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24 Sept 2002 : Column 104—continued

6.28 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): I went to the United States 10 days ago. It is the fifth time that I have visited it this year and the seventh time since 9/11, as the Americans say. I was scheduled to return on 6 October, but I had to start coming back last Wednesday because that was the latest that I could leave in order to get here on time for this debate. I am pleased that I made it because, having sat in the Chamber throughout the day, I have heard many of the arguments that I would have made myself.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made a remarkable statement. It is astonishing for me to make that admission in here, as it is for me to commend the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who also made a thoroughly good contribution. The defence spokesman for the second Opposition party also made a contribution with which I could agree in great measure. I should, however, give the real credit to colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who delivered a characteristically sharp analysis of the situation in which we have been placed. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) did fairly well too, although she is not present to hear me say so. So did my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and whatever the other part of the constituency is. [Hon. Members: "Highgate."] Yes, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson).

I was not very pleased about the sniggers and smirks that were evident in some quarters during the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) and for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway). Although I might not have used the same emphasis or the same forms of expression, I feel that much of what they said deserves careful consideration.

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A good deal of what I wanted to say has already been said, so I will not repeat it. I will concentrate on the attitude that I left in the United States. I know the United States quite well, because we have a house there. Every time I walk the dog, I see "America At War". I see that on every newscast, every day and throughout the day. It has continued for 12 months. The only way of gaining a balanced view of what is happening in the world is to tune in to the Canadian Newsline International, which transmits excerpts from various national programmes with a voice-over interpretation. We must, of course, trust the Canadians to interpret the situation correctly. They do not always interpret accurately, as we well know from our experience of the NATO parliamentary assembly. Anyway, Newsline International is good.

Last week the Pax channel broadcast a programme putting together the words of St. Malachy, 1,000 years old, and those of Nostradamus, 600 years less old. The combined prophecies identified the Islam of today, and their predictions included the European Union, which would join Islam to bring about Armageddon. Armageddon would mean the destruction of the world—but there was something to stop that: President Bush.

Anyone who believes in predictions—and I suppose that someone who quotes St. Malachy and Nostradamus must have some faith in them—is hardly going to believe that a President of the United States will be able to withstand the onslaught of Armageddon. If the predictions are so reliable, how come Armageddon will be so uncertain that Bush will be able to overturn it?

Why should America be so keen to whip up the crazy state of mind that suggests there is no alternative to the attack on Iraq that is described so incessantly and in such detail? Could it have anything to do with Enron, WorldCom, Xerox and a number of other court actions currently in train? Could it have anything to do with the fact that in less than two months a major election process will take place in the United States? For some time there have been predictions that Bush will lose support in both Houses. Could it be that this is a means of distracting attention from such serious considerations? I suggest that there is probably a connection.

What, though, is the real danger of pursuing this folly? Members should consider today's press reports about Mr. Rumsfeld. Apparently, he is seeking support in NATO for a NATO pursuit of rogue states. We must assume that by "rogue states" he means Iraq. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, if we pursue Iraq and sort it out, who will be next?

We have talked about human rights, and about UN resolutions that have been ignored. We have talked about the possession of weapons of mass destruction. I suppose that must mean that the next candidate will be China. Can we seriously consider that China might even begin to enter the list of probabilities? Obviously not.

The simple truth is that Iraq poses no risk to the United Kingdom, or to the United States. If, as is stated on the front page of today's Evening Standard, Iraq has the capacity to strike within 45 minutes, as soon as we launch an attack it can launch a reactive, rather than pre-emptive, attack on us—and then the whole world will go crazy. Is there any sense at all in this? I suggest that there is not.

We are friends of America. We always have been, and I hope we will always stay that way. As I have confessed, I have a vested interest. I think that, as friends, we ought

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to tell the Americans that it is not the emperor but the President who has no clothes. He is displaying himself as, sadly, somewhat less than well informed. Perhaps, with the election in mind, he will drop the idea once his campaign is over—for that is, I think, his main motivation.

6.36 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Like, I am sure, many colleagues, I have spent part of the recess seeing rather more of my constituents than is usually possible. I have toured my constituency, visiting about 100 villages. I was astonished to find that the one topic they all wanted to discuss with me was precisely the topic we are discussing today. I was also surprised by the fact that they wanted to make almost identical points.

