Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:58 pm on 17th January 2013.
Interest in this debate has led me again to impose a six-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the nuclear deterrent.
The motion stands in my name, and that of Paul Flynn.
Obtaining the debate involved a genuinely collaborative effort across the political divide. Part of the beauty of the Backbench Business Committee process is that it compels people who disagree profoundly about issues to work together to ensure that those issues are brought to the Floor of the House. No fewer than two dozen colleagues representing both sides of the argument supported our application for the debate at various stages. They are too numerous to list, but representations were made to the Backbench Business Committee by—as well as the hon. Member for Newport West and me—the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Woking (Jonathan Lord), and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Others who were particularly supportive include Sir Gerald Kaufman, Dr Huppert, and my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
I know that several of those Members, as well as others—not least the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend Dr Fox, who is participating in a broadcast on this very subject this afternoon—regret that Committee meetings and other inescapable commitments prevent them from attending today’s debate. I am grateful to them all, and I hope that the tone and content of our debate between now and 5 pm will justify the effort that they all put into encouraging the Backbench Business Committee to select this important topic.
Given that we must fit some 20 speeches into just two hours, I shall endeavour to make my own remarks as brief as possible. I wish to outline just five military arguments and four rather more political arguments in favour of our retaining the independent deterrent. The first of the military arguments is the most important argument of all: that future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those that engulfed us throughout the 20th century. That is the overriding justification for preserving armed forces in peacetime as a national insurance policy. No one knows which enemies may confront us during the next 30 to 50 years—for that is the period that we are discussing, when the next generation of the nuclear deterrent will be in service—but it is highly probable that at least some of those enemies will be armed with weapons of mass destruction.
I greatly regret that, owing to a prime ministerial meeting with GPs from my constituency, I shall be unable to take part substantively in the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our independent nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace in Europe for the past six decades, and that, because we effectively bankrupted the Soviet Union, it has led to the freeing of millions of people in eastern Europe?
I am sure that will be a central topic in our debate, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope some of the later points in my list of nine arguments will serve to endorse what he has said.
My second argument is that it is not the weapons themselves that we have to fear, but the nature of the regimes that possess them. Whereas democracies are generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships—although they did so against Japan in 1945—the reverse is not true. Let us consider what might have happened if in 1982 a non-nuclear Britain had been facing an Argentina in possession of even just a few tactical nuclear bombs and the means of delivering them. Would we then have dared to use our conventional forces against its inferior conventional forces?
The third military argument is that the United Kingdom has traditionally played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized democracies have been able, or willing, to do. Democratic countries without nuclear weapons have little choice but either to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best or to rely on the nuclear umbrella of their powerful allies. The UK is a nuclear power already and is also much harder to defeat by conventional means than many other democracies because of our physical separation from the continent.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing for every independent country in the world to possess nuclear weapons?
Absolutely not. I am saying that those countries that do not have nuclear weapons already often have other reasons that make it difficult to defend their borders, whereas, fortunately, we find it easier to do so because of our physical separation from the continent.
The fourth argument is that our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position—to which I have just referred—and the fact that we are obviously the junior partner might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us separately. Given the difficulties in overrunning the UK with conventional forces in comparison with our more vulnerable allies, an aggressor could be tempted to use one or more mass destruction weapons against us on the assumption that the United States would not respond on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find out his mistake only when it was too late for all concerned. An independently controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.
The fifth of the military arguments is that no quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage that faces a non-nuclear country in a war against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is especially instructive—not only because the Emperor was forced to surrender, but also because of what might have happened under the reverse scenario. If Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the allies had not, a conventional allied invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.
I want to follow on from the question from Paul Flynn and press Dr Lewis on the logic of his argument. How can it be right for us to claim that we should have nuclear weapons, yet lecture every other country against trying to acquire them? If we are saying that the UK depends on nuclear weapons to be safe, does it not logically follow that every other country has the right to make the same argument?
The answer to that is catered for by the point I made earlier: it is not the weapons we have to fear but the nature of the regimes that have them. I have no desire to lecture other democracies on whether or not they should have nuclear weapons, as that is a question for them and it is about whether they feel they can afford to do that. It does not bother me if democracies have nuclear weapons, but I do reserve the right to lecture dictatorships, and preferably to try to thwart, baulk and deter them from having such weapons, because they are the threat, not the weapons themselves.
I will give way, but it will be for the last time as otherwise I will be in danger of taking too much time. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in resuming his seat.
I wish briefly to make four political points. The first political argument is that when people are asked whether it is safer for this country to continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, a large majority of the population consistently take the view that we should do so and that it would be unwise and dangerous to renounce them unilaterally. We can ask different poll questions that seem to point to a different answer, but when that question is asked, the answer is surprisingly consistent.
The second political argument is that in the 1980s, under cold war conditions, two general elections demonstrated the toxic effect of one-sided disarmament proposals on a party’s prospects of gaining power. The third argument is that it was and remains widely believed—this refers to the intervention made by my hon. Friend Henry Smith a few moments ago—that the nuclear stalemate of the cold war enabled all-out conflict between the majors powers to be avoided for 50 years, despite their mutual hostility and in contrast to what happened in those many regional theatres where communists and their enemies could and did fight without fear of nuclear escalation. The final political argument is that the ending of the east-west confrontation has not altered the balance of public opinion on this question. First, that is because a danger could easily re-emerge of a reversion to a confrontation of that sort. Secondly, it is because even today there are unpleasant regimes, such as Iran’s, on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons and some, such as North Korea’s, that have already done so.
The role of our strategic nuclear force remains what it has always been: to deter any power armed with mass destruction weapons from using them against us, in the belief, true or false, that nobody would retaliate on our behalf. The use of our deterrent consists of its preventive effect on the behaviour of our enemies. The actual launching of a Trident missile would mark the failure of deterrence and would presuppose that a devastating attack had already been inflicted on our country.
Because strategic nuclear deterrence is largely irrelevant to the current counter-insurgency campaigns with which the British Army has been involved, some senior Army officers have been suggesting that we must choose between fighting “the war” of the present and insuring against the more conventional prospect of state-versus-state conflict in the future. I say that that choice is unacceptable, and that the underlying message that the era of high-intensity, state-on-state warfare is gone for good is a dangerous fallacy. Every sane individual hopes that such warfare will never return, but to rely on that in the face of past experience would be extremely foolhardy. The lesson of warfare in the 20th century, repeated time and again, was that when conflicts broke out they usually took their victims by surprise. Obvious examples are: the failure to anticipate the first world war; the follies of the “10-year rule” from 1919 to 1932; and the entirely unanticipated attacks on Israel in 1973, the Falklands in 1982, Kuwait in 1990 and the United States in 2001. Conversely, and on a brighter note, the speed with which the Soviet empire unravelled from 1989 left even its sternest critics largely nonplussed.
I will not, because I am about to finish. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Our current counter-insurgency campaigns are very important indeed, but they cannot be compared with battles for the very survival of the United Kingdom homeland. Such existential threats confronted us twice in the past 100 years and, if international relations deteriorate, they could easily confront us again.
My final remark concerns the alternatives. I can see only three possible alternatives to renewing Trident other than getting rid of the nuclear deterrent completely. The first is that suggested by the Liberal Democrats of putting cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. I have said in the past and say again that that would be more expensive and less effective, would put the submarine at risk because of the shorter range of the missiles, which would bring the submarine closer to shore, and could start world war three by accident because no one would be sure whether the launched missile had a conventional or nuclear warhead. Apart from that, it is a great idea.
The second alternative is to come off continuous at sea deterrence, to put the nuclear deterrent on stand-by and to say that we will reactivate it if things get worse. That is an extremely dangerous suggestion as having a part-time deterrent is probably as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, having no deterrent at all.
The final suggestion is that we could perhaps combine our deterrent with that of the French and therefore have fewer submarines. All I can say about that is that our deterrent is strongly connected with the excellent working relationship we have with the United States, which would not admit of such a solution.
I hope that I have given people plenty of food for thought. We have an hour and three quarters left and I very much look forward to hearing both sides of the argument in the time that remains.
I congratulate Dr Lewis on obtaining this debate. He knows that we have disagreed on this subject for decades and nothing has changed today.
One of the questions that is never adequately addressed in such debates is why people believe, as the hon. Gentleman does, that there could be a nuclear threat uniquely directed at Britain. The 2006 White Paper that argued for a continuation of Trident described three threat scenarios: the re-emergence of a major nuclear threat; new states acquiring nuclear capability; and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism. On the first scenario of the re-emergence of a major nuclear threat, can anyone think of a plausible reason why a future Russia, having enjoyed the fruits of capitalism and democracy, albeit that it is limited, would threaten to attack the UK and just the UK? On the contrary, Russia’s interests depend on a peaceful and prosperous Europe.
