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9.26 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I know that time is pressing, so I shall be as brief as I possibly can.

First, I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) for his excellent introductory speech and particularly for his comments on the complexity of identity in the modern world. I found his somewhat apocalyptic vision of the years ahead disconcerting, although I share some aspects of it.

It was also encouraging, during the early part of the debate, to see the Liberal Democrat section of the Opposition Benches full while the Conservative part was virtually empty. For those of us who have, from time to time, anticipated the possibility of a realignment of British politics whereby the Liberal Democrats would become the official Opposition, those moments were encouraging.

I want to associate myself completely with all the comments made by my hon. Friends, and to pick up particularly on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). In the course of the debate, there have been several references to the American position on the Kyoto protocol and the American attitude towards national missile defence. I do not think that the link between those two United States policy positions has been noted. It is not arbitrary that the

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Americans have become so intransigent over Kyoto, or that they have become so obsessed by national missile defence.

A scenario is emerging wherein the United States has decided that it is prepared, as the 21st century moves on, to do everything possible to maintain its current position as the world's only superpower. It sees the main threat to that coming from economic development in China, and I feel that the justification given for the national missile defence system--that it is somehow a system to protect the United States against casual, irrational attacks by a small number of rogue states--is absolutely ludicrous.

If any of those alleged rogue states wished to attack the United States, they could easily do so with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase, or by the importation of the foot and mouth disease virus. That would be far more effective than trying to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. The national missile defence system seems, therefore, to be a pretext for the Americans' developing vision of the future, in which, some time in the second decade of this century, they will be prepared to fight--and intend to win--a nuclear war with China to maintain their economic supremacy.

The importance of President Bush's recently announced opposition to the Kyoto protocol is that the Americans are prepared to continue the exploitation of fossil fuels, and are determined to maintain their control over the majority of the world's oil reserves to fuel their economy to maintain their supremacy.

I want yet again to flag up--as have other Members--the crucial importance of exercising our Government's influence to persuade the United States to see sense and finally agree to an international system for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions; of the need to develop renewable technologies; and that the continuing use of fossil fuels will not necessarily enable economic supremacy to be maintained. In fact, as the years go by, it is likely to be the countries with high-level skills and manufacturing capacity in renewable technologies that develop economic competence and supremacy.

I hope that our Government will do that, but I hope that at the same time they will use their influence, if not to oppose national missile defence directly, then to delay, prevaricate, cajole and even to try to persuade the United States to consider alternatives to the existing proposals.

I think that the general view in the House is that our Government should resist national missile defence and the Americans' position on the Kyoto protocol. However, we cannot adopt that stance alone. That returns me to the starting point and the main theme of the debate: in the modern world, multilateral action is the only basis for foreign policy.

9.31 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): This has been an extremely thoughtful debate, featuring well- argued contributions from all quarters.

It would be wrong of me not to begin by thanking those on the Front Benches--the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), and the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring)--for the generous tributes that they paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). They paid tribute not just to my right hon. Friend's sparkling contribution this evening, but

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to his contribution over a long period--but especially while he was leader of the Liberal Democrats--to a number of important foreign policy issues. I know that my right hon. Friend is very grateful for their generosity.

The Minister of State had to indulge in some pretty close textual analysis to find a justification for the Government's amendment, as opposed to the motion. As the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) pointed out, they are so close that, by kicking over the traces for once in his ministerial life--he did it often enough in his political life before becoming a Minister--the Minister might just be able to find himself in the same Lobby as us.

As I said, this has been a thoughtful occasion, and no one has been more thoughtful on these matters than my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil. This evening, we witnessed a remarkable demonstration of his insight and eloquence; but before moving on to some of the issues that were raised in the debate, let me remind the House that, in terms of foreign policy, my right hon. Friend has not only displayed insight and eloquence but, on occasion, shown rare courage.

That has not always been popular in the House. I remember, for instance, the time when my right hon. Friend rose to say that all Hong Kong residents should have passports that might entitle them to come and live in the United Kingdom. I can tell those who were not present that that was not exactly a popular thing to say. I also remember my right hon. Friend's insistence that our party should support Lady Thatcher--an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister in her own party and in the country--when it came to the issue of whether the Government should back the effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

I remember, too, my right hon. Friend's insistence--in the face of some pretty formidable arguments and quite a lot of heavy flak from the leader of the Labour party, the then right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East--that our party should support a Government who were deeply embattled over the Maastricht treaty, at a time when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was confronted with extraordinary disloyalty from certain Back Benchers, some of whom appear to have experienced a renaissance on the Front Bench of today's Conservative party.

