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We are living in a highly dangerous world. To throw one’s conscience at countries that do not share those liberal values is highly dangerous. I hate to be called a realist—although I have been called worse—but we have to accept the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. A single submarine sailing the channels and oceans will not be the deciding factor in a nuclear conflict—it is just one submarine on patrol—but whatever phraseology one uses, whether or not we like the concept of insurance, it is a price worth paying. As almost everyone who makes the deterrence argument
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has said, it is a bluff; we never want to use the weapon, but it can deter others from using their weapons against us.

The question has been asked, how do we deter terrorists? It is not easy, but we should read French strategic thinking, because the French have thought deeply about the issue. They promise retribution to any state that arms terrorist organisations—not a full nuclear strike, but a response nasty enough to deter.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. George: No, I am sorry I cannot. There is a time limit.

We have to retain Trident and replace it with Trident. Some might think that exchanging one model for another is hardly a momentous decision, but it is. Furthermore, it is a decision that many people approach with pre-conceived ideas. This is not mea culpa, but I believed for some time that replacing Polaris with Trident was the wrong decision. I have never traded in my CND badge—as the Foreign Secretary did—because I never actually wore one or wanted to do so. My views were not unilateralist, they were pragmatic. I believed that taking a large chunk of the defence budget away from conventional forces was not a price worth paying. Subsequently, I have publicly recanted on several occasions the arguments I advanced at that time. My research assistant and I wrote the minority report to the 1980-81 Defence Committee report. We wrote a very good report, but on reflection it was tosh. Those who make similar arguments have not yet made that concession. Anybody opposed is making specious arguments. The arguments are not finely balanced.

Mr. Salmond: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: No; I am sorry.

Mr. Salmond: The right hon. Gentleman will get two extra minutes.

Mr. George: Even if I had an extra two hours, I would not concede. The hon. Gentleman can sit down and whinge as much as he likes— [ Interruption. ] I would bet on that.

The arguments are not between people with principle and conscience and those who lack those qualities. The defence of the realm is not just a pragmatic and moral issue; it has to be determined on the basis of conscience. It is difficult to argue to some people the case for spending the 3 per cent. of our defence budget that the Foreign Secretary set out, which is far less than I believe it would have cost to replace Polaris by Trident. Then, we were talking about 15 or 20 per cent. of the defence budget, which was wholly erroneous.

In those days, when I had changed my mind about the replacement of Polaris by Trident, I none the less always supported the Labour Opposition line because of what was in our manifesto. In the last three elections I voted for myself—a wise decision—on a manifesto that said that Trident would be an essential element in Government policy. I am standing by that, but people who lectured me 20 years when I was thinking of
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abandoning a manifesto commitment are now abandoning a commitment that was freely agreed to by the Labour party.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: Provided that the right hon. Gentleman is brief.

Mr. Mates: Of course I shall be brief. The right hon. Gentleman was speaking so frankly that I wanted to give him an extra minute. He mentioned the proportion of the budget to be taken by Trident and its replacement. Does he agree that if there is to be a continual reduction in the overall defence budget, more and more will be taken from the conventional forces that he and I want to be robustly maintained?

Mr. George: This is not the place to argue the case for a significant increase in defence expenditure, but I have always argued for it—even against the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. Every report produced by the Defence Committee between 1979 and 1997 argued that the defence budget should not slip further and further down. As to the specious arguments, I have heard nonsense about costs. They are the same sort of arguments that I delivered 25 years ago. Some say the cost will be £78 billion, yet the Secretary of State for Defence says it will be £15 billion over 15 years, and I believe him, so those claims are scare tactics.

What about breach of the non-proliferation treaty? For every academic who says that there is a breach, we can find people equally, if not more, reputable who argue that there is no problem with the NPT.

Mr. Gordon Prentice rose—

Mr. George: No, I am not giving way. The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech.

What about the argument on opportunity costs? That relates to the point made by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). There may be opportunity costs in spending £15 billion, but that could easily be remedied if the Government had the bottle to say that they regard almost 2 per cent. of gross domestic product in an increasingly dangerous world as inadequate.

Should we stay nuclear? I argue that we should. Should there be three or four Trident submarines? That is a matter of judgment, because if there is an accident three will become two, which will not give us a continuous presence. There are so many other arguments—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

3.17 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who succeeded me in the Chair of the Defence Committee, so we have now heard a triumvirate with broadly similar views.

Unlike some other speakers, I do not want to deal with the strategic issues that underlie the question of whether to maintain our independent deterrent. The House will not be surprised to hear that I agree that we should keep it, although the arguments in favour are quite different from the time when we were debating
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whether to replace Polaris with Trident, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, and the case is not as clear cut as it was then. I want to explain why I believe that if we update our deterrent, the sort of deterrent we need will be different from when we took that decision.