The second scenario is the potential threat from new states acquiring nuclear weapons, and Iran is the country most frequently cited. Embroiled as it is in middle east politics with a nuclear-armed Israel on one side and a nuclear-armed Pakistan on the other, Iran’s ambitions are regional. Condemnation of Iran might unite us all, but that is no reason for not asking why on earth Iran would uniquely target the UK.
The third scenario, sponsored nuclear terrorism, deserves the closest attention. The White Paper explains how deterrence should work. It states:
“We make no distinction between the means by which a state might choose to deliver a nuclear warhead…whether by missile or sponsored terrorists” and goes on to say that a state identified as the source of the material could expect a proportionate response. The threat of retaliation must be credible for deterrence to work, so how will we determine which is the sponsoring country? Remembering George Bush’s conviction that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, we will not be relying on politicians. No, the nuclear material will be sent to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston to determine where it came from. A decision will then have to be taken.
Let me remind members of Trident’s power. The Hiroshima bomb killed more than 100,000 people and injured thousands more. Just one Trident submarine could target up to 48 cities, with each warhead having eight times the effect of the Hiroshima bomb. Does anyone believe that in the cold light of day, after the Aldermaston analysis, a British Government would give the order for nuclear retaliation which would wipe out a nation of innocent people and leave an environmental legacy for many generations? This is not a credible threat.
In my view not one of those three scenarios stands up to scrutiny, but they share a further fundamental flaw. The hon. Member for New Forest East seems to forget that in reality Trident is assigned to NATO. Its purpose is not to deter a unique threat to the UK. Does anyone honestly believe that the UK could use its nuclear weapons unilaterally? Of course not.
In the world we now inhabit the greatest threats to the UK are climate change, international terrorism, cyber attack, global economics, health epidemics and competition for scarce resources. It is received wisdom that every one of these challenges can be addressed only by international co-operation, the building of trust, diplomacy, peacemaking and development. In all these fields the UK under successive Governments has made a positive contribution.
There are far better ways to protect the people of these islands, and in an age of austerity there are far, far better ways to spend the £25 billion capital and the £2.5 billion annual costs of the Trident programme. When our conventional forces—of course we need them, and I have never been a pacifist—are so stretched, when our hospitals, fire stations and police stations are closing, where is our real security? Not in Trident. It is an obscene waste of the public’s money and of our precious skills and resources, which we desperately need to put this country back on its feet. We need to face the truth. British nuclear weapons have no utility. The scenarios for use are not plausible, and if Trident cannot be used, it cannot deter.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend Dr Lewis, Paul Flynn and the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that we have this important debate today. Members will know of my special interest in the Royal Navy, as the mother of a serving Royal Naval officer, although my daughter assures me that she has no desire to serve aboard one of the four Vanguard class submarines.
I am pleased that the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The Government have also approved the initial gate investment, and selected the submarine design for the successor nuclear deterrent. Contracts have been signed for the first 18 months of work on the assessment phase of the successor submarine programme.
Trident has provided a massive amount of employment for my constituents in South East Cornwall. Repair, refuelling and refit of the Vanguard class submarines is carried out in the D154 submarine support facilities at Devonport. The expertise and experience that Devonport now has should be utilised in any future programme. As a local county councillor at the time, I will never forget standing by the banks of the River Tamar in Mount Edgcumbe park, and watching the first Vanguard submarine edge her way around Drake’s island and into Devonport dockyard for refit. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that the £350 million contract to refit and refuel the nuclear missile submarine HMS Vengeance had been awarded to Devonport in March last year. It will safeguard up to 2,000 jobs.
Does my hon. Friend accept that that is also an important part of our skills base, and that if it were to go, we would see a significant diminution in our skills base?
My hon. Friend is right.
Maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent is essential. It sends the positive message that the UK is always prepared to respond instantly. There is the additional advantage of a moveable location, which assists security against any possible threats. The Government have excellent principles to abide by when considering nuclear arms. These include the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self- defence, a commitment to a minimum nuclear deterrent, and not to use any weapons contrary to international law. In other words, the highly powerful weapons would be used only as a last resort.
It is important to retain nuclear weapons. I was concerned at our going into coalition with partners who stated in their last election manifesto that they would be saying no to like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Given the reports in The Independent on
We need to remember that the UK’s nuclear deterrent contributes towards our collective security as part of NATO. If the UK did not have an at-sea deterrent, NATO’s collective security would be weakened, leaving the UK dependent on the US and France.
Does my hon. Friend agree that major wars tend to start when dictators believe that democracies are too weak to stand up to them? For democracies such as Britain to give up their nuclear deterrent would send out entirely the wrong message about how we seek to protect others and ourselves.
That is exactly true.
The UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We were awarded that position because our nation was one of the most powerful in the world following world war two. The UK’s membership of that exclusive club could be called into question without the continuation of our nuclear deterrent.
A British at-sea nuclear deterrent has served us well for 60 years; it can and should serve us well into the future. I hope that refitting work on any future submarines will continue to provide much needed employment opportunities for my constituents in Saltash, Torpoint and throughout the rest of South East Cornwall.
There are two mindsets in this debate: there are those on the other side who are locked in the permafrost of the fear of cold war thinking and there are those who have hope for a better and safer world.
Dr Lewis mentioned the 1980s. I vividly recall what the historian E. P. Thompson said at that dangerous time, when the world had enough nuclear weapons to kill humanity
57 times over and we were in deadly peril because the geriatric fingers on the nuclear buttons belonged to Andropov, who was on a life support machine and virtually dead from the neck down, and to President Reagan, who was dead from the neck up.
The likelihood of a nuclear war does not come from design, plans or escalation but from accidents. What the hon. Member for New Forest East, who introduced the debate, is arguing—there is no denying it—is for every country in the world to have its own nuclear insurance and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Things are changing. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn, the four titans of American foreign policy, have all called for a world free of nuclear weapons and so has their splendid President. That gives a new momentum to the idea and hope that have become the centre of the policy debate—“They are the past and we are the future on this.”
Like my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock, I have repeatedly asked for anyone to give a plausible future scenario in which nuclear weapons could be used independently by the United Kingdom. There is no such scenario. We are carrying on being comfortable with the policies of the past. We should go back to the vision of previous Governments. In 1968, a UK Foreign Affairs Minister urged the United Nations to sign up to the newly negotiated non-proliferation treaty. He promised United Kingdom support and added:
“It will, therefore, be essential to follow the treaty up quickly with further disarmament measures”.
That was 45 years ago. There was a clear vision and hope of declining stocks of nuclear weapons throughout the world.
The continued possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction has a pernicious effect on our economy, with resources that could have been invested in research for the NHS, in education or improving our environment being squandered on high-tech killing machines.
Coming into the House today, I met a former Member—a distinguished Committee Chairman who stood down at the last election—and told him what we were doing today. He said, “That was the most difficult decision. I needed a Whip behind me with an arm lock to get me into the Lobby to vote for Trident”, and the Whip had told him beforehand, “I don’t believe in it either.” Ministers give the party line and the deterrence fiction when they are at the Dispatch Box, but we see a remarkable turnaround when they stand down and have an epiphany. Last Friday, Michael Portillo said that Trident was
“completely past its sell-by date”,
“It is neither independent, nor is it any kind of deterrent because we face enemies like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons...I reached the view after I was defence secretary.”
So we have nonsense when they are in power, when they can do something, and the truth comes out with their realisation afterwards. Why is good sense invisible to politicians in office but monumentally obvious outside office?
However, there is a glimmer of hope. Even our own Prime Minister is perhaps approaching a moment when he will change. Last October, he said that
“if we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it makes sense to ensure we have something that is credible and believable”.—[Hansard, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 319.]
Trident is neither credible nor believable. It undermines our credentials on non-proliferation, which is the best hope for a safe future. Its replacement should be cancelled, and then we could use the existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction—
We should be proud of our role in the non-proliferation treaty and the fact that the nuclear deterrent has helped us to avoid wars in the past and is an insurance policy for the future. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing for unilateral disarmament. In that scenario, which other country would disarm because we had disarmed?
I am not arguing for unilateral disarmament because it is not a practical possibility; I do not believe that it is attainable. When the hon. Gentleman intervened I was about to say that we can use the weapons we have as part of our bargaining to achieve disarmament and to make the nuclear non-proliferation treaty a practical one. How can we say to other countries, “You can’t have nuclear weapons but we’re insisting on ours”? That way forward will not be possible.
