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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:26 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Labour 8:26 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Perry. She is a long-time colleague of mine on the Science and Technology Committee, where her contributions were, like today’s, models of clarity and sensitive perception. My noble friend Lady Jowell in turn showed that she has lost none of the talents that contributed so much to her success in the Commons. I am sure that she will be able to continue that work it this place.

I will confine my remarks tonight to the part of the gracious Speech relating to the securing of the long-term future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, a few minutes ago giving what could be regarded as the unilateralist case for not going on with nuclear weapons. It took me be back some 30 years to when I was a shadow defence spokesman and ultimately shadow Defence Secretary for the Labour Party. At that time, we went about the country arguing much the kind of case that she gave this evening. I went to fight the 1987 election and returned battered and bruised, having gone to seats where I thought we might have a chance of pulling it back and others where we were hopeful that we would hold on—but in every instance we were beaten out of the park. It is always rather disagreeable to find that what you have been advocating and what you believe in can promote such feelings of hostility—at one end indifference and at the other hostility. We thought that we had a balanced case and it became quite clear that the case for unilateralism was not then and is not now acceptable to the British people.

My noble friends Lord Kinnock and Lord Clarke of Hampstead, Gerald Kaufman, myself and some others started a process of consultation and policy review. We went to all the capitals. Perhaps the most interesting of all was when we went to Moscow, which was then still part of the Soviet Union. In discussions with Soviet analysts and defence specialists, including some distinguished members of what was emerging as the Gorbachev Government, when we spoke about the question of Britain giving up the bomb, we asked whether they would follow our lead. They looked at us with a rather wry expression and said, “We would be delighted if you gave up your nuclear weapons. If you were to do that, one of the uncertainties in the western threat would be removed. As long as you have nuclear weapons, we do not know what you are going to do with them. You can say what you like about no first use, with all the moral hand-wringing about the so-called moral dimension to the ownership of weapons, but as long as you have got them, we do not know what you are going to do with them”.

The point is this: we are not just Britain, we are the UK, which is a member of the UN permanent five. We are the fifth-largest economy in the world. If we cannot afford to meet our international responsibilities—which must include providing nuclear guarantees to countries which for a number of reasons do not have the weapons—that is wrong. In the case of Europe, along with France, we will in effect be the nuclear guarantors. We know that the United States is increasingly preoccupied with South America, the Pacific, China and other states on that side of the world, so our responsibility will be that much greater. Therefore, regardless of what happens on 23 June, that responsibility will remain.

Because we were in many respects powerless, perhaps thankfully we could not really get involved in Crimea. But if the threatening noises were to grow louder in the Baltic republics and were the north of Norway to be subject to increased harassment, the like of which has been happening in these last months, something would have to be done within Europe. If it were left to France on her own, that might not be the kind of force we require. It is not a question of us using the weapons; it is just a question of us making sure that we have them and that we are capable of using them.

Other arguments have been advanced, including technical arguments. The dust gets blown off them every time the renewal debate starts. On the moral use argument, I have to say that, at the end of the day, if we give up our nuclear weapons and there is no response, what was the point of doing it in the first place? The point surely is that we must use the strength of our nuclear arsenal to participate in the discussions and reduction talks which successive British Governments have been instrumental in establishing. This must be part and parcel of what we are talking about in the renewal and replacement of our deterrent. It was not in the gracious Speech, but I do not think that that is necessarily a major problem. It must be that we will have nuclear weapons and we will use them as a negotiating tool in subsequent discussions. This is something to which the present preoccupation with our continuing membership of the EU is completely irrelevant. This will still be an issue when 23 June is past and we will still have to address it.

We need to ensure that we are in a credible position to participate as a member of the permanent five, as one of the richest nations in the world and as one of the predominant powers on the European continent. Regardless of my party’s policy review, if it does not come to the conclusion that I came to nearly 30 years ago by the time of the next general election, I think, sadly, that we will be faced with much the same reality that I had to confront in 1987.