Dr Julian Lewis: Those of us who had experience of Sir Gerald’s long life and parliamentary career will choose those parts that affect our own areas of interest, so I hope the House will forgive me if I focus on the crucial role Sir Gerald played, between the years of 1988 and 1991, in shifting Labour Party policy away from a stance in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
He started in 1988 by contributing to a policy review. If I remember correctly, it was called “Meet the Challenge, Make the Change”. In it, Labour acknowledged that it would be sensible to get some reciprocation in return for giving up Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Then, after a lively exchange of letters in the national press with the then chairman of the Conservative Party, Chris Patten, and others, he ended on 10 July 1991 with the all-important statement that a future Labour Government would continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries had them. This marked the end of a crucial policy realignment.
When the Blair Government, with the support of the Conservative Opposition, voted to renew the nuclear deterrent in March 2007, Sir Gerald made a great speech, referring back to the fact that he famously described Labour’s 1983 anti-nuclear manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. He urged his colleagues not to make the mistakes of the 1980s, and he ended by pointing out what it would mean if Labour went back to that stance:
“Defeating the Government tonight … could so reduce our party’s credibility as to contribute to a Labour defeat at the next election. … A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed an army officer in a bunker saying to his assembled troops:
‘Gentlemen, the time has arrived for us to make a futile gesture.’
Futile gestures can be personally satisfying, but what do they get us? I will tell the House what they get us: 18 years in opposition. It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide.” – [Official Report, 14 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 344–45.]
Those of us who believe in nuclear deterrence have every reason to be grateful to him for his crucial role in restoring bipartisanship between the Labour Government and the Opposition of the day, which secured the renewal of the nuclear deterrent, and I think the country has reason to be grateful to him too.
As I ought to pay lip service to the fact that this is business questions as well, I will segue from one form of unilateralism to another. May we have a statement from a Brexit Minister about the Government’s assessment of the motives of those with whom we will be negotiating in other countries in not responding to our initiatives and indications that members of their societies who have chosen to live in Britain can continue doing so as long as our citizens can continue living in their countries? Unilateralism, as a principle, is sometimes high-minded and sometimes a futile gesture. In the spirit of what Sir Gerald did to the Labour party, we ought to think about whether we really want to leave so many of our citizens exposed to poor treatment by other countries while offering generous treatment to their citizens living here.
[The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Lidington): The EU27 Governments have been clear that they will engage in negotiations only once Article 50 has been triggered, but I am optimistic that a reciprocal agreement on the status of each other’s citizens can be achieved. It is in the rational interests of the UK and all our 27 EU partners, and so I very much hope that it can be an early achievement of the negotiations once they start.]