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3.31 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): As my right hon. Friends the shadow Ministers know, and as I have indicated over the past six months, I cannot support the Government in the Division lobby tonight. The effective decision to replace Trident is premature, it has not been fully considered, and it is not justified. The debate is not about being for or against nuclear weapons. I was strongly supportive of Trident and our other nuclear deterrents during the cold war. Trident will be with us for the next twenty years, and possibly longer, so that is not the issue.

This debate is about the deterrent which, in 17 years’ time, we will bequeath to the next generation. None of us can predict what international relationships will be like so far ahead, yet we are being asked to make a full commitment to a highly expensive weapons system that, in the event, could prove ineffective as a deterrent and is questionable in its justification. We are committing not ourselves but the next generation, who may have very different views on deterrence and, indeed, on which defence priorities we should spend the massive sums involved.

There are three key questions. First, do we need a deterrent? My answer is yes. In an uncertain world, it is surely better to deter aggression than to respond to it after it has occurred. To be successful, however, a deterrent must be proportionate to the perceived threat; it must be clearly effective and credible; and therefore need never be used. Belief in the aggressor’s mind that there is the will if necessary to use that deterrent is essential to its credibility, which is why it must be proportionate. Cold war deterrents worked because the balanced threat of mutually assured destruction and the nuclear doctrine between two rational enemies who understood the consequences assured its success. Any future deterrent must be powerful enough to create fear in the potential enemy; its nature must be such that the enemy believes we would really use it if attacked; hence it must proportionate to the threat that the enemy poses.

The next question, which is crucial, is: does the deterrent need to be nuclear? Nuclear warheads are weapons of mass destruction. When we faced the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal, they made sense, because the Soviet bloc was a known enemy that posed a quantifiable threat. The nuclear arsenal of the West was sufficient to deter that threat and, in my view, it was proportionate to it.

Since 1989 things have dramatically changed. The enemy today and in the future is unclear and its threat is unquantifiable. Proponents of replacing Trident argue that there might be a revival of the Russian confrontation. That is a pretty long shot. Even longer is the scenario of a new cold war-style ideologically-driven nuclear arms race where our nuclear deterrent would once again become relevant. The only ideological conflict that I can see is one where it would not be a deterrent anyway, because of the nature of that ideology. We are told that Trident is an insurance against such remote possibilities, but £20 billion is a pretty hefty premium against a pretty unlikely threat.

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Today’s and, I suspect, tomorrow’s threats come more from international terrorism and so-called rogue states. Iran is sometimes cited as encompassing both. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that she could pose a nuclear threat to the United Kingdom. Does the House really believe that a British Government, even in response to an attack, would in the 21st century be prepared to obliterate Tehran? I do not believe that and, more importantly, I do not believe the Iranians believe it, yet that is the stark key to successful deterrence, and if that belief does not exist, it is not a deterrent.

The truth is that the idea of automatic reactive mass obliteration, which was so fundamental to the concept of mutually assured destruction, does not wash any more, and people in the west would not accept it. Yet Trident’s credibility rests on it. To me, Trident was a deterrent of the 20th century; it is not a deterrent of the 21st. We should be looking for something more proportionate and therefore more credible, and that might well not be nuclear. If we need time to do that, we should make that time.

If the deterrent is nuclear, should it be Trident? Trident was originally chosen because it was mobile and invisible, and therefore invulnerable to pre-emptive strike. We are told that that is still the case today. But will it still be invisible in 20 years? That is the crucial question. Do we believe that, by then, advances in technology will not have found a means of tracking submarines underwater from space or from the sea itself? If so, Trident will be redundant and the massive expenditure will have been wasted. Are we prepared to bet against that?

Are there alternatives? Having chosen Trident, the Government are determined not to weaken their position by conceding that there might be alternatives. I understand that. They have a case to make. However, after pressing them for many months, I was pleased that they finally acknowledged that alongside the options in the White Paper, there has been research into the electromagnetic launch of projectiles to achieve hypersonic velocities, and that study of kinetic energy missiles has been undertaken, albeit now discontinued. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) referred to those. I have heard also from other sources of more substantial research work into these technologies which suggests their potential to be developed into variable, non-nuclear but powerful weapons systems that could become credible deterrents.

