Previous Section Index Home Page

I mention that because it goes hand in hand with an increasing resource nationalism in Russia, and its increasing willingness to use natural resources, fossil fuels in particular, to achieve political ends. We saw the warning signs in the Baltic states, in Ukraine, in Georgia, and in Belarus. We now need to be aware of the potential threats posed by the Russian Government. Of course their forces were degraded, and of course until 2003 they were experiencing a vast reduction in their capabilities, especially their army and naval capabilities, but they are now building them up. I simply say in this debate about defence in the world that that is something that our country needs to keep an eye on. When we plan for our expenditure in future,
1 Feb 2007 : Column 409
we need to take into account the fact that a new and growing risk is posed in an area in which many of us had hoped there was a declining risk, following the end of the cold war.

I shall mention one other subject before I end: the need for alliances. I have for some time held the view that politicians love the upside of globalisation. They love the prosperity and the trade, and they like the potential security. What politicians do not really like, and do not like to talk about, is the downside of globalisation: the shared risk—the increased risk exposure to asymmetric threat, for example. If we live in an interdependent and sensitive global economy, we cannot be isolated from the risks of events in any other part of that global economy. Some of my American colleagues are barely capable of giving a speech without saying, “America will be energy-independent,” but that is a fat lot of use if al-Qaeda take down a supertanker in the Malacca strait, creating not only an environmental disaster but a potential crisis in confidence for the Japanese or Chinese economy, and a shock to the oil price.

In future, we will all live in a much more interdependent world, but we are trying to deal with a properly globalised economy with political structures that were designed for the end of the second world war, and with military structures that were largely designed for the cold war. We require leadership that brings those international structures up to date, so that we can find ways of co-operating to deal with shared risk. That is why the Riga summit was such a disappointment and such a failure. At that summit, we needed to get a redefinition of NATO’s role, looking well ahead into the years to come. We needed to talk about the decision-making processes that NATO might have, to talk about the funding and the mechanisms, and how we would get countries to make the appropriate commitments to funding for NATO. EU-NATO relations are at an all-time low, and that needed to be addressed at the same time.

The NATO alliance should continue to be the primary military structure for the United Kingdom’s security. Our alliance with the United States is the most important alliance that we have. The size of the American defence umbrella could not be matched, even in the medium term, even if our European partners were dramatically to increase their expenditure. America, by virtue of heritage, culture, language and history remains our ally of choice. I have no problem with the European Union’s being able to act as part of the delivery arm of NATO—for example, through the Berlin-plus arrangements—if that is what is desired, but I have a problem with the EU wanting to supplant NATO rather than to supplement it. All those arguments should have come out at the Riga summit.

There is one other issue that Europe and NATO need to deal with: Turkey. It was deeply disturbing to see the passing of the Armenian resolution in France, which was almost certain to alienate Turkey at a time when Turkey is of enormous importance strategically to this country, NATO and Europe. Purposely to set out to alienate Turkish opinion is extremely dangerous. To have Turkey move into the arms of either fundamentalist Islam or the new-found, newly nationalist Russia would be to fail to recognise that
1 Feb 2007 : Column 410
throughout the cold war we attempted to stop a sulking and resentful Turkey moving towards the Soviet Union.

There is the potential for Congress in the United States to pass exactly the same resolution as the French. That could result only in a hugely adverse reaction from Turkey. Turkey is one of the main allies of NATO and a country of enormous geopolitical importance. We need to keep it on good terms. If those in some European countries—France, Germany and Austria—think that they would have problems incorporating Turkey into the European Union, they might want to think what an unfriendly fundamentalist state on the border of Greece would mean for European security. That may be the choice that they face.

Defence in this country has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, and it would be of enormous benefit to the country, to our process of government and to our security if it continued to be so. For that to happen the country needs to have a genuine debate about its level of commitments and its level of resources. If we want to maintain our current commitments, it is impossible to keep exceeding our defence planning assumptions and to continue with the same budget for any length of time. Of course, our armed forces will cope. They have a can-do mentality. They will try to do whatever they can with whatever we give them, but if we are genuine about the role of the United Kingdom, we will have to look at the resource base if we are going to continue at this tempo. Alternatively, if we feel that we cannot afford the resources, we have to look at the level of commitment that the United Kingdom is able to make within the wider alliances that we have.

