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In the few minutes that I have I want to tackle a number of arguments. I begin by paying tribute to my
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hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) for the friendship that he showed to Back Benchers in his recent post and more particularly for the friendship that he showed to miners waiting for compensation in my constituency and throughout the country. He was a good friend to the miners and did a huge amount of work during those years. He is now tempting the House into, in effect, an immediate unilateralist position. I want to argue that there is no reason for us to proceed immediately in that direction.

First, I want to remind Members of exactly what these weapons are, because that seems to have been forgotten. They are the most destructive instruments that mankind has ever been able to create. The Nagasaki bomb killed 140,000 human beings. The weapons that we have now have eight times that capacity. There is the capacity to kill—to fry, in effect—1 million people with the explosion of a single device. Our submarines have the capacity to deliver 48 of those. We are talking about a huge destructive capacity—an awesome capacity—which we must all think very carefully about. It is that thought that leads me to the position that I have adopted and to the argument that I want to try to develop in the few minutes that I have at my disposal.

It seems to me that the Secretary of State made little of what is, in a way, the most important point, which is that the debate is taking place this afternoon thanks to the Government’s finding the time. I pay due respect to the Government and to the Secretary of State for the good-spirited way in which the debate has been handled. But, frankly, the arguments that have been deployed are specious. I want to look at three of them.

The first argument is about unilateralism. A straw man has been erected in relation to the amendments in the names of 113 Members. It has been argued that, somehow or other, a unilateral decision has been suggested. The fact of the matter is that the only unilateralists in the House are those who are arguing for unilateral rearmament now. What I would like to see, as I am sure many hon. Members would, is a period of time during which we can get the arguments right and enter a process of multilateral discussions, possibly leading to a round of disarmament, under the NPT, which we are legally obliged to undertake—

Mr. Borrow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jon Trickett: No.

We are legally obliged to undertake such discussions by a legally binding treaty. The talks are only two years away. Indeed, I understand that there will be a prep conference in May. It is extraordinary that we should unilaterally be deciding effectively to begin the process of rearmament within weeks of a legally binding obligation to begin multilateral negotiations on non-proliferation.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jon Trickett: No; I want to make some progress.

The amendment, which is in my name and that of many dozens of hon. Members, deliberately allows for a period of time before the next round of talks in which the arguments can be properly deployed and the debate can be properly argued. It seems to me that there would be the possibility at that stage of either unilateral disarmament, or the process of rearmament that the Government are proposing. The amendment would allow both approaches to be followed.

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Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): May I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend a quotation from Eisenhower? He was certainly no sandal-wearing hippy, and he said:

In the light of that quote, what role does my hon. Friend think that companies such as British Aerospace have had in our decision-making process?

Jon Trickett: My hon. Friend makes a telling point by referring to a Republican President. There is no doubt at all that British Aerospace has many excellent work people with all kinds of engineering skills. One should pay attention to that skills base. However, it seems that the Government lapse from time to time into the argument that the reason behind the decision is industrial, rather than political or in terms of defence.

Des Browne: I challenge my hon. Friend, or any other hon. Member, to find one quotation from a Minister that advances that argument. It has never been advanced in this debate—not once. My hon. Friend should not claim that it has been, because it has not.

Jon Trickett: I accept the point that my right hon. Friend makes in all honesty. However, even this afternoon, people speaking in support of the Government’s case have made precisely that point.

I want to move on to address equally specious arguments that have been developed, such as that about the reduction of warheads. Obviously, the destruction of any warhead is a welcome development, so the Secretary of State’s announcement in the White Paper—this was reaffirmed today—that the number of warheads would be reduced was good. However, that is not a non-proliferation measure. Everyone who has read the Defence Committee’s report knows that the number of warheads active on the seas will still be 48. There will thus be no non-proliferation. While it is welcome that the stockpile of warheads in the UK is being reduced, that is not an argument that we are complying with our legal obligations to engage in non-proliferation. The Select Committee report clearly makes that case.

The Defence Committee was unconvinced about the timing. Paragraph 7 of the conclusions and recommendations of its ninth report says:

I will refer to them later—

If the Select Committee is unconvinced, so am I. Frankly, many aspects of the report argue clearly that it would be possible to delay the decision for some years.

Mr. Borrow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jon Trickett: No.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC) rose—

Jon Trickett: I give way one last time.

