Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 17th February 1998.

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Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 9:17 pm, 17th February 1998

I begin by saying how delighted we are to see the Minister for the Armed Forces back in his place ready to be deployed. We wish him a speedy and complete recovery from his recent illness.

In common with a number of hon. Members, I have listened to nearly every word that has been spoken in the debate over the past six hours. It has been a sober and balanced debate in which a clear consensus has emerged for the Government motion—sharpened, it is to be hoped, by the Opposition amendment. However, equally clear has been the recognition of the risks involved and of the fact that although one option is preferable, none of the options is attractive.

It has been a debate devoid of jingoism. Indeed, there has been some resentment on the part of those who have defended the Government—some of the more peaceful Members of this House—that they have been accused by some of their colleagues of being bloodthirsty and full of war lust. Those of us who know the hon. Members who have defended the Government's position know that those accusations are untrue.

What has emerged is broad agreement that appeasement would be wrong. It would be wrong today, and even more wrong for tomorrow. Another feature of the debate has been the sincerity of views. Hon. Members have defended their views in their own words and for their own reasons. It has been a debate far removed from hon. Members paraphrasing briefing from the Whips Office. I think that it is right to conclude from the debate, although, of course, we must await the vote, that the Government have broad support for the strategy that they have tabled.

One of the themes of the debate has been the similarities and the differences between the 1991 crisis and the present one. That was one of the themes of the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). He rightly said that the same broad principles were at stake.

In both cases, a new Prime Minister has been confronted by the need to build with US allies a coherent political and military response to unlawful action by Saddam Hussein which has threatened to destabilise the middle east. In both cases, the Government's robust response was supported by the Opposition. In both cases, the UK has been militarily prepared for its role.

The Secretary of State was good enough to write in The Parliamentarian that our armed forces are the best in Europe, if not the world". Only with an effective and well-trained, well-equipped fighting force can the UK's contribution and our debate this evening be meaningful.

There have also been key differences between this crisis and that in 1991, which were touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and many others. The alliance is smaller and the French are not on side. This time, there has been no invasion. That leads to a crucial point which has been mentioned throughout the debate, and it concerns objectives. In 1991, the political and the military objectives were clearly linked. The political objective of liberating Kuwait linked naturally to the military objective of ejecting the invading army. The two objectives coincided.

This time, the political and the military objectives do not have the same neat relationship. The political objective is the readmission of the UNSCOM inspectors, but the link between that and such military action as may be contemplated is less direct and more tenuous. That lies behind the calls for clarity that we have heard throughout the debate—for clarity of political objective from the politicians, and for our troops, if the time comes, clarity of military objective.

Those who have followed the crisis from the beginning will have been concerned by the absence of answers from Iraq to some basic questions. If, as he claims, Saddam Hussein is not in the business of producing weapons of mass destruction, why the resistance to the work of UNSCOM, to which he originally agreed? What does he seek to hide from the inspectors? What does the leader of an impoverished people think he is doing with 14 presidential palaces? If, as we now know, he has developed and used weapons of mass destruction, what are his motives in storing those poisonous cocktails in such large quantities? Is it not better to confront him today, rather than wait until tomorrow?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) quoted from an article in The Sunday Times which many hon. Members will have read. It was an article written by a British UN arms inspector outlining the obstruction and hazards that he faced, with bugged hotel rooms, waiting four days outside one building for access and, in his own words, coming within a hair's breadth of being shot by over-zealous, trigger-happy 17-year-olds. I agree with the concluding sentence of that article: Our mandate is to have immediate, unrestricted access to any site in Iraq, and our mission will not be accomplished until this is permitted. Yes, there are risks in military action. We have heard about them from hon. Members today. In one respect, however, I think that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was wrong. He argued that a criticism that could be made of the Government's strategy was that it would strengthen Saddam Hussein. I do not happen to agree, but the argument was turned neatly against the right hon. Gentleman by one of his hon. Friends, who said that it applied even more strongly to an alternative strategy that removed the underpinning of the threat of force from the sanctions now working on Saddam Hussein. For many of us, however, the highlight of the debate was listening to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) lashing with his tongue not Opposition Members, but some of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

If there are risks involved in military action—and there are—I believe that more risks are involved in no action. But there is another risk that has not really been touched on today: the risk of a diplomatic fudge that would leave Saddam in control, possibly claiming victory—that would leave him able to continue to develop his literally poisonous regime, and that would damage the credibility of the collective action on which the freedoms that we all value now depend. That is why the diplomatic endgame on which we are now embarked is crucial, and why it is vital that, if Kofi Annan goes to Baghdad, he goes with a clear remit. What we cannot have is UNSCOM left in Iraq, but operating under conditions that would make its work ineffective. I was delighted to hear the Foreign Secretary rule out that option in his opening speech.

The debate has achieved something else. It has not just been about the similarities and the contrasts since 1991; it has shown how the whole crisis has moved on since the cold war. At that time, the concern was the deployment of nuclear weapons by a strong and stable country. Today, we are concerned about the deployment of chemical, bacteriological weapons by a poor country with an unstable leadership. That, surely, is the nature of the military threats in the 21st century: they are very different from those in the second half of the 20th century, and they are threats to which the United Kingdom's defence must adapt in the years ahead.

Another issue has not been mentioned, but is worth a paragraph. That is the importance of our reserves, which are now much more usable as a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Members of the Royal Naval and Royal Air Force Reserves are in the middle east now, but, if the scenario were to take a turn for the worse, our regular forces would need to be supported by volunteers from the Territorial Army, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Naval Reserve.

We have heard first-class speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Let me touch on some of the speeches of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, who was Prime Minister at the time of the earlier crisis, and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, who was Secretary of State for Defence at the time. We also heard from a number of my hon. Friends who have served in the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby, who fought in the 1991 Gulf war; and, at the end of the debate, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who, I think, outlined the role of the Opposition—to give broad support, but also, as is their right, to question and criticise if necessary as the situation unfolds.

A subject that has hardly been touched on is the question of resources. The only speaker to mention that was the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who fired a warning shot across the Treasury bows. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the costs of our response to the Gulf crisis will be met from the reserves and will not represent a further squeeze on his Department or on other spending programmes? At the beginning of the financial year, the Chancellor pre-allocated quite a lot of this year's reserves. Some of us pointed out that that was possibly a rash thing to do. I hope that there is enough in the reserves to meet the costs of this unforeseen crisis.

I also ask the Secretary of State about the interrelationship of the strategic defence review and the hostilities that may lie ahead. I hope that he will agree that if there is a war in which our troops are engaged, all the energies of his Department will be focused on a successful outcome and that any war with the Treasury will have to wait.