When the Government undertake the comprehensive spending review, they must take into account what was said in the strategic defence review and how defence planning assumptions have been exceeded. Are they still committed to the SDR and do they still wish to act within the DPAs? Those are important questions and this side of the House will want to get clear answers when we get further details of the comprehensive spending review. Things cannot go on as they are. If the Government will not change their approach and insist on carrying on with things as they are, despite all the difficulties that have been so clearly enunciated by so many of those who have been in charge of our armed forces, the only conclusion will be that we have to change the Government.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches.

2.24 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). When he referred to the danger posed to us by Russia, I at first thought that he was using an old Conservative party speaking note, but as he developed the argument I could see that he was referring to contemporary circumstances. My judgment of the current situation is not the same as his. The 20th century has not been kind to Russia and I
1 Feb 2007 : Column 411
urge him to try to look at things from Russia’s point of view, rather than from the point of view that he adopts, namely, that we always have to think the worst of the Russians and to fear their intentions. Russia is a state that is in transition from a very difficult historical background and we should give it a chance to make that journey, rather than always looking for the worst and asserting it as a new threat. I do not see the situation in the same way as he does.

The communities that I represent in Newcastle and North Tyneside have a long association with the armed services. As well as building warships for the Royal Navy at Swan Hunter and fighting vehicles for the Army at BAE Systems in Newcastle, our community has service personnel in each branch of the armed forces. We are particularly strongly represented in the artillery, the infantry and the Royal Marines. I identify myself and the community that I represent with the remarks made by the Secretary of State and the hon. Gentleman in applauding and honouring the bravery of our service personnel. Today’s debate is an opportunity to discuss what we expect of our armed forces and what support we give them to undertake their tasks.

The cornerstone of the debate is our membership of NATO, which I strongly support, and the question of how best to make an effective contribution to NATO, bearing in mind our other obligations. We need to ask what it is we are setting out to do. What are the budgetary constraints? What are the capacity constraints? Those questions have not changed. I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1983 and arrived just in time to take part in the great debate about the original Trident programme. My view then was that we should do what other European members of NATO do and rely on America’s strategic deterrent, and not duplicate it ourselves. There is only so much money that can be spent on defence. My view then was that our money would be better spent on supplementing NATO’s conventional capacity, which we were more likely to use, rather than duplicating the strategic nuclear capacity. I could envisage no circumstances in which we would ever use that capacity, let alone independently of the Americans. Back in 1983, that was regarded in the Labour party as a very right-wing view, because it was pro-American and showed both a commitment to and confidence in NATO. Unlike other recently elected MPs at the time, I would not join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament because of its opposition to NATO. I hold the same view now, and it is one of the small ironies of Labour politics that that view is now regarded in the Labour party as a rebel left-wing view.

All the key features of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent—the platform, the delivery system, the warheads and even the onshore-based support—depend in part on our relationship with the United States. The Trident II D5 missiles are leased from the US missile pool. They are manufactured, tested and serviced in the US. The warheads are US-designed, and several crucial components, without which they would not work, are manufactured in the US and purchased off the shelf. The system is reliant, too, on US software for all aspects of targeting.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 412

I think that those working relationships with the United States are beneficial, but the logical next step is to integrate the whole thing into NATO’s strategic deterrent. It is the case for having a strategic deterrent that the British Prime Minister can fire separately of the Americans that has just not been made. No Minister has been able to describe to the House the circumstances in which the United Kingdom would be completely isolated from our NATO partners with only our deterrent to fall back on. The major security threat facing Britain is not an enemy state with a strategic nuclear deterrent of its own threatening Britain alone, but not our NATO partners—the main security threat facing Britain is terrorism. The Select Committee on Defence recently concluded that the

The money that the Government plan to commit to the programme could be more usefully spent on conventional armed forces and on specialist anti-terrorism units, which could do something to make us safer against the most serious threat.

