New Forest East

QUEEN'S SPEECH DEBATE (2nd Day): DEFENCE - 26 May 2010

QUEEN'S SPEECH DEBATE (2nd Day): DEFENCE - 26 May 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has shown great consistency over the years, both in participating in these debates and in successfully fulfilling his responsibilities as Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I am sure that he will be leaving that post with a pang.

I must say that it was slightly unexpected to find myself speaking on defence from the Back Benches, after so many years speaking from the Front Bench on the subject. Nevertheless, all conflicts have casualties, and some of us must accept the fact that those in my position are what the military historians would describe as 'collateral damage'. Collateral damage should always be minimised, but sometimes it cannot be avoided entirely.

When I used to sit on the Opposition Front Bench, people used to ask me how I managed to retain my air of imperturbability and cheerfulness, after so many years as a shadow Armed Forces Minister. I shall now share with the House a slight confession. The confession is that I discovered something that Opposition Members are only just about to discover, which is that if they sit on the Opposition Front Bench just by the Dispatch Box and look to their left, every time the door into the Chamber opens they will see pointing at them, perfectly framed in an aperture, the great statue of Margaret Thatcher. I found that desperately inspiring. Whether they will have the same reaction, as they sit thinking about what they are going to do against this great new Coalition Government, may be open to doubt.

I wish to say a few words about nuclear weapons, but not many; I wish to say rather more words about Afghanistan. The few words that I wish to say about nuclear weapons relate to something that the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) mentioned, when he raised the possibility of perhaps having a nuclear deterrent based on cruise missiles carried on Astute-class submarines. I have to tell him – or I would tell him, were he still in his place – that that really is a non-runner. Cruise missiles have a single warhead and a limited range. Cruise missiles have not even been designed yet with a warhead that could be fired from Astute-class submarines.

What would happen if we had cruise missiles on Astute-class submarines as our nuclear deterrent? First, the submarine would have to become a much closer inshore weapon, because cruise missiles do not have the range, so the submarine would be more vulnerable. Secondly, we would have to have many more cruise missiles, because there is only a single warhead on a cruise missile. That would be much more expensive, not only because we would need more cruise missiles, but because we would need more submarines, in order to deploy enough cruise missile warheads. Thirdly, there is a slight problem when a cruise missile is fired, in that whoever it is being fired at cannot tell whether it has a nuclear warhead or a conventional warhead. So, to put an end to this facile nonsense, let me just say –

Denis MacShane: He’s on your side!

Dr Lewis: I am on the Back Benches; I am not bound by this stuff. Cruise missiles are more expensive and less effective, put the submarines at risk and could start World War Three by accident – but apart from that, it is a really great idea.

I am about to break a rule that I have never broken before and which I hope never to have to break again. I am going to quote from one of my own speeches – not much; just a little bit – but there is a special reason why I have to do so. I am going to quote from the last speech that I made as a shadow Defence Minister from the Front Bench, in the Debate on Defence Policy on 15 October, last year. I was responding to an hon. Friend who had pointed out that the anti-opium campaign was failing in Afghanistan, that the promotion of women’s rights was failing, that democracy was failing and that corruption was rife. I said that that was to suggest that the objectives of our presence in Afghanistan were to get rid of the opium trade, assert the rights of women, create a democracy and root out corruption. I pointed out that those were worthy and desirable aims, but that they were not the reason why we were there. The reason why we were there was, of course, that an attack had been launched by al-Qaeda militants against American cities. Our response was to ensure, once and for all, that that could never happen again from Afghanistan.

I also pointed out something else. I said that we needed to wage a campaign in Afghanistan

'in which we do not take levels of casualties that the public are not prepared to bear,'

and that that, above all,

'is the single reason that people in this country are dissatisfied with the campaign in Afghanistan. It is not a question of a lack of patience, or of not spending enough money,'


'The country will not put up with a disproportionate cost in lives for a campaign that shows no sign of ending.'

I also ventured to suggest – I was a little worried when I made this remark – that

'if our enemies in Afghanistan focused on a strategic objective of ensuring that they killed two or three British service personnel every week, keeping that up for a sufficient length of time would be enough to harden opposition to the continuance of the campaign.' – [Official Report, 15 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 534–35]

Why have I broken my rule and quoted from my own speech? The reason is very simple: because I am going to develop that theme in the short time available, and I do not want anyone to say that I am saying what I am about to say only because I am speaking from the Back Benches and that I never said it when I spoke from the Front Bench. We have got a dilemma in Afghanistan, and nobody knows which of two courses to take. My argument is that there is a third course.

The first of the two courses being put forward says that we need to get out of there as soon as we reasonably can. The other one says that winning a counter-insurgency campaign means that we have to go on for the long haul. Those words were used on the Front Bench by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), in his capacity as Liberal Democrat shadow defence spokesman. We also have to reform the society so that it will be self-sustaining.

We are not going to turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining society that will be able to reach a deal with the reconcilable elements of the Taliban if we simultaneously say, as President Obama has, that we will start withdrawing our troops from the middle of next year. We cannot have it both ways.

The trouble is that that is to assume that the only way to be present in Afghanistan is to micromanage the country as though it were our job to rebuild that society and hold it in place. That is why we are engaged in the folly of sending our troops out from forward-operating bases. I have friends in those bases: they go out day after day and week after week, over highly predictable routes and wearing uniforms that say:

'Here we are. We’re a target. Snipe us, blow us up.'

That is insane. We are fighting on the one ground where our enemies are able to defeat us by inflicting on us a level of casualties that our society will no longer be willing to bear. The answer is not to follow the policy of micromanagement in Afghanistan, which has been followed up until now.

Mr Ian Davidson: The former shadow Minister is speaking in a fascinating way about Afghanistan. However, now that he has the freedom of the Back Benches – and I congratulate him on being prepared to lay down his official position for his allies – may I ask whether he still has the same view of aircraft carriers as he had before?

Dr Lewis: I much admire the hon. Gentleman, but I am wearing today the crest of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s next aircraft carrier, just as I did when I was a shadow Minister, because I retain precisely the view that aircraft carriers are essential for the Royal Navy in the future. However, that will have to be for another debate.

I have a minute and a half left, unless someone else chooses to intervene, and I wish to explain what we are doing wrong and what we can do right. That is a bit of a tall order, but I may have a fuller opportunity to explain in the future. What we are doing wrong is that we are following a policy of micromanagement: what we should do is follow a policy of minimal intervention. We are putting pressure on Karzai by saying that we will pull out in a certain period of time. We are not putting any pressure on the Taliban to reach a deal with him.

What we should be saying is:

'We will withdraw from being involved in Afghan society in a certain amount of time, but we will retain a strategic presence. You won’t see it. It will be a sovereign base area somewhere near the Afghan-Pakistan border. We will let the water find its own level, as it were, in Afghan society, but we will not withdraw completely because if we did that the country would revert to what it was before. On the other hand, we will not allow it to revert to what it was before if there is any sign of hostile terrorism or of organisational arrangements being made to revive what there was before.'

I have 10 seconds left. The House should remember that it heard it here first: Strategic Base Bridgehead Area. That is the solution, but we are not in sight of it at the moment.

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Dr Liam Fox: I remain committed to bringing our troops home as quickly as possible ... but we must do so when the time is right and not to some arbitrary deadline. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, we will not turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining country if we advertise an early departure. May I add that I am extremely sorry that the country is, for the moment, being denied the services of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench? He was a stalwart of the shadow defence team, in which he was a strategic and tactical voice, and he is sorely missed. I hope that we will be able to use his talents constructively and in some way for the benefit of the Government and of the country.