The problem is the return of the mindset that our country is somehow very special. We are going back to the 19th-century view when we had an empire, insisting that we are powerful and determine world peace. That is a very damaging view. We saw it this week in relation to the fact that we have to join almost every war that comes along. It was said here on Monday that by joining the war in the state of Mali, even if there is no mission creep we have already exposed ourselves to the possibility of terrorist attacks. That was pooh-poohed by Ministers, but the attack has happened, a life has been lost, and others are under threat. That is the position we are in.
To some, Trident is a virility status symbol; to others, it is a comfort blanket. The Foreign Secretary of the moment will often say that we have to have it because the UK must punch above its weight. Punching above our weight means spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities.
Most Members will be aware of this, but for the record I should like to state that I firmly believe in our nuclear deterrent. In this uncertain world where countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west have nuclear weapons, it is an unfortunate fact of life that we need them as well to guarantee Britain’s safety. However, that does not stop us also working towards arms reduction. When President Obama launched his global zero initiative, I very much welcomed it. We also owe a debt of thanks to the Royal Navy and our Vanguard submariners, who are always on patrol, for safeguarding the country and providing the essential British contribution to NATO.
I want to suggest that our commitment to our nuclear deterrent should not just be about the current capability and future plans. There is a legacy from the dawn of our deterrent that we have still not yet fully recognised. We have to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to another group of people, who also deserve our recognition and thanks, without whom Britain would never have joined the top tier of nuclear powers. They are, of course, our nuclear test veterans.
In the 1950s and 1960s, in the largest tri-service operation since the D-day landings, 20,000 service personnel participated in British nuclear weapon tests in the south Pacific and Australia. These men’s service was unique. When they took part, the science was largely unknown. Pre-test precautions were primitive and inadequate and failed to protect individuals fully from the effects of heat, blast shock and ionising radiation. Many veterans believe that their health was adversely affected by those tests, a view substantiated by scientific research undertaken in New Zealand by Professor Rowland that was peer-reviewed and accepted by the then New Zealand Government.
Some years ago, following an inquiry from a constituent, I became involved with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and I am now its patron. After a long campaign, the BNTVA and I succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Defence to undertake a health needs analysis of all surviving veterans. It showed that 84% of them believed that their main health condition was caused by radiation. If anybody thinks that that was an easy task and analysis to accomplish, they have not dealt with the MOD, but I thank it for taking that on.
To a certain extent, yes.
Many helpful, practical measures are now being introduced as a result—for example, small but important things such as markers denoting veteran status on NHS records.
Following the success of the health needs analysis, the BNTVA and I recently started a new campaign with three objectives. The first is to secure a lasting legacy for these men and their descendants. There is still much to learn about the effects of exposure to radiation and how we can continue to make nuclear energy safe. The second is to secure public recognition from the Prime Minister of our debt to these veterans. That could include recognition through the medal system by adding a clasp to the general service medal. The third is to establish a benevolent fund courtesy of Government, the suggested figure being £25 million. This would support atomic veterans and, more importantly, their descendants, who have also suffered medical setbacks that can be attributed to their fathers’ exposure.
I am very pleased to hear the hon. Gentlemen’s speech and endorse every word he has spoken. I am a member of the group that he has set up and I, too, have been horrified to hear from my constituents about the effects on grandchildren as a result of the tests in which the veterans took part. He is absolutely right: we must not forget the part that those veterans and their families continue to play.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support; it is much appreciated.
The Government may say that £25 million is an awful lot of money in these austere times.
If I am allowed a second intervention that will add another minute to my speech, then by all means.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was pleased to put in place the health study, against the opposition of a lot of the civil service, when I was a Defence Minister. A generous settlement proposal was put to the lawyers—I got the Treasury to agree to it—but it was rejected. That was an opportunity missed for veterans to get some compensation.
I recognise the part that the hon. Gentleman played in the health needs analysis. However, let us be absolutely clear about a confusion that is all too readily accepted by the MOD: the BNTVA has never participated in the legal cases that some individual veterans have brought. That is a vital distinction to make and I ask the House to take it on board.
Although £25 million sounds like a lot of money, we should set it in the context of how other nuclear countries have treated their veterans. The US gives each veteran £47,000 plus a further £47,000 for any secondary attributable illness. No causal link is required between the cancer suffered by the veteran and the fact that they were there. If they were at the tests and they have cancer, they automatically get the compensation. Canada pays more than £15,000 in addition to monies from pensions and compensation legislation. The Isle of Man makes an ex gratia payment of £8,000 to any resident test veteran.
In all three cases, the service personnel in question have access to free health care provision. The MOD argument that veterans in this country have access to the NHS therefore does not stack up. The fact remains that this country’s nuclear test veterans are almost at the bottom of the scale in the international comparisons going by how they are treated by this country. I hope that the House will accept that that needs to be put right. Against those comparisons, the campaign for £25 million, which works out at about £6,000 per veteran, is modest.
I should at this stage repeat what I said to Mr Jones and make it clear that the BNTVA has never participated in the legal challenges brought by some veterans.
We have had several meetings at the MOD with successive Ministers for veterans. I wrote to the Government in November to set out the details of our campaign. Despite chase-ups, I still await a response. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Dunne, will carry that message back to the MOD. Meanwhile, I have written to all Back Benchers requesting their support for our campaign for recognition. As Mrs Moon mentioned, many have been kind enough to write back positively. I will be taking the matter further in due course.
In conclusion, as the Government are on the verge of commissioning the next iteration of our nuclear deterrent, it is right that we remember those who first created it and finally, after so long, repay the debt that we owe them.
I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate, due to a prior commitment. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me.
After Labour was massacred in the 1983 and 1987 general elections because of its advocacy, under a charming but useless leader, for unilateral nuclear disarmament, I was appointed by Neil Kinnock to review foreign and defence policy for the Labour party. As a result of that review, Labour became eligible for re-election and was re-elected at long last in 1997.
If Britain did not have nuclear weapons, I would not advocate our acquiring them, but history has bestowed them upon us. Let us not forget that it was a Labour Government in time of peace who decided that the United Kingdom should acquire nuclear weapons.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reviewing the history of the decision making. Would he say that the conclusion that he came to was about politics or policy?
The hon. Gentleman’s question requires a yes or a no, but it is not as clear as that. We are prisoners of history. That history decided that a medium-sized power that was pretty well bankrupt at the end of the second world war should possess nuclear weapons. We are a medium-sized power, and, for better or worse—it is worse in many ways—we would not be listened to any more than anybody else, including Italy, Spain, Greece or Germany, without the unwanted legacy of possession of nuclear weapons.
This is not a question of how we acquired them; the fact is that we are in possession of them. Owing to that fact, unlike those other western European countries and other countries in different parts of the world, we are eligible to participate in international nuclear disarmament. That is essential. We should take into account that it is 58 years since the end of the war. It is remarkable how few other countries have acquired nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have acquired them, but even Iran—an aggressive and objectionable power with foul internal policies—has not yet done so. We have a voice on the international front that exists to try to prevent nuclear proliferation. If we did not by accident of history possess nuclear weapons, nobody would listen to us on nuclear disarmament. For that reason, we should use the result of that accident of history to take part in international negotiations to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, all nuclear weapons owned by any country.
Incidentally, I have a great affection for my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, but Reagan offered the Soviet Union a major internationally agreed nuclear disarmament. He might not have been the greatest President in the world, but at the same time, being there and having what he had, he was able to make the offer. It is deeply unfortunate that the Soviet Union did not grab that offer.
That being so, I say clearly that I do not want nuclear weapons; I am not happy we have got them, but we have got them. Divesting ourselves of our nuclear weapons would be regarded by many as an act of self-indulgence.
We can use our possession of them to persuade others not to use them—there is always a danger that India, Pakistan and Israel will use them—and to take part in international negotiations to reduce and abolish them. That status comes to us by chance and by history. We should use our status.
The UK must decide by the middle of 2016—just three years from now—whether to proceed with a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent. I do not believe we need a further generation of nuclear weapons based on the scale we thought we needed in 1980 at the height of the cold war, and I do not believe we can afford to have one. I do not believe that national security assessment and strategy suggest we need it, or that our defence posture can stand it—our posture would become lop-sided if we were to commit to another generation on the same scale. In addition, I believe that the opportunity cost of committing so much money and manpower, and such a large proportion of our equipment budget, would have a malign effect on our general military capability.
In 1980, at the height of the cold war, we had a known nuclear adversary—the Soviet Union. It had British targets in its target set, and we had Soviet targets in our target set. There was a logic—I do not say that I necessarily subscribe to it hook, line and sinker—to having continuous at-sea deterrence, because we had a known adversary. Today’s circumstances are very different. At that time, we computed that the only way to fulfil the classic definition of deterrence—to put into one’s adversary’s mind the certainty that we were capable of inflicting damage that would be unacceptable to him—was to maintain the capability of overcoming Moscow’s nuclear defences and being able to flatten that city. Moscow was where the Soviet elite hung out and the only things that they valued, and to which they considered damage would be unacceptable, were themselves and their regime. The Russia of the 21st century, for all its imperfections, is very different. It is perfectly possible to deter modern Russia from a nuclear attack on us by a variety of other means, and there are other ways of inflicting on them damage that they would consider unacceptable.
