New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE WORLD - 21 October 2004

DEFENCE IN THE WORLD - 21 October 2004

Dr Julian Lewis: A large number of Members must be disappointed that they will be unable to participate in the debate, so I shall try to cut my remarks to the bone in the hope that at least one more will manage to do so.

I am happy to associate myself with the tributes paid to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Iain Wright), who made a fine maiden speech. I should also like to say a word for the defeated Conservative candidate for Hartlepool, who put up a gallant fight in a difficult by-election. They both had a great deal of media pressure placed upon them and acquitted themselves very well.

My hon. Friend the Shadow Secretary of State (Nicholas Soames) said some kinds words about my time as a member of his Front-Bench defence team. As I have always believed in multilateralism, I must reciprocate by saying that it was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him, to watch the way in which he drives the business of the team forward and to note the irrepressible good humour, some of which was on display this afternoon, with which he always conducts himself in handling quite serious matters. The fact that that has culminated in his winning a financial pledge from the Shadow Chancellor to make a very substantial real increase in defence spending under the next Conservative Government speaks volumes for his ability in his role.

My hon. Friend focused on platforms and numbers. I should like to quote the Defence Committee's report on the Defence White Paper, which states:

"We believe that a policy of reducing the existing number of platforms in advance of acquiring the new capabilities (and of demonstrating their effectiveness) is potentially dangerous."

The Government's reply is frankly complacent. They say:

"As highlighted in the Future Capabilities Paper, there are certain areas where we judge our current capability is disproportionately high".

The Committee goes on to say:

"We believe that if the number of platforms in certain key areas (such as large surface ships) was significantly reduced, the UK Armed Forces would be vulnerable to any significant combat attrition in future operations."

The Government respond that they are confident that lost assets could be replaced.

That is not what the First Sea Lord believes. He has said that we are piling risk on risk by taking these measures. One of those risks – it was once described to me by a senior naval officer as "a calculated risk" – is the decision to phase out Sea Harriers and thus have to rely on aircraft from other countries' aircraft carriers for the air defence of the Fleet, at least until the joint strike fighter is introduced. Former Royal Navy Captain Ian Jenkins, the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil, has expressed to me his concern that the future of the Royal Naval Air Service base at Yeovilton, and that of people from Yeovil who work there, may be at risk partly as a result of the calculated risk that the Government are taking. Having recently visited that outstanding establishment as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I can testify at first hand to the excellent work that is done there.

Let me move on to the principal point that I hope to impress upon the Minister of State (Adam Ingram) and the Under-Secretary (Ivor Caplin). It is certainly the case that high technology can help to win fighting wars with fewer platforms and fewer people. The question is: what does one do when one has won the war and has to enforce the peace? In other words, what are the primary requirements for peacekeeping? I suggest that there are five. First, the establishment of civil institutions; secondly, the setting up of a force to protect them; thirdly, the maintenance of high military morale, which is not helped by corrosive criticism in the press and elsewhere; fourthly, the maintenance of strong political will; fifthly, and above all, victory in the battle of ideas.

Last night, there was an intriguing programme on the BBC. Its thesis, which I do not entirely accept, was that some of the conflict that went on in the Cold War years, and is now going on in the post-Cold War years, can be traced back to the ideas of extreme fundamentalism that had their generation in Egypt in the period under Sadat and the ideas of extreme neo-conservatism that, it was alleged, had their generation in America in the period under Ronald Reagan. The only ideas that were not really touched on were those of Soviet Communism, which in my opinion also had rather a lot to do with the matter.

But the key point about which that programme was almost certainly correct was that the reason why people are able to get political results – whether they be terrorists mobilising people to join their cause, Soviet Communists mobilising people to support their cause, or neo-conservatives mobilising people to back their cause – is that they have an idea. We must have victory in the battle of ideas.

I do not believe that the Government are doing enough to win the battle of ideas in representing to the country what is at stake in Iraq. Earlier this week, the Vice-President of Iraq was here, and I asked him whether the identity of most of the suicide bombers was known, and whether most of them were foreign insurgents. He answered "yes" to both those questions. Why is a better counter-propaganda information operation not under way to bring out such key facts so that people can see what is really at stake? If we do not win the battle of ideas, we do not win the hearts and minds, and if we do not win the hearts and minds, all the troops in the world will not be able to succeed.