New Forest East

DEFENCE ISSUES - 07 May 2024

DEFENCE ISSUES - 07 May 2024

Sir Julian Lewis: Earlier this afternoon I counted over 50 right hon. and hon. Members of the Labour party alone packing the Opposition Benches for the urgent question on the middle east. Sadly, though predictably, by the time we got to this important debate we were down to the usual suspects – the usual stalwarts, about half a dozen to a dozen Members on each side of the House. That difference in the numbers is relevant: the reason for it is that an actual war is going on in the middle east, so people are very focused on it, now that it is too late to prevent it. Our purpose in holding debates such as this one should be not to get to that situation.

I have some reservations about the constant references to us being in a pre-war world. I know what the Secretary of State and others mean when they refer to that, but it can be taken as meaning that we are in a situation where war is inevitable, and it is not. We have to behave as if we were going to have to defend ourselves in a real war, because if we make those preparations adequately, we will, through a policy of deterrence, prevent the war from happening in the first place.

This close to a general election, it is perhaps inevitable that we will hear people on both sides of the House, but on the Front Benches in particular, quibbling over percentage points of GDP being allocated to defence expenditure. But I have to say that 2.5%, 3% or even 4% would not be anything like adequate if a war actually broke out – 44% is probably more like what we would have to spend. This is not just about a loss of treasure; even worse, it is about the human suffering and loss of life that would happen if we fail to invest adequately in peacetime to prevent that from ever coming to pass.

The economist Roger Bootle recently explained:

“During the Second World War, we spent roughly 50% of GDP on the military and slightly more than this in 1916 and 1917, during the First World War.”

So for goodness sake, let us be serious about this. No Government can be exonerated for the Kool-Aid that they drank after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

During the 2015-17 Parliament, the Defence Committee spent a bit of time trying to establish what had happened to defence expenditure in the post-war era. What we found was this: in 1963 we spent similar sums – about 6% of GDP – on both welfare and defence; and by 2017, after the study was carried out, we were spending six times as much on welfare as we were spending on defence. Similarly, it was found that in the mid-1980s we had been spending similar sums – about 5% of GDP then – on education, health and defence. By 2017 we were spending 2.5 times as much on education and nearly four times as much on health as we were spending on defence.

At the height of the cold war confrontation, and every year from 1981 to 1987, we spent between 4.3% and 5.1% of GDP on defence. From 1988 – when the cold war began to evaporate – until 2014, defence spending almost halved as a proportion of GDP. Of course, there was a reason for that: it appeared that the threat from Russia had gone away. Well, now it is back. The question is this: are we prepared to revert to the sort of investment in defence in “peacetime” that we made so successfully during the 50 years of the cold war, which prevented an outbreak – a terrible further global conflict – between the then superpowers, both of which were armed with nuclear weapons?

I revert to what I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State when he was opening the debate: everything depends on what happens in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Let us be honest that when the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine arose in early 2022, not many people – hardly any in this Chamber, I suspect, myself included – predicted that Ukraine would be as successful as it has proved to be in resisting the might of the Russian invasion. I suspect that what had made that possible was that the shock that they had experienced in previous years over the loss of Crimea, which, if I remember correctly, was taken over by the Russians quite easily, focused their minds, their efforts and their investment upon the dire possibility that Russia might come back for more. That is why Ukraine was so much better prepared, with the covert assistance of other countries, not least this one, to resist the second Russian invasion when it happened.

I cannot stress too strongly that Ukraine’s battle is our battle. If Putin is seen to be unsuccessful in Ukraine, then the threat to us and to the rest of NATO will recede for a generation. However, if he is able to claim some sort of success, by ending up with significantly more territory at the end of the process than he had under his control in February 2022, then it will only be a matter of time before he comes back for more.