Why then have the Russians recently upgraded their anti-ballistic missile protection in and around Moscow?
I did not say that they would be willing to see Moscow flattened—most certainly they would not. I am saying that there are other ways of inflicting damage on Russia that it would consider unacceptable.
I mentioned that there will be a vast opportunity cost to be paid if we decide to commit these funds, which, let us refresh our memories, in today’s money will be approximately £25 billion to £30 billion on the capital investment in a further generation of submarines. On top of that, we have to factor in the running costs of a nuclear deterrent on this scale for 30 or more years of through-life costs—more than £3 billion a year in today’s money. Beginning to total that out and factoring in decommissioning at the end, we are talking about an expenditure of more than £100 billion. We need to look closely at whether that is justified in the context of the size of our defence budget, and what we are able to make available for other forms of defence and security in an increasingly dangerous and changing world.
My hon. Friend has started to talk about 20, 30, 40 years ahead. Would he like to describe the strategic context in which we might be operating a nuclear deterrent in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, or indeed find ourselves operating without one? What is it going to be like then?
The truth of the matter is that none of us knows. If we retain a nuclear deterrent of any description and any scale, it is an insurance policy against the unknown. I am saying that the current nuclear deterrent is scaled specifically to overcome the threat that we believed the Soviet Union posed in 1980. As we look to an unknown future over the course of this century, we have to decide what proportion of our defence spend and effort should go into this one part of our defence livery, and the opportunity cost of doing that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we move to some form of cruise missile-based nuclear weapons system, that would be destabilising internationally and positively dangerous?
I am waiting for the Trident alternatives review, which is being conducted by the Cabinet Office and is looking at exactly those sorts of issues. When it reports, I look forward to coming back and debating them with the hon. Gentleman. As a considered study of exactly these sorts of issues is nearing its conclusion at the moment, the time to debate those details will be when the report has been published.
I want to look at the pressures that will face Defence Ministers in the years when the large capital expenditure that I have described would have to be spent. In the same period of time, we will have to put the joint strike fighter aircraft on to the two new aircraft carriers and build the Type 26 frigate. Whatever the next generation of remotely piloted air systems and whoever we do that with, it will fall in the same time frame. Bearing in mind that HMS Ocean is due to leave service in 2018, any future generation of amphibious shipping will have to be paid for in exactly that time frame; and whatever we equip the Army with for the 21st century—it has been the poor relation in the equipment budget for many years—and bearing in mind how little seems to be left of the original future rapid effect system, as conceived by the previous Government, again, it will fall in that time frame. If we decide to give the nuclear deterrent a bye and think it has some magic claim on the money, an opportunity cost will have to be paid across the rest of our defence systems.
I listened to my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray talking quite rightly about the part that Plymouth plays in the nuclear deterrent, but I put it to her and my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile that if we commit all our money to one system, the opportunity cost will be felt above all else by the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy might fight—and win—to keep the nuclear deterrent on its current scale, but the price will be paid in the scale of the conventional surface Navy, which, in my view, is already trying to do far too much with far too little.
The UK has a sensible range of military capabilities at the moment, and with that we can take part in international operations. We have global interests and ambitions, and uniquely we have the will to use military power when we need to in pursuit of those interests. Ours is still the fourth largest defence budget in the world. Our place on the top table does not depend on our being a nuclear power; we are there in our own right, and besides which any change to the line-up of the UN Security Council would require the UK’s assent, which we could simply withhold.
We must make a contribution to disarmament. That is an obligation we have under the non-proliferation treaty. We must wait and see whether the Trident alternatives review can find another system that offers us a way of sustaining a credible deterrent. It would not have the same capability, but there might be a way of doing something at a lesser cost. We should keep an open mind about trying to do that.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Nick Harvey. I am glad that he did not repeat his assertion that the world would be a better place if my constituents were sacked and sent to the Bahamas with the money from the deterrent in their back pockets. It is also good to be back speaking here again for the first time since I banged my head. All will be fine, but if at any point, Mr Speaker, I look confused and ask what all these people are doing in my bedroom, please intervene and reassure me—no, I am not that bad.
The devastation of nuclear war would be an affront to nature itself, which is why I have said on many occasions that, if we could genuinely be confident that the UK disarming would make this horror less likely, that should come ahead of even the many thousands of jobs that the industry supports in my constituency and across the country. I am proud that the last Labour Government shifted Britain’s nuclear policy for the first time towards the aim of a global zero, but we should advance non-proliferation in a way that will maintain the security of the UK and, most of all, in a way that will make a nuclear catastrophe less likely, not more so.
That is one reason why I am wary of a party that up until now has been grossly irresponsible on the question of nuclear weapons and has suddenly be given access to the levers of power. It is one thing to be a fringe concern, making up positions that sound good on the doorstep. “When money is tight”, say the Liberal Democrats”, “Let’s have a mini-deterrent”—the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on the Astute class submarines already being built in my constituency. “They would cost less”, they say, “providing more money for schools and hospitals, and they would be much less destructive than those awful Trident missiles to which the main parties are wedded. Vote for us!”
If that policy becomes a genuine possibility that could be enacted by a party of government, it will be put under scrutiny in the run-up to an election and its fundamental weaknesses exposed. The apparent savings evaporate when considered against the enormous cost of procuring new missiles—probably without a cost subsidy from the Americans this time—building new warheads from scratch, making considerable adaptations to the Astutes and writing off the £3 billion that will already have been spent on the successor by then. When the operational capacity of this “mini-deterrent” is scrutinised, we will come up against the points that Dr Lewis made so adeptly in opening this debate. All in all, this option is not a winner.
It is really delightful to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. The problem with using cruise missiles is precisely that they are vulnerable. The whole point of deterrence is that there should be an invulnerable system. Cruise missiles are vulnerable, which destroys the concept.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Most of all, such cruise missiles are indistinguishable on an enemy radar from conventional cruise missiles, raising the chilling prospect that in the confusion of battle, a conventional attack by the UK could trigger nuclear retaliation against British cities.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we took up this idea, we could see another tuition fees scenario?
I certainly know what the hon. Lady means—I am reluctant to compare tuition fees to the ultimate deterrent, but in political terms she is absolutely right.
To those looking to the latest review into the future of the deterrent and hoping that a major—and needed—push on global non-proliferation could make it possible for the UK effectively to wait and see before committing to renew, I put two questions. First, is it really realistic to expect a breakthrough within the next few years in global security—involving not just the former Soviet Union and America, but the whole world—that would give us sufficient hope that a hostile nuclear power could not plausibly threaten the United Kingdom 20, 30 or 40 years hence? That is the judgment that we have to make now. Secondly, what would be the industrial and financial consequences of a further delay, on top of the already significant increase in cost caused by the coalition Government’s delay, which enabled them to kick the main gate decision on a successor into the next Parliament?
Industrially, we must think in terms of jobs now and over coming decades. Let us not forget that we are talking not just about 5,000 or 6,000 jobs in Barrow shipyard, critical to the regional economy though they are, but about the 4,000 jobs and rising in the nuclear submarine supply chain, stretching right across the country. We must also consider the UK’s prized capacity to manufacture submarines of any kind. We rightly say that, for security reasons, we should not procure from abroad, but if we leave another gap in production like the one in the 1990s—the Astute programme is still suffering from the attempt to recover from that—we could lose those highly honed skills from these shores for ever.
Of course we should always examine new evidence, but so far all credible evidence has pointed to the same place: that like-for-like renewal is the most effective—and the most cost-effective—way of maintaining the UK’s minimum independent deterrent and that the decision to renew should be kept at arm’s length from our profound moral obligation to pursue a world free from the threat of nuclear war.
It is a pleasure to see John Woodcock back in his place. He put the case extremely well on behalf of Barrow-in-Furness for the current policy remaining in place and being renewed. I welcome the fact that we are having this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Lewis on securing it. We have been brothers in arms on defence, one way or another, for quite a long time. He has really distinguished himself on these issues, and I congratulate him on encouraging the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate. His position is in the ascendancy and it speaks to his intellectual depth and courage that he is prepared to put his ideas to the test in the Chamber. I also want to congratulate the former Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend Sir Nick Harvey, on his contribution to starting, and initially leading, the review of the alternatives to Trident. We owe it to ourselves to think rather more deeply about this matter than we have done in the past.
