RENEWAL OF THE NUCLEAR DETERRENT – 20 January 2015
Dr Julian Lewis: I begin by saying a word in defence of the Labour Party. Scottish National Party Members seem to regard anyone who disagrees with them as trivialising the subject and anyone who agrees with them as taking it seriously. I personally greatly value the bipartisan approach taken by successive Labour and Conservative Governments to the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent. It is true that for a few years in the 1980s, the Labour Party was captured by its left wing and went down the unilateralist road, but after two massive election defeats in 1983 and 1987, when the nuclear deterrent issue was central to the campaigns, the Labour Party changed back to its bipartisan policy of nuclear deterrence.
We saw that reflected the last time we had a vote on this subject, as far as I can recall, which was on 14 March 2007. Tony Blair was still Prime Minister and he was proposing the approval of the renewal of the nuclear deterrent – the first stages of the process which should have got to main gate during this Parliament but are now due to get there in the next one. In that debate, we saw something interesting: almost all the Conservative MPs voted in favour of renewing the nuclear deterrent and keeping it in existence for the next generation; a considerable majority of Labour MPs were also in favour, but a sizeable minority of about 90 were opposed – they were the CND supporters who have been consistent in their principled opposition to nuclear weapons throughout their political lifetime; and also in the ‘against’ camp were the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists. The result of that vote came about because of an agreement between the Front-Bench teams, with the motion being carried by 409 votes to 161.
That vote represented something more than a decision taken in this House; it also represented, quite fairly, the general spread of opinion consistently in this country throughout the Cold War and in the years afterwards. When the fundamental question is asked in poll after poll,
"Do you think that Britain should continue to have nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?",
almost exactly two-thirds of the population say yes and almost exactly one quarter say no, with single figures or thereabouts, if my arithmetic is correct, for the undecided. It is indeed a very divisive issue and it is one on which it is difficult to have a foot in both camps, although, as we have seen today, our friends the Liberal Democrats are doing their best to do that.
Angus Brendan MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman will probably know that the last time this was debated was in 2007 – and there was a vote – the majority of Scottish MPs voted against – we had an example of English votes for Scottish bombs.
Dr Lewis: I was generous in giving way to the hon. Gentleman so soon after he had made his own contribution. All I would say is that I know there was a vote on that day – that is what I just said – and if he tells me that a majority of Scottish MPs may have voted the other way, I accept that; but Scotland is, by choice, part of the United Kingdom and decisions on issues such as this are decisions for the United Kingdom as a whole. I do not believe even the SNP thinks that ‘devo-max’ ought to include defence policy. If it does, we are in an even worse situation than I anticipated.
We heard from the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), who is a friend of mine, about moving away from the Cold War. What one moves away from, one can move back to, and more quickly than one anticipates – particularly if, as the Chairman of the Defence Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said in his excellent speech, one’s enemies or potential enemies have good reason to doubt one’s will and determination to stand up for the agreements one has made and to use the deterrent power one has to prevent war from breaking out in the first place. I was very surprised that the hon. Member for North Devon did not think that the events in Ukraine had any bearing on our discussions today. I think the events in Ukraine are highly relevant, particularly as NATO has a rather strange open-door policy to membership, which it should not have. It should not grant membership to any country that we are not prepared to go to war for if it is invaded.
Ms Gisela Stuart: Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that the importance of Ukraine and Kiev is that this is the first time that we have had a unilateral breach of international borders since world war two? It is the kind of thing that we thought would not happen again, and it has, so the context remains the same.
Dr Lewis: It does indeed, and what really worries me is that because the intensity of the fighting has been so great, it is easy to imagine that it could spill over into a nearby country that is a member of NATO. If that happens, we would be at war with Russia. It is frightening to think what our summer would have been like if we had previously gone down the route of admitting Ukraine to NATO membership, sympathetic though we are. I remember that we stood by during the uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe that occurred when half the continent was under Russian control. We were very sympathetic to the Hungarians, and I remember with total clarity that we were terribly sympathetic to the Czechoslovakians, but nobody seriously suggested that we could go to war for those countries because of the geo-political realities at that time.
Bob Stewart: I seem to recall in December 1994 that four nations – three nations and Ukraine – guaranteed the sovereign integrity of Ukraine in return for it getting rid of its nuclear weapons. It has got rid of its nuclear weapons, but we have not guaranteed its security.
Dr Lewis: Yes, and that should serve as a warning to us not to enter lightly into agreements that we have no intention of defending – I mean defending in the military sense.
