Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:13 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 3:13 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on bringing this debate to the House today and the way in which he introduced it, not least because he gave us the opportunity to hear the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, as well-I am appalled if it is to be the last time; I certainly hope it is not-in what I think impressed the whole House as a deeply felt and most impressive contribution to the debate.

Having said that, and while some have some background in this area, I hope that my noble friend Lady Miller will not feel the least bit inhibited. She is absolutely right that a lot more Members should take part in this very important debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, the whole issue should be examined more deeply.

By virtue of the office I once held, I was faced with what seemed at the time to be a pretty unrealistic situation, as I was shown a target map of the Soviet cities that were to be taken out in total annihilation. It never seemed very credible at the time. We are discussing something that there has been no occasion to use in the past 65 years, since it was invented. As my noble friend Lady Williams said, one should not underestimate the significance of the end of the Cold War.

I remember a meeting in No. 10 when John Major was Prime Minister, when President Yeltsin came over and we talked about how we could help the Russians recover their nuclear weapons that were scattered around different parts of the Soviet Union, which they did not have any adequate way of recovering. We made various secure containers available to help them in that.

At the same time I received some very interesting advice in my brief about the work that was being done to enable nuclear material suitable for warheads to be turned into fuel for nuclear power stations. I am delighted to see, in the excellent brief that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, the very real US-Russian co-operation that is going on. The US is spending $1 billion on helping the Russians to combat the spread of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. In their joint Megatons to Megawatts programme, they are turning highly enriched uranium into lightly enriched uranium for use in power stations. They have already converted nearly 20,000 warheads' worth of nuclear material into fuel, making it unavailable for use in warheads. I understand that there is a bit of a freeze and some tension in the US-Russian relationship at the moment, and in the interests of the whole world I hope that that is not too long-lasting.

It is against that background that one looks at the future as vividly described by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. It is of course an extraordinarily dangerous world, and we can only be reminded of that by the upheavals that have happened, all so rapidly, barely in the past couple of years. The whole of the Middle East has gone into spasm: Libya; the appalling carnage in Syria at present; the issue of whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon; Israel, with the CIA assessment that it has 300 to 400 warheads, and the question, after its election, of whether it may or may not decide to make any use of them; and obviously the situation in Yemen, Somalia and, now, Mali. The issues that we face include terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, piracy and cyber threats. However, against none of those do nuclear weapons look like God's gift to solving the problem. It is against that background that I look on the present situation. It is certainly not obvious to me that there is any longer a need for a major nuclear system based on 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week availability. None the less, it is an unstable world and my judgment is that we would be wise not to abandon totally some nuclear capability, not least because one looks at Iran, North Korea and the development by Russia, and I think by Pakistan as well, of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which is obviously a very dangerous development.

As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said, the blockage to this has really been the political judgment. Can any political party in this country go to the electors and say, "We have dismantled the basic, fundamental, ultimate defence of our country"? That is the challenge that we face and that has to be addressed. As to whether it ultimately gives us top-table credibility, in the current world we live in, top-table credibility comes from being available to help with peacekeeping and conflict resolution, and in having Armed Forces that are able to exist, co-ordinate and co-operate with the new high-technology and highly sophisticated systems. We know that, in any co-operation with the United States, there are very few countries now that can do that.

Against that background, the cash pressures are very much an issue here. I think that our place at the top table would be more threatened by committing ourselves to a system for 40 years or more that may mean, in what are likely to be pretty stringent economic times for the foreseeable future, that we are less able to contribute in the United Nations and under United Nations leadership in some of those other roles than by whether we can say that we have these very substantial weapons, which we have never had occasion to use. Our position and the need to play our part in the world means we must now review this very carefully as it comes forward-I am glad it is Danny Alexander and not Douglas Alexander who is leading this particular exercise-to see whether we can find an alternative way forward that preserves our defences adequately but not at quite such an appalling expense.