Orders of the Day — Statement on the Defence Estimates

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 19th October 1993.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, National Heritage Committee 6:26 pm, 19th October 1993

It was a relief to hear in the speech of the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) references to the context in which defence policy should be analysed and in which our defence forces should be deployed. I did not necessarily agree with some of his arguments, but at least he tried to address the wider context of defence policy.

During the past day and a half, we have had two hours and 12 minutes of ministerial speeches, but we have heard nothing of what the Government's defence policy is about. We have heard about weapons, procurements, deployments and medals. Today, from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, we heard about something called gender-free testing.

Yesterday, we even had spatchcocked into the Secretary of State's speech—no doubt it was drafted and inserted by the Foreign Office—a completely gratuitous statement about the situation in Russia today. The House was enlightened by the Secretary of State on how essential to safeguarding Russian democracy it was that the discredited Russian Parliament should be dissolved. I suppose that the same argument might be used about this country at present.

It seems that the Secretary of State for Defence is involved in a great dispute inside the Cabinet about the defence budget. The hon. Member for Upminster, with the weight of his chairmanship of the Select Committee, gave a grave warning to the Government of the consequences among Conservative Back-Bench Members if cuts of £1 billion were made in the defence budget.

It is interesting that the dispute that is going on inside the Cabinet and which is echoed throughout the Conservative press today is not about what the Secretary of State should spend his budget on or whether that expense in necessary, justifiable or cost-effective.

The dispute simply seems to be about what the figures in the budget should be. In defending his budget, the Secretary of State for Defence seems to be echoing Descartes in saying: "I spend, therefore I am." He is simply saying: "I need the budget to show that I am the Secretary of State for Defence, and that the Ministry of Defence has a role to play in the Government." However, that is very different from the Ministry carrying out its role as the protector of the armed services and as the Department designated to work out a defence policy for our country.

The level of defence spending should not be an abstract figure. It should not be as high as the Secretary of State can bargain it up, or as low as the Chancellor can manage to cut it down. I tell the hon. Members for Upminster and for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill)—the latter sought to make the same point yesterday—that having league tables on expenditure between Government Departments is not the point. The point is whether the expenditure of Departments can be justified by what those Departments are doing and what they should be doing.

Whether the defence budget of £24 billion—if that is what it turns out to be—is too high or too low does not depend on picking a figure out of the air or on an argument between the Secretary of State and the Chancellor. It depends on what our armed forces are supposed to be doing, and whether that amount of money will make it possible for our armed forces to do it. The figure of £24 billion is much too low if it does not provide the wherewithal to fulfil a sensible defence policy. However, it is too high if it goes beyond the needs of a sensible defence policy.

The problem with the present level of defence spending and, indeed, any future level of defence spending—it is more likely to be lower than higher—or any variant that is now being considered is that no one knows how much needs to be spent. No one, including the Secretary of State for Defence, has the slightest idea of what the defence policy is about and what it should be about.

Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) with what he clearly regarded as an absolutely daring notion—that the Foreign Office should have some say in what defence policy should be, and that defence policy should be a consequence of foreign policy.

Yet that is simply all that a defence policy should be. It does not exist in abstract. Our forces do not exist in order that they should exist. The defence budget does not exist in order that there should be a figure that can be defended by the Secretary of State or cut down by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It exists to carry out policies in the interests of this country, by defending our country and ensuring that our national interests are defended in the various forums of the world in which we properly have a say.

When Clausewitz said that war was the continuation of diplomacy by other means, he was encapsulating what the right hon. Member for Watford regarded yesterday as so far out a notion that he dared to make it only once he had left the Government—that defence policy should be an arm of foreign policy. But that is precisely what defence policy is and should be: it should be an extension of our foreign policy.

The problem is that, under this Government, the country does not have a foreign policy that can be discerned. It has a number of propositions and elegances that the Foreign Secretary is well equipped to voice. However, we are not getting a world view and a view of Britain's place in that world. We do not have a rational defence policy that can be the military arm of a world view and a view of this country's place in the world.

For 45 years, under both Conservative and Labour Governments, this country's foreign and defence policies were governed, rightly and necessarily, by the cold war. NATO was formed in 1949 to prevent Stalin's armies from overrunning western Europe. The NATO nuclear strategy was necessarily and rightly aimed at preventing the Soviets from backing their huge armies with a nuclear threat.

Mutual assured destruction—with its appropriate acronym of MAD—kept the peace from D day in 1945 to that day in November 1990, to which Lady Thatcher referred in her book, when she heard in Paris that she had failed to be elected on the first Conservative ballot. She was in Paris to represent Britain at the conference which brought about the formal end of the cold war.

