Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:37 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 5:37 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, in noting the antics in the other place following the non-inclusion in the gracious Speech of a possible referendum on Europe, I am confident that they will not be repeated in this House if my contribution is devoted to the surprising absence of another issue. Before I come to that, as a vice-chairman of the Chagos Islands all-party group I agree with everything that will be said by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on the Chagossian return. As a former soldier, I express my surprise at the words in the Speech that,

“my Government ... will support ... the opening of a peace process in Afghanistan”.—[ Official Report , 8/5/13; col. 3.]

That made me wonder what the Government think our Armed Forces have been doing in that troubled country since 2001. On the subject of Afghanistan, I associate myself completely with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, about interpreters.

However, the omission that most surprised me was the future of our nuclear deterrent, bearing in mind the alleged imminent publication of the Government’s Trident alternatives study. It is true that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, when summing up my debate on nuclear disarmament on 24 January, told the House that the purpose of that study was to help the Liberal Democrats make the case for alternatives to the current continuous-at-sea deterrent, but I submit that far from merely being a matter of internal coalition politics, the question of whether a weapon system of the potency of Trident is the minimum credible deterrent that the nation requires to maintain ought to be discussed and debated in both Houses. That debate needs to be wide-ranging because of the number of questions about the ability of a system designed to meet yesterday’s criteria to satisfy those of today and tomorrow.

The need for such a debate was confirmed by a recent exchange of letters in the Times following the statement by the Prime Minister on 3 April that, in his judgment, North Korea’s unveiling of a long-range ballistic missile, with a nuclear warhead that it claimed could reach the whole of the United States, affected the whole of Europe, making it foolish to leave Britain defenceless against a continuous and growing nuclear threat. The very mention of the alleged threat from that North Korean missile reminded me of the 45-minute nonsense over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Immediately, General Sir Hugh Beach, a former Master-General of the Ordnance, wrote that no country on earth was less vulnerable to North Korean nuclear blackmail than the United Kingdom, and that, like it or not, the Trident missile, in British hands but supplied by America, was unusable without American support. His arguments were summarily dismissed by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, on the grounds that the independence of our continuous-at-sea deterrent was not just technical but absolute, and that it would be reckless to abandon our ultimate insurance against threats that cannot be predicted from countries yet to be identified.

That prompted my noble and gallant friend, Lord Bramall, to write that the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord West, reminded him of the senior general who, after World War 1, said that there would always be a place for the horse on the battlefield, particularly if well-bred. Although the nuclear deterrent served both sides well in the Cold War, the reality today is that it does not, and cannot, deter any credible threats likely to be faced by this or any other European country; nor, in a highly globalised and interlocking world, could a weapon with the destructive power of Trident conceivably be used, even in retribution. For us, he said, nuclear weapons are superfluous and now redundant, and the sooner a Trident replacement is removed from the Treasury’s overload, the better.

My final quotations from that exchange are from two other retired admirals, with whom I fully agree. Vice-Admiral Jungius suggested that,

“whether or not the UK should continue to have a nuclear deterrent is primarily a political decision”.

Rear-Admiral Middleton wrote that,

“in the next few years a combination of smart delivery systems … together with cyberwarfare programmes ... will be able to provide a national deterrent that is demonstrable, effective, selective, non-lethal and cheap”.

In other words, the cost of our nuclear deterrent should not be borne by the defence budget, and our present deterrent is not only unusable but at best obsolescent when set against emerging technologies.

Two other aspects must be considered when determining whether a weapon system with the potency of Trident is the most appropriate minimum credible deterrent. The first is cyber, which presents a far greater threat to the economic, political and social life of a country than Trident, suggesting that cyberdefence should be at the top of any national defence priority list, and, to be credible, any proposed deterrent must be cyberproof, putting a question mark against Trident, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid has advised us. Secondly, not least on moral grounds, account must be taken of the devastating effects of the use of nuclear weapons on our climate.

All that is in the context of two other climates, both of which must be considered by those responsible for reaching a conclusion on an issue of such long-term national importance. The first is the continued efforts to achieve international multilateral disarmament, in line with President Obama’s commitment to ultimate zero. There is no time to discuss the present state of negotiations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, or the continually frustrated attempts to establish a weapons of mass destruction free-zone in the Middle East. Although I am glad that we are contributing to these negotiations, I fear that questions arising from our continued reliance on Cold War logic have unintended consequences on the credibility of that contribution.

First, does our proposed replacement of one unusable system, designed to take out Moscow by another with the same capability, increase or reduce our right to prevent other countries from advancing their nuclear ambitions? Secondly, does not the presumption that war was deterred and peace maintained during the Cold War by uncertainty over whether either side would use their nuclear weapons suggest that if the same logic was applied to the Middle East, war would be better deterred and peace better maintained by allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon to balance Israel’s?

Finally, of course, there is the current economic climate. Here I remind the House of the two definitions of affordability: can you afford something, or can you afford to give up what you have to give up in order to afford something? I submit that the latter must be applied ruthlessly when considering conventional shortfalls such as those mentioned by my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig and the noble Lord, Lord West, and when considering whether we can afford to buy more well bred nuclear horses, unsuitable for use on post-Cold War battlefields.

Inevitably, in eight minutes, one can only scratch the surface of an issue as important as this. Having expressed my surprise that this was not included in the gracious Speech, I sincerely hope that the Government will make that omission good by allowing noble Lords time to prepare and make their contributions to a full debate, in government time, after the publication of the Trident alternatives study.