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8.50 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): It is pleasure to speak in the debate that was initiated by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown), who made an excellent speech. Despite the differences between our political parties--sometimes reinforced by the tactics of the Liberal Democrats--[Interruption.] I am going to be generous, so hon. Members should let me finish. Despite those differences, I was reminded of how much common ground there is between us. On the right hon. Gentleman's historical legacy as leader of the third political party, one of his major contributions has been to reposition the Liberal Democrats between the Labour party and the Conservative party. In the longer run, that can only be good for politics. It does not mean that we need pacts or have to merge, merely that where we have a common interest, we should say so.

I agreed with what the right hon. Gentleman said about globalisation needing global solutions. That does not mean rejecting the nation state, but we have to recognise its limitations. We must take account of the fact that a decision taken in a moment in Detroit or Tokyo can cost tens of thousands of jobs in this country. The idea that we can face up to that global challenge within the confines of the nation state is not a sustainable argument.

I also agreed with the right hon. Gentleman about national identity. We all have different identities, and as the regions and localities of the world develop, those identities change. On Europe, an opinion poll finding that often strikes me is that those people who believe that Britain was a once great nation now in decline, have a completely negative attitude towards Britain's position in the European Union; yet those who believe that Britain was a once great nation now on its way back, have a wholly positive attitude. We need to have confidence in our national identity. That is especially true of the English. I do not detect among the Scots, Welsh and the Irish the same uncertainty and reticence, and that affects their attitudes towards Europe. The right hon. Gentleman has made an extremely positive contribution.

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I want to focus on the recent decision by the President of the United States to repudiate the Kyoto protocol, which is of enormous concern. I was struck by the comments of the UK's chief scientific adviser during the Kyoto talks, who said:

and let us remember that the Kyoto protocol does not sign us up to anything like a 60 per cent. reduction--

That is the challenge that we face and it explains why I am so worried about the decision taken by the US President and his Administration.

Members of all political parties can learn significant lessons from the events of the past few weeks. I fear that the first lesson is what those events tell us about the early stance of the new Bush Administration. Their actions during their first 14 weeks in office are cause for concern. Despite significant public opposition, especially within the United States, they are pushing ahead with the proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic national wildlife refuge. There is also a proposal to renege on the supposedly binding agreement that was signed at Kyoto. In addition, there are concerns about decisions beyond the environmental agenda. Given that that is the case after 14 weeks, one might ask whatever happened to "compassionate conservatism", which was the slogan used by the Republican candidate in the run-up to the presidential election. We in this country can learn from that. Many people in the United States are reflecting on what has happened and learning from the intervention of the fundamentalist Greens and Ralph Nader in the presidential election which led directly to the results that we have seen on Kyoto and much else.

There are those who argued that there was no difference between the candidates for the election in America, and in that respect the past 14 weeks have at least taught us an object lesson. The American people have made their choice and I do not criticise it, but there is a lesson for those in this country who claim that there is no difference between this Government and a Conservative Government. Whether those people are in the Socialist Alliance, fundamentalist Green campaigns or the Liberal Democrats, they should reflect on that.

It is enormously instructive to observe what the situation in the United States tells us about the modern-day Conservative party and its stance on national self-interest. Whenever we debate Europe and there is any suggestion of the pooling of sovereignty to achieve a greater end for the nation, the Conservative party accuses us of selling out our national interest. However, when the United States acts in a way that contradicts or attacks our national interest, the Conservatives are at best silent and on most occasions seem almost to acquiesce in the subjugation of our national interest to that of the United States. We hardly hear a squeak from them. We heard from the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), who said that he regretted the decision by the United States. He then launched into a ritualistic and wholly unjustified attack on the Deputy Prime Minister. If the Conservative party is serious about these issues, it needs to make a better response.

Mr. Spring: The hon. Gentleman made an assertion about the Conservative party's attitude to the United

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States, saying that we appear to be essentially hostile to anything to do with the European Union but that we offer no criticism of the United States. Can he give a recent example of that? I am sure that the whole House will be pleased to hear from him.

Mr. Rammell: The whole debate on national missile defence is an example. There is a series of unanswered questions about that proposal and there are genuine concerns that the initiative on its own could lead to an escalation of the arms race. The sensible response is the one that has been made by the Government, who have said that we should wait and see what proposals the United States Administration make and then make a judgment. That is not the response of the Leader of the Opposition or of the Conservative party, which has said that whatever the details are, we should sign up to the initiative. That does not serve the British national interest. The Conservative party's stance on the United States contrasts greatly with its attitude to Europe.

Mr. Spring: I must correct the hon. Gentleman on this point. National missile defence may or may not go ahead and be successful, but the Americans propose to proceed with it. All that we have said, quite responsibly, is that we want to participate in discussions during the evolution of the policy and that we should not be expected to pay for it. That is sensibly in the interests of the British people and indeed all of Europe.

Mr. Rammell: When the matter first became public debate I heard the Leader of the Opposition say that the Government should sign up now and support the proposal. That starkly underlines the way in which the Conservative party undermines the British national interest with its simplistic attitude to a matter that requires sensitive, detailed debate.

There is obvious disagreement about Kyoto and the stance adopted by the American Administration which is felt throughout the advanced world and certainly in Europe and on these Benches, but George Bush is the elected President of the United States, which will continue to be a good friend and ally of this country. We have many common interests and we need to work with the Americans to achieve change on these issues. There are positive grounds for optimism. Recent polling evidence in the United States after the Bush Administration's decision shows that 77 per cent. of people want stronger environmental action. Some centrist Republicans are even beginning to realise that the stance taken will not serve their interests as they approach the forthcoming congressional elections.

We must use our position in the special relationship to be a candid friend to the United States and the American President. We must convince the Administration that their stance on the issue is wrong; I believe that there are grounds for optimism. To echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Yeovil, I am convinced more than ever that, in tackling that kind of issue, the country's needs and interests are served by our being at the heart of the European Union, not apart from it, as the Conservative party wish.

The idea that the only remaining global superpower will respond to one national Government, whoever they are, simply does not bear scrutiny. There is a much better chance that it will be forced to respond to the combined

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might and pressure of European Union Governments working together. That is the lesson to be learned; whether on this issue or on the World Trade Organisation talks, unless we are at the table with the Europeans, in the longer run we will not even be in the room for international debate and negotiation. We should draw that lesson from the debate.

I know that two other Members wish to take part in our debate, so I turn finally to the United Nations, which has been the major initiative of the past century to achieve multilateral and collectivist solutions. However, anyone who looks at the current structure of the UN knows that it is in significant need of reform. In many senses, it is the main forum for tackling human rights abuses throughout the world yet, too often, it does not fulfil that task.

The conflict in Kosovo taught us more clearly than anything that, when we are taking justifiable action in defence of human rights, the UN does not always provide the best help and support because of its decision-making structure and the right of veto held by permanent members of the Security Council. If we are to proceed with the work of the UN and if it is to provide solutions, it must be subject to fundamental reform and rationalisation and the right of veto held by permanent members of the Security Council should be curtailed; otherwise, the UN will simply be reduced to the lowest common denominator because necessary action in support of human rights will always offend one or other member of the Security Council.

This has been a positive and interesting debate, which underlines the extent to which we need both international and multilateral solutions.

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