New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE UK (FRONT BENCH) - 11 September 2003

DEFENCE IN THE UK (FRONT BENCH) - 11 September 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: It has become clear during the debate that replacing the former single-Service debates with separate debates about Defence in the World and Defence in the United Kingdom has not worked. It was a brave, worthwhile try – I am not trying to score a party political point – but it is time to acknowledge that it has been a failure. If one compares the content of today's debate with that of our periodic debates on Defence in the World, it would be impossible to tell the difference without looking at the titles. One could not tell from the speeches. It would be far more sensible to admit that holding separate debates on the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force and considering what each arm must do for defence of the United Kingdom, defence in the world, and with regard to procurement policy and personnel policy would be a better way of going about our business.

When the Secretary of State was able to tear himself away from responding to the Intelligence and Security Committee's report, his speech was largely about procurement policy. It was about structure rather than strategy – unless one includes the strategy of personal survival. My hon. Friend the Shadow Secretary of State understandably felt it necessary to concentrate primarily on the news topic of the day rather on the nuts and bolts of defence issues for the UK, strictly and narrowly defined.

Yet if peace is indivisible, so is defence. I therefore welcomed the comment of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence that the Armed Forces are only part of solution to the problem of terrorism that faces the UK, and that a policy of "total defence" is required. I hope that my own comments later will be perceived as endorsing that.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman [Paul Keetch] acknowledged that his party did not support the war. That was frank of him. It is encouraging to those Labour Members and Opposition Members who supported the war that the latest polls show that a majority of the British people still believe that it was right to remove Saddam Hussein, despite the thundering mess that the Government have subsequently made of their presentation and policies.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) made a very general speech on defence, but she was typically supportive of our forces. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Michael Portillo) brought the intriguing light of his perception as a former Defence Secretary to bear on current problems. He made a point that people have been reluctant to make in the light of what subsequently happened to Dr Kelly. My right hon. Friend said that it was strange to have an official leaking stories off-the-record to the press. However, while I agree with him that the MOD was under no obligation to keep Dr Kelly's name secret in those circumstances, I believe that the Ministry was under an obligation to let him know if it was not going to keep it secret, rather than telling him that they were going to do so and then engaging in a devious guessing-game of disclosure with the press.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Doug Henderson) has been a consistent opponent of the campaign against Iraq. The Conservatives do not agree with him, but we respect his sincerity and the position that he takes, as we did when he was an assiduous Foreign Office and Defence Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) pointed out that we need Armed Forces to be recruited to greater levels. We believe that it would at least be a promising start if they could be recruited to the target levels that the Government themselves set, but that is not happening.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Malcolm Savidge) always speaks with sincerity. He is a passionate opponent of military action, and he quoted at some length the views of Professor Paul Rogers, whom I remember with affection as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and as a prophet of doom in the first Gulf War a decade later. I would only say to the hon. Gentleman – who has made his personal apologies to me that he cannot be here for the wind-up speeches – that he should be wary of over-reliance on a single source. [Laughter]

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) showed once again his great knowledge of, and commitment to NATO. He has been in the House for almost 30 years, and he has unparalleled experience on the opposite side of the arguments generally put forward by Professor Rogers.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) took a typically robust stance, and I totally agree with him that the aim of the terrorists two years ago today was not to kill 3,000 people but to kill 50,000 if they could have done so. I take issue with him, however, when he compares unfavourably the efforts being made by our Armed Forces in terms of ethnic recruitment and promotion with what has been happening in the United States. It must be remembered that the coloured community – the black community – of the United States has been struggling for much longer to reach the heights that it has reached.

I commend to the hon. Gentleman – as I have done to the House on a previous occasion – the memoirs of General Benjamin O. Davis, which are appropriately entitled Benjamin O Davis: American. He spells out the struggle that he and other black fighter pilots had during the Second World War to be allowed the opportunity to put their lives on the line and to fight for what was then an imperfect democracy, so far as the black community was concerned. When we compare the different starting-points, we shall find that it will only be a matter of time – and not too much time – before we are proud to see black people in the highest positions in our Armed Forces. They are making good progress already.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mike Hancock) had a gloomy outlook on the prospects in Iraq, but I was pleased to see that, wearing his Defence Select Committee hat, he agreed with us on the importance of having a co-ordinating Minister for Homeland Security. As the House will know, we have taken the step of setting the Government an example by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) as our spokesman on homeland security. He has great experience of the Armed Forces and is increasingly gathering expertise in his new field. We heard quite a bit from him today, and I can assure the House that we shall hear a great deal more from him in the future.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) expressed concern about the future of DARA and the Airbus, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) made the intriguing point that we were keeping things secret, but that they were not the right things. Speaking personally, I trust that the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend's plea, and that the road-map to Porton Down will soon be blessed with the tarmac that he so urgently wishes it to acquire.

