US-UK MUTUAL DEFENCE AGREEMENT – 6 November 2014
Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and a pleasure, as always, to follow the eloquent case made by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I am always happy to support him when he applies for debates such as this, just as he is always happy to support me when I apply for debates about nuclear deterrence. The reason why we are happy to support each other, despite taking entirely opposite views, is that we both feel that we have a good case to make.
There is no earthly reason why Parliament should be shy of debating such an important matter. The hon. Gentleman may find it a trifle more disappointing than I do that if we took a trip down memory lane to a similar debate in the 1980s, the Chamber would be full of people wishing to contribute. He and I have, to put it mildly, struggled a little to get people to come along and take part in this debate, for the simple reason that the issue is not nearly as contentious now as it was two or three decades ago.
I venture to suggest that that is because the British public have spoken on the matter, over and over again. They spoke decisively on it in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, when the question of Britain one-sidedly abandoning its nuclear deterrent was central to campaigning. They have spoken time and again in public opinion polls. Of course, it is possible to vary the answers that we receive in such polls according to the questions we ask. However, when we ask what I regard as the fundamental question:
“Do you think that Britain should continue to possess a nuclear deterrent or nuclear weapons while other countries have them?”,
invariably, about two thirds of the respondents say yes, about a quarter say no and a small, single-figure fraction are undecided. The issue is divisive, because fundamentally it is an article of faith. Are we more likely to keep the peace by getting rid of such weapons unconditionally or by showing a potential enemy that it would be too dangerous to attack us with their nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction?
John Leech: What does the hon. Gentleman think the answer would be if we asked the general public whether they would prefer to dump Trident rather than sack soldiers?
Dr Lewis: I think it would depend on the extent of the debate that had taken place before the question was asked. I would be confident that if there were to be a debate on the subject, the public would come to share my view that no amount of conventional forces can be adequate to prevent an attack on us by an enemy armed with weapons of mass destruction if we lack the means to retaliate in similar terms.
While I am dealing with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, let me return to a point that he made earlier in an intervention on the hon. Member for Islington North. He pointed out that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence had not abolished war, and that wars continued all over the planet. That is not an argument against nuclear deterrence; it is an argument in favour of it. After the second world war, if we had lived through 50 years of hostility between the then Soviet bloc and the west and there had been no conflicts anywhere in the world in which the nuclear balance of terror did not apply, one could indeed make the case that the nuclear balance of terror had had nothing to do with the prevention of war. The reality was that proxy wars were being fought by client states of the superpowers during the Cold War, but the one thing that the superpowers never dared to do was to fight against one another directly, because they knew the potential outcome of all-out war between nuclear-armed powers.
Why is it important to have a debate on the matter, even though public opinion is fairly settled and parliamentary opinion is fairly relaxed? There are two reasons.
John Spellar: The hon. Gentleman says that parliamentary opinion is fairly relaxed, and that may be a proper assessment of the arithmetic. In that case, why does his Prime Minister not put the issue of Trident renewal to a vote of Parliament?
Dr Lewis: I wish I knew the answer. I have asked that question many times, and it takes me neatly on to the two reasons why it is important that we have a debate on this subject, even though Parliament seems relatively relaxed about it. There is no doubt that if we look at the arithmetic of the 2007 vote that took us through the first stages of the successor programme to the Vanguard class submarines, it was exactly as the shadow Minister says – virtually every Conservative MP and a substantial majority of Labour MPs voted for continuing the deterrent into the next generation, and a significant minority of Labour unilateralists voted against the measure. The figure was about 80 or 90, if I remember correctly.
Jeremy Corbyn: One hundred.
Dr Lewis: One hundred exactly. Any advances on 100? No, so let us take that as the figure.
There is no doubt that, if there were to be a free vote in the House of Commons, this matter would proceed. One of the reasons why I want to continue having these debates until such a vote happens is that there should already have been a vote. The shadow Minister is right about that. The main-gate contracts were due to be signed during this Parliament, and it was entirely a result of coalition politics and a back-door deal with the Liberal Democrats, who are opposed to renewing Trident, that the vote was not held and that the life of the existing submarines was extended by five years. The key vote has now been put off until 2016.
One of the two main reasons why it is valuable to continue having these debates is that it is important that Front Benchers from both main parties put their respective positions on the record as often as possible. Let us face it, much as Labour and Conservative Members might regret it, there is always the possibility that we may end up with another hung Parliament that is once again dependent on the Liberal Democrats, or conceivably on the UK Independence Party or, worst of all, the Scottish National Party – I say that without reference to the fact that the party’s parliamentary leader, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), has just vacated his place – if Labour suffers as badly in Scotland at the General Election as some predict. It is therefore terribly important that the Front Benchers of both main parties have their feet held to the fire as often as possible so that there can be less room for wriggling out of it in the event of another hung Parliament.
