CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

ANNUAL DEFENCE DEBATE – 28 October 1997

Dr Julian Lewis: In the time available, I shall speak about Trident, propaganda and security. I realise that the Government Front-Bench team has no formal responsibility for the security services, but I hope to speak about them nevertheless, because they have implications for the defence of this country. I shall not expect particular answers on the questions that I raise.

In a previous existence, I worked professionally as a counter to the unilateralist propaganda of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1980s, and as the person at Conservative Research Department who had to investigate the Labour Party's position on unilateralism in the early 1990s. It therefore brought a smile to my face to listen to so many hon. Members on the Government Benches saying:

"What, us? Unilateralists? Never. Never heard the idea."

It seems as hard to find an ex-CND supporter on the Government Benches as it was to find a supporter of Adolf Hitler in Berlin in 1945 or of Communist Soviet power in Moscow after 1991.

Some people, however, stick to their former opinions. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that public opinion was in favour of getting rid of the bomb. That is news to many of us. Throughout the second Cold War, when it was far more dangerous in nuclear confrontation terms, my colleagues and I commissioned opinion poll after opinion poll to ask whether people thought that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons, as long as other countries did so.

Time and again we got the same answer, and we did so in subsequent years, too. Two-thirds of people think that Britain should possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them; one quarter want unilateral nuclear disarmament. It does not change, and I do not believe that it has changed.

I could not help but compare the behaviour of the Minister for the Armed Forces when I met him first a few years ago, when we were on a radio programme with a CND supporter. The Minister had at one stage supported unilateralism, but in frank conversations with him after the programme – I am sure that he will forgive my mentioning this – he admitted straight out that it had been a mistake, his party had got it wrong, and he would do his best to encourage the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Tony Blair) to take the appropriate attitude and learn the appropriate lessons from that. I applaud that, and I have never sought to exploit the fact that at one stage the Minister –

Mr John Smith: The hon. Gentleman is exploiting it now.

Dr Lewis: No, I am not; I am applauding the fact that the Minister for the Armed Forces admitted that at one stage he was on the wrong side of the argument. I could not help but be amused, however, at the contrasting claim of the hon. Member for Blaydon (John McWilliam) that, when he was in CND, CND had been a multilateralist organisation.

I have the book that I wrote when I was working in Conservative Research Department, and I have the hon. Gentleman's entry. A measure of the multilateralism that he supported can be seen from two quotations. In 1982, the hon. Gentleman signed early-day motion 609 in which he saluted the "courage and determination" of anti-nuclear protestors at Greenham Common as indicating

"the deep revulsion of the British people to the presence of nuclear bases on United Kingdom soil."

On "Newsnight", as late as October 1988, he said:

"We've got to negotiate them" –

British nuclear weapons –

"away. If we can't negotiate them away realistically, we've still got to get rid of them."

Never mind, the hon. Gentleman is on the right side now.

I turn to Trident. It has been suggested that money could be saved by reducing readiness through halving the number of warheads and taking the submarines off 24-hour patrol. Time does not permit me to examine that suggestion in detail, but I ask the Minister: does he think that he will save any money by removing warheads and putting a smaller number on Trident missiles? If he will not – and I suspect that it may cost money – it will be the most meaningless form of gesture politics.

By reducing the readiness of Trident or any other armed force, we run another risk. If we wait for a crisis to arise before restoring readiness, we risk intensifying the crisis by restoring readiness when the international scene has darkened. That is one of the reasons why, when Britain had run down our forces as a result of the appalling 10-year no-war rule which operated from 1919 to 1932 – we finally got rid of it after Hitler came to power – the Government did not feel able to campaign openly for rearmament until 1936. They were afraid of intensifying the crisis by rearming sooner.

We must recognise that Trident is a comprehensive deterrent against nuclear blackmail from whichever rogue Government or future super-power the threat may come. We have a great advantage over the planners of the 1920s who, as I have said in this place before, had so little idea of where the threat would come from that each of the three armed services made its hypothetical defence plans against an entirely different country. If I remember correctly, the Royal Navy made plans against the Japanese; the Army planned against the Russians; and the RAF planned against the French. I shall comment no further on the latter point.

We do not face that sort of dilemma with Trident because it will deter any possible nuclear threat from any identifiable future enemy. I remind those who ask from where the threat would come or who say, "If there is no threat today, why do we need it?" that the life-span of our deterrent will be at least 30 years. It is worth remembering that the life-span of the Third Reich was only 12 years, from 1933 to 1945.

We should remember also that Trident must constitute a minimum deterrent, not just at the beginning of its 30-year lifespan but at the end. Trident must retain flexibility so that it will be able to meet future minimum deterrence standards. I regret the fact that the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Menzies Campbell), said yesterday that we must abandon the Moscow criterion: the ability to get through a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system. If we do that, what will we do if someone develops a sophisticated system during that 30-year period? People will jump up and down and say:

"You must not raise your minimum deterrent, because you will intensify the international crisis."

I turn now to the security services. I am concerned about a report published in the Guardian that referred to the Minister without Portfolio – a gentleman who seems to have been almost as unpopular with MI5 as he is with his party colleagues. In the report headed "Mandelson wants MI5 files pulped", the Minister defended himself against the fact that an MI5 file on him had been opened, while admitting that he had indeed been an activist in the Young Communist League. He said:

"I was not a subversive or a threat to national security – I was a teenager holding ordinary left-wing views."

I was a teenager at the same time as the Minister without Portfolio, and I assure him that his were not ordinary left-wing views; they were despicable views in support of a murderous totalitarian political system. Anyone who had held similar views about the Nazis would never be allowed to forget it.

Norman Godman: And Saddam Hussein.

Dr Lewis: I agree. It is a disgrace that the Minister without Portfolio does not even have the shame to admit that he was wrong. He seeks instead to destroy the files that show that he and many others were wrong. In George Orwell's novel 1984, it is said:

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."