The cold war lasted for forty-five and a half years. During that time, we had the same policy and strategy under both Conservative and Labour Governments. It was to deter Communist aggression by alliances, especially NATO, and to have the necessary armed forces on land, sea and air and the necessary nuclear deterrent to make it clear to the Soviets that they faced a nuclear response if they launched a land attack. The policy was tough, but it worked. It was clear, and we all knew where we were.

The problem is that we no longer know where we are, because the certainty of the cold war—the certainty was ugly, but nevertheless it provided a great deal of clarity —has gone. We no longer know why we have the alliance that was rightly formed in 1949.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence said that it was desirable to expand NATO to include Russia. However, he did not tell the House why we needed NATO, following the end of the cold war. When Mr. James Baker was the United States Secretary of State—he was a fine Secretary of State—he was rightly responsible for killing NATO's flexible nuclear weapons response strategy, against the bitter resistance of Lady Thatcher.

Mr. Baker said that, following the changes and the end of the cold war, a new raison d'etre for NATO needed to be devised. But no one has tried. No one knows why we still have the alliance, which the Secretary of State should be expanding. Nor do we know why we need strategic weaponry.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence boasted about defence co-operation agreements with Russia, Ukraine, Albania and other easter European Communist countries. When I asked him why we needed a nuclear deterrent against countries with which we were working out defence agreements—he was very enthusiastic about the co-operation—he said that the Government did not know what would happen, and therefore had to guard against uncertainty.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) is a great advocate of the Royal Air Force. Yesterday, when he rose with some agitation and asked why the tactical air-to-surface missile weapon would not be developed, the Secretary of State said: We must take into account the fact that it is right and proper that we should adapt our nuclear policy to the very changed circumstances that exist in the post-cold war world."—[Official Report, 18 October 1993; Vol. 230, c. 35.] The Secretary of State is sure that it is right not to have the tactical air-to-surface missile weapon. During the general election, the Government challenged Labour Members about whether a Labour Government would have the tactical air-to-surface missile. Nevertheless, he says that we are unsure, because the Government still believe that they should keep Trident.

The Government had better not jeer at the Labour party, or even at silly resolutions passed by the Labour party conference, as one was a couple of weeks ago, because, although those silly Labour party resolutions may not become Labour Government policy, they often become Tory Government policy. That being so, let the Government not be too firm in their defence of the need to have four Trident submarines—much as my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, (Mr. Hutton) wants them, for practical reasons.

This Government may not decide to commission the four submarines, whatever they say today, and they have absolutely no notion of how many warheads they will have on those submarines. When we say a maximum of 192, the Secretary of State will not say, "Yes, definitely 512," because he knows that he cannot commit himself to that.

I warn the Government that, just as they flourished TASM as their macho symbol at the last general election and taunted the Labour party with it, they had better not taunt the Labour party about even the sloppiest, most sentimental part of the resolutions that it espouses in emotional moments at party conferences because that part may turn out to be more realistic than this Government when the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a go at the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Government have not begun to think through what the defence policy should be for a medium-sized European power, such as the United Kingdom, with few worldwide responsibilities outside its European alliance and United Nations commitments. Indeed, in this debate, commitments have been shed like autumn leaves.

We have just had a valid row about getting rid of our commitment in Belize. The hon. Member for Upminster joined in, and I disagree with him. We heard yesterday that our troops are to be withdrawn from Hong Kong. The little contingent will go from South Korea. The commitment in Belize has gone, in my view rightly. We have some sailors in the Caribbean.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces in last night's speech, which was like a long series of postcards home to his mother—his absolutely delightful mother, whom I greatly admire—told us that among our deployments these days were our sailors going on leave in Miami and getting what he assured us was traditional United States hospitality. I hope that our troops are allowed to be armed if they are to receive the traditional hospitality of Florida.

In these circumstances, every penny that the Government spend on defence is wasted, because it is not being spent for a clear reason in pursuit of a clear policy. We have excellently trained armed forces, who commit themselves magnificently whenever they are called upon to go into action. During the Gulf crisis, I met our troops in the Gulf. They acquitted themselves superbly, as they do whenever they are called on to fight. The question is: what are our troops supposed to be doing and preparing for? What should Britain's defence policy be?

Clearly, we must be equipped properly and adequately. We must be prepared to face and defeat any threat to us as a nation. But who on earth is going to threaten us? Not Germany, despite Lady Thatcher's nightmares. Not Russia, as has been made absolutely clear to us by the Secretary of State for Defence himself. The last thing to interest President Yeltsin is some foreign adventure, unless, like the tiny country in the film "The Mouse that Roared", he can persuade the Americans to fight a war with him, defeat him, occupy Russia and solve his problems for him. President Yeltsin is certainly not about to fight us and, indeed, the Secretary of State has just signed agreements with him.

Clearly, we must have basic forces to meet any rare contingency, should foreign policy fail, as it did so abysmally over the Falklands. This afternoon, it was pointed out to us how near we came to not being equipped to fight that war. We must be able to prepare for such a contingency.