Not for the first time, the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Nigel Beard) made a very thoughtful speech. I know that he had a professional career in the Ministry of Defence for many years, and that shows in the thoughtfulness that always informs his contributions. I want to take one of his many important points a little further. International law has not yet caught up with the changed strategic situation that has followed 11 September. I shall say more about that later, but let me say this now: the idea that we must wait to be struck first is not to be countenanced in the 21st century – in the age of weapons of mass destruction and suicidal potential users of them. The sooner the international lawyers recognise that, the less likely it will be that people will be tempted to distort intelligence to make threats appear more imminent than they might otherwise seem.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), as well as focusing on retention and recruitment, paid a worthy tribute to the members of his Colchester garrison who fell in the recent conflict, and to the support shown to them by the Army and personally by the Secretary of State, who went to Colchester to offer his condolences. The hon. Gentleman said how much that had been appreciated.

It must be said that before 11 September the defence of the United Kingdom homeland against terrorism, let alone suicidal terrorism, was given a low priority. Conventional threats to the UK seemed to be at a lower level than they had been since the end of the 19th Century. The strategic threat from a former superpower, the Soviet Union, had all but dissipated – although one can never be sure what may happen to the future of Russian democracy over a long period.

Perhaps the most prominent threat that we were debating here before 11 September was the possibility of a missile threat from rogue states. Indeed, it is important for that not to disappear entirely from the agenda now. As has been pointed out today, terrorism from Northern Ireland has not disappeared completely and may not have disappeared permanently; but at least it is at a lower level than it has been since the troubles began.

The idea that religious doomsday threats would be our top priority in the defence of the United Kingdom would, before 11 September, have been considered utterly fanciful. Most defence discussions concerned expeditions, humanitarian operations, conflict resolution and, sometimes, direct military intervention in foreign wars overseas. How that changed after 11 September! Al-Qaeda is now at the top of the agenda, for five main reasons:

First, its agents are prepared to die. Secondly, unlike our previous opponents, they are largely impervious to deterrence. Thirdly, they have good organisation and a unifying creed. Fourthly, they batten on failed societies and rogue regimes. Fifthly, and above all, they apply the principles of military ju-jitsu, using their opponents' greater weight and technology to bring them crashing down. In short, they encapsulate the maxim "maximum impact for minimum effort".

Yet they are not as clever as they think they are. They have cunning tactics underpinned by a foolish strategy. They had one chance to take the civilised world by surprise; they blew it on 11 September. What they did then could be compared with what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. After the war was over, some of the Japanese leaders were interrogated. They were asked:

"Why did you do what you did on 7 December 1941? You must have known that it would bring the full weight of the United States crashing down on you".

They replied:

"Sometimes you just have to kick up your heels and leap into the gorge".

What these terrorists did was comparable with what Saddam Hussein did in not waiting until he had nuclear weapons – which he was on the way to getting – before invading Kuwait in 1990. In other words, al-Qaeda did not wait long enough.

Why do I say that timing is so essential in these circumstances? It is because of what we were discussing before: the problems that always arise when one is tempted to take pre-emptive action. In defending one's homeland, one can take steps after a blow has been struck that people would find very difficult to accept in advance of such a blow being struck. For example, overthrowing the Taliban would probably not have been acceptable before 11 September. It would not have been acceptable to fight Saddam Hussein before Kuwait was invaded; and it certainly was not regarded as acceptable for Israel to bomb his nuclear reactor before he made his first atomic weapons. Yet how right we now think the Israelis were – at least, I hope we do – to have taken that action.

In short, al-Qaeda's strategic mistake was to mobilise America and the Free World against it before acquiring weapons of mass destruction of its own. I make no bones about paying tribute to the Government for recognising that any prospect of al-Qaeda and similar groups acquiring such weapons must be prevented. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for instantly stating that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Americans, and for showing personal courage in taking that stance. He must know that he and those closest to him will be marked men and women – targets for any disgruntled terrorist – for the rest of their natural lives.

I pay tribute to the Opposition – to my own party – for putting party advantage aside by supporting the Prime Minister in his hour of need. I am only sorry that I cannot pay a similar tribute the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists, who would have left Saddam Hussein in power if they had had their way.

Paul Keetch: How does the hon. Gentleman judge paragraph 127 of today's report? It states:

"The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaida."

Is it not acceptable for the JIC to believe that invading Iraq could possibly spread terrorist weapons? Admittedly, the Prime Minister took a different view, but in disregarding ours the hon. Gentleman should note that some members, at least, of the JIC accept it.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which would be convincing if he were saying that the question is clear-cut and there is never a countervailing argument. But according to his view, because we are afraid that there is a risk that something may get worse if we try to deal with it, we must not do so. I particularly resent the way in which the JIC, an intelligence organisation, has been made into a political football in the context of this military campaign.