I want to say a few words about the middle east, but they are not actually my words; they are words from a remarkably perceptive article written by a Member of the upper House, the noble Lord Hague – William Hague, to us. He outlined his reaction to the atrocities of 7 October in an astonishingly perceptive way in The Times within 48 hours of that attack. I want to set some of what he said on the record, because he raised the question of why on earth Hamas should have undertaken such an action when they must have known it would provoke a horrifying response. He asked the question:

“Why, as well as murdering hundreds of defenceless young people at a rave, parade dead bodies as evidence of the atrocities? The answer is that their objective is uncontrolled rage. It is to make Israel lash out in a way that starts a conflagration. To start a war so intense that it spreads, igniting an explosion of violence in the West Bank and bringing in Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north, with Israel fighting on multiple fronts. To see so many Palestinians killed that the Israelis lose the moral high ground of defending themselves against mass murder. To use the fate of hostages, with maximum cruelty, to intensify a frenzy of hatred whenever that seems to be abating.”

That is still going on now. We heard reference to the Israeli soldiers recently killed in a Hamas artillery strike close to the one entrance where aid was coming into Palestine. Guess what happened? The Israelis immediately closed that entrance, thus intensifying the crisis. The Hamas strategists clearly know what they are doing. It is horrible – devilish – but there is a cruel logic to it.

The heading that Lord Hague – or his sub-editor at The Times – used for that article was:

“Hamas has set a trap that Israel must avoid: Iranian-backed attacks are desperate attempts to halt growing collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE”.

The only element that was missing in the article was that that strategy, promoted by Iran, was also extremely beneficial to Russia, because now we spend rather more time considering what is happening in Israel and Gaza than we spend considering what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, despite the fact that what is happening between Russia and Ukraine cannot be emphasised too often because it is of crucial significance to the future peace, or lack of peace, of NATO countries vis-à-vis the Russian threat.

I will close with some remarks about the nuclear deterrent, which has been touched on a few times. One of the votes took place under Labour, as we have heard, on 14 March 2007, when there was a substantial majority for the deterrent. Parliament voted by 409 votes to 161 in favour of proceeding with the initial gate for the renewal of the Trident submarine fleet; but even that huge majority of 248 was eclipsed on 18 July 2016, when under the Conservative Government – free from the coalition – the majority rose to 355 when MPs voted for the decisive main gate stage to proceed. That vote was won by 472 votes to 117.

That shows near unanimity in the House for the maintenance of our strategic nuclear deterrent – and almost that happened before the various crises that we have been concentrating on today. Let us hope that unity prevails. I, for one, welcome the comments of the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, who said that his party is now committed to four submarines and to the maintenance of the continuous at-sea deterrent, which presumably means with the use of Trident missiles. I say “use” because they are used every day of the week. Their use is as a deterrent. If ever – heaven forbid – they had to be fired, they would fail in their purpose.

We have come a long way and we have made a lot of progress. It is just as well that we are united, given the way in which the international scene has darkened, but both Front Benches have a long way to go if they are to reach a stage where we are making the sort of investment, the sort of insurance and the sort of effort that has to be made to deter an aggressive Russia and to ensure that Ukraine prevails.

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[ … Richard Foord {Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesman}: … I was impressed by the remarks of the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) about the strategic environment. I am glad that in the west we seek to take the peace dividend when we think it is available to us. One thing that stands out about democracies is that when the security environment allows, we try to invest in health and education. It is absolutely appropriate to champion that, but we should also be realistic enough to recognise when times do not allow for that.] 

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[ … The Minister for Defence People and Families (Dr Andrew Murrison): … This has been a typically excellent debate. Across the House I think there is an understanding that, after two or three decades of relative tranquillity, we are living with the threat of proximate warfare. The price of freedom is of course eternal vigilance, and that is generally agreed across this House, as evidenced by the contributions made, such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis). I think my right hon. Friend was arguing, slightly cheekily, for defence spending of 44% of GDP, although that was probably in the event of total war, which of course we all want to avoid. His proposition was that we should never have taken a peace dividend post the cold war, but I think that is a little harsh on our predecessors. However, plainly the situation has changed, and we must change with it. I hope very much that Europe will follow our 2.5% commitment, meaning £140 billion more for our collective defence against the primary aggressor. I would have been very disappointed had my right hon. Friend not rehearsed the arguments for a continuous at-sea deterrent, which of course is 16,000 tonnes of eternal vigilance. …]