BRITAIN AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY – 2 July 2015
Dr Julian Lewis: It has been touching to receive so many messages of congratulations on my becoming Chairnan of the Defence Committee. It is a great responsibility and I will endeavour to live up to it. I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for the reports he produced in short order, some of which were slightly overshadowed by the advent of the election campaign and deserve further scrutiny. There was a lot of very interesting material in them.
If I may, I will begin by addressing the excellent interventions made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) relating to questions of terminology. In that connection, I pay tribute in his absence to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for his achievement. He attracted support from every part of the House – he gathered 125 right hon. and hon. Members’ signatures – and petitioned the BBC to stop playing the propaganda game of Daesh and to describe it correctly.
Derek Twigg: I am a former member of the Defence Committee. The right hon. Gentleman will recall a report from back in January that mentions the word “Daesh”. The Committee was ahead of its time.
Dr Lewis: I hope to be able to continue that degree of far-sightedness in future.
Mr James Gray: I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend to make such a tiny point. It is most kind of him to describe me as 'gallant', but I was only ever a private soldier in the Territorial Army. Surrounded as I am by brave soldiers who truly deserve the title, I should say that I am not in any shape, size or form 'gallant'.
Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is, in my eyes, as gallant as they come.
In my hon. Friend’s intervention, he drew attention – he was kind enough to give me the copy of the news article to which he referred – to what the head of the BBC had said. According to today’s edition of The Times:
“The head of the BBC has refused demands from 120 MPs to drop the term Islamic State on the ground that its coverage of the terrorist group must be impartial. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the director-general, warned that an alternative name for the militants was ‘pejorative’ and said that the broadcaster needed to ‘preserve the BBC’s impartiality’.”
I have news for Lord Hall. I am well familiar with the concept of impartiality that applies to the BBC and Independent Television. I used to look into it decades ago. It is not absolute impartiality. The example that is always given is that there is no need for the media to be impartial between the arsonist and the fire brigade. The BBC is required to show 'due impartiality', which does not mean that it has to be impartial between terrorists and constitutionally constituted Governments and their armed forces. Lord Hall would do well to reflect on how he would react if somebody from his ranks of well-paid BBC executives said that the Corporation needs to be impartial between the Nazis and the forces that fought them. He would not stand up for that suggestion for a moment.
Alex Salmond: Far be it for me to defend the BBC, since it has done so little in Scotland recently to merit defence, but does the right hon. Gentleman not allow that perhaps we should unite across the Chamber in the expression of the term 'Daesh' and the wisdom of using it? Once we do that, we can then reflect on whether the broadcasting organisations would follow, as opposed to just turning this into a bash the BBC session.
Dr Lewis: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who anticipates the very next point I was going to make. If we use the term 'Daesh', eventually, with luck, the BBC will be the only organisation left not doing so. At that point, even the BBC might see sense.
I wish to paint a brief picture of the sort of problems we face that lead to the strange paradox that I alluded to when I intervened briefly on the Secretary of State. As I said, two years ago we were proposing to intervene on behalf of one side in a civil war and against the other. Now, it is being proposed that we do exactly the opposite. There are people in the House who are far more expert in these matters than I –
Bob Stewart: I seem to recall that the vote was actually not to intervene, but to keep the option of intervention on the menu in negotiations. It was not an option for us to intervene.
Dr Lewis: I am afraid I have to disagree with my hon. and gallant Friend. If the vote had been carried, intervention would have taken place the very next weekend. The vote was defeated in this House and the Americans, as a result of that defeat, wisely followed suit, and we did not go down that dangerous road.
As I was starting to say, my interpretation of the situation we face in the world – it may be over-simple, but here it is for what it is worth – is that the Western world is being caught up in a terrible recrudescence of the age-old battle between the Shi’as and the Sunnis, a point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) in an earlier intervention. The complexity is that the Shi’a and the Sunni militants have a selection of powerful allies. On the Shi’a side, the Syrian Government two years ago posed the threat of chemical weapons, and the Iranian regime has the potential to acquire nuclear weapons. As part of that particular little gang, we also see our old friend President Putin, who has been flexing his muscles, in a way that we all strongly condemn, by taking unilateral action in Ukraine.