It was interesting to hear Sir Gerald Kaufman explaining how the Labour party had moved to its present position. Those on the Opposition Front Bench are no longer allowed to think about this issue, because the politics of 1983 were so appallingly scarring. Labour Front-Benchers are now frozen in a position in which any sense of doubt about the continuation of the present policy would be seen as politically catastrophic, and they are not allowed to go there. The only expressions of doubt that we will hear today will come from the old stagers of the 1980s who fought and lost the battles on disarmament at the time. I believe that it was quite proper that they lost those arguments.
We are now in a completely new era, and we owe it to ourselves to review the policy properly, and as openly as we can. That review is now being carried out under the leadership of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and it will report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but I am concerned that there has been no undertaking to publish it, and that there will therefore be no opportunity for us to examine the costings.
If my hon. Friend studies the coalition mid-term review document that was published last week, he will see that, for the first time, there is an explicit commitment to publish the review. I understand that the review will be concluded in March, and that publication will probably be in May.
I am delighted to be corrected on that point.
This is the hub of the issue. We are being invited to engage in an insurance policy that is going to last about 40 years and cost between 5% and 6% of our defence budget. Will that insurance policy ever be cashed in? My hon. Friend Mr Jenkin would probably suggest that it is being cashed in all the time, owing to the fact that it exists. In that sense, the deterrence is eternal.
We need to get into the minds of the likely decision makers who might attack British interests in a way that would engage the use of our deterrent. We also need to get into the minds of our leaders who might then have to contemplate the use of the deterrent in response. There has been a change in the debate on how states conduct these affairs. The question of whether it would be a matter for the International Criminal Court if a leader chose to eviscerate millions of wholly innocent people in pursuit of their state’s policy is one that ought to engage us, particularly as we no longer live in a bipolar world consisting of one alliance taking a position against a competing ideology. The world has changed.
I do not pretend to have an answer to this question, but I want the House to have as much data as possible so that we can begin to make as informed a decision as possible. It is the position of the Government—and, I believe, of those on the Opposition Front Bench—that paying a premium of 5% to 6% of the defence budget for the 40 next years would be worth it because of what it would buy. Well, would 10% or 15% be worth it? How solid are the figures of 5% to 6%? Why should that cost be coming out of the defence budget, given the cost of the equipment that is going to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who are carrying out the other tasks that we ask them to undertake? Should the cost be found from outside the main defence vote?
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Given the importance of the deterrent, does he share my concern about what a potential yes vote to Scottish independence would mean, and does he share my hope that the Scottish people will see this as another reason for staying part of the United Kingdom?
It could work the other way. It could provide a reason why the Scottish people would vote to leave the United Kingdom, as they could then dispose of having to host the deterrent and of the threat of counter-measures for the people living immediately around the area.
I would like to be exposed to more data about the vulnerability of the future submarine systems. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart intervened to say that what was required of the system was that it be invulnerable. Well, I do not know how he can predict the efficacy of surveillance systems in 40 years’ time, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said that we have no idea what the international situation will be in 40 years’ time. It is perfectly possible that satellite observations and surveillance of the sea would make it pretty straightforward to trace a submarine in 40 years’ time. I do not know, but I would be grateful for the best data available so that we can test whether or not we will need to spend this eye-watering amount of money on something that will do what it says on the tin, to use a current phrase, in 40 years’ time.
I believe that we are owed the results of the review instigated by the hon. Member for North Devon. This House needs to be informed about these questions. We need to understand where we are through a cost-benefit analysis of the replacement Vanguard submarine system with Trident missiles, which will mean getting the data on the re-engineering of the Trident missiles and the new engines they might need during the course of their next deployment, alongside an understanding of issues around the use of tactical nuclear warheads on cruise missiles. In any scenario planning I did when I was engaged as a special adviser in defence and foreign affairs, the only conceivable situation I could see for using the missiles was for taking out pinpoint targets of rogue states or rogue terrorist groups equipped with missiles that had the capability to launch weapons of mass destruction at us—and for that we would want a small pinpoint weapon, not a strategic weapon that would wreak massive and unacceptable collateral damage in the process.
I am extremely grateful for the debate and for the review, and I think we should keep an open mind until we can reach a proper decision on this matter.
Order. I am looking to each of the two Front-Bench speakers to take no longer than 10 minutes —20 minutes in total—if we are to accommodate Back-Bench Members who wish to speak. I am afraid that for them, the time limit will have to be reduced to four minutes from now on. My apologies to colleagues, but I am keen to get people in and I know the Front Benchers will want to take account of that.
I start by paying tribute to members of our armed forces and their families for the work they do. In the context of this debate, I particularly commend members of the Royal Navy who work on our independent nuclear deterrent. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate about the cornerstone of our nation’s security.
The security landscape today is both uncertain and unpredictable. New threats such as cyber-warfare and biological terrorism exist alongside the conventional threats. In response, we must have a broad, advanced equipment programme that enables us not only to detect, but to deter and tackle the whole spectrum of threats we face as a nation.
We on the Labour Benches are clear that an independent nuclear deterrent is in our national interest. It has been argued, and it has been repeated today, that our nuclear deterrent was a cold war legacy. It is correct that many of the old divisions of the cold war have gone, but they have been replaced with new uncertainties: the recent unrest in Pakistan, advanced missile testing in North Korea and the intractable problem of Iran. Although it is impossible to predict the future, the one thing that is certain is that it is unpredictable. All that shows how important it is for the United Kingdom to retain an independent nuclear deterrent.
In 2007, Parliament took the view—supported by the Labour Government of the day—that a submarine-based system with ballistic missiles provided for the minimum credible nuclear deterrent, and was the most-effective model to meet our strategic needs. It is also our stated objective to play an active and constructive role in international efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that a unilateralist posture would advance that goal.
The United Kingdom is a proud and prominent signatory to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. That treaty has three pillars, through which we must view our nuclear deterrent: non-proliferation, disarmament, and facilitation of the peaceful use of nuclear technology. That is why I am proud that the last Labour Government reduced the size of the nuclear stockpile. We cut the number of operationally available warheads from 300 at the time of the 1998 strategic defence review to fewer than 160 by the time of the 2010 general election, reduced the number of warheads carried per submarine from 96 to 48, and withdrew the WE177 nuclear capability from service. I believe that it should be a cross-party priority for the UK to continue on that path towards nuclear disarmament, alongside our international allies.
It is essential for our decisions on the future of the deterrent to be based on evidence and on what is in our national interest rather than on any political-party interest. We are therefore committed to examining any new evidence rigorously in order to establish whether there are alternatives to the conclusions of the last review in 2006. That examination must feature two priorities, capability and cost: they must be our guiding principles. We want the UK to have the minimum credible deterrent, in line with our national security needs and our international obligations, and we want to ensure that we achieve maximum value for money. All options must be examined, and we look forward to close examination of the Government’s review of alternatives. I consider that to be a responsible and rational approach.
While we must insist on rigorous policy-making, we fear that the review is an exercise in Liberal Democrat and Conservative party management rather than the management of our national interest. We question the validity of a review that has lasted more than two years, and whose conclusions the Prime Minister rejected before it even began.
The president of the Liberal Democrats says that he wants to make the review an election issue, so why is it being run from the Cabinet Office at the taxpayer’s expense? Can it have any credibility, given that the Liberal Democrats opted out of ministerial responsibility for defence and foreign affairs, and given that the person in charge of the review, Danny Alexander does not even have a pass allowing him to enter the MOD’s main building?
The real test of the review, however, should be not whether it allows the Government parties to indulge in a strategy of differentiation, but whether it explores in sufficient detail and depth what is—as has already been explained—an inherently complex and technical subject. If it appears to promote an alternative as an end point in itself, it will have not just failed all those who seek a genuine debate, but punctured the Government’s claim to have credibility on this vital issue.
There are a number of potential alternatives to the current nuclear deterrent, which I hope the review will explore. Let me briefly comment on each of them.
The first option is an air-based system. It was considered to be the most costly option of all in the 2006 review, requiring the procurement of new aircraft, a new missile and new operating bases. In addition, its visibility would increase its vulnerability. The estimated cost of the second option—a land-based silo system—is double that of the current submarine-based system. It has also been questioned on strategic grounds, as it is immobile and unconcealable, and therefore vulnerable to attack. Any review would also need to address where the system would be located. I am not sure there would be many volunteers to have that based in their constituency. Thirdly, any consideration of a surface ship-based system would also need to cast aside doubts about vulnerability and detectability. Fourthly, the review will need to focus on a submarine-based system armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The costs of this option will need to be examined closely, including the cost of developing a new warhead independently from our US allies. Also, Astutes would have to be adapted or another platform would need to be procured, which could result in a lessening of our current hunter-killer capability. Concern has also been expressed that arming submarines with dual-use cruise missiles could prove escalatory during a crisis, as our enemies would not know whether the submarine was a conventional or nuclear-armed vessel.
