Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:17 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Bramall Lord Bramall Crossbench 2:17 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, as, for various reasons, this is my last speech in your Lordships' House-the last, I believe, of close on 200 personal contributions over the past 26 years-I hope that noble Lords will be indulgent over my being given dispensation to deliver most of this speech sitting down because of my difficulty in standing without full back support for more than a few moments.

I have selected this most timely debate-moved by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, whom I thank for his very kind and generous remarks-to make a final contribution for two reasons: first, because there can be no more important question facing this country than the vexed one of nuclear weapons, and in particular our country's own nuclear deterrent; and secondly, because in my maiden speech, made in March 1987, I reminded noble Lords of the positive contribution that the possession of nuclear weapons had made to Europe in terms of its stability and an unusually long period of peace, for the simple reason that no prize that might have been gained by military means would have been worth the risk of possible nuclear retaliation.

In those days of the Cold War I therefore fully supported the generally accepted philosophy-I might almost say theology-of the deterrent, and believed that because the prize was no less than the domination of Europe, it was-just-a credible faith. On this I disagreed with my more distinguished predecessor as Chief of the Defence Staff, the late Lord Carver, who I then thought was ahead of his time. I say this because, not having had any emotional antipathy to the useful possession of such weapons, it gives me, I hope, slightly greater credibility if now, a quarter of a century later when things have moved on, I want to deal with the practicalities of nuclear weapons and their future rather differently.

For now, with the Cold War over, the world has changed significantly, both politically and in terms of its conflicts, and is likely to continue to do so. I now feel that it is possible-indeed, I would say essential-to look at the whole question from an entirely different point of view. I shall therefore ask three different but closely related questions. Perhaps I might now be allowed to continue while sitting down.

The first question, from a military point of view, is whether we still need the successor to Trident which the Government presently seem to have in mind. Will it be able to go on doing the job it is supposed to do under any relevant circumstances? To this I believe the answer is unquestionably no. For all practical purposes it has not and, indeed, would not deter any of the threats and challenges-now more economic than military-likely to face this country in the foreseeable or even longer-term future. It has not stopped any terrorist outrage in this country nor, despite America's omnipotent deterrent, did it prevent the very traumatic 9/11. It did not stop the Argentines trying to take over the Falklands, nor did any nuclear deterrent stop Saddam Hussein marching into Kuwait or firing missiles into Israel. Nor indeed, in a now intensely globalised and interlocked world, could our deterrent ever conceivably be used-not even after a serious hostile incident which it had presumably failed to deter-without making the whole situation in the world infinitely worse for ourselves as well as for everybody else.

For all practical purposes our deterrent has never been truly independent, and if this country had not had a national deterrent over the years, dominated by the formidable balance of terror between the USA and the old Soviet Union, it would certainly not be seeking to acquire one now. I see no reason why these circumstances should change, because conflict is moving inexorably in an entirely different direction. Indeed, even that often-quoted justification for such a status symbol-a seat at the top table-has worn a bit thin, with prestige and influence more likely to be achieved by economic strength, wise counsel and peacemaking than by an ability to destroy en masse. Against that background, this country does not need and really cannot afford the very large extra expenditure needed to set up and maintain an ever ready, invulnerable successor to Trident, particularly when all the really usable and frequently needed forces and agencies, so vital for the real security of our country, are still deprived of the resources they require.

Secondly-and particularly as in the gracious Speech the first of only three small, rather opaque references to defence was a determination to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation-I ask how we could possibly make any positive contribution to the current dialogue, and ultimately, one hopes, to a widespread reduction of nuclear weapons, if the only example we set is to be a wholly negative one, by going ahead with possessing for ourselves such an excessive capability for at least another 40 years, and at the same time claiming, however fallaciously, that for a country like ours it is the only way that we can guarantee our security in all circumstances. I imagine that that line of argument is not lost on those who may now wish to acquire such weapons for themselves.

Other countries may not necessarily follow our example if we were to start to run down our own white elephant and be seen to be stepping further down the nuclear ladder. However, to encourage them in the completely opposite direction, to follow our particular stance, seems to me to be very irresponsible for a country such as ours, which rightly has aspirations to be a leader in international affairs.

However, my third and final question is whether, in the real political world we live in, can this Government politically afford not to be seen to have the best nuclear weapon that money can buy? Even if they were mindful to take a rational step, could they really defy any populist feeling which could so easily, and certainly would be, whipped up by those ever keen on contriving a row on key issues-and there could be no issue more key than this-that somehow the Government, however inaccurately, were giving away Britain's ultimate guarantee of homeland security, while at the same time, heaven forbid, the French may be-probably would be-holding on to theirs? It may therefore be politically easier to let a successor to Trident go ahead despite the many and considerable down sides.

Nevertheless, ever an optimist, I believe that there can be a sensible way of getting round this impasse and giving the Government the opportunity to get off the hook. For instance, they should give urgent consideration to adopting a more practical, realistic and, I hope, cheaper way of keeping at bay or warding off any likely threats to the integrity of our nation and the safety of our citizens, which at the same time would be seen to be giving a lead in the active non-proliferation dialogue. I believe that there are a number of convincing and capable ways of achieving this, some of which may be expanded on by other noble Lords.

To begin with, we should recognise that in today's world we do not need to have a nuclear-firing submarine at all times to demonstrate an effective deterrent capability. Periodically one boat would have to be at sea for training purposes, and at others a submarine could be put to sea at short notice if the threat to us or our vital interest was perceived to have increased. This variable state of readiness would still maintain some useful sense of uncertainty and could even, at times of particular tension, actually appear to enhance our commitment and resolve. Some useful economies would arise from a system of reduced readiness which might even, by adding to the time span of the existing Trident, go some way to assuaging any lingering electoral doubters. Even more importantly, it would allow a breathing space in which to perfect-hand in hand with improved intelligence, both satellite and terrestrial-a more relevant economical and useable system, and therefore to allow work on the replacement submarines exclusively for Trident's successor to be cancelled or at least reviewed.

I would hope that this stepping down from the no-longer-credible immediate response nature of our current nuclear stance could be implemented in a way that persuaded people that it was both a sound and progressive step, designed not quixotically to re-prepare for the last war, but to present a better balanced, more relevant defence programme. Moreover, by making a further and significant contribution to the general dialogue for multinational nuclear disarmament, which everyone seems to approve of, it could even enhance the value of our counsel in international affairs and as a key member of the Security Council.