Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 2:28 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, I do not think that I can say anything more strongly than the speech we have just heard from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. It shows how great will be our loss in not having his company and advice on this most important of issues. We are all deeply in his debt for once again so frankly speaking truth to power, as he has done all his life, and for his illustrious and remarkable military career, starting with the Military Cross and going all the way up to becoming Commander-in-Chief of the British Land Forces and also-something which I want to mention on personal grounds-his distinguished action as Colonel of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles. I mention that because my son-in-law, who died earlier this year, was a junior officer in the 2nd Gurkha Rifles. He served in Hong Kong and in that neighbourhood, including Malaya. Over many years he told me that nobody was more admired by the Gurkhas than the Field Marshal, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who did so much to help and assist them in their deep dependence on this country and their deep service to it.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for whom I have immense respect, for initiating this debate. I hope that I will show not excessive trepidation in drawing attention to two things that he said with which, with the greatest respect, I cannot agree. First, he said that there had been no willingness to review or publish thoughts about, and details of the work being done on, the review of Trident. That is not true. I have in my hand the mid-term review of the coalition. It states:

"We will complete and publish the review of alternatives to Trident".

That statement cost some members of the coalition quite a lot. It was quite a battle to get those words in-but they are in, they are part of the mid-term review and they will be respected.

My second point to the noble Lord is that the person who was the subject of a long interview in the Guardian on Monday was not the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the distinguished Mr Douglas Alexander, but Mr Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Few people in the Government could know more about the cost of Trident and, if I may say so, could have made as acute, perceptive and distinguished a contribution to the debate as he did. Anybody who reads it will know why I say that. It was an extraordinarily candid piece.

Thirdly, I refer to another contribution in the Guardian. It was made by a former Minister for the Armed Forces, my friend Nicholas Harvey. He was an excellent Minister and he wrote a very candid and frank article in which he cast as much doubt on whether it was wise to go ahead with Trident as a former Minister possibly could. He spoke in terms as eloquent and forceful as those of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.

I will turn quickly to some of the issues. First, the structure of control and governance over nuclear weapons has essentially rested on treaties signed by the so-called P5-the recognised, official nuclear powers. One of the first treaties set up the IAEA, which is a major inspector of nuclear weapons developments. The second, which sadly has never been ratified by the United States, was the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. The third was the attempt to get a fissile material treaty that would cut off fissile materials. That would mean in effect that it would become almost impossible to develop further nuclear weapons because no fissile materials would be fed into the process. The final one, which I mention in passing, was the attempt to bring about a tougher inspection system, of which the additional protocol is at the heart.

I believe very strongly that the President of the United States, in his re-elected second term, will be determined to proceed further, and as far as he possibly can, with these crucial treaties. Already there is evidence from members of the President's staff that he is utterly determined to do that. There is also stronger evidence in his remarkable appointment of a new Secretary of State, Senator Kerry, to succeed the excellent Mrs Clinton; and, secondly and perhaps even more significantly, in his appointment of Senator Hagel as Defence Secretary. It was a most unexpected appointment. Senator Hagel has had the courage to speak out against any military action against Iran, and to say quite a few things that echo what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said about the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, and the fact that therefore they should not be used except in the most extreme circumstances. The appointment of these two gentlemen, both of them highly controversial in American politics and not likely to be totally welcomed by all members of Congress, is clear evidence of what the President intends to do. I believe that he will take matters as far as he possibly can, with the support of his allies-that is important-in the next four years of his presidency.

I will go back for a moment to say something about each of the treaties. The CTBT has long been resisted by the United States, and equally by other countries including China. It is critical that we should try to pass it now. Secondly, the START agreement was passed by a very narrow majority in the US Congress. It opens up the prospect of major reductions in nuclear arsenals. The treaty has been passed but not yet implemented. If it were implemented, we would see a dramatic decline in the arsenals of nuclear weapons that-here I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham-serve no useful purpose at all and tend to decline in effectiveness over the years.

The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty has been blocked for the past few years at the conference on disarmament in Geneva by one country: Pakistan. That is very serious and we need to think very hard about ways to get around that. Since Pakistan's major fear is not Russia or China but India, I will say that the whole world owes a huge debt to the present Prime Minister of India, Mr Manmohan Singh, for flatly refusing to retaliate after the Mumbai and Delhi terror attacks. It is one of those moments in history when one has to be grateful, for the safety of the whole world, to just one brave politician. He was exactly that in refusing to retaliate against a major attack on Mumbai. Nobody knows who made it, but many people suspected a body in Pakistan. Thirdly in the list of treaties, there is a real chance that we may be able to move ahead also on the additional protocol now signed by a number of member states of the IAEA. This is absolutely critical if we are to have effective inspection.

If there were time, I would love to turn to a number of other, very serious issues: for example, China's commitment to the no-first-use doctrine, which although helpful has acted as a block to much of the thinking about nuclear weapons and about the way in which we might develop an effective system of controlling them. However, I will echo the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, in saying that we live and move in a very different world to that of 30 years ago. As the noble and gallant Lord eloquently said, there very little point in having nuclear weapons, and certainly in having nuclear weapons continuously at sea. Our main fears are of terrorism or possibly a serious accident-to both of which a nuclear deterrent is irrelevant.

The other main point to make about the new developments, many of them in the laboratories of the United States armed forces, is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, they are moving towards cyberwarfare and increasingly precisely targeted weapons, including some of the conventional weapons that today terrify Russia. Russia is scared stiff that the United States is rapidly overtaking it in terms of conventional warfare. Therefore, it depends increasingly on nuclear deterrence, which in many ways is becoming irrelevant.

I will end my remarks by saying that for many years between the wars-this is relevant to the discussions we will have in the coming year about the First World War-there was a deep belief in France that the Maginot Line was an unassailable and invulnerable defence. Right up to the beginning of the Second World War, the French military continued to believe in the Maginot Line, which lasted a matter of days and was then gone. Like the Great Wall of China, it was a deterrent that did not work. I suggest strongly that we should look to the developments in cyberwarfare, which are terrifying, and at developments in robot warfare, of which we have the example of the drone, which is used increasingly in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is likely now to be used in west Africa, in countries such as Somalia and other out-of-control states, and ask whether Trident is relevant, and whether nuclear weapons are relevant.

I will conclude with a final thank you that deserves to be part of this debate. One of the listed speakers is the noble Lord, Lord Wood. For some time he was an adviser to the previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Mr Brown gets a lot of criticism, but with the help of the noble Lord, Lord Wood, he probably took greater steps in reducing to its bare, effective minimum the British nuclear deterrent, in working on verification and in seeking to get wider agreements to reduce the power of nuclear weapons, as far as this could be done. It is appropriate and right that we should remember that we owe him something for that substantial contribution.