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It is a great shame that the Chancellor, who was lingering by the Speaker’s Chair earlier, did not take the time to join us. As those who normally attend these defence debates will know, we have been desperate to get a Treasury Minister to join us at some point, and we have still not used our collective imagination to deliver that outcome. I am sure he will read Hansard as soon as it is off the printers later this evening.
I begin by sincerely commending the Government for bringing this debate forward. Many of us have hoped that the Government would bring a defence debate forward in Government time at some point. We debated a defence-related Bill that was in the Queen’s Speech on the Floor of the House, and there was a broader debate on national security following the Salisbury incident, but it would be useful to have more of these defence debates in Government time where possible. I am sure that those on the Government and shadow French Benches will join me in congratulating NATO on its move to new headquarters and wish it well in its new home.
The upcoming summit carries with it much anticipation. A changing threat landscape could take the alliance, which is so crucial for security, into an uncertain future. Much has been said about an increasingly defiant Russia, and I am sure much will be said about the intemperate words of the United States President. Both those things should motivate member states to unite in solidarity for the sake of the future of the alliance, which does so much to underpin international order and security.
Arguably NATO has not faced a crisis such as this since the end of the cold war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was a changing body that had to adapt to a new purpose; it required a new vision to continue being the most successful defence and security alliance in the history of the world. Questions were raised as to whether solidarity could be upheld sans the threat of the Soviet Union; whether new forms of threat could be met by the north Atlantic alliance; and whether a security and defence alliance of this nature was ever really required at all. Some of those questions still echo in the discourse today, which is why it is important that those of us who believe in institutions such as NATO—and the United Nations Security Council, which is a failing instrument at the moment—continue to make the case for them.
In its longevity, NATO has kept land, sea and airspace safe, but new forms of attack, such as rising cyber-warfare and the horrifying poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March, demonstrate that our security is being threatened by means not explicitly covered by the traditional article 5 definition of attack. Let us take the example of the Skripal attack. The Russian use of a nerve agent on UK soil was a violation of the chemical weapons convention and, of course, of international law. It was a premeditated attack that attempted to kill two people within UK borders. The choice of weapon in itself demonstrates the particular venom of the actor involved. The nerve agent Novichok blocks a crucial enzyme in the nervous system, causing nerves to become over-excited and sending muscles—both internal and external—into spasm. The whole House will rightly have been horrified by what happened in Salisbury in March. That is one example of how the changing threat picture affects us, but of course it is not new to our Baltic allies.
There are also the more traditional threats, some of which were outlined by the Defence Secretary himself. Let us, for example, take the threat of Russian submarine activity, which is now at the highest levels since the days of the cold war. The Secretary of State knows the concerns of SNP Members about the high north and Icelandic gap, but I implore Members not just to think of this as the Scottish bit of the NATO debate, because it would be ill-advised to look at it in that way.