In 1980 the world was bitterly divided between blocs—NATO and the Warsaw pact—and in those circumstances it was no wonder that we maintained a 24-hour, 365-day a year deterrent. It consisted not just of the Polaris missiles, but of free-fall nuclear bombs, nuclear depth charges and Lance surface-to-surface missiles based in Germany. It was a formidable arsenal, but with the end of the cold war most of it has been stood down. No one today would seek to justify the level of deterrent we believed we needed then. The political and strategic picture is wholly different.

The different threat level is already reflected in the way in which the deterrent now operates—there is one submarine on patrol and I understand that it is at several days' notice to fire, rather than on continuous alert. Since 1994, the missiles have been de-targeted.

The level and immediacy of the threat is now regarded as so low that the submarines can undertake hydrographic work and join in naval exercises with other vessels. The sub-strategic deterrent that was considered essential now consists of one Trident missile with one warhead rather than a multiple weapons system. We should welcome that reduction in the size and scale of our deterrent posture; it fits with the times we live in and is consistent with our international obligations on the reduction of nuclear capability. A renewed deterrent will need to be equally flexible to respond to any changes in the strategic picture over its long lifespan. It will also need, in financial terms, not to be too much of a drain on an already over-stretched defence budget.

In considering a replacement for the current deterrent, the White Paper examines various options. It rejects the notion that a land-based system would be practical. Equally understandably, it rejects as too costly and impractical the notion of a surface ship carrying ballistic missiles. Finally, the option of an air-based deterrent with converted aircraft has been turned down, not least because cruise missiles are vulnerable to being shot down and are unreliable, and no nuclear cruise missile could be introduced without testing it—and such a test is forbidden by the test ban treaty.

The Government have rightly decided that the new deterrent will be based on submarines similar to the Polaris and Trident systems. The issue in 1980 was whether we needed four or five such boats in order to maintain a continuous deterrent. Today, the question is whether we could manage with three. I believe that the Government need to give serious consideration to both the number of new submarines and to their size. In their White Paper, the Government say the decision has yet to be taken on how many submarines will be required. Quite rightly, Ministers take the view that we must have sufficient submarines in order that a continuous at-sea deterrent can be maintained. I agree with that, but we need to consider whether and how we might devise a way of meeting that requirement in a manner that could reduce both the capital and the running costs.

Given the change in the strategic picture and the unlikelihood of a sudden massive attack that required
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the availability of an instant response to deter it, I believe that we should look at the possibilities of international co-operation to meet our deterrent needs. In that regard, we should explore the possibility of coming to an understanding with the French. Before eyebrows reach the ceiling, let me say that I am not talking about the security implications, simply about patrolling. The French see themselves as having a similar deterrent requirement to ourselves and they are in the process of updating their independent deterrent, but now with four submarines instead of five.

It has always been the position of successive Governments that the only way to guarantee one ballistic missile submarine at sea all the time is from a fleet of four. That relates to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South’s point about the possibility of an accident. However, if an understanding could be reached whereby the at-sea and, therefore, invulnerable deterrent was shared between ourselves and France at times, it seems to me possible, or even likely, that each of us could manage with one submarine fewer. Such an arrangement need not in any way affect the integrity or independence of our deterrent, nor need there be any degradation of the security relating to targeting, pay loads, patrol patterns or anything else. It would simply involve an agreement over the timing of the departure and return of each country's deterrent patrol. There would thus be a guarantee of a European deterrent at sea in the unlikely event of a surprise or short-notice nuclear attack. Such a scenario may seem unlikely or even impossible as we speak, but we are talking about the uncertainties, both strategic and political, of the next 30 or 40 years. Had we been taking such decisions in 1980, when the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and I were debating this, and painting a picture of 30 or 40 years’ time, we would have been seriously wrong about the timing of the ending of the cold war.

I immediately hear objections that one cannot rely on the French and that their priorities might be different from ours, but I do not believe that those form an insuperable barrier to co-operation. While a French deterrent patrol was at sea, we could maintain a submarine alongside, ready to sail in a matter of hours. I believe that a ballistic missile could even be fired alongside should an attack appear with no or little warning, unlikely as that is. I think that that is technically possible. However, that is not the threat we are aiming to meet because a no-notice attack is in the realm of the most unlikely, bordering on impossible, at the moment.

Last year, on a visit to Brest—the headquarters of France's deterrent forces command—I discussed this thought with Admiral Boiffin, the commander of all France's strategic deterrent assets. He readily agreed that there could be considerable cost savings on both sides if there were to be co-operation and he acknowledged that he could see no military objections, given the extreme pressure on defence budgets. But, of course, he added that it was not a decision for him but for his political masters in Paris. That is why I am putting it to our political masters in London. I commend this thought—it is only a thought—to the House as a serious way to try to maintain our deterrent in the most cost-effective manner.

The second area where I believe the change in the type of threat merits a change in the operation of the deterrent is over the size of any submarines. We can
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reduce their size and we do not need as many tubes. If we can get some sort of synergy between the next generation of ballistic submarines and the next generation of hunter-killer submarines, there are huge potential cost savings.