International factors must also be considered, such as compliance with the nuclear test-ban treaty, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the USA’s 2010 nuclear posture review. If we were to go down the cruise missile route, we would need more warheads in order to penetrate targets and it could be argued that that would break one of those treaties.
I do not have time to cover every detail, but we do need to have a meaningful discussion—a function today’s debate is fulfilling. This is a delicate topic that sparks strong passions, even within parties. That is why an evidence-based approach free from political positioning is so important. We will consider the technical, military, security and financial issues, and look closely at all the details of the Government’s alternatives review. For Opposition Members, the facts that support our national security needs will always be our focus.
I welcome this opportunity to speak about such an important element of the nation’s defence capability, and I thank my hon. Friend Dr Lewis for securing this debate and for making so many cogent arguments in his speech. The House has not debated the need for a strategic deterrent for some time, and it is right that we do so.
I echo and welcome my hon. Friend’s strong support for the Government’s unwavering commitment to retain an operationally independent nuclear deterrent, based on Trident and operating on the basis of continuous at-sea posture. I also welcome the support of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Mr Jones.
As many Members are aware, our continuous at-sea deterrence patrols under Operation Relentless have been operating without pause since 1969. It is the UK’s most enduring military operation. I pay tribute to the crews of our submarines and their families, and all the men and women, both military and civilian, whose support has been essential to this operation, and I thank them for their unwavering dedication.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a nuclear age, and have done so since the first atomic weapons were tested in July 1945. We cannot put back the clock and un-invent nuclear weapons. Most of us in this House are not, as was alleged by Paul Flynn, locked in the permafrost of the cold war, but we do recall the bipolar stand-off between the west and the Soviet Union. They were dangerous and often tense times, but in contrast to the uncertainties of the present, the cold war years now, almost paradoxically, appear to have been more stable, as we knew then who our adversary was. We are now living in a period of increasing threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. Other states, not all well disposed towards us or our allies, located in highly unstable regions are on the verge of owning these weapons. That makes the current era far less predictable. It is a sobering fact that, although our nuclear arsenal, like those of our allies and Russia, has reduced significantly since the early 1990s, the reductions have not encouraged states that are seeking a nuclear weapon capability to cease their attempts to cross the nuclear threshold.
In April 2009, President Obama said that
“the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”
I see no reason to disagree with the President’s remarks. We live in a perilous world. North Korea has tested nuclear devices and ballistic missiles, in defiance of the international community, and it maintains a threatening stance towards its neighbours in north-east Asia. Iran is determined to continue producing highly enriched uranium, in excess of any conceivable non-military need, and it continues to develop a ballistic missile capability and maintains a hostile stance towards both the west and many of its immediate neighbours. The actions of those countries reinforce my view that Britain needs a nuclear deterrent to protect us from nuclear coercion, nuclear blackmail and nuclear attack.
NATO has been the bedrock of our defence and security since 1949. At a time when the United States—its main contributor—is shifting focus from the north Atlantic to the Pacific, a non-nuclear Britain would weaken an international organisation that makes a crucial contribution to global peace and security. Would the world be a better place with a weakened NATO—with a NATO that may become less certain of its role and purpose? I do not think it would.
Given those circumstances, it would be an act of supreme folly to abandon unilaterally the nuclear deterrent that has served us, and our allies, well for more than half a century. To disarm unilaterally would send entirely the wrong signal. It would undermine our credibility as a reliable partner and NATO’s credibility as an alliance. NATO is a nuclear alliance, and its recently agreed new strategic concept makes it clear that our nuclear forces, including those based in Scotland, contribute to its overall deterrence and security.
We share the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but only if that is achieved through multilateral disarmament. We take the disarmament commitments of article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty very seriously. We therefore fully support multilateral nuclear disarmament, when the conditions are right. That is a long-term process which will take many years, although we have taken a leading role in arranging and participating in P5 conferences since 2010. We have already reduced the size of our deterrent considerably since the end of the cold war, and in the strategic defence and security review we committed to reducing it further, as has been identified by Mr Jones. It will decrease from a stockpile of about 300 warheads in the mid-1990s to no more than 180 by the mid-2020s. Under SDSR 10 we undertook to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to no more than 120 by the mid-2020s. That means that we already have probably the smallest arsenal of the P5 powers, and are the only P5 power to rely on a single delivery system. Our disarmament credentials are second to none, yet all this progress has not been matched by emerging nuclear states. It is simply wishful thinking that any further UK disarmament would be a catalyst for disarmament elsewhere.
It has sometimes been argued by hon. Members that we face new security threats in the 21st century for which the nuclear deterrent is not relevant, but nobody has ever claimed that nuclear weapons are an all-purpose deterrent. We have a wide range of capabilities to deal with the wide range of potential threats that we face.
The fact remains that we cannot pick and choose which threats we should face. Not every capability is suitable for every threat and the nuclear deterrent is the only secure way to deter nuclear threats. In making clear to potential adversaries that they cannot infringe our vital interests without risk and in providing reassurance to our allies, our deterrent helps prevent major war and provides a backdrop that enables us to pursue a foreign policy that seeks to enhance international trust and security and to promote conflict resolution.
The abandonment of the nuclear deterrent would deprive us of the means to counter the most extreme threats from adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction. It would leave us vulnerable to blackmail, coercion and attack from those adversaries. For all those reasons, I wholeheartedly support the decision of the Government to maintain a continuous submarine-based deterrent and to replace the current Vanguard class submarines when they leave service in the late 2020s.
A continuous at-sea deterrent also has considerable diplomatic utility. Let us think of the impact, if we did not have continuous at-sea deterrence, of a decision the Prime Minister might have to make to provide an order to put an intermittent deterrent to sea. That act alone could exacerbate an already tense international situation. Operating the deterrent on an intermittent basis might well require additional conventional military assets to enable the deterrent to put to sea, assets that are not required in the routine of a continuous posture.
By being continuously at sea, the deterrent maximises our political freedom of manoeuvre in crisis. A submarine-launched ballistic missile system offers invulnerability, range and endurance. All promote the credibility of this ultimate safeguard for national security. It is a permanent factor for a potential aggressor.
Hon. Members have also charged that the renewal of the deterrent is an extravagant use of resources at a time of great financial stringency and fiscal uncertainty. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the security of the nation, its people and their vital interests. This Government do not and will not gamble with Britain’s national security. We recognise that people wish to be reassured that the money will be well spent and John Woodcock—it is a pleasure to see him in his place—rightly highlighted some of the reasons Trident is the most cost-effective delivery mechanism available within the necessary timescale. That is why the Government scrutinised the procurement programme for the successor to ensure value for money and will continue to submit it to rigorous scrutiny in the run-up to the main-gate investment decision in 2016. We are talking about maintaining a capability of service until the middle of the century and it is essential that we can protect the UK against future uncertainties that might arise 15 to 50 years from now. I challenge any advocate of unilateral disarmament to predict what threats we might face over that period.
Order. Some time ago, I imposed a limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I am about to call Mr Brown, and if all nine hon. Members who wish to speak are to get in, nearer to three minutes is what is required. I am in the hands of the House and I know that the House will try to help itself.
It is a pleasure to make a very short contribution to the debate. I congratulate Dr Lewis not only on having secured it, which is a triumph in itself, but on how he argued the case for Britain’s independent nuclear submarine-based deterrent. It was the strongest series of arguments that I have heard made in one place for the renewal of the Trident platform. I do not agree with those arguments, but they were strongly made and the hon. Gentleman drew together all the different points that can be made.
Let me make two points back to the hon. Gentleman. First, we are purchasing something we cannot use, and secondly, we are doing it with money we have not got. They seem to me to be two pretty strong arguments to weigh in the balance. Sir Nick Harvey referred to the cost and the impact on the defence budget. Frankly, we should think about the impact on the public finances more generally. We are in danger of sleepwalking into a commitment of some £80 billion to £100 billion, with a deployment cost of £1 billion a year, without properly discussing it in this place, so I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest East on having secured this short discussion.
I ask all hon. Members in what conceivable circumstances in the world today they could envisage the United Kingdom taking the decision unilaterally to use nuclear weapons against another nation. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to envisage such circumstances. An independent nuclear deterrent does not address the security demands or the realities of international instability which the United Kingdom faces. This is not to argue that we do not face international threats in the 21st century. Of course we do. What I am arguing is that they are more complex and sophisticated and require a more intelligent response than a big 20th century bomb—a weapon of the cold war whose time, if it ever existed, has most certainly passed.
