NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:54 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:54 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, I am sure we all say amen to that. How refreshing it is to be debating an international subject and an international organisation in unity and in thankfulness at a time when our country is not, perhaps, distinguishing itself in the eyes of the world for its wonderful diplomacy, fine leadership and national unity.

I was brought up to regard the late Lord Attlee, grandfather of my noble friend sitting here today, and Ernest Bevin as two of the greatest Englishmen, and indeed they were. Without them, we might not have had NATO. Without them, the history of our nation and of the world might have been very different. They recognised danger and— even more important—how essential it was for allies to work together to ensure the safety of their people, individually and collectively, and to ensure that the world, which had within the previous half-century been plunged into the two most devastating wars in history, should not see that again. So of course we have very much to be thankful for. Touching on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, a moment or two ago, one of the things we have most to be thankful for is that the importance of NATO has always commanded the support of British Governments of both major political parties—and, indeed, of the coalition Government of a few years ago.

I agree with those who say that we should recognise in 2019 not only that old dangers have passed but that new ones have arisen. I recognise that there is a great deal of truth in what many colleagues in all parts of the House have said about Russia and about Mr Putin, but I regret infinitely that we have not handled Russia with a little more understanding and care over the last two decades. I regret very much indeed that there is not greater dialogue with and contact with Russia at the moment. In his splendid speech the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, referred to this when he urged more frequent meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. He was right to do so.

The first post of any sort I held in Parliament, way back in 1970 when I came in as a very young man, was as the first chairman of the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. We have to remember that in those days it was impossible to practise religious belief with impunity within the boundaries of the Soviet Union and that the only people who had a door marked “exit” were the Jews: they could get an exit visa and could get out of the Soviet Union. I was urged by a friend, a contemporary and colleague in the other place, Greville Janner, to form with him the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry and we did precisely that. We were declared persona non grata in the Soviet Union. None of our members was allowed to go. We were even forbidden entry to the embassy and merely harangued on the doorstep.

When Mr Gorbachev came to power I was a member of a small international group, based in the Netherlands, that worked to try to bring together parliamentarians within the then Soviet Union and in the West. I was privileged to be present at a number of meetings in Moscow; to hand over a symbolic Bible—a million were being accepted—to Mr Gorbachev’s chef de cabinet; and to take part in Epiphany 1990, I think it was, in a hotel that had always been reserved for leaders of the Soviet bloc, in a Roman Catholic service led by Father Ted Hesburgh, who was Kennedy’s human rights chairman for a time, with Madame Giscard d’Estaing and Rosalynn Carter, wife of the former President of the United States, present. We all took part in this service, and as we looked out of the window we could see the Kremlin. This was an enormous change from the Russia that had forbidden me and fellow colleagues from the other place to enter in the early 1970s. I rejoiced in that; I am sure we all did. I rejoiced as the Berlin Wall was torn down. As someone said earlier, without NATO that probably would not have happened. I rejoiced when Mr Yeltsin leapt on the tank and denounced those mounting a coup against Gorbachev—mercifully, not a successful one.

When Putin came to power, I was one of those at the banquet in the Guildhall on his state visit and one of those who felt glad we were able to welcome him. Things have gone badly awry since then, and it is not all Putin’s fault. We have to remember that he is very popular in Russia and has given back the Russians their self-respect. We have to remember that Russia lives always with the memories of invasion—not just 1812 but 1941. We have to remember that it viewed with real alarm the prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO or the European Union. I understand that; we all do. We also have to understand that we and the Russians have common foes in Islamic terrorism and other subversive forces.

Above all, we have to remember that the second half of this century will be dominated by the mighty power of China, which at the moment is getting closer to Russia. That ought to raise certain fears in our minds. We have to remember that China has already spread its tentacles throughout Africa, and even at the moment there is a wooing going on in Europe, with Italy and Portugal signing up great contracts. I am not suggesting that we should not be on good terms with China, of course, but to be totally suspicious of Russia and not to be suspicious of China is a bit blinkered and one-sided. It is important that we try to get closer cultural and personal relations with Russia. Whatever criticisms of Putin we might have, the Russian people are a great people and we can be very close to them. The world will be a safer place if we are on reasonable terms with Russia, and if we are on good terms with China that is good as well—but China has enormous ambitions. The Secretary of State for Defence, my successor as the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire, was talking of sending aircraft carriers. I am not sure that is quite the best way of doing things, but I am sure we have to be vigilant and to recognise that a great country with the most ancient surviving civilisation in the world now has world designs—all the more reason for vigilance and for cohesion with our allies.

This 70th anniversary is a notable birthday for what is—as colleagues have said, and I think they are probably right—the most successful alliance in history. Seventy years—one man’s lifespan in biblical terms. Yes, it is right to celebrate it, right to build upon it, but also right to recognise that we should commemorate not a fossil but something that serves a continuing need and purpose. That was made very plain in the speeches by the noble Lords, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Lord West of Spithead, and others. Let us also realise that simplistic notions of the goodies and the baddies are not always the right notions. I hope that over the next decade we can forge a better relationship with Russia, recognising that Mr Putin, who will not be there for ever, has some characteristics which give understandable cause for alarm, and that this emerging giant in the world should give us cause for sober concern.