Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub Committee F - Home Affairs, Health and Education 3:29 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, the topicality of the subject we are debating today can surely not be doubted. The re-election for a second term of President Obama, who so electrified a global audience with the vision he set out in his Prague speech of a world eventually free of nuclear weapons, together with the changes in the top leadership of three of the other four officially recognised nuclear weapons states-China, France and Russia-present an opportunity as well as a challenge to those who wish for progress along the road towards multilateral nuclear disarmament.

However, we need to recognise that the landscape of 2012 was pretty bleak. There, I entirely share the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. The euphoria provoked by the Prague speech and the new START agreement between Russia and the US faded. Neither NATO nor Russia made any meaningful progress towards reducing and eventually removing tactical nuclear weapons from the front line in Europe. The failure at the end of the year to implement the agreement to convoke a conference on a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East has merely stored up problems for the future. We are entering a new and extremely dangerous phase in the efforts to handle the attempts by North Korea and Iran to break out from their obligations under the non-proliferation regime.

There are lots more causes for alarm and concern than there are for complacency, which makes the initiative of my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham in obtaining this debate-I shared a little in the effort to get that agreed by our fellow Cross-Benchers- the more laudable. I also take this opportunity to thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, for his contribution to this debate and to so many other debates in this House.

As has invariably been the case so far, any further moves towards multilateral nuclear disarmament have to begin with the United States and Russia, whose arsenals still far exceed those of all other nuclear weapons states-both recognised and unrecognised-put together, and which also still far exceed any conceivable requirements to ensure their security.

The initial auguries are not good. The Russians, in particular, show little appetite for further reductions. Much, I feel, will depend on the first meetings-let us say, the next meetings-between Presidents Obama and Putin and whether they can find a way out of the impasse on ballistic missile defence, where the Russian position has often appeared to be as intransigent as it is unconvincing; but where President Obama was rather hamstrung on handling this matter in the period leading up to his re-election.

If those US-Russian difficulties can be overcome, the stage will have been set for a widening of the multilateral effort to include the other weapons states, including us. It is surely, therefore, high time now to prepare for that stage. In that context, the now regular series of meetings between the five recognised weapons states will surely need to assume a more operational significance and scope. I hope that the Minister can say something about the Government's plans and aspirations in respect of the next P5 meeting. Surely the P5 offers the ideal forum in which to discuss the content of a fissile material cut-off treaty, which all five of those present have publicly supported. The P5 could also seek ways to get around the deadlock in the conference on disarmament over even starting negotiations on such a treaty, for which Pakistan alone is responsible.

The postponement of the Middle East conference on a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone may have been understandable, but simply to drift towards the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in 2015 without holding such a Middle East conference is surely a thoroughly bad option, likely to please only those who covertly wish to see collapse of the NPT regime. Since such a collapse is very much contrary to our own national security interests, I hope that the Minister will be able to say how we, as one of the joint conveners of that middle eastern conference, are planning to proceed from now onwards.

The greatest immediate challenges in the nuclear field lie, of course, in the handling of the cases of Iran and North Korea. Neither presents any particular cause for optimism. The negative consequences of taking pre-emptive military action against either country still seem far to outweigh any conceivable benefits, whatever one's view of the morality or international legitimacy of so doing. That points to major efforts being required to revive the search for diplomatic solutions, which will also require some willingness to compromise on both sides of the very tense relationships over those two countries. In the case of North Korea, the search for compromise would seem to require some meeting of minds between China and the United States. In the case of Iran, it seems that what is lacking is some direct channel of communication between the Iranian leadership and the US Administration. Do the Government share that analysis and, if they do, are they conveying those thoughts to those most directly concerned?

I wish I felt that the handling of these vital issues of nuclear policy came a little higher up the Government's foreign policy agenda than they seem to do. When, for example, did the Prime Minister last address them in a major speech? I think the answer is that he has not ever done so. When did the Foreign Secretary last address them in a major speech? I think the answer is: when the Government published their Nuclear Posture Review in the summer of 2010. It surely is high time that that gap was filled.

It is of course quite correct to underline the fact that Britain has the smallest arsenal among the nuclear weapons states, but that is not an excuse for inertia. What thought are we giving not just to the size and configuration of our nuclear deterrent, but to its alert posture in the very different international circumstances from those for which it was originally designed? Here I join with all those in this debate who have questioned the validity of the "continuous at sea deterrence" doctrine, which so far has governed our nuclear policy. I, too, was dismayed when I saw the Government's reply to the Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, about the Trident review that is being undertaken and their intention not to publish any part of it. I was therefore delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, drawing my attention to the fact that in the coalition's mid-term agreement it seems to have moved on from that. I hope that the Minister will be able to make that very clear in her reply.

I have to say that for people like myself who support a continuing British nuclear deterrent, although not necessarily of the same nature and scope as the existing one, it is very disheartening if we are told that we are not grown-up enough to have a serious debate about this and to see what underpins the Government's decision-making on it. Of course I understand that aspects of that will not be suitable for publication, but that is not to say that the broad strategic considerations cannot be set out on the table and debated among us without words such as "unilateralist" being flung around.

Finally, because this has been mentioned by several other noble Lords, I would like to say a word about the false argument that Britain's permanent membership of the Security Council of the UN somehow depends crucially on our possession of nuclear weapons. That is simply not the case; it is totally unhistorical to suggest that it is. When the five permanent members of the Security Council were established under the UN charter, only one had nuclear weapons. China, the last of them to join, did not have them for another three decades. The link is really not there. The noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, put his finger on it when he said that the sustaining of our permanent membership depends infinitely more on the role that we play in peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention, and matters such as that, than it does on making this false linkage with nuclear weapons. As I have said, I am not a unilateral disarmer. I am not suggesting that we should give up our nuclear weapons, but is important that we keep them for the right reasons and not for the wrong ones.