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5.22 pm

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): I thank the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and heir presumptive to the baronetcy, for his contribution. It is my pleasurable duty, in view of his announcement, to extend the congratulations of the Opposition and, I am sure, of the whole House to Sir Charles Guthrie on the announcement today of his appointment as the next Chief of the Defence Staff from April next year. That news will be warmly welcomed because Sir Charles Guthrie has served his country well through the Welsh Guards, the British Army on the Rhine, Aden, Special Forces and 22 SAS. I am sure his best years of service are ahead of him, to the benefit of the British armed forces and of this country. I notice from his "Who's Who" entry that he is also a member of the Beefsteak club--I did not know that before today--which presumably means that his appointment had the full support of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. We look forward to that appointment next year. April and May will be an interesting two months--new Labour, new Government, new Chief of the Defence Staff.

On a sadder note, I also wish, on behalf of the Opposition, to express my personal regrets and condolences to the family of Warrant Officer James Bradwell, who died in Northern Ireland. He was the first service man to die there for two years and the first since the ceasefire ended, but we should not forget that he was the 653rd British service man to die for the cause of his country and of peace in that unhappy Province. When we pay our condolences at his death, we give testimony also, symbolically, to the other men and women in our armed services who have served their country and sacrificed themselves on land, on the seas and in the air.

On land in Bosnia, British troops are foremost among the United Nations troops; they have managed to preserve at least a semblance of civilisation, not to mention hundreds of thousands of lives in that war-torn country. On the sea, the Royal Navy serves not only in the Adriatic off Bosnia but in the Gulf, with the Armilla patrol and in its activities against drugs, in which it stands silent sentinel to the values of civilisation.

In our preoccupation with Bosnia, we should not forget what a powder keg the Gulf is. Saddam Hussein--as the Secretary of State for Defence mentioned, correctly, yesterday--will use every opportunity to tease and to

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probe the defences and the will of the United Nations and the west. The fact that there are some 30,000 United States troops, some 200-plus combat aircraft, 25 surface ships and two aircraft carriers in the Gulf is numerical testimony to the dangers that lurk there.

We also pay tribute to the constant patrolling by the Royal Air Force in the United Nations designated areas over Iraq and in Bosnia. We have, of course, supported the Government in almost every operational decision that they have taken over the past decade, not because it was expedient to do so but because it has been right. We supported the United Nations protection force, UNPROFOR, when it went into Bosnia, despite the fact that we--together with Back Benchers on both sides of the House and some Ministers--occasionally despaired about the lack of clarity in the objectives and guidelines.

Thankfully, that lack was remedied to some extent with the implementation force and we have made plain our support for the follow-on force, in principle, should it happen. Of course, we wish to see all our major allies involved on the ground and in other areas, but we will give support to British participation under United Nations auspices and as part of NATO.

I wish to add one note of caution. The tasks that have been completed so far in Bosnia, complicated though they were, have been relatively easy, in terms of definition and implementation, for a military force. The tasks have involved separation of forces, patrolling borders in Bosnia, and so on. When the winter snows melt in Bosnia and we reach the next stage for the follow-on force, it will be more difficult to clarify the roles of that military force, because it will have to cope with the return of refugees and, perhaps, social unrest. We must be clear to avoid the mistakes that were made a few years ago, and we must not allow the military to be sucked into what are essentially civilian policing operations. Nevertheless, with that qualification, we pay testimony to our troops.

In these two days of debate, we must be clear that, whatever criticisms are levelled, it is not our service men and women who are on trial but their political masters. Here they are, arrayed in front of us and all together for once in a defence debate--the top brass of the political world in Britain.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who I hope can manage to avoid hot flushes today when criticisms are levied, is fresh from his television spectacular. I hope that everyone saw those 58 minutes on television. The programme, "The Top Brass", was an amazing success--an amazing risk.

I enjoyed the 56 minutes of the programme that were devoted to the life and times of Sir Nicholas Soames. I am glad that the Secretary of State was allowed a walk-on part--or was it simply his picture in the background on the walls of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces?

Having been somewhat eclipsed on the television arena, the Secretary of State had to find himself another stage. Last week, there was one by the seaside. We all saw that week-long, bizarre spectacle.

Mr. Gallie: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Reid: Yes, I shall certainly give way to the working-class hero on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Gallie: It is all very well to joke about the activities of Conservative Members, but the

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hon. Gentleman made a serious point a few minutes ago. He suggested that if widespread catastrophe occurred in Bosnia--with perhaps people dying all over the place--the armed forces would step back. That would be against the wishes of my constituents who have written to me in great numbers on that issue and on Rwanda. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he said?

Dr. Reid: Yes. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was saying exactly the opposite. Where military tasks are involved, it is appropriate that the British armed forces should be present, and it would have the support of the whole House. But if increasingly the task is to solve disputes between neighbours about who is entitled to go to what house as the refugees return, which is clearly a civilian policing task, we must make it clear that the objectives, rules of engagement, aims and use of the armed forces are limited to tasks that are compatible with their experience and within the practical possibilities of military implementation.

The armed forces must not become a secondary substitute for civilian police forces, especially as we shall have at least four indigenous police forces in the three areas, plus the central police force. My comment was not meant as a criticism of our armed forces. It is a worry that Ministers will have and will be keen to avoid.

May I return to what I was saying about the Secretary of State? At last week's conference, he intelligently discussed almost everything except defence. That was in keeping with the bizarre nature of the conference. I do not know what the message was. Naturally, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the highlight of the conference for the first two days. We were constantly told that he did not have an enemy in the world. He has no compulsion to find enemies as he seems to be hated by all his friends, so he does not need one.

The Prime Minister again tried to send out a message of leadership on defence, as on everything else. If I were a prime ministerial adviser, I would despair. Nice man though he may be, he seems to find it impossible to summon from within himself the directional leadership that this country desperately needs. I often think that, had the Prime Minister been leading the Israelites out of the desert, he would have returned down Mount Sinai with the ten suggestions rather than the ten commandments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are supposed to be debating the defence estimates.

Dr. Reid: We are indeed, and the essence of any defence force is command, control and leadership. I was pointing out that, from the top, that has been lacking for the country as well as for the armed forces.

The man in charge of defence, the Secretary of State, has come hotfoot from his production on the Bournemouth stage of the adaptation of Cromwell's "Put your trust in John, but keep your powder dry". Last year on the stage, he called in aid the SAS and the special forces; this year we had the adoption of Fabian tactics, which was to keep the powder dry until after the next election.

We are not sitting in judgment on our armed forces; we are not even sitting in judgment on what the Tory party did on defence at Bournemouth. We are sitting in judgment on the two Tory parties represented in front of

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us. To use military acronyms, we have the OTT and the NTS--the old Tory toffs and the new Tory spivs. A deal has been concocted between them on defence, as on other issues, to try to cover up that division.

Over the past two days, we have talked of trying to build a consensus on defence. No one should think that a consensus on defence means that we do not criticise each other or that we agree on everything. It means that we agree on a framework to lift national security above party interests and the interests of factions inside parties, which is precisely why I made the point about the division within the Conservative party. I shall outline the areas on which we agree before discussing the areas on which we have massive differences.

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