New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: Not for the first time and, I am sure, not for the last time, the House has cause to be grateful to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) for reaching across the party divide in support of the strongest possible defence of this country and the strongest possible support for NATO. It is in that spirit, as a former Chairman of the Defence Committee, that I acknowledge the stalwart support he has given to successive holders of that post. This is an opportunity for defence-minded parliamentarians to give some initial reaction to the colossal and extraordinary events of the past fortnight in the context of what Britain was going to spend on defence, and what it should spend on defence in future.

In June 1950, five years after the end of world war two and following a time of mass demobilisation, the Korean war broke out. The effect of that conflict, quite apart from the terrible consequences for the people living in Korea, was to cause a huge reassessment of the amount of national effort that must be invested in defence in the United Kingdom. That led to a reconsideration of the level of defence expenditure, and I suggest that the seismic events of the past two weeks should lead to a similar reassessment of what we are prepared to invest in defence in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. We cannot conduct this debate as if nothing serious has happened to transform the situation in the past two weeks.

Although it is very early and the outcome of the conflict is still very much in doubt, I suggest it is possible to come tentatively to about half a dozen conclusions, and I will run through them very quickly. First, I think we can say that the advanced public messaging by the United States, NATO, the United Kingdom and other allies has been outstanding. It has prevented President Putin from seizing the narrative. By predicting accurately in advance what he was going to do, it has completely undermined his potential disinformation campaign. Every pronouncement that we hear from the Kremlin is so ludicrously at odds with reality that it cuts no ice at all, except with those totally indoctrinated.

Secondly, the events of the past fortnight dispel any illusions we might have had about the nature of our Russian adversary. As has been said rightly many times by those on the Front Bench, that is not the Russian people, but the people in control of that great, but benighted country. We must remember that people such as President Putin are the direct descendants of the regime whose ideology led them to kill millions of their own people in the decades in which Leninism and bolshevism held sway. Although the communist doctrine has collapsed, the mindset, the imperialism and the brutality have not. I have previously described President Putin in uncomplimentary terms, and I think it is worth repeating them. This man is a cynical, sneering psychopath. He does not care how many people he kills, as long as he gets his own way. Anyone thinking that there is a way to reason with these people, rather than deter, contain or, if necessary, defeat them, is living in a world of fantasy.

Thirdly, in light of Ukraine’s decision to give up – admittedly it was not a system it could operate at the time, but given time it could have done so – the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which it inherited from the former Soviet Union, any lingering doubts about the wisdom of the United Kingdom continuing to possess a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as Russia does so have finally been put to bed.

Peter Grant rose

Dr Lewis: I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene, because I know his party has a problem with this issue, but I do not intend to let it dominate my speech.

Peter Grant: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we do not have a problem with the issue; we have a problem with nuclear weapons. Is he not aware that as a matter of international law, as a successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia was the legal owner of those nuclear weapons? It was entitled to take them away. Ukraine would have been in breach of the law to try to hold on to them.

Dr Lewis: Yes, and I am also aware that as a result of Ukraine’s decision to give up those nuclear weapons, Russia guaranteed the security and the borders of Ukraine. If the hon. Gentleman is going to throw international law at me, all I can say to him is that, if he thinks that those sorts of manoeuvres and unilateral renunciations are the way to stop someone being attacked and destroyed by a ruthless adversary, it should be a long time indeed before he and people who think like him have any influence on the way in which we choose to keep the peace – by deterrence – so that we do not end up in a situation like Ukraine.

Fourthly, this horrible situation should establish whether and to what extent economic sanctions can force an aggressor to desist. It is often said that the world has become more interdependent. We will never see a more extreme example of democratic countries seeking to use economic pressures to force an aggressor to desist. If that fails to work in this instance, it will be a further argument for increased investment in hard defence capability, because that particular aspect of hoping to be able to turn war into an outmoded concept will, sadly, have been disproved. I hope that it does play a part in stopping Russia from proceeding, but I am not holding my breath.