I remember, too, my right hon. Friend arguing knowledgeably and passionately--and not always achieving great popularity in the House--for early intervention in the Balkans. He also exposed the illusion of safe havens in an exchange of correspondence with the then Prime Minister that was best described as incendiary.

We Liberal Democrats will miss my right hon. Friend, but the House will also be the poorer. Those who have been the particular losers this evening are those Conservatives who have found themselves--no doubt under the heavy pressure of engagements and other responsibilities--compelled to stay away. It may be that they are out looking for other recruits, such as Mr. James Mawdsley, to bring them into the bosom of the Conservative party. When the hon. Member for West Suffolk described the recruitment of Mr. Mawdsley, I was reminded that in the 18th century the Duchess of Gordon used to encourage recruits into her husband's regiment by the presentation of a shilling and the offer of a kiss.

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I wonder whether the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) fulfils that function in today's Conservative party.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk mentioned Europe, but I remind him that the Maastricht treaty talked not of a common defence policy but of a common foreign and security policy. It also envisaged something called a "common defence", which would be a united defence. That treaty was driven through the House on a three-line Whip by the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was, no doubt, a supporter.

The hon. Gentleman taxed us with a lack of confidence about Europe. As someone who has lived all his life in a country with a single currency but two separate legal systems, I have never had any discomfort in asserting my Scottishness. Nor would I have any anxiety about asserting my Britishness in a European Union with a single currency of which the UK was a member. It is hardly likely either that the German or French characters will be dissipated or irretrievably damaged so as to make them invisible through being members of the single European currency. If any party lacks confidence about Europe, it is today's Conservative party, which has travelled a long way since the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), with great courage, insisted that the UK should join what was then the Common Market.

The Minister was kind enough to refer to the fact that, last year, before the millennium summit, the Foreign Secretary and I sought to produce a joint position on the United Nations. I am sure that in recent weeks other hon. Members have experienced newspapers ringing them up and asking them to summarise in 40 words the achievement of which they are most proud. That is a somewhat precious question, and I have consistently failed to return the newspapers' calls. However, if I was forced under the thumbscrew to reply, I would admit to being most proud of that joint document that the Foreign Secretary and I produced. As the Minister generously pointed out, it formed a substantial part of the British Government's submission at the millennium summit and, in my humble and perhaps overly self-congratulatory opinion, made a sensible and reasoned contribution to the debate about the future of the United Nations.

We must have a United Nations that has a collective capacity to prevent gross and persistent abuses of human rights. The UN is an imperfect institution of course, but it is the only truly global institution. It has universal membership, and that gives it a unique legitimacy. Of course, the imperfections must be remedied. The structure of the Security Council must be reformed, as must the nature of the funding. It simply is not right that the richest country on earth should be most in arrears with its contributions. The UN must also enjoy the support of those countries with real military capability. Part of the problem in Sierra Leone was not the number but the quality of the forces offered to the United Nations. That is why a stalemate continues in that country, with the British training of the Sierra Leone army and the UN insufficiently capable of performing its responsibility in the proposed long-term effort to return the whole country to democratic rule.

It is also right, as the Minister said, that the rules of engagement for the United Nations must be drawn in terms that are sufficiently robust to ensure that we do not have to stand by and watch the horror of Srebrenica

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unfold again. In my judgment, that name will reverberate down the years, marking a place where the United Nations, for all its idealism and the high-flown rhetoric attached to it, failed.

For the people who suffered most there, even the mention of Srebrenica and the recollection of what it involved induce a shudder. Apart from those whose husbands, sons and brothers were the victims, their numbers include the Dutch peacekeepers who were forced to stand by. Their calls for air strikes to try and prevent the massacre that took place went unanswered. That was a bad day for the United Nations, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that such a day never occurs again.

Human rights must lie at the heart of foreign policy. Human rights and personal freedom should not be the prerogative of the well-off, the well-governed or the well-connected. The motion recognises the universality of human rights. I venture to suggest that that must be the keystone of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension--indeed, the United Nations declaration of human rights is described as a declaration of universal rights.

However, it is not enough simply to acknowledge the existence of those rights. We have a duty to implement them as well. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is not in his place at the moment, but he made a series of penetrating observations about the position of the Palestinians.

I yield to no one in my determination to ensure that the people of Israel have the right to live in peace in the country that they now occupy, but that right cannot be considered to be mutually inconsistent with the human rights of the Palestinian people. The House need only consider the weapons ranged on either side of the argument--Apache helicopter gunships and tanks on the one side, and Kalashnikovs and rockets on the other. There is no doubt where the balance of military advantage lies. If we are serious about human rights, we should be arguing the case for the right of the people of Israel to live where they do, and for the human right of the Palestinians not to be treated as they have been treated recently.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), spoke about the consequences of the unwillingness of the United States to accept the Kyoto protocol. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) put that unwillingness in the context of apparently unilateral action on the part of the United States.