I am ready to support any Budget necessary to make sure that we can deploy whatever forces are required rapidly and efficiently. Clearly, we need troops for Northern Ireland, although I say to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) in all friendliness and good will that the sooner we have an end to that sterile and costly commitment by the political solution of a united Ireland, the better for all of us, including Ireland.

Beyond that, we should have well trained, mobile units available for United Nations policing operations on land, in the air and at sea. The end of the cold war has not brought a new world order, as the hon. Member for Upminster made clear so eloquently. Due to a lack of statesmanship by many Governments, including this one, the end of the cold war has brought about a new disorder, which in many ways is less satisfactory and more frightening than the old communist authoritarianism. At least, under communism, the people of those countries, oppressed as they were, lived under a certain rough if ugly order. That order has gone, but the risks have not gone with it.

The people of Yugoslavia presumably thought that nothing could be worse than the communism under which they used to be misgoverned. Now they know that things can be, and indeed are, much worse than that. Is the upheaval in the former Soviet Union preferable to the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev? My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) told us what has been happening in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Many who suffer in those territories would doubt it. Communism was ugly, oppressive and dictatorial; it had its secret police and concentration camps; but it prevented ethnic civil war, which in many ways is worse than what existed before.

Although Russia is no longer the super-power that the Soviet Union once was, it remains a nuclear power. What is more, there are now four nuclear powers where there was one before. One of the problems of there being four irresponsible nuclear powers is the danger of a nuclear capability seeping through to medium-sized and small countries, which will not exercise the control over the weapons that the Soviet Union did. Of course the Soviet Union's ownership of nuclear weapons was odious and ugly, but it was part of a stand-off that the two super-powers understood totally. They both knew where they were, and mutually assured destruction was the name of the game. Brezhnev and Stalin understood that, just as much as Eisenhower.

Already there is proliferation, and now there is a danger of greater proliferation. It can be said that it was far preferable to have a huge super-power, like the Soviet Union, with a nuclear capability than a seepage which enables medium-sized and even small powers to gain a nuclear capability. Too many countries already have that capability, such as India, Pakistan and Israel. A prime aim of our defence policy should be to prevent nuclear proliferation and to reduce the number of countries with a nuclear potential.

That is why this country should take the lead in pressing for a total ban on all nuclear testing. It is frightening that a Chinese resumption of tests should lead President Clinton to consider ending his moratorium on tests. Yet the Government have no idea whether or not they are in favour of nuclear testing. A year or 15 months ago, they said that it was essential; but when I have challenged the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in the Chamber, to say whether they regard it as essential for the country's nuclear capability, they have dodged the question. They do not know—because the answer depends on whether President Clinton will allow them to have nuclear testing.

We ought to be saying that it is best for the whole world if no one carries out such tests. We ought to be using the current moratorium, and our own inability to conduct tests —because the Americans will not allow us to do so—both to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty and to extend adherence to the non-proliferation treaty. We should be calling on the United Nations to ban trade in all nuclear-potential materials between countries that refuse to sign the non-proliferation treaty—as too many still do.

That would, of course, mean a change of heart in this country. Day after day, the Scott inquiry reveals that the Government fell over themselves to break their own embargo by selling Saddam Hussein not only conventional weapons, but the wherewithal to manufacture nuclear weapons. The disgraceful record of the Thatcher Government—which, for some reason, is not highlighted in that lady's memoirs—was continued under the present Government, right up to the day on which Iraq seized Kuwait: we were enhancing Iraq's nuclear capability until that day in August when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait. We ought to use the present position to stop testing and to stop proliferation.

Moreover, rather than squabbling internally about the kind of nuclear weapons with which they should make do — as a macho symbol—the Government ought to realise that the only real and practical use for the residual British nuclear capability is to give us authority to participate in, and if necessary initiate, the next round of strategic arms reduction talks, and to demonstrate to countries that already have a nuclear capability—or wish to acquire it—that the United Kingdom is ready to work with them to make the world a safer place, together with France, China, the former Soviet nuclear powers and the United States.

As I have said, this country is a medium-sized power on the edge of Europe, and it is part of the European Community. Nevertheless—medium-sized though it is, and limited though its capabilities are—it is uniquely placed to play a constructive part in world politics and the establishment of a new world order. Ours is the only country in the world that is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Community, the Commonwealth and the Group of Seven, and also has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council —which we should insist on keeping, whatever meddling others wish to try.

We are uniquely placed in those five centres of power, influence and authority. We ought to be playing a constructive role in trying to build the new world order for which we hoped when the cold war ended but which has not come about. It is because the Government are failing to take advantage of a unique opportunity, in unique circumstances, that I will readily join my hon. Friends in the Lobby tonight.