Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:17 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Newens Mr Arthur Newens , Harlow 7:17 pm, 6th July 1982

The hon. Member for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) deployed his arguments on the basis of the defence statement prepared by the Government. I differ from him in a number of respects on the four issues that formed the theme of his speech. Unlike him, and in common with many of ray right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches, I consider that the defence statement was out of date before it was officially published.

The statement fails to take account of the Falklands crisis and many other world facts. On that basis it should be rejected in the Lobbies tonight. The basic assumption on which the statement rests is that the main threat to the United Kingdom is posed by the USSR and its allies. On that basis the argument for rearmament and for participation in the arms race is justified. I believe that the main threat to the United Kingdom and to many other countries is world war or our becoming involved in a major conflict that will destroy our way of life, and perhaps life itself. Our policy must therefore have as its main objective the safeguarding and protection of our people against such an eventuality.

The history of recent decades and a survey of the world scene underlines the fact that the biggest threat to world peace today arises not in Europe or in the developed countries but in the Third world where there are innumerable instabilities that could lead to a war at any time. Events only this year illustrate that. There was the conflict in the South Atlantic, the conflict in the Middle East and the continuing Iraqi-Iranian war. Neither the USSR nor its allies have been directly involved in those wars. Today, Africa, Asia and Latin America are seething with problems that could easily lead to war that could escalate and spread far beyond ordinary expectations into a major conflict.

This is not new. The First World War arose out of an escalating arms race between the great powers at that time, with instability on the fringes that produced a succession of crises. There was Morocco in 1905, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Morocco in 1911, the Balkan War in 1912 and the shooting of the Archduke of Austria at Sarajevo in 1914. The last-mentioned event plunged the world into armed conflict far beyond anything that most leading statesmen at the time imagined possible. There are parallels today, but despite that the great powers vie with each other to sell arms to the Third world where the greatest danger arises of the type of conflicts to which I have referred breaking out. The competition to sell arms is a form of Russian roulette in which the Russians may not be involved. No one knows whose Blowpipe or Exocet missiles will eventually be used against whose Service men. Regardless of our experience in the conflict with Argentina, the defence statement in paragraph 409 states: We shall also be paying greater attention to the sales potential of projects and programmes authorised for the Armed Forces. It is estimated that defence sales transactions in 1982–83 will be £1,800 million. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) referred earlier to the sale of warships. Even as the task force was setting sail for the South Atlantic, we were transferring a former destroyer, HMS "London", to the Pakistan navy. In what way would such a transfer help to promote world peace?

We have supplied arms and trained forces and seconded our own personnel to train foreign forces in a long list of countries that are wholly devoid of any democratic practices and which not infrequently have appalling records on human rights, which they have denied and trampled underfoot.

Last year, the Secretary of State for Defence, when challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) on arms sales to dictatorships such as Chile, El Salvador and Argentina, stated in defence of his policy: I regret that there are many dictatorships in the world, and if we sold defence equipment only to countries with our constitutional arrangements, our sales would be very small".—[Official Report, 21 July 1981; Vol. 9, c. 156.] Frankly, that is the morality of the pimp or the drug pusher. The merchants of death are sowing dragon's teeth in flagrant defiance of what experience shows, and our experience in the South Atlantic ought to convince us of the need to turn our backs on this particularly pernicious policy.

The military cliques, juntas and dictators that we arm are the largest threat to the peoples whom they claim to defend. The military coup is now becoming the standard way of changing a government in many parts of the world. To defend the suicidal rush to supply the means of destruction to the world's dictatorships is like laying a trail of gunpowder to our own back door, because sooner or later one of the crises that will explode, which will be fought with weapons supplied by the great powers, will embroil us all in a major world conflict.

Side by side with that madness, we are indulging in an unparallelled race to develop, manufacture and deploy ever more destructive nuclear weapons systems on the ground that the only real threat comes from the Soviet Union. The Falklands crisis showed that nuclear weapons cannot be used to our advantage in many—I would say all—circumstances. Even the advocates of nuclear weapons usually accept that if they were ever used, the deterrent theory on which their possession is based would have failed.

The price of deploying nuclear weapons on our territory and in our submarines against the Soviet Union is to have Soviet nuclear weapons targeted on our country. That means that any nuclear attack on the Soviet Union from any source—even a reckless or accidental attack—could result in those missiles targeted against us being launched on their way. Those attacked could not afford to delay to ascertain the origin of the attack even if it were not clear. In those circumstances, the weapons deployed on our soil do not defend us but put our people at a tremendous risk.

The vast expenditure involved in deploying such weapons is not merely a waste but increases our vulnerability to destruction. Furthermore, if we allow another power to deploy its weapons on our soil, we run an additional risk that they could be used without our being properly consulted, despite the claims that that could never occur.

I have never argued in favour of a vast escalation of defence expenditure, and in that respect I oppose the commitment of the Government, the SDP and the Liberal Party. I believe that Britain would be much safer and more secure if it used the money at present devoted to nuclear weapons to provide adequate conventional forces to defend our country. That is the basic case advanced by the Labour Party.

When the ships arrived in the South Atlantic, they had no effective defence against sea-skimming missiles. When the Secretary of State was challenged on this point—relatives of Service men on those ships told me that they had no proper form of defence—he said that we did not have that defence because the Russians did not possess sea-skimming missiles. However, we had nuclear weapons that we could not use. It would be very much better if our defence expenditure was made on equipment and weapons that we shall need in the real world.

If Britain renounced nuclear weapons and promoted schemes for nuclear-free zones and non-proliferation, our country would be less likely to be the victim of nuclear attack than it is at present. Furthermore, it would help to convince other countries that they do not need nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Although the Minister renounced the contrary point of view when challenged, the logic of his position is that if we need nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, every other country has a case for possessing them as well. We must all be aware of the tremendous increase in the danger of world and nuclear war that that would mean.

Britain should take a lead against arms sales and seek to persuade other countries to do likewise. The world would become less, not more, likely to be beset with armed conflicts in developing countries if we greatly reduced the continued sale of armaments to Third world countries.

The sort of policy that I have defended, and which the Labour Party is advancing, would not mean discarding our conventional defence forces. Conservative Members should not argue that case. On the contrary, we believe that our defence forces should be well trained and equipped to deal with any circumstances that they may reasonably be expected to face. We can never justify the sacrifice of conventional defence to build up nuclear capability. If we still cannot afford conventional defences on the scale that is necessary, I and a number of my hon. Friends believe that we should begin withdrawing our forces from Germany. The resources that became available could then be deployed in the interests of Britain.

Government policy as set out in the White Paper does not recognise or attempt to fulfil the requirements that I have indicated for Britain's defence policy. The statement should be rejected on these grounds. It fails to meet the real defence needs of Britain and it provides for an escalation of defence expenditure. In that respect, the Government are now supported by the Liberals and the SDP, and I hope that the supporters of the alliance outside the House will take careful note of what it is saying in here, as many of those supporters are not saying the same thing.

If we continue escalating defence expenditure, we shall cripple our economy and destroy any hope of a real recovery, as President Reagan is already finding with the policy of escalating arms expenditure in the United States. I believe, as I have always believed, that it is up to hon. Members to take a stand against the madness of the nuclear arms race. Accordingly, I hope that we shall register in the Division Lobbies a good vote against the statement. It is against the real interests of the defence of the people of this country.