The Gulf

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:03 pm on 21st January 1991.

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Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East 6:03 pm, 21st January 1991

The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said that no hon. Member is anti-peace. I remind him and other hon. Members tonight we should be debating whether the House is for or against the war which is being waged in the name of the House at this very moment and in which thousands of lives have been lost. It does not really matter whether those lives have all been lost on one side; no life should be lost. I denounce the House for failing to afford hon. Members the opportunity to express clearly either their support for or their opposition to the war.

The Prime Minister said that on this occasion all hon. Members would be given an opportunity to express their views. I assume that he meant that those of us who hold the minority view in opposition to the war would be allowed to express their views as well. I have been fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but many other hon. Members have not been so fortunate, and they will not have an opportunity to speak. Their only opportunity to make clear their position on the war would have been to vote in the Lobby tonight.

The Government's motion, as amended by the official Opposition, denies those hon. Members the right to do that. Many hon. Members like me want to vote in support of our troops, but want also to vote in opposition to the waste of their lives in a war which we believe to be unnecessary. It is worse than regrettable that we have been denied that opportunity. That is a denial of democracy itself.

The fact that that is happening in the name of an institution that describes itself as the mother of Parliaments and the seat of democracy makes it even worse. Earlier, a Conservative Member said that he abhorred the lack of democracy in Baghdad. So do I, but I equally abhor the attempt to silence dissent that is taking place in this House tonight. There could and should have been more than one amendment for us to vote on tonight, and I deeply regret the fact that there is not.

Support for the British troops is nearly unanimous in the country, and it is unanimous in the House. There is nothing but admiration for the bravery of those prepared to put their lives on the line at the bidding of elected politicians. There will be nothing but support for them and their families during the days and possibly the weeks and months ahead, when all their waking hours will be haunted by the fear of death or serious injury.

All hon. Members pray for the safe and speedy return of our soldiers. However, as elected representatives, we have responsibilities other than the natural expression of support of that kind for our troops. I do not accept that, because a war is started, we must support it—the principle of "my country, right or wrong". That principle should not be applied indiscriminately, and it has never been supported by the Labour party. It is a matter of deep regret that some of my hon. Friends have tried to use that argument in our debates on the Gulf crisis.

Nor do I accept that, because a war is fought in pursuit of a cause that is just, it must therefore be supported. There are many just causes in this unjust world, not least the oppression of the Palestinians over the past 23 years or the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, in defiance of United Nations resolutions over that period.

Fighting a war in pursuit of a just cause is a necessary condition for support of a war, but in itself it is not sufficient justification for supporting it. That point is worth making tonight. Before a war can be supported, it must be shown to have been necessary. We must be certain that the decision to send our troops to war was taken when there was no other alternative. I do not believe that that was the case. Not only could the war have been avoided —it should have been avoided.

I believe that the war can still be cut short and that a peaceful settlement can be reached on the condition that the United Nations Security Council is given a central role of influence in the conduct of the war. Hon. Members who have referred to the war as being about backing the authority of the United Nations should explain why the war is being fought not under United Nations control, but under the control of the United States President and United States military.

I do not believe that it is unpatriotic or anti-British troops to hold those views and beliefs, or to give public expression to them. How can I express my beliefs at the end of the debate?

The motion and the amendment actually support the continuation of the war. The motion states: That this House expresses its full support for British troops in the Gulf and their contribution to the implementation of United Nations … Resolution 678. That means support for the war that is now being waged. That is not my interpretation, it is the interpretation of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who told us that he believed that there was no doubt about the legitimacy of the military action that has been taken against Iraq. I disagree with him. I believe that there are serious doubts about the legitimacy of the military action that is currently being taken. I will not be prevented from voicing those doubts by anyone in this House.

Let us be clear what resolution 678 says. It does not authorise war—it merely calls on member nations to use all necessary means to ensure that Iraq leaves Kuwait. There are different interpretations of "all necessary means". Those of us who favoured sanctions being given more time to work did not and still do not believe that war is necessary at this stage. Those who supported the war never made the case that war was necessary before launching the war on Wednesday night. Indeed, the decision was taken by the United States President, and he did not even bother to inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations or arrange for the United Nations Security Council to be convened.

We went to war in the name of the United Nations, without even informing the United Nations that we were going to war. That is not a good enough foundation to support the sacrifice of thousands of human lives. I now face the stark alternative of voting for or against the motion or the amendment. That is not of my choosing. It is the result of choices that have already been made by both Front Benches and by Mr. Speaker. I bitterly regret that, but my position is clear. My support for the British troops is unqualified, but my opposition to their destruction in an unnecessary war is equally unqualified. That may be a minority view in the House, but I sincerely believe that it is the majority view in Scotland. In Scotland, the trade unions, the Churches, the peace movement and the people have made clear their opposition to an unnecessary war.

In a magnificent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said that she had been derided for taking a brave stand on peace, and that she had been accused of not supporting British troops. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were very quick to dissociate themselves from such condemnation, and rightly so. However, it would be naive to expect anything else from the gutter press in this country than precisely that denunciation of those who speak out against the war.

The essence of democracy is not only the tolerance of dissent but respect for dissent. Precisely that respect has been denied tonight because of the manoeuvring in respect of the motion and the amendments. Those who oppose the war have been treated with disrespect by the House. Others who are less fastidious than hon. Members will build on that disrespect and, in the days and weeks ahead, will begin the process that will bring about the denial of democracy. That should be of concern to hon. Members. Hon. Members have every right to hold views in support of the war and every right to express them in motions and amendments. However, they have no right whatsoever to deny that same right to myself and my hon. Friends. I shall vote against the motion, because I have no opportunity to do anything else. I shall vote against it because I support the troops and I oppose the waste of their lives in an unnecessary war.