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Adam Price: Was the hon. Gentleman as impressed as I was by the detailed evidence provided by independent experts from both sides of the Atlantic that argued that the life of the current Vanguard class could be extended by 20 years, not the five years argued by the Government? That suggests that the timing of the decision is political, rather than strategic.

Jon Trickett: The point stands for itself.

I quickly want to move on to address the question of legality. Many legal opinions have suggested that the Government’s proposals are not compatible with our article VI obligations under the NPT. I wrote to the Attorney-General to find out whether the Cabinet had received a legal opinion on the matter. The reply that I received today does not indicate whether the Cabinet did receive a legal opinion. However, the reply clearly says—in so far as the legal position is justified—that the Government are bound to act in good faith to bring about disarmament, but that there is no time scale in which to engage in that. If we are bound to do something and to act in good faith, yet the Attorney-General says that we can do so whenever we choose, that is not actually acting in good faith. If that is the best legal case that the Government have, it is a very weak one.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: rose—

Jon Trickett: I am not going to take any more interventions, because I am running out of time fast.

For those reasons and a range of others, I do not think that we need to make a decision today. We should not take a decision, because the Government have not convinced us.

Finally, I want to refer to the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President. Some 72 hours after the White Paper came out as a consultation document, the Prime Minister sent a letter, on 7 December, to the President in which he wrote:

I asked the Attorney-General’s view about the letter because it seemed to be a binding commitment effectively to bring about the process of beginning to rearm. The rest of the two letters referred to the missile system.

The Attorney-General’s response failed to convince me that a decision has not already been taken. This afternoon’s debate has thus been pre-empted by a Government decision. That is a serious charge to make, but the letters stand in an appendix to a Select Committee report for any Member to have a look at. If that is the case, surely the Government ought to say clearly where we stand legally. Today’s edition of The Guardian reports that work has already begun on the process of rearmament. I wonder whether the House’s decision has been pre-empted. The Attorney-General’s letter tells me that the Government will have regard to any vote of the House today. I hope that the House is the sovereign body in this country. If we were to choose to delay, or to refuse to accept, the decision, I would hope that we had not already entered into an agreement with George Bush that would effectively pre-empt the House.

If the amendment falls—as it might; I do not know—I recommend that hon. Members vote against the substantive motion.

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2.57 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Whatever the merits of the debate, the Royal Navy, Aldermaston and British companies have, with our American allies, maintained a continuous at-sea deterrent for many decades, which is an astonishing achievement of which they should be proud.

In this Parliament, the Defence Committee has conducted three inquiries on the future of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent. We have intended—successfully, I think—to encourage and inform a comprehensive debate on the future of the deterrent. I pay particular tribute to the members of the Select Committee for the constructive way in which they have carried out these controversial inquiries.

The White Paper is an important document. This is the first time that we have had such openness and such a debate at this stage. I welcome that, and I think that the courage of the Government in coming to the House in such a way should be commended. I have been waiting for this debate to make my conclusions. I do not want to disparage those who take a different view—I have found the decision extremely difficult.

First, I would like to go through the arguments against the Government’s proposal. This is an awful lot of money to spend on something of doubtful usefulness. At a time when we are funding our armed forces at a peacetime level, this seems an odd priority. We believe that we are the closest allies of the United State of America, and what do we add by buying this deterrent? We add a bit of uncertainty in the minds of the potential aggressor, but that is an awfully expensive bit of uncertainty. And how can we say to North Korea and Iran, “We can, but you can’t”? It is not that our going for unilateral nuclear disarmament would have any persuasive power with them—clearly it would not—but making such statements does reduce our moral authority.

The Government have made little attempt to explain how deterrence works. The purpose of having nuclear weapons will have failed if we ever have to use them, yet the only point of having them is that someone might think that we might use them. It is on the basis of such arguments that we are spending £20 billion. When could we use them? Perhaps the only scenario is that the United Kingdom will not know who has exploded a nuclear weapon, and then what would we do? Could we use them in retaliation? I believe that retaliation, as such, is illegal. We can use them to hit back in self-defence, but by the time that we are involved in a nuclear exchange, all thoughts of stopping anyone else doing anything again will be long dead, along with most of us. Perhaps those rules are suspended in war, but that is far from clear. Legally, perhaps we could only use the weapons if we were firing them in first use, and that is a rather scary prospect.

