are:

"Always seek maximum impact for minimum effort"

and

"Try to manoeuvre your opponent into a situation where he is damned if he does, but damned if he doesn't".

That is precisely what I described in relation to the reaction, in the case of Afghanistan, when an attack was mounted against the American homeland from a country in which it would be difficult and bloody to intervene. The last two principles are:

"Use your opponent's own weight to drag him down ('military jiu-jitsu')"

and

"Apply these methods simultaneously and repeatedly".

To a large extent, the methods adopted by the Americans and the British have been to try to use conventional military power against such unconventional enemies. We need to try to avoid being bled dry, however, in a form of warfare that involves fighting on the enemy's strongest ground, not ours. Of the many wise words in Dr. Kilcullen's latest book, which I commend to Members in all parts of the House, he says:

"In military terms, for AQ [al-Qaeda] the 'main effort' is information; for us, information is a 'supporting effort' ... Thus, to combat [al-Qaeda] propaganda, we need a capacity for strategic information warfare – an integrating function that draws together all components of what we say, and what we do, to send strategic messages that support our overall policy."

Bernard Jenkin: Quite right.

Dr Lewis: I am glad my hon. Friend says so. Dr Kilcullen continues:

"Building such a capability is perhaps the most important of our many capability challenges in this new era of hybrid warfare."

It has been difficult for colleagues to get to grips with a subject as broadly defined as defence in the world. I entirely agree with the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Bernard Jenkin) that such debates are too broad in nature. My view is that the older concept of the single-Service debate concentrated the minds of hon. Members, and concentrated the subject matter in the context of the various campaigns in which we were involved or likely to become involved.

Bernard Jenkin: Traditionally, in the past few decades, we have conducted such debates in peacetime. We are now debating a war, and it is absurd that we include it in a general debate about defence policy. It does not make sense.

Dr Lewis: I accept that point, but even in the context of debating a war, it would be better not only to have specific debates on the specific combat parameters but specific debates on the individual Services. Otherwise, we will see reflected in the debate the internecine conflict going on between those at the most senior levels of the Armed Forces. My hon. Friend for Congleton (Ann Winterton) – who has carried out a very focused campaign about armoured vehicles and their inadequacies – has touched on that issue, too. She referred to the change in the nature of warfare, and to a particular speech that, she said, meant that we must move away from preparation for conventional state-on-state warfare towards configuring the main effort of our Armed Forces for the type of wars in which we are engaged today.

I have raised that subject previously at the Dispatch Box, and in my opinion people from particular armed services who take that point of view are going up a blind alley, and a dangerous one at that. Although it is terribly important to be able to configure our forces to fight counter-insurgency campaigns, and absolutely vital to ensure that we give our forces the resources to fight them effectively, we must never lose sight of the fact that the primary role of our Armed Forces must be to insure against the possibility that in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years we might face an existential threat to the peace and freedom of our homeland. I for one do not subscribe to the view that we must dismantle our ability to deter, and if necessary combat, another state armed with modern weapons systems that could threaten us in the future, just because for the foreseeable future we do not think that threat will arise. The lesson of the past, whether the late 19th Century, the first half of the 20th Century or even the post-war conflicts of the second half of the 20th Century, is that when such threats materialise, the vast majority have not been anticipated.

Nick Harvey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis: I am afraid not, because I have three minutes left. Please forgive me.

I was impressed by what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Madeleine Moon) said about the past role of Porthcawl and the massing there for the D-Day invasion. I have heard similar stories about my home town, Swansea. Swansea Bay was the home of the second wave of the invasion armada. No part of the water could be seen, so packed was it with the vessels that were about to sail across the Channel.

I was somewhat less impressed by what the hon. Lady said about the European Union keeping the peace. I must point out to her that the European Community, in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, did not come into existence until 1953, and the Common Market itself did not come into existence until 1957. I do not think that there was any appreciable diminution in the threat of Western Europeans fighting each other after 1953, or even 1957, than there had been between 1945 and 1953 and 1957. What really matters is whether the individual countries of Europe have democratic political systems. If they do, they will not fight each other, and if they have NATO, it is to be hoped that they will not have to fight anyone outside their boundaries either.

My right hon. Friend for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, drew attention to the horrific prospect of a black hole in the defence budget. I have pointed out before, and I will point out again this evening, that we are in a strange situation. The defence budget as a proportion of GDP has remained constant both before and after the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which can only mean that we were fighting two counter-insurgency campaigns at one stage, and are fighting one counter-insurgency campaign now, on what is effectively a peacetime defence budget. That really cannot go on.

Let me say this in the last moments allocated to me: it is normally quite difficult to sum up a debate because there have been so many contributions. By the end of this debate we shall have heard six speeches from the Conservatives, including the two from the Front Bench. That is more than we shall have heard from the other two parties put together. There will have been three speeches from Labour Members, and two from Liberal Democrats. That is not the way in which we should be debating the most important defence matters of the year.

As no-one is listening, let me conclude by sharing a confidence with the House. I actually rather like and admire the Defence Ministers who have been appointed by the Government, and I know that they probably did not want the debate to be held on this day any more than anyone else did. The question is: who did want that, and why? To hold a debate of this sort on a day when everyone is voting in elections suggests either a calculated insult or a complete disregard for – or misunderstanding of – the importance of the subject matter. I know that the Ministers will have done their best, but who was responsible? Was it the Chief Whip? Was it the Prime Minister? I think we should be told.