It is just over 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. I remember looking back in the archives of the inter-war period when a great debate was raging over whether or not it was safe to continue with the 10-year rule. I have mentioned it in the House before. It is highly relevant, so I will mention it again. The idea of the 10-year rule was that the Government would look ahead for a decade and see whether they thought there was any danger of a major war breaking out. If they did not see any such danger, they would cut the defence budget. That was rolled forward from 1919 right through to the early 1930s when it was eventually scrapped when Hitler came to power. It had a very damaging effect on our level of preparedness.
Lord Hankey, as he later became, was the Military Secretary of the Cabinet. In 1931, as an argument for scrapping the 10-year rule, he looked back to that summer of 1914 and said that far from having 10 years’ warning of the outbreak of the First World War, we had barely 10 days because of the rapidity with which the various alliances triggered each other into action. Suddenly, from nowhere, we had found ourselves drawn into a conflict with practically no notice whatever.
Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend pointed out in an essay that Maurice Hankey had said that we had failed to predict the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Most recently, we failed to predict Russia going into Ukraine and Daesh taking over western Iraq, so I agree very wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
Dr Lewis: I am flattered to know that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee reads my writings, and even quotes them back to me. I am very grateful to him.
I want to stress that I believe that the SNP has chosen this debate today – I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who I am pleased to see back in his place to hear my contribution, on securing it – with a particular political scenario in mind. SNP Members know that the majority of Labour Members and their supporters across the country agree with the concept of nuclear deterrence. They know that an overwhelming majority of Conservatives agree with nuclear deterrence. They are hoping to obtain something that they can use in the event of a future hung Parliament, in precisely the way that the Liberal Democrats were able to use their bargaining power to secure the postponement of the passing of the main gate decision from this Parliament to the next one. I think that was a terrible decision and it set a terrible precedent, but I am greatly reassured by the strength of the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary today.
When my hon. Friend the Minister winds up, I wish to hear that something will be done about the future of Trident and the holding of the main gate vote on time, as scheduled, in 2016 similar to what we have said about other areas of policy. We have seen authoritative statements in the press that no coalition will be entered into by the Conservatives unless it provides for an in/out referendum on the EU; similarly we have seen that no coalition will be entered into by the Conservatives unless it provides for passage of the draft Communications Data Bill. Those are two very important issues, but I submit that the future of the British minimum strategic nuclear deterrent is just as important as those two issues, if not more so. Until that vote is held, and held successfully, I shall continue to press those on my Front Bench for a commitment that we will never again allow the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent to be used in the way that it was in 2010 by a minority party in coalition negotiations.
Sir Nick Harvey: I feel I must correct the historical record. In the summer of 2010, a value-for-money study on the Successor programme concluded that savings could be made by slipping the time scale slightly. This was not something the Liberal Democrats demanded, although it was something we welcomed. It had the happy consequence of moving main gate into the next Parliament, but it was not something we sought, demanded or –
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 31 minutes, and very long interventions will not help those Members who want to speak.
Dr Lewis: I shall also try to be more concise in the remainder of my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker.
All I can say to the hon. Member for North Devon, whom I greatly respect and admire, is that he ought to have a word with the then President of the Liberal Democrats, who proudly proclaimed on the Liberal Democrats’ official website that it was entirely as a result of the Liberal Democrats that we had not taken the decisive step of signing the main gate contract in this Parliament. I can only leave them to decide the issue between themselves.
Let me return to some of the purely military arguments in favour of the continuation of the strategic deterrent, mercifully leaving the politics to one side. The most important argument, as I have stated in previous debates in this House, is the recognition that future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those that engulfed us throughout the 20th century. That is the overriding justification for preserving armed forces in peace time as a national insurance policy. No one knows which enemies might confront us during the next 50 years, for that is the period we are discussing by the time everything is designed, constructed and deployed, and has served out its operational lifetime. It is highly probable that at least some of those potential enemies will be armed with weapons of mass destruction.
Secondly, it is not the weapons themselves that we have to fear but the nature of the regimes that possess them. While democracies are usually reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships, although they did so against Japan in 1945 as has been pointed out, the reverse is not true.
James Morris: There is consensus in the international community about the Iranian nuclear programme and efforts to reduce it. Significant nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is likely in the next 20 or 30 years, which feeds into my hon. Friend’s argument about the 50-year time span that we should consider in this debate.