On the Sunni side, we see al-Qaeda and the Daesh militants. Behind them, we see strong elements at least of ideological support in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Qatar, who are supposed to be our friends and allies. The problem we face is that there are no good outcomes to be had, whatever course of action we take. What we therefore have to do is to choose between, at any one time, and adopt a policy that is the lesser of, two evils. What we have to decide at any one time is: which is the greater danger posed by one element or another in those two unlovely collections of hostile regimes and terrorist organisations?
I wish today simply to sow the seed of the idea that, where we cannot get a wonderfully satisfactory outcome, and we know the only outcome we will get is to try to minimise the damage and that that will have to be done over an extended period, we should adopt a policy that stood us in good stead for half a century in relation to Soviet Communist Russia and its empire: the policy of Containment. We cannot force countries that are not ready yet for democracy to become democracies at the point of a gun barrel, unless one goes to the same extent as at the end of the Second World War when there was the total defeat and occupation of countries at the cost of millions of lives.
The idea of Containment is not passive; it is an Active Containment. I spoke earlier today with Lord West, whom I greatly respect. He combines much knowledge with a great deal of practical common-sense, and I consulted him two years ago before going ahead and deciding to vote against the proposed intervention then. I said to him today that I was minded to think that if we intervened on this occasion, we would be intervening in a very different way from the one that was proposed two years ago. We would not be intervening to bring down another dreadful Arab dictator and replace him with another failed state run by Islamist extremist terrorists. His response was interesting. He said it is a policy of deciding, at any one time, which of the crocodiles is swimming nearest to the boat. Of course, there is no way of permanently taking the crocodiles out of the scene and sailing blissfully out of danger. When dangerous organisations and deadly regimes wield their weapons in ways that are most threatening to us, we must constantly, over a period of time, try to contain the threat by active measures.
What we are seeing with Daesh and its activity is new. It requires Containment, but it requires Active Containment. Daesh is seizing large areas of territory. By doing so, it is giving up the one great advantage that insurgencies and terrorist groups generally have: the advantage of invisibility. A policy of Active Containment will, from time to time, certainly require the step of military intervention to prevent the enemy on that particular side of the two-sided threat that I have been trying to describe from becoming over-dominant.
We must not fool ourselves into believing that any steps we take will result in a decisive solution. As the Secretary of State said, we are in this for the long haul. At any given time, we will have to intervene to keep whichever particular set of enemies is becoming too dominant, under control. In a way, that is nothing different from what was traditionally the role of the Balance of Power, when Britain looked after its national interests by ensuring that no one potential enemy power became overwhelmingly strong on the Continent.
That leads me, very briefly, to the question of NATO and European defence. We have seen the concept of Article 5 – the guarantee whereby NATO ensures that none of its members is attacked without the potential aggressor knowing in advance that, if it does that, it will immediately be at war with all other NATO members – stretched to its limit. We have a long and honourable tradition of supporting the independence of the Baltic States. It goes back at least to the time of our intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1919–20. I must say to the House, however, that the decision NATO took to extend its protection to the Baltic States is, realistically, as far as we can go. It is simply not fair to countries further east to hold out the false hope of NATO membership, which, if granted, would be totally incredible. If a potential enemy believes that it is not credible that all NATO members would, in fact, declare war upon the aggressor if there were an attack on one of these eastern states, we will have destroyed the whole foundation and the whole reason for having NATO in the first place. That does not do anyone any favours. It just takes us back to the scenarios of the 1930s, when an aggressor thought that it could pick off one state after another without larger states coming to their rescue.
Finally, I want to say this. The Government keep saying that Defence is the first duty of Government. I agree: it is the first duty of Government. It is more important than any other duty of Government. If that is the case, there can be no coherent or rational case for safeguarding and ring-fencing the budgets of other Government Departments, thus increasing the pressure on the unprotected Departments, which include Defence. Something has gone awry with the Government’s sense of Defence as the top national priority. We constantly hear talk about Britain punching above its weight, but in reality, the weight of the punch depends on the resources allocated to the Armed Forces. The stronger the Armed Forces in peacetime, the more likely it is that we will not have to engage in warfare, because anyone who is likely to attack us will be forced to think again.