Fifthly, the conflict has exposed the folly of fuel dependence on hostile countries and raised questions about the wisdom of a policy of unilateral net zero targets by democracies regardless of what much larger countries, that are not democracies, do. I am not seeking to pick an argument with the environmentalists; I am merely saying that there is a parallel with the question of unilateral or one-sided nuclear disarmament, because if we achieve net zero at tremendous cost to ourselves while much larger hostile countries simply flout the commitments that they have given, we will have taken that pain for no benefit to anyone. Targets must be multilateral if they are going to do anything other than weaken our ability to protect ourselves.

The last of the six lessons is that the conflict has killed the idea that conventional aggression by one state against another is an outmoded 20th-century concept. Time and again, people such as the right hon. Member for Warley [John Spellar] on the Opposition Benches and my right hon. and hon. Friends present on the Conservative Benches have raised the question of what an appropriate level of defence investment should be, only to be told from on high, “You’ve got to realise that there are new forms of warfare. The next war will not be fought much with conventional armed forces. It will be fought in cyber-space or even in space itself.” Of course, there are new and serious threats – potentially fatal threats – in those two newer areas of conflict, but they are additional threats. They are not substitutes for the threats that we have always faced and continue to face from conventional armed forces.

Bob Stewart: I thank my right hon. Friend – who is a good friend and is gallant, because he was a midshipman once – for allowing me to intervene. One thing that the Russians are showing is that to take territory, people have to put boots on it. But, guess what? We are chucking our boots out. That is appalling and we must reverse that decision.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton): Order. Before the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) comes back, I think it is important to let hon. Members know that I will have to impose a time limit when he has finished, otherwise we will simply not get everybody in. The time limit will probably be around six minutes, depending on how long he takes.

Sir Robert Syms rose

Dr Lewis: I will briefly give way, and then I will conclude.

Sir Robert Syms: There are one or two other lessons from the current conflict. One is the impact of mobile phone cameras and psychological ops on the way in which a country communicates with itself and the world, and I think we could learn from that. I think we have lost a lot of the skills that we had in the second world war and when we were facing the Soviet Union, and this is one area we need to look at.

Dr Lewis: I quite agree with both my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and my hon. Friend.

Bearing in mind your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude with one point about the budget itself. During the period in which I chaired the Defence Committee, we produced two reports – one in 2016 called “Shifting the goalposts?” and the other an update to that report in 2019 – with the purpose of setting very firmly on the record what the proportion of GDP spent on defence had been historically on a like-for-like basis. It is a fact that, in the aftermath of the Korean war, defence spending as a proportion of GDP at one point was as high as 7%. In about 1963, it crossed over with spending on welfare at 6%. That was all a long time ago, but as recently as the 1980s the spending on health, education and defence was roughly the same at just over 4% of GDP.

Mr John Baron: My right hon. Friend, I and probably everybody present in the Chamber have been calling since we have been Members of Parliament for much higher defence spending. I think that is accepted. However, does he agree with me that once that higher level of spending is determined, we should not necessarily link it to GDP, because economies can go up and down? There have to be real-terms increases once that higher figure is decided, otherwise the armed forces will not know where they are and it will be difficult to plan.

Dr Lewis: I do agree with that point; using GDP percentages has always been only a very rough and ready guide.

What was absolutely shocking was the way in which, given that even within half a dozen years of the downfall of the Berlin wall – as late as 1993-94 – we were still spending 3.1% on the old method of calculation and 3.6% on the new method of calculation, whereby the MOD is allowed to include certain things we never used to include, it then became an argument as to whether we would even manage to achieve 2% of GDP. Our expectations have been managed down so far that when, even in recent times, a number of us have called for 3% to be a target, it was regarded as being completely out of reach. It should not be out of reach. The sort of effort we put into defending this country is the most important investment we can make, so 3% of GDP should now be seen not as a target or as a minimum, but as a stepping stone on the way to a realistic investment to meet the threat that never really went away, the reality of which in Ukraine has now been proclaimed for all the world to see.