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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 3:21 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, I must begin with the convention of saying what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, albeit some 20 hours after he sat down. Like him and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, I propose to address the main part of my remarks to issues of foreign affairs and defence.

In the course of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, said that he often felt that his thunder had been stolen by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. The truth is that by the time Kerr and Ricketts—the old firm of the Foreign Office—have finished, there is not much thunder left for the rest of us. In the course of yesterday’s debate, we had two quite remarkable speeches from the two noble Lords. They concentrated and drew on their extensive and much-valued experience from the Foreign Office and provided a quite remarkable tour de raison.

My views on Brexit are well known. I do not believe that there is any deal or subsequent political agreement which will offer the United Kingdom better advantages than those we enjoy today as a member of the European Union. We have the opt-out from Schengen and the single currency, plus the rebate; no other member enjoys those privileges. I have to say that the difficulties of the last three years corroborate my view that the best interests of this country are to be served by remaining a member of the European Union.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who I do not believe is in his place, who laid down something of a challenge to those of us who support remain. I will make the point this way, if I may: it is a privilege to be sent here, but with that privilege comes an obligation to exercise our best judgment. I venture to say that my best judgment is that remaining is the best solution to the constitutional, economic and political crisis in which we now find ourselves. I cannot for the life of me understand the logic of a position which says that we must observe the referendum result, irrespective of the consequences, in all circumstances. That is hardly sensible, nor indeed logical.

With that by way of a preliminary, may I say that I fear my contribution today may be more episodic than thematic? In the gracious Speech, we learned that the Government wish to continue playing a leading role in global affairs. The future of NATO is a global affair, and it is to that that I wish to address the main part of my speech.

Over the weekend, at the plenary meeting of the NATO parliamentary assembly, serious differences emerged among the delegates from Turkey and those from other members of the NATO assembly. These differences reflect the equally serious differences within the members of the alliance itself. Who could possibly think, and justify the notion, that the action authorised by Mr Erdoğan is an anti-terrorist operation? Who could possibly think that with air strikes and heavy armour, there will not be civilian casualties and—as we have seen to the extent of perhaps as many as 150,000 people— the mass displacement of thousands of civilians? This operation is an intransigent and opportunistic operation, made possible only by the ineptitude of President Trump; no doubt with an eye to re-election and having learned nothing from the adverse consequences which have flowed from his unilateral renunciation of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Neither the newly imposed sanctions by President Trump nor the dispatch of the Vice-President and the Secretary of State to Turkey can now rescue the position.

The truth is that, within NATO, Trump and Turkey have form. The United States’ failure to sell Turkey the Patriot missile defence system prompted Turkey to respond by buying from Russia the S-400 missile system, in the teeth of almost unanimous opposition from the other members of the alliance. Trump’s response to that has been to kick Turkey out of the F-35 aircraft programme. Who benefits from this? It is, of course, Mr Putin. I have said many times in this House that Mr Putin’s primary objective when it comes to NATO is to undermine it and to seek to cause circumstances in which there is established a European security architecture, in which he would expect Russia to play the most prominent part, all the while using energy as an inducement to members of the alliance or a threat. Now we see Mr Putin received with acclaim in the capitals of Middle East countries, where American influence is not even second best and where, it has to be said, the influence of the United Kingdom is at a very low ebb. It seems a long time since the expertise in Arab affairs of the Foreign Office was rather humorously described as the camel corps—the camel corps has been in substantial retreat for some time.

Mr Obama left a vacuum when he set down red lines and then chose not to take action when those lines were breached. In that, he was assisted by the indecision of the House of Commons which, when recalled in 2013, failed in the end to pass either the Government’s Motion or the Opposition’s amendment. One could almost say that, like nature, Russia abhors a vacuum.

In Europe, Trump’s capriciousness has caused European members of NATO to consider alternative structures for defence. That is understandable but it should be unwelcome. Assurances are made that this will not be at the expense of support for NATO but complementary. I fear I have doubts that that will be the case. The problem is this: the United Kingdom outside the European Union will have little or no influence over any such alternative structures. Within the European Union, the United Kingdom would have both influence and a veto. The truth of the matter is this: Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal, NATO now needs our Government’s attention.

There was a powerful section in the remarkable speech by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, when he detailed the foreign policy inadequacies of the Government’s present engagement on a variety of issues. From that list, I pluck NATO, and the overwhelming need to ensure its integrity.