CONTINUOUS AT-SEA DETERRENT – 10 April 2019
Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted to follow two such supportive speeches [by The Secretary of State for Defence (Gavin Williamson) and the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence (Nia Griffith)] on the nuclear deterrent and the work of those who have crewed it for the past 50 years. It is amazing to think of the combination of high training and long periods of low activity that such personnel have to undergo. They truly are the silent guardians of the country and we are hugely in their debt.
What is more, most Members of this House recognise that fact. It is worth putting on the record that in recent years the House has had two key votes on the question of the renewal of the nuclear deterrent submarine fleet, the first under the Labour Government of Tony Blair on 14 March 2007. The House voted by 409 to 161 – a massive majority of 248 – to proceed with the initial gate of the replacement or successor submarine fleet. The second was under the Conservative Government of the current Prime Minister on 18 July 2016, when the House voted by a colossal majority of 355 – namely, 472 votes to 117 – to proceed to the main stages of development and production of the submarines.
The only issue to which I took a little exception in the contribution of the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), was in one turn of phrase, when she said how appalling it would be if the deterrence weapons were used. I remind her gently that the nuclear deterrent is in use every day of every week all around the year, because the purpose of the nuclear deterrent is to ensure that nuclear war does not break out because no one is in a position to attack us with impunity.
Ronnie Cowan: In the right hon. Gentleman’s description of the deterrent, will he explain why none of the missiles is actually targeted at any targets?
Dr Lewis: It is for the simple reason that, in the unlikely event of anyone being mad enough to attack us – because we have the ability to retaliate – it would be simple to target missiles to retaliate against them, and that could easily result in the obliteration of any country unwise enough to launch a nuclear attack against a nuclear power such as ourselves.
Mr Philip Dunne: I join my right hon. Friend in applauding the speech from the shadow Defence Secretary, but does he share my disappointment that she did not take any interventions? She may have been able to explain the fundamental flaw in Labour’s Front-Bench position, which is that we cannot have an effective deterrent if we have committed never to use it, as the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have done.
Dr Lewis: I accept the fact that Labour has a problem with certain key figures who have always been opposed in principle to the possession of a nuclear deterrent. However, today is not the day to have that debate. I know that the shadow Defence Secretary and every one of the Labour Back Benchers whom I see opposite are wholly committed to keeping this country safe and strong. If anyone can ensure that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are not allowed to undermine the sensible policy outlined from the Opposition Front Bench today, it is that cohort of people. I wish them the best of luck in that endeavour.
Carol Monaghan: The right hon. Gentleman described a situation in which we would be able to retaliate if we were attacked. I do not know about him, but if I had been obliterated by a nuclear weapon, I would not care a jot whether we obliterated somebody back.
Dr Lewis: I am sorry to have to explain to the hon. Lady that the whole point of our ability to retaliate is to ensure that we are not attacked in the first place. One really does not have to have had more than half a century of experience to realise that that is bound to be the case. I was not going to quote Professor Sir Henry Tizard, whom I have quoted in debates many times before, but it looks like it is necessary for me to do so.
Professor Tizard was the leading defence scientist in the second world war at the time when atomic weapons were being created. In 1945, with a committee of leading scientists, including Nobel prize winners, he was supposed to look forward to see what the future nature of warfare might be. His committee was not allowed to explore the atomic bomb project in detail, but he insisted on putting in this primary rationale for nuclear deterrence, which holds as firmly today as it did in June 1945. He explained that the only answer that those senior defence scientists, with all their experience of the second world war, could see to the advent of the atomic bomb was the preparedness to use it in retaliation, thus preventing an attack in the first place. I am sorry to inflict this on the House again, but he said:
“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort, to do this” –
to retaliate –
“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.”
In other words, if someone knows that they are going to die, for a certainty, if they launch an attack against somebody else, they are not going to launch that attack in the first place.