The Foreign Secretary said that the deterrent was an “insurance policy” against an uncertain threat, but talk of an insurance policy is simply wrong. If someone destroys a house, the purpose of an insurance policy is to pay to rebuild the house; it is not to destroy the house of the person who destroyed it. Let us find a better analogy. The best one that I can think of is a booby trap. The Secretary of State assures us that if someone walks into our “house”, there is a likelihood
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that that devastating booby trap, wandering round the oceans of the world, will go off. That is not like any insurance policy of which I have ever heard. In what circumstances could the horribly high rate of collateral damage caused by a nuclear weapon be justified? It is hard to deter those who have a religious conviction that death is better than life, or who are irrational, so the weapons are aimed at a tiny proportion of the threats against us—those from rationally led states. That is not a conclusive argument, but the equipment is very expensive for deterring that sort of threat.

I am not convinced that we can delay the decision; I think that we have to make it today.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has expertise as the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence. Could the UK purchase American submarines more cheaply, and delay the decision? I am asking him as an authority on such matters. Would that not be a possible strategy for the UK?

Mr. Arbuthnot: That is a good question, because the Secretary of State for Defence came before the Select Committee and said that there was no certainty that the Americans would sell us nuclear weapons. [Interruption.] Sorry, nuclear submarines.

As for the arguments in favour of the decision, given that other countries are pursuing nuclear weapons, it is an odd time to be disarming unilaterally. While our moral authority may be reduced if we tell Iran to do as we say, and not do as we do, our actual authority is increased by the possession of nuclear weapons. Unilaterally disarming would not have any beneficial effect on non-proliferation. Nobody reduced the number of their warheads when we reduced ours to 200. We gave ourselves moral authority by doing that, but countries such as Iran and North Korea were interested in military authority, not moral authority.

The world has become multipolar rather than bipolar, but it remains true that being strong discourages attack, and being weak can be an invitation to war. Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying:

I strongly believe that the UK does not want to be dependent on others, even including the United States, for deterrence. For those reasons, on balance, I am inclined to support the proposal, but I am deeply troubled by it.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Before my right hon. Friend leaves that point, will he consider one other factor? How could this country engage in a conventional response to conventional aggression if the people who initiated that conventional aggression had even one or two mass destruction weapons, and we had been unwise enough to give up all of ours?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I was a grateful recipient of my hon. Friend’s brilliant essay on nuclear deterrence, which partly persuaded me. For the reasons that I have given, I have decided to support the proposal. I am not inclined to take the risk of allowing the unilateral nuclear disarmament of this country to send us naked into the conference chamber, as Nye Bevan once put it. The trouble is that those considerations apply just as strongly to Iran as they do to the United Kingdom. Why should
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we expect a proud Iranian nation to go naked into the conference chamber? It is a difficult question. My answer is that we have the world that we have.

We would like a world with no nuclear weapons in it, but there is not the smallest hope of achieving that without gradually reducing the nuclear weapons of those states that have them, while doing our utmost to ensure that no new countries acquire them. Will we succeed? I am sad to say that I doubt it, because I am profoundly pessimistic about the future of the world. Climate change has the capacity to make the planet uninhabitable for humans, and now that nuclear technology has been invented, it will never go away. There are nuclear weapons around, and sooner or later one or more of them will get into the hands of people who we would rather did not have them. We now have the ability to destroy the world, and I regret to say that it is natural human behaviour that when we have the ability to do something, sooner or later we try it out. I believe that that will happen before climate change has had time to do its work.

3.7 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow my successor, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), as Chair of the Defence Committee. I share his concerns and, despite my previous views, I long ago reached the conclusion that nuclear weapons are a disagreeable necessity. Some say that we should retain strong conventional weapons, but I tell them that conventional weapons can be even more destructive than many nuclear weapons, so I cannot see the morality in bombing the hell out of cities with vast numbers of conventional bombs. There is no morality in that argument.

I am not an historian, but I am interested in history, and after the events of 1989 there was a naive belief that world peace was breaking out. That never happened. If we consider the past 400 or 500 years, we can see that major treaties that were meant to end warfare never did. Westphalia, Utrecht, Versailles and events after the second world war were followed not by the outbreak of peace, but by endless wars. One reaches the regrettable conclusion that if one takes the over-confident, liberal view—it is called that, but it does not have anything particular to do with the Liberal party, although I do not mean to be disparaging—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, I will not be disparaging. Liberal Members are looking very uncomfortable, having conceded the need for nuclear weapons in principle. I do not mean to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, but they have conceded the principle; now we are arguing not about the cost, but about the timing. The fact that they have conceded that principle is, in my view, a welcome step forward.

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