Mr Spellar: The hon. Gentleman refers to wriggling out, but that is exactly what he is doing. It was absolutely clear where the parties stood in the debate on 17 July 2013, when the policies were enunciated perfectly clearly. My party’s policies were endorsed by the national policy forum and the recent Labour party conference. I am not aware of any changes in his party’s view. This debate is therefore not about the position of the parties being enunciated or holding people’s feet to the fire. The fact is that he has not managed to persuade his Prime Minister to do anything, and he ought to come clean about that.
Dr Lewis: There is a very good reason why I have not been able to persuade the Prime Minister to do anything, which is that it was evidently part of the negotiations – albeit that they were not made public at the time – on the formation of the coalition Government.
Mr Spellar: Secret negotiations.
Dr Lewis: Indeed. Evidently as part of the deal an agreement was reached between the Conservative leader and the Liberal Democrat leader that the decisive steps for the renewal of the successor submarines for Trident would be put off until after the next general election.
Mr Spellar rose –
Dr Lewis: I will give way one more time, but I want to make some progress.
Mr Spellar: I wholly understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to make progress. Let us be clear that what he has said is that, for a squalid deal to get office, the Prime Minister was prepared to damage the defence of this country. That is according to the hon. Gentleman’s own arguments.
Dr Lewis: What I am saying is quite clear. If we end up with a hung Parliament and the balance of power is held by a small unilateralist party, it will be able to blackmail one or other of the main parties into not doing what should be done, which is to sign the contracts to make the renewal of Trident for another generation a certainty. I am clear that that was part of the potpourri of things that were negotiated in private. At the time I described it as a love gift to the Liberal Democrats. I thought it was absolutely wrong. It was a shock and a surprise, and it is not something of which any Conservative should be proud. Having said that, I look to my own party’s Front Benchers for an assurance that nothing like that will ever happen again, and I look to the Opposition spokesman for an assurance that no Labour leader will be tempted to conclude such a deal either.
The second reason why it is important to have a debate on this subject at this time is that the terms of trade, as it were, in international relations have changed. When the hon. Member for Islington North and I addressed these matters in January 2013, when we debated the nuclear deterrent, and in June 2013, when we debated the non-proliferation treaty, much of the argument was focused on the fact that the Cold War was over and showed no sign of returning and that the nuclear deterrent was therefore irrelevant to the threats that then confronted us. As some of us stated at the time, it was far from certain that we could ever know significantly in advance whether those circumstances were going to change. We all hoped that Russia, having shed communism and started along a more democratic path, would continue to go in that direction, but there could be no guarantee.
Even now, we cannot tell where our relationship with Russia will be in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. Nobody predicted the crisis that has arisen over Ukraine, and some might argue that if Ukraine were a member of NATO, the Russians would not have done what they have done. Conversely, it could also be argued that if Ukraine were a member of NATO and the Russians had done what they have done, we would possibly now be on the brink of an extremely dangerous east-west confrontation.
Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there was an agreement between Russia and the west at the time of Ukrainian independence that Ukraine would not join NATO and would not be a nuclear power? Indeed, at the time Ukraine itself renounced nuclear weapons and their presence in Ukraine.
Dr Lewis: Indeed, Ukraine did renounce nuclear weapons. I strongly suspect that public opinion in Ukraine might now be divided, to put it mildly, over the wisdom of that decision. Given that they were Soviet nuclear weapons, Ukraine probably had little choice in the matter.
It would be a mistake to put countries on the path to NATO membership – I have said this consistently – if other NATO members would not be prepared to go to war in defence of their borders. It is all well and good to say that everyone would like to be a member of every alliance, but NATO has been so successful for so long because there is no doubt about its security guarantee. That is the importance of deterrence. In order to deter, we must be able not only to threaten an aggressor with an unacceptable level of punishment but to ensure that he is in no doubt that that unacceptable punishment will inevitably follow if he commits himself to an attack using weapons of mass destruction.
It was said earlier in the debate that the fact that the nuclear deterrent did not prevent the attacks on America in 2001 disproves the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. It does nothing of the kind. The efficacy of nuclear deterrence lies in its ability to deter another country with weapons of mass destruction from firing them in an act of aggression against you – not you personally, Sir Roger, but the person trying to deter the potential aggressor from attacking. The fact that the ability to deter one form of attack does not act as a panacea to prevent all forms of aggression or attack is neither here nor there.
The question we must ask ourselves is what the situation would have been if a country that did not possess nuclear weapons but had overwhelming conventional power faced a country that was weaker conventionally but could nevertheless deploy even a small number of nuclear weapons in an act of aggression. The answer is that no amount of conventional forces could make up for it.
When I saw that the hon. Member for Islington North wanted this debate, I knew that although it would hinge on the mutual defence agreement, that would be only a peg on which to hang the wider argument. The truth of the matter is that the mutual defence agreement is merely a facilitator for the UK’s continuing ability to maintain a nuclear deterrent.