That is what we should be exploring, yet such options are not even discussed by the Government in this debate or in the White Paper. In fairness to the generation upon whom we are effectively seeking to dump an irreversible commitment to “son of Trident”, we should at least show that we have examined the options before doing so. I believe and have argued previously that before the House takes a final decision, we need a senior independent examination of and report on all the options, not just those in the White Paper. The decision is far too important to railroad through the House.

Do we have to decide now? American experts, including Professor Richard Garwin and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Philip Coyle, tell us that on United States’ experience, our submarines could also have their life extended significantly beyond present
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calculations. Indeed, Philip Coyle says that the Vanguards included later improvements on the US design and

Whatever the exact truth, there is undoubtedly flexibility on time. The Government should use it to allow a proper assessment of their case to be made. Their failure to do so smacks of a rushed decision that will affect not us, but the next generation. We owe the next generation better than that. We owe them an honest assessment and a fully and responsibly justified decision. The White Paper and the motion offer neither of those. I will therefore support the amendment in the Lobby tonight.

3.39 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): There is no doubt that nuclear weapons are the greatest menace to life on this planet. Climate change is an immense concern, but as was shown in Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, at last week’s European Union conference, and by this week’s Bill, with effort it can be contained and even reversed.

The effect of nuclear explosions, on the other hand, is permanent and irreversible. I have paid my respects at the peace memorial at Hiroshima, where descendents of the original victims still pay the price of one day’s folly. I have seen the Japanese city of Kokura, the intended target of the second atom bomb. When cloud prevented the bomb from being dropped there, the United States bomber crew, thinking it a pity to waste it, dropped it on Nagasaki instead, causing hundreds of thousands of immediate casualties and indefinite trauma from fall-out.

The Chernobyl explosion made lamb meat uneatable in Cumbria. If the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island had gone up, the effect of the so-called China syndrome would have caused irremediable havoc, not only in the United States but throughout the world.

When Neil Kinnock placed me in charge of the defence review after Labour’s election defeat in 1987, it became speedily clear to me that the menace to Britain and the world of nuclear weapons could not be solved simply by Britain getting rid of Trident. There were then four other proclaimed nuclear weapons powers, each of them a threat to the entire planet, together with Israel, which has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons but is universally known to have them. The only hope of reducing and eventually ridding the world of this threat was not by self-congratulatory unilateral action but by international negotiation. That is why my policy document, “A power for good”, said:

That is why, when the Labour party’s national executive approved that document, Neil Kinnock declared, when he discussed this issue with world leaders, that

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Clare Short: My right hon. Friend will remember that when we on the national executive were persuaded by his policy document, we made a commitment to try to come out of nuclear possession together with all the other smaller nuclear powers. Does he think that that part of the policy was ever honoured or that any serious effort was put behind it?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: What I do remember is that the right hon. Lady supported the document before the national executive, as did Robin Cook.

At that time, when we were considering these matters, the German Foreign Minister said to me:

That, of course, was after the Labour party’s disastrous defeat in the 1983 general election on a manifesto that I called

That, of course, was when my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Kinnock was still hoping to become Prime Minister rather than a twice-failed Leader of the Opposition. And that, of course, was before India, Pakistan and North Korea had become nuclear weapons powers.

That shift of policy removed an insuperable barrier to the Labour party’s electoral credibility. Without it, many of my hon. Friends would not be in this House today, including some who may be contemplating voting against the Government this evening. Do those hon. Friends really believe that our shared objective of world nuclear disarmament can be achieved by unilateral disarmament by Britain? Do they really believe that if we gave up Trident, the eight other nuclear weapons powers would say, “Good old Britain! They have done the right thing. We must follow suit.”? Pull the other one!

Mr. Sarwar: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I should like to continue.

The only way in which we can give a lead in world nuclear disarmament is to sit down with the others and to engage in hard bargaining. That, after all, is how we achieved success at the Brussels climate change talks last week. Britain did not achieve that success by being absent or by opposing European Union membership—as we did, let us not forget, in the longest suicide note, long before our active and co-operative United Kingdom membership of the European Union enabled my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Kinnock to become a European Commissioner.

