US–UK BILATERAL RELATIONS (WESTMINSTER HALL) – 8 October 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and it is an even greater pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). He has been in the House longer than I have, so over my entire parliamentary career, I have heard him make many contributions – albeit that when he served as a Whip, he was silent for a while. He has now come back into the fold and has more than made up for that silence today. I can truly say that he has just made probably the best speech I have heard him make, although it is highly probable that he will exceed even that in the future.

However, I wish to concentrate my remarks – this will come as no surprise to those hon. Members who know me – on a certain aspect of the relationship with the United States that my hon. Friend touched on: the military and intelligence relationship. As he rightly said, that is of supreme mutual interest, and it has paid enormous dividends to both sides over at least the past century.

Only last night, I watched the rather splendid American film, “Argo”, which picked up a number of academy awards. It is about the amazing rescue, courtesy of the CIA, on one hand, and the Canadians, on the other, of half-a-dozen American diplomats who had escaped being taken hostage in 1980 at the time of the Iranian revolution.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that “Argo” was shown in the refectory of the US embassy recently, and people had the opportunity, in London, in a teleconference, to interview people involved with the real event – I wish I had been invited!

Dr Lewis: That neatly anticipates the point that I wanted to make, because it shows up one of the slight weaknesses that tend to crop up from time to time in the Hollywood view of the Anglo-American relationship. Quite unnecessarily, quite gratuitously, in the course of the film’s dialogue, there is a throwaway line:

“Well, this country turned them away, that country turned them away, and the Brits turned them away.”

At the time of the academy awards, I remember that they interviewed the British diplomats who had, at huge risk to themselves, taken the six escapees in and had transported them hazardously to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. That enabled the whole story, which was eventually unpacked in this hugely adventurous tale, to transpire.

I do not know why Hollywood sometimes does that sort of thing. It is not the first time that it has done it. Something similar happened a few years ago when there was a rather splendid film called “U-571” about the American seizure of an Enigma machine from a U-boat in the course of the battle of the Atlantic. It was perfectly true that that had happened in 1944 with an American operation, but it had happened twice previously through the good offices of the Royal Navy. I had particular reason to know that, because my esteemed constituent Lieutenant-Commander David Balme was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for descending into the depths of U-110 on the first occasion on which such a seizure was made. When a bit of a fuss was made in the media, the film company backed down. It took him on as an adviser and put in a tribute at the end of the film, pointing out that there had been two earlier seizures.

One must not extrapolate too much from that, because of course the Hollywood view of the Anglo-American relationship should not be relied on any more than, shall we say, the more partisan, chattering-class, luvvie views of politics in certain sections of British society should be relied on. The truth is that the United States and the United Kingdom are at their best when the chips are down. Like people in all sorts of good, valuable and, indeed, invaluable relationships, they bicker and disagree, but when it really matters, they are always there for each other.

John Spellar rose

Dr Lewis: I mentioned that I would say a word or two about the intelligence relationship, and I will after giving way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr Spellar: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman also wanted to quote Winston Churchill’s apposite phrase that the United States would always do the right thing, having exhausted all the other possibilities.

Dr Lewis: Yes indeed, and that puts me in mind, of course, of another thing that the two countries have in common, which was also encapsulated by Winston Churchill when he said that

“democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”.

I see something common there because the United States is a great democracy and the United Kingdom is a great democracy and, as I said, when we get to what really matters, we can always count on each other.

The intelligence relationship no doubt goes back a good deal further than the First World War, but the period that I know something about is the 20th century, and of course in the First World War we had a classic example of the work of the intelligence services in this country with the discovery of something called the Zimmermann telegram. This was a revelation of a conspiracy in which the Germans had offered, if I remember correctly, the Mexicans some great tranche of US territory if they would co-operate with them in hostilities against the United States. It was the discovery by the British intelligence services of that correspondence that finally showed the Americans where their interests lay and helped to precipitate their entry into the First World War, from which time the outcome of the conflict could no longer be in doubt, because arguably – I would say that it is probably beyond argument – it was the entry of the United States that forced the Germans to embark on their last-ditch attempt in March 1918 to break the stalemate on the Western Front, and that led to the sequence of events, including the Battle of Amiens later in the year, that ultimately led to the allied victory.

Similarly, with regard to the military relationship in the Second World War, it is well known that the Americans helped us with lend-lease. The “Destroyers for Bases” deal is also well known. These were all methods of helping the British war effort while the United States itself was still not a belligerent. Less well known is the “Shoot at Sight” policy whereby the Americans undertook, if there were any interference on the high seas by Hitler’s U-boats, to engage them militarily if they sought to attack convoys going from the United States to the United Kingdom.

In other words, the Americans did, given the limitations of their constitutional system, everything that they possibly could do to help Britain in its hour of need until such time as the political situation in the United States – because it was no easy decision for them – facilitated the entry of the United States into the war; and of course to that, the contribution of the Japanese in their treacherous attack at Pearl Harbor was decisive. Again, once America had entered the conflict, the outcome could not be in doubt, even though many months – indeed, several years – of desperate conflict had to ensue before victory was obtained.