In his statement to the House on 4 December 2006, the Prime Minister said that

I take issue with that view—the money can be spent on upgrading our strategic nuclear deterrent or it can be spent on something else. The cost of Trident in the 1980s had an impact on the budget for conventional defence equipment, and nowhere more so than on the procurement of warships and fleet auxiliaries for the Royal Navy. There are also substantial continuing revenue costs.

I remind the House of the words of Coroner Selena Lynch at the inquest into the death of my constituent, Mr. Anthony Wakefield, who served with the Coldstream Guards in Iraq. He died instantly from neck and chest wounds when a bomb exploded close to his Snatch Land Rover near al-Almarah on 1 May last year. He was wearing standard body armour, but not Kestrel kit, which has added neck and arm protection. The coroner’s finding was that Anthony Wakefield may have survived the roadside bomb blast if he had been equipped with Kestrel body armour. That is not my assertion—that is the coroner’s finding. Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, she said:

There are choices facing the House today. I believe that our first priority is the immediate well-being of our service personnel. We should ensure that front-line troops get all the equipment that they need—and that should be our priority.

Strategic defence systems do not exist in a vacuum. If the argument is that Britain must have an independent strategic nuclear deterrent as well as the security of NATO’s American deterrent, surely it is open to other nation states to argue that they, too, need a similar independent strategic nuclear deterrent. The hon. Member for Woodspring referred to the situation in Iran. Its near neighbours—India, Pakistan, China and Israel, and now America in Iraq—all have some form of nuclear weapon capability, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton
1 Feb 2007 : Column 413
(Mr. Meacher) pointed out. Our contribution is to say that we need to upgrade our weapons system and that Iran should not have those things at all. I do not see anything in that argument that would make the people of Iran feel more secure or less isolated. If ever there was a case for renewed diplomatic activity and for trying to find a peaceful way forward, surely this is it.

The real argument for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is not military at all—the real argument for the possession of an independent strategic nuclear deterrent is that such a deterrent is vital for Britain to maintain its “big power” role in the world, including our permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can make a speech and deal with some of those issues. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that evidence taken by the Defence Committee suggested that it is not essential to retain the deterrent to maintain our seat at the Security Council? There are other strong reasons for doing so, however, as I hope to explain.

Mr. Brown: I fully understand and acknowledge my hon. Friend’s constituency interest in these matters, and I accept what she said about the Defence Committee’s views. I shall make a similar argument myself.

It is also argued that the independent strategic nuclear deterrent affects our status in the European Union and with America. Although I think those are the real arguments that underpin the views of those who believe in the independent nuclear deterrent, I also think that they are the worst arguments of all. There is a pretty strong case for reforming the way in which the Security Council works and who sit on it as permanent members, and reform should not be driven by who has and who does not have nuclear weapons.

Our relations with our strategic partners in the European Union and the United States have very little to do with Britain’s military capabilities and everything to do with mutual self-interest, bound together by trading and commercial relationships and a shared belief in international conventions and the rule of law. Britain will punch above its weight in the world if we spend money on the threats that actually confront us, rather than on those that do not, and spend money on things that those who are poorer and more disadvantaged than ourselves really need.

2.35 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to have the debate today. I welcome the Defence Secretary back from his recent trip to Baghdad, safe and able to give us an up-to-date account of events there. I quite understand that he has had to keep an important commitment elsewhere, which means that he has left his place. I also welcome the speech from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), which was thought-provoking and covered a wide canvas in a balanced way. It invited us, in a constructive tone, to debate issues that we must debate now and on future occasions.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 414

There is no doubt that our role in the world and the role of our armed forces have moved a great deal in a relatively short time. Although it seems a long time, it is not so long ago that we were still in the atmosphere of the cold war and the Soviet threat. One of the points that the hon. Gentleman made was that in a global era, we are in every sense in a state of interdependency. The solutions to the problems that we face can be arrived at only through our international alliances and by working with others, particularly with NATO, the United Nations and, on occasion, the European Union. All those institutions have major faults and flaws, but the UN is the only show in town, so it is essential that we all work together to rebuild and develop further the authority of the United Nations and its capacity to help bring and maintain peace in various parts of the world.