There were three issues. First, my constituents were astonished that the House had not been recalled yet, and that the Government were showing every sign of reluctance to allow a recall. Secondly, they were astonished that I, as their Member of Parliament, would not have an opportunity to vote—on a substantive motion—for or against the action that the Government proposed to take. Thirdly, they wanted to express deep concern. What surprised me about that was that the sentiment applied across the political spectrum, from people whom I knew to be convinced Conservatives to those of quite different political persuasions. It included retired military personnel, and people connected with the present military. I think we have a duty to express such views today, as many Members have.

The danger today was first that we would be subject to a distraction, and secondly that we would be subject to caricatures. The distraction would have been a discussion of the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. We do not need to discuss how appalling Saddam Hussein's regime is; we know that from past evidence. We did not need the dossier to tell us. We are convinced, and there is no dissent in the Chamber.

As for the caricatures, some portray those with doubts about military action as either wishing to support the Iraqi regime or being engaged in a pacifism that does not take account of circumstances. I think a great deal of respect is owed to those who have deeply pacifist views, but many, myself included, do not have such views, and are quite prepared to see British military forces used in the right circumstances. We would argue, however, that these are not the right circumstances.

Another caricature is the suggestion that those opposed to military action are engaging in a crude anti-Americanism. I reject that caricature, but I reject equally the caricature suggesting that the Prime Minister is engaged in this process simply because he wishes to curry favour with the Administration in the White House. I think that those who heard the Prime Minister's statement today accept that he sincerely believes that there is a threat to British interests, and wants to address it. I am prepared to accept that at face value, and to accept that his discussions with the US Administration may have had a beneficial effect, but I find it hard to accept that we should offer a blank cheque, before any negotiations, saying that we will support any American position unconditionally. That supine position is unworthy of any politician or party in this country. When parties' policies change with a change of policy in America, we have to ask whether the British interest is being properly taken into account.

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There are dissenting voices in America, too. I was there on holiday a few weeks ago and I heard a vigorous debate going on. I heard real doubts expressed not only by Democrats but by leading Republicans about the wisdom of the course that the Administration were taking. Doubts were being expressed even within the Administration, and I think that those are at the core of President Bush's renewed attempts to seek United Nations approval.

We must ask not whether we support an action through the United Nations to remove weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi arsenal but what happens next, if the action fails. What concerns many hon. Members and our constituents is that we hear warlike noises and an apparent unilateralism from across the Atlantic, seeming to signal a determination to take action irrespective of the views of the United Nations and the actions that may be taken by the Security Council and the inspection regime that we want. We hear a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, and many of us find it hard to equate that with international legality and a coalition for action.

The Prime Minister's statement made no mention of the United States, which is odd, given that there cannot be any lack of understanding of the central role that the US plays, and we have had no analysis of the future intentions of the American Administration or of our priorities as we, quite rightly, to use the cant phrase, stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in fighting terrorism. Those of us who were in Washington on 11 September last year can certainly identify with the feelings of the American public, but we do not understand why the priorities should have changed.

We have had no analysis of the military consequences of any conflict. I have no doubt that the military strength of the US and the UK can defeat Saddam's forces, although not without difficulty—there are certainly logistical difficulties along the way. The Prime Minister said:

I accept that view, but what does it matter who starts the conflict? If that is the situation, where is the analysis of the consequences for the region and the world? He made no analysis of the effects on the Kurdish population and the knock-on effects on Turkey, or the effects on the Shi'ite population or Iran, not to mention the wider Muslim world and the potential increase in extremism and terrorism in central Asia, for instance—in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, perhaps. Do we want to create new Afghanistans, harbouring more terrorists?

Setting aside any consideration of the benefits of legality, it is in British and American interests to work within international law. The argument for taking preventive action alone is the argument of the vigilante. We reject that in domestic law, and we should do the same internationally. We cannot take the law into our own hands. The President of the United States is not the law west of the Pecos.

Everything that we do in the House, in the Government or in our diplomatic relations with others should be based on the overwhelming principle that we must take an international legal view that encompasses the United Nations, exerting the greatest pressure possible to

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persuade the Iraqi Government to conform. Any action must be within that compass, but the Prime Minister has not persuaded me or, I suspect, many of our colleagues that he is necessarily committed to pursuing that line in the coming months.

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