Scrolling forward rapidly into the post-war years, we see the occasions on which Britain backed the American initiative – unusually, for once, with the support of the United Nations, because the Russians at that time were not participating in the Security Council – in the Korean war; but there have been hiccups as well, and this is germane to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made about not reading too much into the vote on Syria and the divergence of policy between the two countries. If people forget everything else in my contribution, I hope that they will seek to remember this one point. Even among the closest of allies, there may be genuine disagreements from time to time. The Americans genuinely disagreed with British action and French action in Suez in 1956. Harold Wilson genuinely disagreed with the Americans, and most people think that history has vindicated him in not joining with the Americans to participate in the conduct of the Vietnam war.

As my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, there was a genuine disagreement in this country with the proposal to take military action against the Assad regime a few weeks ago. So far, although it is far too early to tell, if the objective of our Government and the American Government was, as stated, to stop chemical weapons attacks, then as things are unfolding, we are in a better position at the moment to stop chemical weapons attacks than anyone might have dreamed possible. So at the moment, it looks as though the system has worked.

As my hon. Friend rightly stated, it was fascinating and entirely praiseworthy that having seen what the British Government had done in putting the matter to Parliament, and knowing that there was just as much disquiet in American public opinion as there was in British public opinion, President Obama decided to do the same thing by putting the matter to Congress. That is where it would have lain, but for the – what shall we say? – fortunate slip of the tongue by Secretary of State Kerry when he said, “Well, of course, if Assad doesn’t wish to be attacked, he could always offer to give up his chemical arsenal.” Never have words made off the cuff and in such an offhand fashion borne such fruit. Perhaps our diplomats and Foreign Ministers should throw away the prepared script a little more often in the future.

Mr Spellar: I just wonder whether Hansard will put the words “off the cuff” and “offhand” in quotes or inverted commas to convey the sense of what the hon. Gentleman was saying – what he was trying to get across.

Dr Lewis: I am sure that Hansard will be equal to the occasion. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman meant that Hansard would convey the good sense of my somewhat convoluted prose. Sometimes it is better to be right than simply to be tidy.

During the Falklands conflict, we saw the constructive tension in the relationship between the UK and the US at its most interesting. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was wholly hostile to the British position over the Falkland Islands, while Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger was very sympathetic. In the end, the Weinberger view prevailed with President Reagan. It is now widely acknowledged that the covert assistance that the Americans supplied to the British, particularly in the field of intelligence, was of great value to the country and to our campaign, notwithstanding the competing attractions and incentives that the United States experienced at that difficult time, which might have encouraged them not to assist us.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has done the House a service by securing the debate, the House has not done him a service in that, unusually for a Tuesday, it will sit only at 2.30 pm, so many people who would otherwise have contributed to the debate are sadly not here. In other circumstances, I am sure that there would have been many more participants. The best laid plans always suffer the occasional hiccup, however.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Several people have told me that they would have liked to take part in the debate, but they are still travelling from their constituencies, and I am pleased that that has been put on the record.

Dr Lewis: We will have to do the best we can in the extra time available. I am sure that the Front Benchers will rise to the occasion and give us so many good reasons for the support, pursuit, development and continuation of the Anglo-American relationship that the time will simply fly by.

I turn, finally, to the Trident missile system. As my hon. and right hon. colleagues know, the Trident missile bodies in the UK nuclear deterrent force are supplied by the Americans. We and the Americans have a common pool of such missile bodies, although the British, under the terms of international treaties, manufacture the warheads ourselves. The design of the successor submarines that will carry the next generation of the British strategic nuclear deterrent is at an advanced stage, and it is interesting to learn that co-operation in the matter is so close that there will be an identical common missile compartment in American ballistic missile submarines and future British ballistic missile submarines.

It is occasionally suggested that certain officials in the American Administration are not enthusiastic supporters of Britain’s continuing to have a strategic minimum nuclear deterrent. Such individuals, who are seldom named – I have seen one or two names occasionally bandied about – are very much in the minority, however. Overwhelmingly, our American allies see the benefit of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, assigned as it is to duties in NATO but ultimately under the entire control of the British Government. It is beyond dispute that the Americans welcome the existence of that force and do everything they can to facilitate it and to ensure that it is replaced as each generation reaches the end of its life.

I began by saying that the relationship between the UK and the US occasionally has scratchy, ungrateful or divergent moments. As I have said, however, when things really matter, we know that we can always count on each other. I believe that we have done the US a favour over Syria. Time will tell whether I am right, but I suspect that it will not be too long before the American Administration agree that things have worked out for the better. For many years, the Americans have done us a favour by making it possible for us to maintain an ultimate minimum strategic deterrent as a final insurance policy to ensure that our country can never be blackmailed by people armed with nuclear weapons. The benefits for both sides are beyond question. Long may the relationship flourish, long may it continue and long may it survive attempts to undermine it by people who wish neither country much good.