NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 5:32 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Touhig, who made a particularly powerful speech today, I reflect it was Attlee and Bevin who, on behalf of Britain, played a crucial part in the creation of NATO. I am glad that, in Britain, there has been for a long time a broadly bipartisan approach to defence. While it was Attlee and Bevin who played a critical part, it was Churchill, in his characteristic way, who woke people up to the Iron Curtain descending across Europe.

I grew up in a politically and internationally active family. I was surrounded all the time by talk about current affairs. My parents were among those who, in the 1930s, had become deeply concerned about the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and were passionately committed to the concept of collective defence. In 1947, after the Second World War, they went to a conference in Prague about the UN. I was 12 at the time, but I remember their return and how deeply concerned and worried they were about what was threatening the future of Europe. My father had known Jan Masaryk a little. When Masaryk fell from that building, it did not really matter to them whether he committed suicide or whether he was pushed. What mattered was the significance, in personal terms and in political terms, of what had happened. There was a funereal and deeply disturbed atmosphere at home.

We must look forward and we must be prepared. That is where I want to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack; somebody with whom I normally find myself in agreement. Of course we should have deep friendship for the Russian people, and we must never forget what they suffered in the Second World War. However, I urge the noble Lord to balance his remarks, at least a little. We cannot overlook the realities of the newly emergent Russia under Putin.

Consider Ukraine and Crimea. For several years, I was a rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya. I was one of the first politicians from outside the region to visit Grozny after that terrible bombardment at the end of the 1990s. I shall never forget that experience. It was as though the town had been nuked: the whole prospect was of shells of buildings, with just a few people crawling around in the rubble trying to make a future of it. The ruthlessness of the Russians in Chechnya was sickening. It was also politically daft, because it was totally counterproductive. There were different people in Chechnya; there were indeed ideological extremists, but there were very large numbers of people who just wanted their dignity and independence. The way the Russians handled themselves under Putin’s leadership drove people towards the extremists. I always regretted that the Labour Government of the time, and others since, never took seriously enough what the Russians were doing to that part of the world, and the consequences for world security as the radicalised people moved out as fighters across the world.

We also have to think of the assassination of journalists and the repression of opposition. We have to think of the town of Salisbury, here in our midst, and of London. This was not just a ruthless, cruel attempted assassination, but a trail of radioactive substances across our country and capital, putting our own people at risk. We are not dealing with a comfortable third nation when dealing with Russia under Putin. We have to be resolute and strong in facing up to that and to the dangers inherent in the situation. As I grew up in an internationally involved family, I inevitably brought that perspective to all I found myself doing. We must remember Hungary in the 1950s, and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

When we still had Service Ministers, I was privileged to be Minister for the Navy. I once had an interesting conversation with the head of naval intelligence; I liked him, and he came regularly to brief me. One day, he came in with a copy of Pravda, and said, “Minister, I thought you would like to see this”. Its centre pages were devoted to “Cold War Warrior Judd”. What had incensed the chief of the Russian Navy was that I was talking about the rate at which the Russians were launching submarines. I hope my noble friend Lord Cormack will remember that, in the new Russia, under its present leadership, we have people who were very much involved in that age.

To go back to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, we made one big strategic mistake in foreign policy. At the time when Soviet communism was collapsing and Gorbachev was trying to grapple with the situation, we should have thought then about a European security pact. Things might have been very different if we had moved in to support the reasonable people in Russia at that time in how they were going to move from being a totalitarian state to a live, democratic society with human rights. It was not going to happen automatically; it needed a tremendous amount of imagination and thought.

A debate of this kind can turn into a nostalgic experience. What matters is this great organisation NATO, which, when I was in the services and certainly later in life when I was a Defence Minister, was absolutely taken for granted. We were part of it and everything we were doing was in that context. We can turn this into a debate about the past, but what matters, as several noble Lords have said, is the future, and the challenges that lie ahead: how will NATO be relevant and play the part that it should?

One of those challenges is of course global terrorism. That reality plays into our own society and the insecurity within Britain itself. How we handle that without actually destroying a society that is worth protecting is a tremendous challenge to political leadership and vision: how do we get the balance right? Another challenge is Russia—I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned it—and China. These are the challenges, and NATO will prove itself by how it responds. I must say, to have a former Secretary-General of NATO—of whom I have always been an admirer—in our midst and participating in this debate is really rather telling.

I want to finish on this: I do not find myself convinced by the percentage argument. I remember that, when I was a Foreign Office Minister, the then Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, had been participating in a big Cabinet debate about percentages. We had not been fulfilling the percentage that had been targeted, and he and others in Cabinet had won a commitment that we were going to meet those targets. He came to me and said, “Frank, we won”. Then he looked at me and said, “Frank, you do not look terribly excited, but you are rather sound on defence. Why?” I said, “Because I can think immediately of all the people who will relax and say, ‘Ah, the pressure is off’”. I thought of the extravagances that would continue—and there were extravagances in the services—and the absence of the pressure to make sure we were prioritising what we needed to do and getting on with it. We have to spend a sufficient amount, or else we waste all the resources we spend by having an inefficient, ineffective defence structure. The first issue is to establish the challenge, what the task is, and to fire people with why we must commit to it—this is particularly vital in a democracy. Then we have to spend what is necessary to meet that challenge.