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4.23 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I hope hon. Members have noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I have felt it necessary to initiate a debate on the Opposition Benches in light of the fact that on the second day of the new Session the Government are represented at this

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moment in the debate on the Queen's Speech by the Minister, the Whip and the Parliamentary Private Secretary. They are not doing very well. Before the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) gets too jovial, I should explain that whereas Conservative Members outnumber Labour Members by 3:1, we outnumber Liberal Democrats by 10:1. Having said that, however, it is naturally a pleasure for me to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), who I am sure will shortly be resuming her place, on her excellent maiden speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) said that he spent much of September in Brent, East, sadly to little effect. I spent much of August in the High Court, I hope to somewhat greater effect. I am glad to say that I was not in the dock. I was not even in the witness box. I was watching from the wings at the Hutton inquiry as a succession of Ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, a succession of civil servants and a succession of journalists were paraded for the edification of the public as to the inner workings of this new Labour Government in the run-up to the war on Iraq, although admittedly the terms of the inquiry are more narrowly defined to the events that led to Dr. Kelly's tragic death.

I wish, seeing that there is such an absence of Government representation this afternoon, to try to do a little favour for the Government and try to make a case for the Government. I am not sure that I will entirely agree with my own arguments as I do so, but I will see what I can do to add a little grit to the oyster, as it were, in the hope that a few pearls might be formed.

At the Hutton inquiry on 21 August, something was said by one of the journalists—Nicholas Rufford—which I found revealing and informative. It was to remind us of what a weapon of mass destruction really is. The essence of such a weapon is that it is a relatively small device that can cause, if used, a large number of deaths and injuries. So it is in the nature of a weapon of mass destruction that it is easy to conceal. Nicholas Rufford, in his testimony—I found it to be rather reliable and convincing—about a telephone conversation that he had had with Dr. Kelly in June 2003, said that he, Dr. Kelly, mentioned that

If that is true, it is hardly surprising that nobody has yet managed to discover these devices, if they exist. We can be sure that if Saddam decided to conceal them, he had plenty of time to do so. Saddam evidently decided to conceal himself, and so far he—a human individual—probably not much smaller in bulk than a fairly lethal dose, if we were to measure the dimensions of chemical and biological weapons, has not been discovered either, despite the best efforts of an army of people to find him.

Later testimony at the Hutton inquiry on 21 August came from a former British ambassador to Prague, Mr. David Broucher, who at one stage seemed to be contradicting the testimony that had been given in the morning. He said, recollecting a distant conversation that he had had with Dr. Kelly, that he thought that

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Dr. Kelly felt that inspections properly carried out would give a degree of certainty about compliance. That appeared at first impression to contradict what the journalist had stated was Dr. Kelly's view—that it was well nigh impossible to find weapons of mass destruction such as biological and chemical devices if they had been systematically concealed.

But Mr. Broucher went on to explain that it was from Dr. Kelly's experience in Iraq that

on biological weapons—

One would think that, if it was going to be well nigh impossible to discover systematically concealed chemical and biological weapons without assistance, it would have been a top priority of the coalition to have two intelligence targets. One would be the personnel who had a hand in the production, storage and concealment of those weapons, and in that sense the coalition has done quite well in apprehending the individuals concerned. The other would be the documents in the Foreign and Defence Ministries and the intelligence headquarters giving the details of where the weapons had been produced, where they had been stored and where they had been hidden.

We all know, however, that the task of going after the documents was lamentably neglected. We know the story of how even a fortnight after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April this year journalists, not to mention looters, were going in and out of the Ministries, rifling the contents, destroying some and taking away the rest. It must be said that if the campaign had been properly planned, properly thought through and properly executed, such neglect would never have been allowed to happen.

At the end of the second world war, for example, the Americans and the British set up something called the combined intelligence objectives committee, which was specifically designed to target documents, weapons systems and scientists and to make sure that they were secured and brought back to this country and the United States. I have yet to receive a convincing explanation from our Government as to why that did not happen.

So much for a Government failure. But I think that the Government could have made a stronger case than they did for going to war. I consistently supported them in their wish to go to war, and I think that where they went wrong was in thinking themselves too narrowly confined by what they interpreted international law as saying at the present time are the only grounds on which one can go to war. What are those grounds? I think that there are three, as commonly understood.

As commonly understood, we can go to war if we or allies of ours are attacked. As commonly understood, we can go to war if we or our allies are in imminent danger of being attacked. And as commonly understood, we can go to war, somewhat more controversially, as we have heard in the debate today, if we believe that our military intervention is necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Where I think

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the Government went wrong was in slavishly trying to twist the facts and to make a presentation to enable one or other of those existing perceptions of international law to come into play.