The 1998 strategic defence review identified the role of Britain’s armed forces as acting as a force for good around the world. In many respects, the Prime Minister’s recent speech in Plymouth updated that commitment and looked forward to Britain continuing to do that. No doubt hon. Members in all parts of the House agree and see that as our role in the future.

As the hon. Gentleman said, if we have that lofty ambition for ourselves, there is without doubt a mismatch between the amount of commitments that we are taking on and the amount of resource that we are devoting to them. We need a debate about making more resource available. I am sympathetic to those who suggest that that is necessary, but even if we arrived at a consensus, and even if the Treasury were part of the consensus and we moved in that direction immediately, there would be a time lag between that decision and the additional capability that might result. Whether we put extra resources into manpower or into more and better equipment for the future, each of those would take time to feed through to our fighting capacity.

The problems arising from the mismatch, the stretch, the impact on families, the result of acting beyond the defence planning assumptions, and the effect of not adhering to the harmony guidelines are all immediate problems. That is why, in the short term, achieving a better balance between the commitment that we are taking on and the resource that we have at our disposal to carry it out must entail some reduction in our commitment.

I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s further explanations of the ongoing situation in Iraq. I believe that the Prime Minister is right when he says that we would all like to see troops coming back from Iraq as soon as possible and that that can be done only after we have been in a position to hand over responsibility in the provinces that we are continuing to run.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman is moving towards the sensible stance that we should assess whether we are in a position to hand over at some indeterminate stage in the future?

Nick Harvey: The Government have said that the intention is to hand over the remaining provinces in the spring. I recognise that “spring” is necessarily an elastic term. Ministers frequently say that they are going to introduce a White Paper in the autumn, which then
1 Feb 2007 : Column 415
goes right through November and December so that we do not get it until well into the following year. I am not attempting to pin the Government down precisely as to the definition of “spring”, but the fact remains that the Secretary of State confirmed that that, broadly speaking, remains the intention. The question that I am keen to probe concerns the ongoing role of British troops thereafter. Our party leader has outlined a policy on what should take place, part of which is that British troops should continue to be part of the nation-building programme and to take part in training operations as part of NATO, so that in no sense are we turning our back on the long-term challenge of rebuilding Iraq.

Let us be serious. On the Government’s own estimate, by some point in the middle of this year the number of British troops actively deployed in Iraq will fall to 3,000 or so. Meanwhile, the United States has increased its deployment to 145,000. I understand why people have concerns about the policy stance that we have recommended. However, will it really make much difference if 3,000 troops leave Iraq and 145,000 continue the task? As a consequence, we will be better able to carry out our duties in Afghanistan, where we have a long-term commitment in an alliance with the United States and will be better able to assist alongside it if we take a more sensible view as regards trying to continue to operate in significant numbers on two fronts.

Dr. Fox: I freely admit that my jetlag may be clouding my understanding, but I would like to know this: is it or is it not the policy of the Liberal Democrats to have a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq?

Nick Harvey: It is the objective of the Liberal Democrats that after the provinces have been handed over, we then, over a period—we suggest between May and October, but if the handover was delayed, withdrawal could have to be delayed—get our troops out of Iraq. In my view, that is the only way, in the short term, that we will be able to sustain our efforts in Afghanistan. During the recent debate on Iraq, some Members suggested that we cannot set a timetable for withdrawal, but at some point or other that is exactly what the Government will do, and all the arguments about its unfeasibility will melt away. We have proposed a time line within which it might happen, although circumstances may mean that it works out differently.

The essential point that I am making to the House—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) rose—

Nick Harvey: I shall give way before I move on.

Next Section Index Home Page