Nuclear Weapons (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 5:58 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, the report we are debating today is complex and often a bit on the technical side. All the more credit, therefore, goes to the committee’s chair, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for guiding us towards a range of clear recommendations and for having introduced the report today in such persuasive terms. Credit also goes to our clerks and to Heather Williams, our specialist adviser, for their invaluable assistance.

Complex this report is, perhaps, but I suggest that three clear political conclusions do stand out. First, that state of grace—that golden era from roughly the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s until roughly 2015, when the threat and risk of a nuclear war virtually disappeared and the nuclear arsenals of the possessor states were sharply reduced—has come to an end. The concomitant, that we need now to give a much higher priority to nuclear diplomacy, strategic stability and arms control than we have done for the last 30 years, is surely perfectly obvious. It is, however, far from clear that the Governments of the two main possessor states, the US and Russia—or indeed our own Government—have reached that conclusion, and, more importantly still, that they are prepared to act upon it.

If I may be allowed a brief digression, it is not even clear that the basic facts on nuclear diplomacy are appreciated at the higher levels of our own Government. Yesterday in Brussels, the Foreign Secretary told the press:

“We are totally committed to keeping the Middle East denuclearised”.

However, even if Israel does not admit to its undoubted possession of nuclear weapons, the hard fact is that the Middle East has not been “denuclearised” for many decades. Finding some way of moving towards a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction is going to be a key issue at next year’s NPT review conference, at which the UK, as one of the three NPT depositary states, needs to use as imaginative and constructive an approach as possible. I wonder whether either of the two aspirants to be Prime Minister know any better than the right honourable Jeremy Hunt revealed yesterday: I rather doubt it.

The second conclusion is that it is arguably clear that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, for all its imperfections and incompleteness, has made a massive contribution to international peace and security, by limiting the spread of these weapons, with the number of possessor states still in single figures, and with the avoidance of regional nuclear arms races in several unstable regions which would inevitably have followed proliferation. But that NPT regime is under great stress from the breakout of North Korea and from the US decision to renege, unilaterally, from the JCPOA agreement with Iran.

A third very clear and very political conclusion we reached was that discussing strategic stability and arms control with Russia could not properly be described as “business as usual”, since it continued throughout the Cold War and still now needs to be a part of NATO’s and a part of our bilateral diplomacy. It is welcome that the Government share that view. Perhaps the Minister could tell the House whether those issues of strategic stability and arms control were raised during the Prime Minister’s recent bilateral meeting with President Putin in Osaka.

To other conclusions of our report the Government’s response seems less satisfactory. The insistence—several times repeated, I may say—that the UK has gone as far as it could on nuclear disarmament is rather odd, because the report at no point suggested that we should do so. Defensive reactions like that will not be a very useful guide to policy in the newly risky period we are living through. If we really are a responsible possessor state, as the Government proclaim us to be, and I recognise that that is a reasonable aspiration, then we will have to have some imaginative diplomacy. Both parts of the Government’s response—simply dismissing out of hand any consideration of no first use or of clearer negative security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states—seem to me to be distinctly unimaginative. The Government’s attachment to what they call “constructive ambiguity” over the circumstances in which we might use nuclear weapons is deeply unconvincing, in my view.

It was good to hear that the Government have heeded our advice about treating the supporters of the ban treaty, in the margins of the recent NPT2 preparatory committee meeting, less aggressively and less dismissively than they have done. It is one thing to regard the ban treaty as something of a blind alley, unlikely to lead anywhere—which was, in fact, broadly the view of your Lordships’ committee—and quite another to ignore the legitimate frustrations of the non-nuclear weapon states at the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament. If an incremental approach to further arms control measures, which is the one your Lordships’ committee recommends and which the Government say they are following, is to win out over the great leap forward suggested in the ban treaty, then there have to be some increments that people can actually see. At the moment, those increments are invisible.

It would be foolish to assert that the auguries for next year’s review conference are particularly promising. They are not, and there are going to be limits to what one country, such as the UK, can do to improve those prospects, but the case for attendance by the Foreign Secretary at that conference seems compelling. I would like to hear what the Minister thinks. It seems to me that there is a case for using our current chairmanship of the P5 to good effect. I would like to hear a response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, who said, ”Okay, it needs the P5 to agree to invite India and Pakistan for dialogue, but are we going to try?” We should surely do everything we can to ensure that the review conference reaches some useful agreed conclusions, however difficult that may prove. Another failure to agree any conclusions at all, which would follow the failure at the last review conference in 2015, would send precisely the wrong signals around the world at a time when the risks from nuclear weapons are increasing and have become a serious warning to us all.