International terrorism is not combated or deterred by an independent deterrent. Trident does not counter the ever increasing number of cyber attacks on our nation’s digital infrastructure. It does not address political, socio-economic or environmental injustices that lead to global instability. These are the pressing issues that the United Kingdom faces and we hamper our ability to deal with them by focusing our defence priorities and spending on a cold war weapons system.
I am in favour of our membership of NATO. We make a strong contribution to the alliance and we should trust it and rely upon its possession collectively of a strategic deterrent, if there is an argument for the strategic deterrent at all.
In summary, this is a weapons system that we cannot use. The cost is disproportionate to the hard-to-identify benefits and it makes no sense in terms of our alliance with other friendly nations, of our international obligations or even as a response to the security threats faced by the United Kingdom.
A model of pithiness, which I know Bob Stewart will want to emulate or better.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall be as quick as I can.
I was a cold war warrior, as was my hon. Friend Mr Blunt, and I spent many of my early years in Germany with tactical nuclear weapons. I also studied nuclear deterrence at university and I came to the conclusion that tactical nuclear weapons were too incredible for us ever to use. I was delighted when we got rid of them. That left strategic nuclear weapons.
I believe that the strategic nuclear deterrent does deter, and for that reason we must keep it. It can work only if it is invulnerable. As far as we can tell, the most invulnerable system involves a submarine. That submarine is currently being renewed. I support the renewal of an independent nuclear deterrent because we have no idea what will happen in the future of our world, and when there is great risk I prefer to have an insurance policy that maintains the status quo.
Reference was made earlier in the debate to the period of the Reagan-Gorbachev Administrations. General Secretary Gorbachev in the 1980s called for a nuclear-free world by 2000. Remember that? Of course, the Soviet Union ended and the world we live in, as many speakers have commented, is much more complicated now than it was at that time. None of us knows where we will be in 30 or 40 years, and the decisions that are to be taken make assumptions about a future that we cannot predict.
We have heard references in the debate also to the continuation of NATO. I am a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I have serious doubts whether in the next 20 or 30 years the United States will give Europe a global commitment of extended deterrence in the way it did at the height of the cold war.
Nobody has so far mentioned China in the debate. China is modernising its military assets significantly. It has nuclear weapons. At some point this century it will become a global power with projection all round the world, not just within its own coasts and the seas off its coasts.
If we are looking at the future of the world, I do not think any of us can be very confident about what the outcome will be. What we do know is that the non-proliferation regime is under serious threat, not just from countries such as North Korea, which have left the NPT, but from countries that are still within the NPT, such as Iran, and other countries that will follow any decision to weaponise a nuclear capability by the Iranians at some point. In 15 or 20 years’ time, there could be 10, 15 or 20 more countries with nuclear weapons. The world that we are going into requires international action. My right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman mentioned the Labour party’s policy review in 1989. I was the secretary of that review, which changed our policy to deal with the realities that we were confronting at that time rather than the debate that had gone on theologically in the past.
We now need to make renewed efforts, and I wish the Minister and shadow Front Benchers would talk a little more about what role we can play with our nuclear weapons in facilitating new international disarmament negotiations, because they are not happening now. Despite President Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, the vision of a nuclear-free world is blocked because the Russians are not interested so long as missile defence is on the agenda. There is the danger of a proliferation of warheads to overcome missile defence if it is ever deployed. I conclude there to give others a chance.
I commend Mike Gapes, who has just made a powerful contribution to the debate, and my hon. Friend Dr Lewis for securing it. I congratulate the Minister on delivering a model speech, which in a short time went through all the key arguments that justify the Government’s spending the money.
We need to lay more emphasis not just on how we might imagine the weapons system could be deployed but on the fact that it is in use every single day, shaping the global security environment that we enjoy today. It is no coincidence that the advent of nuclear weapons on the international scene has led to the longest period of peace among the superpowers and major powers of the world that we have ever seen.
War between super-states is now unthinkable because of nuclear weapons. That is rather a good thing and certainly an argument for our maintaining our inherited role of acting as a major democratic, friendly, benign, positive influence in global affairs, with our international role enhanced by nuclear weapons.
The issue is the sort of country that we are and that we want to continue to be. We are a country with global reach, global influence, global interests and the ability to enhance global security—not just for the world as a whole, but for the security of our own people.
Were we, irresponsibly, simply to dispose of our nuclear capability, we would be upsetting a balance that we may not even understand. We are down to fewer than 200 nuclear warheads. China, which has been mentioned, is increasing its number of warheads pretty dramatically with two new intercontinental ballistic missile systems and a new submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missile system. Russia, with its thousands and thousands of warheads—far more than it could possibly want—is building new nuclear weapons systems and new nuclear submarines for the delivery of those systems. We are not living in a world that is disarming, despite the incredibly generous gestures that our country has made. The next move downwards is not for us, but for others. If others will not make those moves, we must continue to guarantee our security and that of our allies.
I end on one fundamental point. Much is being made of the cost of Trident. I respect the view of those who over the years have been proved wrong but nevertheless carry on with their campaign to disarm our nuclear weapons. However, nothing is less honest than the idea that there is some cheaper system that will maintain the deterrent effect of our nuclear weapons or that somehow our current weapons system is vastly overspecified because of the Moscow criterion, to which completely obscure and mad reference has been made. That has nothing to do with the capability that we deploy today. It is totally irrelevant and a means of spreading disinformation about the credibility of our system so that the Liberal Democrats can get rid of our nuclear weapons system.
The Liberal Democrats know that there is no cheaper system. Just how cheap is it? It represents 0.1% of GDP over the lifetime of the system. I challenge anybody to produce any defence expenditure that can produce so much global influence.
I have three minutes to put the case for a peaceful, non-nuclear Scotland liberated from the menace of Trident.
When we secure the levers of power and we have the responsibility for defence, we will not have Trident in Scotland. That is not just the view of the Scottish National party but the desired will of the Scottish people. Opinion poll after opinion poll has found that the Scottish people do not want this menace. The Churches do not want it, the Scottish Trades Union Conference does not want it, and the overwhelming majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament do not want it, as they said when tested in a vote in 2007. Scotland is not going to have it—with independence we will shove it out of our country and it will not be in our waters.
Trident is emerging as an iconic issue in the Scottish independence referendum; in fact, it is probably one of the main issues. Is it not therefore sad and depressing that not one Labour Back Bencher has spoken in this debate? It took an hour to find one to come and inhabit those Benches. Is that not an absolute and utter disgrace?
I cannot give way; the Whips told me not to.
This is not just about retaining these abhorrent weapons, as the UK is the only country in the world that is indulging in unilateral nuclear rearmament. Sir Nick Harvey rightly pointed out that Trident will cost, over its lifetime,
£100 billion—an almost incomprehensible figure. It is a weapon designed for another age. It is designed to take on not the Bin Ladens of this world but the Brezhnevs. Yes, there are new threats in the world, as we are now seeing in Algeria and in Mali, but nothing would delight those insurgents more than our threatening them with nuclear weapons. While Trident is perhaps the least equipped weapon possible to deal with the challenges of the modern world, we are in the middle of a triple-dip recession. We are told that we have to ensure years and years of Tory austerity and that household incomes are going down month by month, yet we have to spend billions and billions of pounds on a weapon that we hope will never be used, and that is a moral abomination.
We will get rid of these weapons. An independent Scotland will make decisions that reflect Scotland’s interests and values. We will use our share of the cost of Trident to create jobs that meet the defence, economic and public service priorities of an independent Scotland. Our percentage share of the cost of running Trident is £163 million per year. Let us imagine what we could do with that money in rebuilding our public services and creating the conventional defence force that Scotland needs. [Interruption.] Here we go—every time we get to our feet we are heckled by Scottish Labour Members, and this is another example. They just cannot keep quiet—it is so typical. [Interruption.] They are still at it. I do not know if the cameras can pick it up, but it is always the same in these debates.
The Scottish people have a great opportunity to rid themselves of this evil weapon: if they want Trident out, they can vote yes for Scottish independence. The case for Scottish independence is compelling, and being able to rid Scotland of these evil weapons of mass destruction just helps that case.
I want to speak in support of continuous at-sea deterrence—CASD—and explain why it is still relevant and required. Those who disagree tend to mischaracterise the threat in terms of their assessment of the behaviours and future intentions of specific nation states, or underestimate the threat from hostile non-state organisations, or conclude that CASD is a redundant concept because there may be emerging threats that it cannot effectively deter. Such arguments often hinge on the premise that one or more of the necessary conditions for credible deterrence is missing, those conditions being that the aggressor we are seeking to deter has rational political leadership, that the behaviours to be deterred must be a genuine threat to the vital interests of the UK, and that there is a concept of use—an identifiable capability and a declared policy of intent. Opponents of CASD say that there will be no re-emergence of a major direct threat, otherwise known as Russia. They say that other hostile states, such as Iran, fail the rationality criterion to justify the retention of the deterrent, that CASD is of no use against a non-state terrorist organisation whose identity might be unknown and, even if it is known, that there may be no target against which to retaliate.