Let us look at the three of them again. We could not say that we were going to war because we or an ally had been attacked—that had applied in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, but he had not done anything like that this time. As for the third reason, the humanitarian catastrophe that had to be prevented, we could hardly say that we were doing that this time. After all, despite those hundreds of thousands of victims who are now, retrospectively and belatedly, being mourned by the Government, we had not intervened to save them, so it would be rather strange to say that we were suddenly becoming conscience-stricken and had to intervene to stop Saddam.

That left the Government with the middle reason—the reason of imminent danger of attack. Looking at the matter as I now can, because we have had that inner sight of what was going on in the intelligence community, which we were denied at the time when we had to take these decisions, I believe that the Government tried to invest every scrap of intelligence, half-intelligence, semi-intelligence and pseudo-intelligence with a degree of significance which, in the cold light of day, perhaps it did not fully bear. That is why the Government did what they did.

What should the Government have done? I said that I would try to make the case for the Government, and they may feel that I have not been trying very hard up to now. I see the Minister smiling. I believe the Government should have said that international law is not fixed in concrete or set in aspic. If it is to be taken seriously, international law must evolve in order to recognise circumstances as they develop in the world. International law has yet fully to adjust to the significance of 11 September 2001. Before September 2001, in so far as these matters had impinged on our consciousness widely in America and the United Kingdom, we relied on principles of containment and deterrence. Those principles had served us well.

With the advent of the suicide terrorist, however, those principles, though not falsified in general, are no longer sufficient. In the past it might have been enough to say that with respect to a country such as Iraq, with a regime such as Saddam's, which has a track record of trying to get weapons of mass destruction, we would contain and deter it because we thought that whatever else those people are—they may be ruthless, brutal and bestial—they are not idiotic. They are quite calculating, and the last thing they want is their own lives to be prematurely ended.

We could have taken the view that we could live with the possibility that Saddam had the potential to create such weapons, even though we might not be sure whether he still had them. Post-September 2001, that is no longer adequate. It is no longer satisfactory to say that we are content that rogue regimes with a track record of trying to get weapons of mass destruction or, in the case of Saddam, actually getting weapons of mass destruction, and in the case of Saddam, using weapons of mass destruction, should be allowed to go their own sweet way.

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We can no longer accept even the possibility that a country with such a regime—still less a country in which such a regime might give way to another regime that might be more closely allied with the suicidal Islamist movements that could have taken over, and could yet take over, if we make a mess of the handover in Iraq after the end of Saddam's rule—might create those weapons and hand them over to groups that could not be deterred by any rational method from using those weapons, because such groups use suicide terrorists who believe they are going to paradise when they die.

I am drawing my remarks to a conclusion, and I shall end on a slightly more positive note. A few months ago I was delighted to be contacted by the secretary of a group called the Islamic Society of Britain. I should like to inform the House that a group like that, which regularly holds panel discussions and meetings in the House of Commons, is out there ready to engage, usually from a different political perspective, but on democratic terms, with those of us who believe in dialogue, debate and discussion.

I have had the privilege of taking part in two of the society's events in the House of Commons. It was interesting when, during the second event, towards the end of our discussions—lively discussions on the middle east, as one might expect—two or three people successively rose to their feet and started to rant at the assembled people that they should not be sharing the platform with infidels and that jihad was the only way. What was impressive about the incident was not only that in the large assembly of people present there was no support whatever for those extreme views, or that it was entirely agreed that those individuals should resume their seats and, if they did not do so, we should ask the police to remove them, but that it was obvious that those few individuals who were trying to wreck the discussion saw the danger of a relationship between moderate young British people of the Islamic faith and the democratic political process which that meeting represented. I take encouragement from the fact that such a dialogue is going on. I believe that Islamist extremists are no more representative of the Muslim community than the extreme left was representative of socialist democratic opinion in this country in the 1960s, 70s and, to some extent, 80s.

I believe that there is hope for the future, but we have to ask ourselves one question. Why do some people believe that they will go to paradise if they kill themselves while killing civilians in a suicide attack? They must have got those beliefs from somewhere—someone must have inculcated and taught them those beliefs. The religious hierarchy of the Muslim community must try to explain on religious grounds why those beliefs are false. If people do not think that they will go to a better world if they do such terrible things, they might be dissuaded from doing them in future.

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