Overall, in replacing this deterrent we need to look for cost-effectiveness and co-operation, and a way to do that with the least impact on a defence budget that is already very stretched.

3.24 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The House should not forget that the scale of indiscriminate destruction that can be unleashed by a single nuclear warhead is unparalleled. It was Nikita Khrushchev who said that in a nuclear war, the survivors would envy the dead. Almost by definition, nuclear weapons inflict death and suffering on civilians, and the suffering is not confined to those present at the blast. Descendants of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still being born with genetic defects today. The House will be aware that the current generation of so-called small nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the two dropped in Japan at the end of the second world war.

I spent most of my political life during the cold war. There was a very real fear in Europe in particular that there really would be a nuclear war. There was a recognition on the part of many of the leading countries, including the United States and Britain, that if nothing were done, it would only be a matter of time before a large number of countries acquired nuclear weapons. This was a terrifying prospect. Clearly the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the greater the chance that they will be used. It is against this background that the international community, with Britain playing a major role, resolved that the world should instead become free of nuclear weapons. In 1968, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was agreed, and it was ratified in 1970.

At the heart of the treaty is a deal between the non-nuclear weapons states and the nuclear weapons states. The non-nuclear weapons states agreed not to seek to acquire nuclear weapons; in return, those states get assistance with civil uses of nuclear energy and, crucially, the promise of complete nuclear disarmament from the nuclear weapons states. It is generally believed that the non-proliferation regime, with the non-proliferation treaty at its heart, has played an important role in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the nine or so states currently believed to hold them. The treaty is, as Ministers have put it, the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

The end of the cold war brought a window of opportunity to make real progress in fully implementing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The tragedy is that this is not the way in which it is turning out. In recent years, there has been growing disillusionment among the non-nuclear weapons states. They fear that the nuclear weapons states are not prepared to fulfil their disarmament obligations. The world’s non-proliferation mechanisms desperately need strengthening. That window of opportunity still exists.

No country is better placed than Britain to make a major contribution internationally in this field. After all, neither Britain nor western Europe is subject to any
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direct military threat and the Government have stated that no such threat is foreseen. This is the time when Britain should be taking the initiative to encourage nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is profoundly depressing that the Government want to procure a new generation of Trident.

The decision to buy a new generation of Trident would damage non-proliferation efforts. After all, we have an obligation to move towards complete disarmament, and making provision to renew Trident clearly runs counter to that obligation. We seek to persuade non-nuclear weapons states not to pursue nuclear weapons programmes, and we seek to persuade the international community of the need to strengthen the world’s non-proliferation mechanisms. Those exhortations will be met with increasing cynicism if, at the same time as we make them, we buy a new generation of Trident. It will not be just our credibility that is damaged—faith in the world’s non-proliferation regimes will be further undermined. By renewing Trident we will effectively say to other countries that nuclear weapons are so vital that we are prepared to spend billions of pounds to make sure that we have them in the 2020s and beyond, even though the Government admit that we do not face a foreseeable direct military threat. Far from persuading other nations to remain non-nuclear, we will send a signal that nuclear weapons are vital.

The Government argue that we should renew Trident, not because of any foreseeable threat, but because we cannot accurately predict the nature of the world in 30 or 50 years’ time. Surely, the same is true for any country in the world. Germany, Japan and Egypt, for example, do not know what threats will face them in the 2020s and beyond. There is nothing in the Government’s justification for renewing Trident that does not apply to every country in the world. That clearly undermines our argument that non-nuclear weapon states should continue to forgo nuclear weapons. The Government rightly say that we do not know what the future holds, but we can be sure that a decision not to renew Trident would avoid the damage that would be done to non-proliferation efforts if we go ahead with renewal.

I would like the UK to decommission Trident. Other countries have given up nuclear weapons: South Africa abandoned its nuclear programme, as has Libya, and Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons too. We applauded those countries for the course that they took. None of the countries that abandoned their nuclear programmes are any less secure, and neither would we be. Indeed, Britain would be a safer place if we did not renew Trident because, first, we would avoid the detrimental impact of Trident renewal on the non-proliferation regimes and, secondly, we could spend our defence budget more effectively. Instead of spending £20 billion on renewing Trident and £1.5 billion every year running it, Britain could put more resources into defence equipment and operations more relevant to our security needs in the 21st century.

The prospect of nuclear proliferation is as dreadful today as it was in the 1960s, when the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was agreed. This is a critical period, and the decisions that we make today will have an important bearing on the deployment of nuclear weapons world wide. Consideration of whether to procure a new generation of nuclear weapons should take place in the context of the role that Britain should play in the world
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today. My vision of Britain is of a leader in global non-proliferation, keeping our commitments and strengthening the world’s nuclear safeguards, which is why I will vote against the renewal of Trident.

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