I recognise that a number of the things that have been done in recent times by the United States have given more than an impression of a determination to press ahead unilaterally, but they do not all date from the installation of the new Bush Administration. The Clinton Administration declined to support the International Criminal Court until their very final days. That was only done to embarrass the incoming President, not for reasons of the proposal's substance or the particular merits that it might enjoy. It was the Clinton Administration who felt compelled to proceed with the tests for national missile defence, and who were part of the dispute about bananas and the access of British goods to United States markets that involved cashmere workers in the Scottish borders.

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The feeling that the United States is acting unilaterally does not arise solely from the deeds of the new Bush Administration. I share some of the anxieties in that regard that have been expressed in the debate, but we must understand that a degree of rhetoric has been involved, in the presidential campaign and in the Administration's first 100 days. In the past week or so, there have been some signs that, with the increasing influence of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the United States' policy may be less unilateral than we feared. For example, its intervention with regard to the invasion of Israeli troops, described by Colin Powell as disproportionate, resulted in Mr. Sharon immediately giving the order that the tanks should be withdrawn.

With regard to China, some of the exhortations and advice offered from Capitol Hill were enough to turn one's hair white. Mr. Bush resisted some of the more extreme recommendations from the Republican party.

The dispute about bananas has rumbled on for three, four or five years. The Minister, who had a great deal to do with the issue in a previous existence, understands its complexity. Yet that dispute has been settled.

In Taiwan, there was every suggestion that, as a reaction to the seizure of the American spy plane, the Bush Administration might, on a tit-for-tat basis, offer the Taiwanese Government the Aegis-equipped destroyers. No such offer has been made. These may be straws in the wind but they cause us to approach the issue of unilateral action on the part of the United States with a little more caution.

On national missile defence, close observers say that there has been a change in temperature in recent weeks. I do not know how it will turn out; my party has made its position clear. However, I suggest that there is every prospect that the American Government might be able to strike a deal with that great deal-maker Mr. Putin. It is not difficult to envisage the basis of some agreement to allow the amendment to the anti-ballistic missile treaty--the provision of more money, as was given under the Nunn-Lugar scheme, for dealing with the detritus of nuclear weapons, a reduction in strategic nuclear warheads, a share in technology and, finally--something that may be more difficult for some to accept--an undertaking that the United States would not press for any further expansion of NATO up to the borders of Russia. It is not impossible to envisage a bargain along those lines. That may do with regard to Russia but it leaves out the attitudes of China, which are clearly of great significance in determining whether the perceived advantage of national missile defence is justified by what would undoubtedly be some disadvantages.

The Foreign Secretary, who very courteously advised me that he would be unable to be present because he was speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet, may just be getting to his feet to talk about foreign policy. I earnestly hope that the words "ethical dimension" will pass his lips. When he made that declaration, approximately four years ago, it enjoyed the universal support and acclaim of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. Since then, it is fair to say, on an entirely objective basis, that there has been some rowing back. Words such as "constructive" or even "critical engagement" have been thrown about more often. It is not inconsistent to be constructively engaged with a country while ensuring that one's policies towards that country display an ethical dimension.

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We have been most disappointed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said most eloquently a moment ago, in relation to arms exports. There is no doubt that there was considerable embarrassment in some parts of the Government that the first act of the incoming Labour Government four years ago was not to cancel arms sales to Indonesia, then under a rather different Government. Such a cancellation would have been entirely legitimate; it could not have resulted in any legal consequences. Arms exports are part of foreign policy, which is part of the Executive prerogative. In my judgment--a legal as much as a political judgment--a decision to discontinue arms exports for foreign policy reasons cannot be attacked. There was great disappointment that the Government did not do that. We hope that the Government will learn from the disappointments that they have caused and the embarrassments that have been suffered in some Departments.

Finally, let me turn to the principle of collective action which lies behind the motion. Foreign affairs are regulated, as we know, by treaties and by conventions. However, they are also regulated by our membership of the European Union, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, NATO and the G8--whether by treaty provision, by the terms of a convention or by the obligations, expressed or implied, imposed on us by membership of those organisations. Foreign policy is conducted in accordance with those obligations. It is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil properly pointed out, an issue of pooled sovereignty. However, to achieve influence over the global economy, climate change and threats to peaceful co-existence, we need to enhance, improve and increase those partnerships.

I venture to suggest that we should no longer talk of great powers, but of great partnerships. If we do not take the collective approach that the motion and many speakers in the debate have urged, we risk the recreation of the competitive system of the 19th century, which spawned the disasters of the 20th. In the 21st century, we should surely learn the lessons of the past 100 years.

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