Martin Docherty-Hughes: I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for actually taking interventions. Anyone who knows the history of the continuous nuclear deterrent knows that it is heavily reliant upon a relationship with the United States. With the present occupant of the White House being such a transactional individual, and with the United Kingdom about to enter into trade negotiations with the US, how confident is the right hon. Gentleman that his Government’s negotiators will not, say, trade chlorinated chicken and access to the NHS – [Interruption.] I am talking technically. How confident is he that that would be not be traded for the United States’ role in the nuclear deterrent? Although he knows that I fully oppose it, of course.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is an admirable member of the Defence Committee, and we greatly value his contributions, but I do not think that that was his most stellar contribution – [Laughter.] Sometimes people say, “Well, what if the Americans wanted to have some sort of veto or to stop us using the nuclear deterrent?” – I mean using it in the sense of firing it rather than of using it in the sense that it is used all day long every day of the year to prevent nuclear conflict. The first point is that this nuclear system is totally under our own control. It would gradually wither on the vine over a long period of time only if the United States decided for some reason that it no longer wanted there to be a second centre of nuclear decision making within the NATO alliance. At any time now, as it has been for the last 50 years, it is entirely independently controlled by us.
The second point is about why an American president would ever not want there to be a second centre of nuclear decision making in NATO, because that reduces any temptation of an aggressor against NATO to think that it could pick off this country without America responding.
Richard Benyon: Looking forward, does my right hon. Friend agree that renewing the fleet with the new Dreadnought class is the most important decision? In doing so, we have decided that we cannot predict what is going to happen in 20, 30 or 40 years. Those who want us to get rid of the deterrent and not renew our fleet are taking a terrible gamble in a dangerous world, because we cannot foresee the enemies that we may face in the decades ahead.
Dr Lewis: I pay tribute to the people who work at Aldermaston in my right hon. Friend’s constituency for all that they contribute to the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent capability. Not only do I agree with him, but he has led me nicely back to the central theme of my narrative, which was to try to set out for the House the five main military arguments in favour of retaining our independent deterrent, the first of which is precisely the point that he has just made. 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 peacetime as a national insurance policy. No one knows what enemies might confront us during the next 30 to 50 years, but it is highly probable that at least some of them will be armed with mass-destruction weapons.
The second argument is that it is not the weapons themselves that we have to fear but the nature of the regimes that possess them. Whereas democracies are generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships – although they did use them against Japan in 1945 – the reverse is not true. Think, for example, what the situation would have been in 1982 if a non-nuclear Britain had faced an Argentina in possession of even a few tactical nuclear bombs and the means of delivering them. There would have been no question of our being able to retake the Falkland Islands in that conflict.
Priti Patel: This is such an important point. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when we speak about freedom, our independent at-sea deterrent has been one of the most important factors in securing freedom and democracy around the world?
Dr Lewis: Absolutely. If we get into a situation where the United States and the NATO alliance are paralysed in the face of dictatorships armed even with a few mass-destruction weapons that cannot be neutralised by the threat of retaliation, there would be no prospect of our mounting a defence of any country under attack, anywhere in the world, no matter how deserving it might be of our military intervention.
The third argument is that the United Kingdom has traditionally played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized states have been able or willing to play. Democratic countries without nuclear weapons have little choice but to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best or, alternatively, to rely upon the nuclear umbrella of powerful allies. The United Kingdom is already a nuclear power and is also much harder to defeat by conventional means because of our physical separation from the continent.
The fourth argument is that our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position and the fact that we are obviously the junior partner might tempt an aggressor to think of attacking us separately. Given the difficulty of overrunning the United Kingdom with conventional forces, in contrast to our more vulnerable allies on the continent, an aggressor could be tempted to use one or more mass-destruction weapons against us on the assumption that the United States might not reply on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find out his mistake when, and 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 final military argument is that no quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage that faces a non-nuclear country in a war 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 the reverse scenario. Imagine if Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the allies had not. An invasion to end the war would then have been completely impossible.
Bob Stewart: Quite a few colleagues in the House have served in the British Army of the Rhine – I served there three times. When we, as conventional forces, practised deploying against an enemy, we were much sustained by the knowledge that there was a nuclear back-up in our armoury. That raised our morale. We thought that people would not dare attack us when we had a nuclear device in our hand. It would be mad to get rid of it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle): Order. To help Members, I will be aiming for 10 minutes each from Back Benchers.
Dr Lewis: I will endeavour to finish quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was right to think in those terms when he wore that uniform. What is more, hon. Members on both sides of the House, in very large numbers, think in similar terms.