When somebody is against maintaining the nuclear deterrent, there are a number of ways for them to campaign against it. They can try to win votes in Parliament, but as we have seen, when votes are held in Parliament on the issue, the majority of MPs are in favour of continuing the deterrent. They can try to win the battle for public opinion, but as we have seen in general elections during the Cold War and in subsequent opinion polls, most members of the public think that the country should continue to possess some nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them. Therefore, the advocates of unilateral British nuclear disarmament must try to find indirect means of pursuing it. They think that if they can cite the non-proliferation treaty or the mutual defence agreement and derail the latter or get a legal opinion about the former, they might achieve by indirect means what they cannot achieve directly.
The truth of the matter is that nuclear weapons indeed have terrible humanitarian consequences, but those consequences arise when such weapons are fired; they do not arise when the weapons are used as they are meant to be used by democratic states. As I said in my first intervention on the hon. Member for Islington North, they are used in order to show any country that might contemplate or toy with the idea of aggression against the United Kingdom – a NATO democratic country – that that cannot be undertaken without the certainty of incurring unacceptable levels of retaliation.
Article VI of the non-proliferation treaty says:
“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
The only thing that is time-limited is the
“cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date”.
I am sure that the Minister will spell out how this country least of all the nuclear powers can be accused of being involved in a nuclear arms race – I am glad to see him nodding – because it has done more to reduce its nuclear stockpile than any other nuclear country.
Jeremy Corbyn: To take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said a couple of moments ago about the effects of nuclear weapons, surely he must be as aware as I am of the effects of nuclear testing in Australia, the Pacific, the United States and the former Soviet Union. To say that nuclear weapons’ existence has no effects is simply not correct.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the testing of nuclear weapons – they were physically fired and exploded – had effects. That is why there have been subsequent agreements to ensure that no testing of that sort is ever done again in the atmosphere. He is absolutely right about that, but I am afraid that we have moved long beyond that point now. We are now at the point where we must decide which is the more humanitarian way to proceed. I would argue that the lesson of 50 years’ stand-off during the Cold War, albeit with some intense crises at one time or another, is that the people who first thought about such matters in 1945 were correct. They viewed it slightly differently from Clement Attlee.
The hon. Gentleman – I like to call him my hon. Friend – quoted Clement Attlee at the beginning of this debate as saying that the only way to prevent catastrophe would be to outlaw war. I believe that the only way to prevent catastrophe – he has heard me quote this before, but I am afraid that will not prevent me from quoting it again – was set out in 1945 by Professor Sir Henry Tizard, the leading defence scientist of the day, when he was considering the future nature of warfare in a secret report for the chiefs of staff. He was not allowed to consider the coming of the atomic bomb in any detail, but he could not resist making a general observation about it:
“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort,”
to retaliate with an atomic bomb
“might well deter an aggressive nation.”
He drew a rather revealing parallel:
“Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood 20 paces apart and fired at each other with pistols of a primitive type. If the rule had been that they should stand a yard apart with pistols at each other’s hearts, we doubt whether it would long have remained a recognised method of settling affairs of honour.”
Jeremy Corbyn: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman quotes Tizard. He could also have quoted Sir William Penney, but I suggest that he look at the profound comments of Einstein, who said that if he had known what was coming, he would rather have been a clockmaker. Joseph Rotblat, whose work was crucial to the Manhattan project, was so appalled by the power of nuclear weapons that he spent his whole life campaigning for a nuclear-free world. Surely they are more apposite than Tizard.
Dr Lewis: I am afraid that I have not put my argument across sufficiently well. I was not trying to suggest that we should accept the argument based on the eminence of Sir Henry Tizard; I used the argument because of its innate strength. The fact is that many distinguished philosophers have been ardent nuclear unilateralists, including some who worked on the bomb. I gave that quote not so much because of who said it, although I felt it necessary to spell that out, but because of the truth that it contains, which is that when a weapons system is not only able but certain to inflict unacceptable damage, therefore making retaliation unavoidable to those who wish to commit aggression, people will think much more deeply and carefully before they embark on attack, aggression and conflict. The experience of the Cold War proves that, and the majority of people in Parliament and among the public recognise that.
There is therefore nothing to fear in debating issues such as whether or not the mutual defence agreement should continue, because what the agreement amounts to is a method of ensuring that this country can never be threatened by an undemocratic state brandishing atomic, nuclear, thermonuclear or chemical weapons. Also, if we look not at the question of who manufactures the components of the weapons system but at who has control over whether the weapons would ever be fired, we can be in no doubt, and neither can any potential aggressor, that any attempt to threaten this country with nuclear blackmail would be suicidal.
It is not a nice thing to live under a balance of terror, but it is a lot better than living under a monopoly of mass destruction weapons that are in the hands of undemocratic countries.