I say—this is at the heart of the issue—that it is not possible to predict with absolute certainty the intentions or future actions of countries such as North Korea, or what might happen if China, for example, fell under the control of a malign regime. To dismiss Iran’s foreign policy as irrational is also a mistake. It might be unpredictable and it is certainly obnoxious, but that is not the same as irrational. To reject the deterrent—which works in most scenarios—because it does not work in all scenarios is also illogical.
Finally, Russia’s behaviour towards NATO is becoming increasingly aggressive. Last year, Russia’s chief of general staff spoke openly about a first strike against US missile defence installations in Poland and Romania, and Putin shunned both the Chicago summit and the G8. Most commentators are pointing towards growing instability in Russia, a country that, we estimate, today has 12,000 warheads, 4,650 of which are active. We cannot dismiss the possibility of Russia being a real threat over the lifetime of the next generation of the deterrent.
That is the world we live in and it is the world we must prepare for when we renew our capabilities. If we reject CASD, we ought not to kid ourselves that it is not just the UK’s status and influence that we would lose, or that we would successfully achieve our prime duty as parliamentarians and as a Government to protect the United Kingdom, including those who live in Scotland.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate, but sad that I have such a short time in which to do so.
I want to start by considering the overall concept of security and deterrents. I believe that we need a mix of tools for deterrence and security, rather than investing blind faith in voodoo defence based on a cold war weapon that cannot deter, but that certainly can obliterate all of us.
The greatest security threats that we face today are related to climate change and international terrorism. Those are things that nuclear weapons cannot help us with; rather, they deter and take resources away from addressing those issues.
When the leaders of our armed forces and security services balked at the Chancellor’s plans to charge the Ministry of Defence the full cost of replacing Trident, they exposed their own lack of faith in the notion that nuclear weapons give us deterrence and security. In a letter to The Times, three of those leaders—Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach—said:
“Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face—particularly international terrorism; and the more you analyse them the more unusable they appear”.
If Trident really fulfilled the deterrence myths and claims that underpin the Government’s case for spending billions on its replacement, those responsible for our security would surely consider it well worth the money, but they do not. They know full well that Trident is political vanity and irrelevant to our real security needs.
It is time we stopped calling Trident “the deterrent,” as if that were its identity. That was a public relations euphemism from the early days of the cold war. It was meant to cut off debate by making nuclear weapons sound as if they were safe and sensible, so it was made impossible to ask the real questions, such as: does the deterrent deter? If we ask that question, we will soon come to the conclusion that it is short-sighted and dangerous in the extreme for Britain to rely on a weapon of mass destruction which, if launched, would put our own survival at serious risk, as well as that of many others.
If we are seriously to debate deterrence, let us do so honestly and recognise the complex relationship that requires us to understand the fears, threat perceptions, needs and values of others, and to communicate carefully and effectively. The best deterrence of all is to work with other nations to solve global threats such as fossil fuel-induced climate disruption, transnational trafficking in weapons, and the poverty and desperation that fuel hunger, conflict and violence cause around the world. Calling Trident “the deterrent” does not confer on it the capability to deter any more than calling a cat a dog would give the cat the ability to bark.
Secondly, I will touch briefly on the upcoming inter- governmental efforts to ban nuclear weapons. The Government of Norway, who have worked closely with the MOD and Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston on projects to verify nuclear weapons, are hosting a major international conference in Oslo in early March, where the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons will be addressed by more than 100 Governments. I am pleased that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has told Norway that we will send a delegation to that important conference, but I plead with the Government to play a constructive role. As the focus is mainly on the humanitarian consequences of detonating nuclear weapons, I ask the Government what studies of nuclear weapons and their humanitarian effects they have undertaken that they will be sharing with their colleagues.
The expert studies on the short and longer-term effects of nuclear detonation are shocking. Let us consider the environmental, climate, agricultural and medical effects. If just a fraction of today’s nuclear arsenals were detonated, in what is termed a “limited nuclear war”, the studies point to climate disruption, widespread radioactivity and global famine. In other words, if the Trident weapons that are carried on just one British submarine were launched at Moscow and nearby cities, the effect would be a worldwide humanitarian disaster. That is immoral and obscene, and it should not be done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Lewis on securing this debate.
I support maintaining a nuclear deterrent because it is the reason for our seat on the United Nations Security Council, it is the cement in our relationship with the United States of America, and it helps us to play a key part in NATO. This is an important debate. The nuclear licence is vital to my constituency. It is our stake in the ground and we must ensure that lots of work comes out of it. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is very supportive of Plymouth remaining a strategic naval port. Some 25,000 people in my constituency and travel-to-work area are dependent on the defence industry for their jobs.
I want two things out of today’s debate. First, I want a commitment that the Labour party will not do a deal of any description with any potential coalition partner—whether the Liberal Democrats or any other party—on giving away the nuclear deterrent. Secondly, I do not want any more money to be spent in Scotland until it has worked out whether it wants to be part of the United Kingdom. In that way, we can ensure that we hold on to our nuclear deterrent and send the simple message that Nelson’s sailors used to give as a toast: “Confusion to the enemy!”
I will have to be very brief.
We must be clear that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and can only kill indiscriminately millions of civilians. We have enough nuclear capability in our 48-warhead submarines for a nuclear kill 384 times greater than that in Hiroshima in 1945—the only time when nuclear weapons have been used.
To replace the Trident system and procure new warheads would cost us £100 billion over 25 years. I dread to think that any Government in 2016, of whatever party, faced with all the social problems of this country—with the stress on housing, health, education, employment and infrastructure—would commit us to £100 billion-worth of weapons of mass destruction. That would achieve precisely what? It does not protect our position as a member of the Security Council of the United Nations. It does not give us moral authority around the world. It has the opposite effect. I ask the House this question: when issues are raised in the world’s councils, who has greater moral authority—South Africa, which gave up its nuclear weapons specifically to ensure that there was an African nuclear-free zone, or Britain, which seeks to rearm unilaterally in order, apparently, to protect its status around the world? It does not defend us. It does not protect us. It does nothing but cost us a great deal of money.
I aspire to live in a nuclear-free world. It has been achieved in Latin America. It has been achieved in Africa. It has been achieved in central Asia. It has been achieved in Antarctica. There is real hope that, with the assistance of the Finnish Government and the UN, we will eventually achieve a nuclear weapons-free middle east, when Iran and Israel are brought together to the conference table to bring that great aspiration about. We live in a time when we can take a huge step forward. Our country can take a huge step forward by saying, “We do not see weapons of mass destruction as a defence; we see them as a threat and a danger. Accordingly, we will not replace the Trident nuclear weapons system, but will instead support the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to ensure that that happy day comes about.”
The MPs around the world who have signed the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament network statement to bring about nuclear weapons-free zones are to be commended. World opinion is against nuclear weapons, which is also to be commended.
I finish with a point echoing that made by my Friend—
Motion lapsed (
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there any way we can get a Minister from the Department for Education to the Chamber to explain the extraordinary attack in The Spectator blog this afternoon on the former Minister with responsibility for children, the hon. Member for
East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), by senior sources at the Department, who have described him, among other things, as
“a lazy incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion”?
I have informed him that I am raising this matter on a point of order. Should not the Secretary of State come to the House to explain whether that vicious attack is his view of his hon. Friend and erstwhile ministerial colleague?
The very short answer is no, I cannot. That is not a point of order—I think the hon. Gentleman knows that. A point of order has to be a matter for this Chamber, but he has his point on the record, and I am afraid he will have to be satisfied with that.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to intervene on a point of order, but we have just had a good and interesting debate on nuclear weapons, and the time obviously had to be reduced. Some hon. Members did not get in and others withdrew from the debate because they were not going to do so. Could we invite the Backbench Business Committee to look favourably on having another debate on the subject in the foreseeable future, because there is far greater parliamentary interest than was anticipated when the debate was called for by Dr Lewis and the number of hon. Members who supported him?
Mr Corbyn, I think you know that that is not a point of order either, particularly seeing as the Backbench Business Committee’s determination of business in the House is not a matter for the Chair. I am sure that when the Committee reads Hansard, it will take his remarks as an early bid, particularly if he has greater support for such a debate.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that the Government will publish—at least internally—and consider their review on the alternatives to Trident, perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Dunne, who is in his place, will give the House a commitment that we will have the chance to debate the review in this House very soon.
Well, Mr Gapes, perhaps the Minister could do that, but I do not think he will. That is not a point of order. I would like to make progress with business, because I am sure there are not any other relevant or pertinent points of order to take this afternoon.