Dr Lewis: It does indeed. I cannot think of an existing nuclear power that has done more than the United Kingdom to slim down and reduce the firepower of its independent nuclear deterrent. The response, as has been repeatedly pointed out by Government Members and by some Opposition Members, to those unilateral reductions on our part has been absolutely zero. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that if we were to abandon our nuclear deterrent completely any other country would follow suit. All that would happen would be that those near-misses, which have been discussed so eloquently today – the risks of nuclear Armageddon by accident – would continue between the Superpowers if they are tangible risks, but we would add another risk: the risk that someone hostile to us with a nuclear armament could blackmail us into concessions, surrender or absolute annihilation. The risk of the deliberate firing of nuclear weapons against us is something that we would be crazy to accept voluntarily and unnecessarily.
Returning to the reluctance of democracies to launch nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them – although we use them, as I have said, continuously as deterrents – we should consider the alternative. If a dictatorship such as that in Argentina had had an arsenal of even a few small atomic weapons and the means to deliver them, no matter how many conventional forces we had had, we would not have dared to retake the Falkland Islands, because we must not project onto other countries that do not share our political principles and freedoms the sense of self-restraint that we apply to ourselves.
The third argument that I always outline is that the United Kingdom has traditionally played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized democracies have been able or willing to do. Democratic countries that do not have a nuclear deterrent have little choice but to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best or to rely on the nuclear umbrella of more powerful allies. The United Kingdom, for historical reasons, is a nuclear power, and it is much harder to defeat it than many other democracies by conventional means because of our physical separation from the continent.
The next argument is that our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position, to which I have just referred, and the fact that we are the junior partner might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us separately. Given the difficulties of overrunning the UK with conventional forces, compared with our more vulnerable allies, an aggressor might be tempted to use one or more mass-destruction weapons against us on the assumption that the United States would not respond on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find out his mistake only when it was too late for all concerned. An independently-controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.
The fifth military argument, which was mentioned earlier, is that no amount of conventional force can compensate for the military disadvantage that faces a non-nuclear country in a conflict against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is especially instructive not only because the emperor was forced to surrender but because of what might have happened in the reverse scenario. If Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the Allies had not, a conventional Allied invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.
I tend to find that people wish to try to sweep aside the patent logic of nuclear deterrence by projecting onto historical figures events that did not happen and could never possibly be tested. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who has now left his place, asserted that Hitler would not have been constrained by a nuclear deterrent held by the Allies if he had had nuclear weapons. In 1943, Hitler proposed to use the nerve gas, Tabun, which was far, far more deadly than the gases that the Allies then possessed. When he consulted his chief scientists, they said that it was most unlikely that the Allies had not discovered Tabun too, and he therefore decided not to employ it, even though it would have had a devastating effect. That is an example of even Hitler being deterred by the mistaken belief that his enemies had a weapon when in fact they did not.
The hon. Member for Moray made his points with clarity and calmness, as always. He said that he did not think that deterrence had worked. Of course, when something does not happen – that is, World War Three – it is difficult to show that it would have happened if one had done something different. However, I always apply the test of the proxy war. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) observed that throughout the Cold War period many proxy wars went on around the globe. In fact, that is an argument in favour of the case that nuclear deterrence had something to do with the fact that the Superpowers did not fight each other in Europe. If no other conflicts had been going on among proxies of the Superpowers, one could have argued that they would not be likely to have been at each other’s throats if they did not have a nuclear deterrent. The fact that they were fighting each other by every means possible other than open war – state-to-state – on the European continent strongly suggests that the possession of the nuclear deterrent, and the balance of terror, had something to do with that stability.
Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree that in the preceding period, which is the only thing we can base our evidence on, there was a whole series of European wars with the major powers fighting each other.
Dr Lewis: Exactly. That leads us back to the heart of what the concept of deterrence requires in order to work. Deterrence means that a potential aggressor must not only face a degree of retaliation that is unacceptable if inflicted, but be convinced that that retaliation is unavoidable.
The key point about nuclear deterrence was made in a 1945 study by the leading defence scientist when nuclear weapons were first being considered as a concept. I love quoting the example – I have done so on previous occasions – given by Professor Sir Henry Tizard, who was one of the chief scientific advisers to the wartime Government, when he first considered what the atomic bomb would mean if it worked. He said that he could see no way of preventing an atomic bomb from being used except by the fear of retaliation, and he illustrated that by saying:
"A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort" –
our deterrent has always been the final resort, if the future existence of the nation is at stake –
"might well deter an aggressive nation. Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood twenty 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."