To bring my remarks speedily to a conclusion, I will draw out five lessons that have impressed themselves on me in such debates over the past 35 years, since we replaced the first-generation Polaris submarine fleet with the second-generation Vanguard submarine fleet.
The first lesson is that the concepts of unilateralism and multilateralism are mutually incompatible. One requires the unconditional abandonment of our nuclear weapons and nuclear alliances, whereas the other would consider nuclear renunciation only if our potential enemies carry it out at the same time.
The second lesson is that a nuclear-free world is not necessarily a more peaceful world. Abolition of the nuclear balance of terror would be a curse and not a blessing if it made the world once again safe for all-out conventional conflict between the superpowers. In military terms, Russia remains a superpower, regardless of complacent western analyses of the weakness of her economy.
The third lesson is the fundamental divide – which we see in today’s debate – between those people in western societies who believe that wars result mainly from groundless mutual fear and suspicion, and those who believe that only the prospect of retaliation in kind prevents adventurist states from acting aggressively.
The fourth lesson is the validity of the hackneyed but nevertheless accurate concept of the silent majority. Although individual polling questions can be devised to produce apparent majorities against deploying particular nuclear systems, whenever the fundamental issue of deterrence has been posed the result is always decisive. Two thirds of the British people want us to continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, and only one quarter want us to give them up unconditionally.
The final lesson is that since fewer than 10% of our people have been undecided in poll after poll on this fundamental issue, it does not make political sense to try to appease either that small group or the much larger number of highly committed unilateralists such as my friends in the Scottish National party. The strategic task for the Government, and for the Opposition, is to reinforce the views of the two thirds who believe in what may be termed peace through strength and deterrence, rather than peace through disarmament, so the issue will be in the forefront of people’s minds, as it was in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, when this was a very prominent topic in the election debate.
None of this would be possible but for the dedication and, indeed, heroism of those people who, month after month, patrol the seas and are not seen and not heard – they are meant to be not seen and not heard – in order silently to spread over us an umbrella of nuclear protection. Long may they continue to do so.
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Stewart Malcolm McDonald: It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, despite agreeing with almost none of what he had to say. He is always unfailingly courteous to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on that Committee, and it is always a pleasure to hear what he has to say.
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Mark Francois: I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have caught your eye in this important debate, first as a member of the Defence Committee, but also, more importantly in this context, because my father, Reginald Francois, was a naval veteran, although he served on minesweepers – as did the Chairman of the Defence Committee, incidentally – rather than as a submariner.
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Simon Clarke: It is an absolute pleasure to follow what I thought was an excellent speech by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). He sums up the ethical as well as the practical case for why we need a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. This has been a really good debate. I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, who set out very crisply why we need to do this and why it is so much in our strategic interest to make sure we have this level of protection.
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Stephen Kerr: [ ... ] It is the first and most important duty of the state to ensure the safety and security of our country, and my firm belief and contention is that the continuous at-sea deterrent is essential to that. There is a clear moral case for it and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made that case in a superb speech, so I do not intend to go over the same ground. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to ensure that we are safe as a country and ensure not only that the peace is preserved, but that the cause of peace is promoted in the world. Peace is preserved through strength and threatened by weakness. That is the lesson of history.
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Wayne David (Shadow Defence Minister): [ ... ] The case for this country’s nuclear deterrent is overwhelming. It has been put forward with eloquence and determination by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), my hon. Friend for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and others, but it was particularly well put by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). I would like to quote an article that he wrote back in 2006:
"The purpose of a British nuclear deterrent remains what it has always been: to minimize the prospect of the United Kingdom being attacked by mass destruction weapons. It is not a panacea and it is not designed to forestall every type of threat. Nevertheless, the threat which it is designed to counter is so overwhelming that no other form of military capability could manage to avert it."
That was true when he wrote it and it is certainly the case today.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Stuart Andrew): [ ... ] I have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, advocate the importance of our nuclear deterrent for many years, and he always puts those points extremely effectively. He rightly pointed out the support that exists for it in this House, with the votes that have taken place on numerous occasions, and he rightly reflected the nation’s support for our deterrent, with some two thirds of the population supporting it.