In my view – I speak now not as a politician, but as someone who studied JIC and Joint Planning Staff documents professionally, during the academic phase of my life – the old system was better. The intelligence people would make their assessments and submit them to their political masters, and the political masters would sign off their own assessments and not seek to shelter behind their professional advisers. I am not going to get into the game of second-guessing the JIC. Its role is to give the Government information, and the Government must take responsibility for the policies developed on the basis of it.

Bob Russell: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead everybody. Does he accept that the view taken by the Liberal Democrats – many members of his own party and of the Labour Party also took it – was that action against Iraq should take place only with the full support of the United Nations?

Dr Lewis: The view of the Opposition and of the Government was that this country faced a serious threat. I, for one, never took the view that the United Nations was some sort of World Government, without whose imprimatur we could not act to defend ourselves if we judged it necessary. The Prime Minister did not take that view and he was right not to do so. We have not delegated the defence of this country to the United Nations, and Heaven help us if ever we do.

When the Prime Minister said that he might have lost his job and tearfully informed his family of the great risk that he was taking, I have to say that I began to lose a little sympathy with him, because, with the support that he knew he had from the Official Opposition – doing what loyal Oppositions always do in such circumstances in times of national crisis – he knew that he could count on us. His job was not really in danger.

How wretched it is that, by unnecessarily exaggerating and manipulating intelligence, the Prime Minister has discredited himself, his Government and, most important of all, the prospect of taking similar action in similar circumstances in future. Suppose that Iran reliably proves to be in an advanced state of development of nuclear weapons. Suppose that North Korea goes from bad to worse in respect of the threatening noises that it is making about the nuclear weapons that it already possesses. Who now will believe the Government when they say that we have to act?

I am going to touch briefly on the Intelligence and Security Committee report. I have only two things to say about the ISC. It has done itself, in my opinion, no favours with the report – and that will be seen to be the case when people look back on it in the fullness of time. I am most interested in the two annexes to the report, which I will briefly mention. The second annexe is interesting because it contradicts the report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee at each and every turn. It is interesting to see what happens when two bunches of senior politicians try to cover the same ground and each pretends to be authoritative.

What interested me most throughout the post-Iraq campaign post-mortem has been less the first than the second dossier. That was the one that was plagiarised and was, depending on whether one counts the cover-sheet, 18 or 19 pages long. It is briefly referred to in the ISC report. That report quotes the Prime Minister as having stated on 3 February 2003:

"We issued further intelligence over the weekend about the infrastructure of concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this, or giving us this information, and making it up." – [Official Report, 3 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 25.]

Curiously, paragraph 133 of the report states:

"We conclude that the Prime Minister was correct to describe the document as containing 'further intelligence ... about the infrastructure of concealment'."

Furthermore, paragraph 22 of the second annexe states:

"We believe that the Prime Minister was correct when he described the February document as" –

and the next word is in italics –

"containing further intelligence."

The trouble is that, having checked Hansard for that day, I can say that the Prime Minister did not describe it as "containing" further intelligence. Had he done so, it would not have misled the House. He described it as further intelligence.

We can see from the first annexe that the intelligence document that the Secret Intelligence Service supplied, on which part of that report was based, was only five pages long, whereas the final report was 18 or 19 pages long. It has to be said that, as far as the second dodgy dossier was concerned, the ISC has engaged in a whitewash of what was actually presented to the House in a misleading way by the Prime Minister.

On the brighter side, it is extraordinary that so little has happened by way of terrorism in the UK so far. There are several reasons for that. The first is that there has been no significant support for al-Qaeda among the UK's 1.5 million Muslims. The second is the unsung successes of the Security and Intelligence Services when they are allowed by politicians to get on with their jobs. Let us not forget the Special Branch officer, Stephen Oake, who was stabbed to death in January in the aftermath of the discovery of the ricin terror cell. Thirdly, there is the determination of the US and the UK to take the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan and to remove regimes with the potential to produce weapons of mass destruction, whether that threat is imminent or not.

Defence is indivisible; the country that adopts a purely reactive strategy will suffer. The front line in the defence of the United Kingdom is not at the gates of Downing Street, nor is it on the concrete blocks in Grosvenor Square and Parliament Square. The front line is with our forces in the failed states and the rogue states. It is in the shadows with the Secret Intelligence Service and our Security Services, in which our Muslim citizens have an important part to play. It is in the spirit of the British people – especially those who live and work near prestige targets – who will never give in to the threat of terrorism in the United Kingdom.