I shall confine my remarks to the subject of the nuclear deterrent. I do not want to be painted as some kind of eccentric or peacenik, or as someone who would
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gamble with the nation's security. That is the charge that is normally levelled at people who question our need for the nuclear deterrent. It is a funny old world, is it not? We have a former Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, saying publicly and very cogently that there are better ways of spending the money.
I have often told people outside that this place is like a giant adult education institute where we can learn things. Four or five weeks ago, I learned a huge amount from Robert McNamara, who spoke in the Moses Room in the House of Lords. Opposition Members were present. It was as if I were in touch with history. Robert McNamara was 88 years old and as sharp as a tackslightly deaf, but so impressive. There he was, 40 years ago, in the Oval Office at 4.30 pm on Saturday 27 October 1962not as a note-taker but as an active participant, advising the President on how to respond to the Cuban missile crisis. There were three people in the Oval Office: McNamara himself, President Kennedy and the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Robert McNamara referred to him as "the chief".
Robert McNamara told us that the military were pressing for an invasion of Cuba. The military said that the CIA had intelligence showing that the missilesthere were photographs of themdid not have nuclear weapons on them. I was a paper boy at the time, frightened out of my wits like everyone else. Kennedy was told that there was a flotilla approaching Cuba with those nuclear warheads. The military said "You have got to invade, Mr. President." Of course, Kennedy did not invade. The flotilla turned round and went back to the Soviet Union.
Robert McNamara told us that it was only on the dissolutionthe collapseof the Soviet Union that we found out that there were missiles there that were targeted and had nuclear weapons attached. The information that the CIA and the military gave Kennedy was simply wrong. Had they decided, at 4.30 pm on Saturday 27 October 1962, to invade, there would probably not be a planet Earth nowor it would be just a charred sphere circling the sun.
Robert McNamara spent a lot of time thinking about that. He is not a peacenik; he is not an eccentric; he is a man who knows what he is talking about. He is advocating a massive cutback in the world's nuclear arsenal. He told us, and Opposition Members, that the United States had 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads, each with the destructive power to cause a Hiroshima. Of those 6,000 nuclear warheads, 2,000 are on hair-trigger alert, and can be launched in 15 minutes. Robert McNamara told us that that was
That is despite the non-proliferation regime that has been with us for 40 years. His speech was an education to me and to all those MPs and peers who listened to him with such rapt attention.
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It is not only Robert McNamara to whom we should listen. We should also listen to the former US Defence Secretarya succession of Defence Secretaries are speaking out on this issueWilliam Perry, who served in the Clinton Administration. My friend the Secretary of State for Defence appeared to be unaware of William Perry's remarks, which is unfortunate, because they are important. William Perry said:
Why did he say that? He said it because there is fissile material lying around all over the shop that is not being safeguarded. In the former Soviet Union, there are nuclear dumps everywhere. There are rotting nuclear submarines in the Arctic. The whole world is scattered with debris left over from the cold war.
The US spends the staggering figureI would run out of zeroes if I tried to write it downof $400 billion on defence. Robert McNamara told us that if it spent a tiny fraction of that, perhaps $1 billion, on attempting to safeguard the fissile material, we would all sleep more safely in our beds.
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. For the sake of completeness and accuracy, he should perhaps mention the significant amount of money and support that the US gives to the disposal of nuclear weapons within the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Prentice: I do not doubt that, but Robert McNamara says that more should be done. It is an incontestable fact that those dumps exist and that they are not secure. They should be safeguarded. In fact, two US senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, sought to make appropriations to safeguard and protect those nuclear dumps, but their efforts were not taken up by the Administration, which is astonishing.
We have the bombs in London today and the tragedy of what has happened, but it is hard to imagine what might happen if some of these crazed, fundamentalist, Osama bin Laden terrorist groups got their hands on fissile material and had a suitcase nuclear bomb. I am not being fanciful. We must wake up to the possibilities. We need our Ministers to talk to the Americans and the others on the UN Security Council to get them to start taking the issue seriously. Instead of lecturing the country about how we need to update Trident, we should do something about safeguarding that fissile material, which could be the end of us.
My generation has grown used to the bomb. We grew up with it and it is very familiar. I was chatting to a colleague of mine, George Adam, who is the deputy mayor of my local council. He told me of his time as a serviceman, when he was sent to Christmas island for the British nuclear tests. He and the others were told to dress in white overalls. When the bomb was about to go off, he was told to turn his back to it, screw up his eyes and put his hands over them. He did that, but he told me that, when the bomb went off, he saw a blinding flash of light through his hands. He has not forgotten that and, when he told me about the Christmas island experience, I thought we should perhaps educate or re-educate people about the consequences of nuclear weapons and the terrible instability that they cause.
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As we know, the Prime Minister is a great believer in open debate; he wants to encourage it. A couple of weeks ago, in answer to my friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), he said that the Government were going to
He said "listen", but the tragedy is that we will not have a vote on the matter in this House of Commons. We could spend billions on what, if anything, is to replace Trident. What is the point about endless debate on the deterrent if we cannot decide here whether it is the right thing for the country?
My friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and I have tabled a motion for debate in the parliamentary Labour party. It is not there to embarrass the Government. It says:
nuclear deterrent. The chair of the PLP has told me that the motion will come up for debate before we break for the recess, and I shall press it to a vote in the PLP. I see my friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) shaking his head, but it does not matter whether the vote is lost. Sometimes we just need a vote, instead of having decisions taken by some kind of osmosis. A lot of people out there, and many young people, want us to take a more robust line on nuclear disarmament. They do not want to hear macho posturing; they want us to take the issue seriously.
The Minister who replies will tell me that it was a manifesto commitment that we retain the nuclear deterrent. Sometimes before we enter into manifesto commitments, we could have a ballot of all Labour party members. If we had such a ballot of all membersa kind of clause IV momentwe would not spend billions replacing Trident.
My friend the Defence Secretary said in the debate and on Monday in defence questions that the Government are making progress. I acknowledge that. He told us that the Government unilaterallyso they can do some things unilaterallyhave got rid of the WE177 freefall nuclear bomb and have de-targeted the Trident missiles. All those Trident missiles are prowling about on the ocean floor, but they are not targeted at an enemy. The Government have reducedthis is my Governmentthe number of warheads and the number of boats at sea, and I think that that is great. We ought to applaud and acknowledge what the Government have done unilaterally, but it is not enough. We still have Trident submarines, whose sole purposethey do not have a dual purposeis to blow up the world. I would get rid of all the Trident submarines, unconditionally.
There are some people on my side and definitely some on the Opposition Benches who say that that is a step too far. Perhaps the former Soviet Union, or Russia, is no longer a threat, but what about the Irans and North Koreas of this world? We could spend a few millions on a stand-off cruise missile, pop it in a fast jet and send it
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over the horizon to Korea if that is what we want. There are ways of having a nuclear deterrent without spending billions.