The hon. Member for Moray referred to a number of things that I will touch on briefly. He talked about our obligations under article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states:
"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 in that commitment is the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date. We are not engaged in a nuclear arms race with anyone. We never have been and we have successively, as I said earlier, been reducing our capacity with little or no response from the other nuclear powers.
The other two, open-ended commitments are to achieve nuclear disarmament and to achieve general and complete disarmament. The article wisely recognises the link between the two, because one thing we do not wish to do by removing the balance of terror and by achieving even multilateral nuclear disarmament is to make the world safe again for conventional conflict between the major powers.
Angus Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman update the House on the initiatives led by his Government to fulfil their obligations? He will forgive me, but I have not caught up with the discussions his Government have had with other nuclear powers to fulfil those obligations.
Dr Lewis: I do not think the hon. Gentleman has understood the three obligations I have listed. The first is to work for the cessation of the nuclear arms race – we are not a part of the nuclear arms race – at an early date. The second is to achieve world nuclear disarmament, and the third is to achieve general and complete conventional disarmament. I believe that those are, frankly, utopian visions that we work towards but which suffer setbacks according to the state of the world at any time, and the state of the world at the moment is one of grave disturbance and serious potential threats.
Bernard Jenkin: I am sorry that I missed the earlier part of my hon. Friend’s speech. Surely the point is that there is no obligation at all to disarm unilaterally in any shape or form, yet that seems to be the policy favoured by the supporters of this motion.
Dr Lewis: I entirely agree.
I must bring my remarks to a close for the sake of other Members, but I would simply say that, although much has been said about the cost of the deterrent, so far as I know our deterrent has never amounted to more than 10% of the overall defence budget. Arguments about the deterrent must be made on the basis either that people believe it is necessary to have one to prevent this country from facing nuclear blackmail, or they do not. If people believe that a deterrent is necessary for such a role, 10%, 20% or even 30% of the defence budget is not too much to pay. Fortunately, we will not have to pay anything like that sum. It is comparable with the cost of the High Speed 2 rail system that we propose to build. In my opinion, our priorities should lie in a slightly different direction, given the cuts that defence has taken.
Mr Marcus Jones: My hon. Friend is an expert on these matters and is making a compelling case. Does he agree that it would be completely naive to accept the SNP’s position as set out in the motion, particularly in thinking that if we disarm in this sense, others will follow?
Dr Lewis: Yes, indeed. As I said, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
I have covered the point about gaps in conventional capability. If the nuclear deterrent were scrapped, there is no guarantee that the money saved – all of it, or even any of it – would be put towards conventional forces. Even if it were, no amount of conventional forces can compensate for the absence of the ability to deter nuclear blackmail.
We have heard in graphic terms the consequences of the explosion of a nuclear weapon. All I can say is that everybody agrees it would be a disaster if nuclear weapons were fired and exploded. The question is: what is the best way of preventing that from happening? Time after time, when asked the key question about keeping a nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have one, people have shown in overwhelming numbers that they subscribe to the route of peace through deterrence. I subscribe to that, as do most Labour Members, but the smaller parties do not. It would be an outrageous betrayal of the first duty of government – namely, defence – if either of the two main parties, if there were a hung Parliament after the next election, allowed this matter to become a negotiating issue in forming a coalition. The issues at stake are far too important for that.
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[(Shadow Secretary of State for Defence) Vernon Coaker: I thank the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for the contribution he has made, and often makes, in his speeches on this issue in the House of Commons. I do not mean to question the other parts of his speech, but may I tell him that its last couple of minutes encapsulated what the debate is about in a nutshell?
[ ... ]
Labour is clear. Let me say this unequivocally: our position, in an increasingly uncertain and unstable world, is that it is right for the UK to maintain a credible, minimum independent nuclear deterrent based on a continuous at-sea posture. It is right to want to deliver that deterrent in the most capable and cost-effective way, and in a way that best contributes to global security. It is right, therefore, to want to examine all the UK’s military capabilities, including nuclear, as part of the next Strategic Defence and Security Review, and to state that we would require a clear body of evidence for us to change our view that continuous at-sea deterrence provides the most credible and cost-efficient form of deterrent. That is why, as the hon. Member for New Forest East mentioned, in 2007 Parliament voted to maintain the deterrent and to authorise spending on the concept phase and initial gate. It is why MPs will be asked again to vote on constructing a new class of Vanguard submarines in 2016.]
MOTION: That this House believes that Trident should not be renewed.
VOTE: The House having divided: Ayes 37, Noes 364, ... Question accordingly negatived.