The Climate Change Bill on its own, however admirable, cannot bring about world action to remedy climate change. That requires international co-operation. Voting tonight to give up Trident will not persuade Israel and North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. Their threat will remain until international action is taken to reduce and remove nuclear weapons.

In my speech to the Labour party conference commending our defence document, I said:

Defeating the Government tonight—which is what must be the intention, in all honesty, of anyone who
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votes against them—could so reduce our party’s credibility as to contribute to a Labour defeat at the next election. Do my hon. Friends really believe that there is the slightest hope of a Tory Government not renewing Trident, given the opportunity, or of a Tory Government taking active steps towards international nuclear disarmament?

A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed an army officer in a bunker saying to his assembled troops:

Futile gestures can be personally satisfying, but what do they get us? I will tell the House what they get us: 18 years in opposition. It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide.

3.47 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): When a Minister resigns on an issue of principle, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) has, one must pay tribute to his integrity. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made a brave and important speech this afternoon, and he also deserves a tribute for his integrity. I hope, however, that they will both forgive me for saying that I believe that they are fundamentally mistaken. I believe passionately that deterrence has been seen to work in the past and that it continues to be very persuasive for the future.

During the cold war, which could at any time have led to a hot war, I had no doubt that the Soviet Union would have contemplated conventional aggression but was deterred from doing so by the realisation on both sides that any conventional attack could quickly escalate into something far more awesome. That mutual restraint was a crucial consideration, and it differentiates countries such as the United Kingdom from some of the rogue states that might be contemplating acquiring a nuclear weapon. It was asked what difference it would make to a country such as Iran if Britain did not give up its nuclear weapons, but I believe that there is a fundamental distinction.

I would also say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes that even bad Governments, evil states and aggressive regimes can be deterred. They are not all irrational. We now know that, during the Gulf war, the United States made it clear to Saddam Hussein that, if he used the chemical weapons that he had at that time, he would invite a similar response. There is every reason to believe that that carried considerable credibility.

I had the privilege of serving as Defence Secretary for three years, and for having responsibility for our Trident programme at the time. However, it was not me but the Prime Minister who would have had to take any decision on the use of that deterrent. When I was appointed Foreign Secretary, however, I found that I was one of two Ministers nominated by the then Prime Minister to act on his behalf in the event of either his death or incapacity at a time of grave crisis for this country. That is a pretty sobering responsibility with which suddenly to find oneself. I share with all Members, including those with whom I disagree, the realisation that nuclear weapons, unless dealt with in a sane and responsible fashion, can have awful consequences for the world in which we live.

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Why do I come to a different conclusion? I do so for several reasons, which I have no hesitation in sharing with the House. Of course, the cold war is over and the threat that we faced at that time is unlikely to reappear, but it is not guaranteed that it cannot reappear. We are going to live in a world in which the United States and Russia will remain nuclear superpowers for the foreseeable future. The two powers of the future, India and China, are already nuclear powers. What are the implications for western Europe? Were Britain and, I presume, France to be persuaded by the arguments that we have heard from certain quarters, would western Europe be unable to defend itself from the kind of threat that, however unlikely, could arise? In the context of half a century, we cannot assume that the nuclear umbrella that the United States has provided will necessarily continue to be available.

The likely problem has never been that we would be attacked with nuclear weapons, but that a nuclear-armed aggressor could say to a country disarmed of nuclear weapons, “Unless you concede to our requirements, we will threaten to use our nuclear weapons against you, in the knowledge that you cannot retaliate.” That is what deterrence is about; unless we have the capacity to deter, we are able to be blackmailed and have no alternative but to concede.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Where does the amendment mention abandoning Britain’s independent deterrent? Why do Members such as the right hon. and learned Gentleman have to put arguments that, in my view, are entirely specious—those questions are not being asked tonight?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we are debating not just the amendment but the whole principle of the relevance of nuclear weapons at this time. As he mentions the amendment, let me say that whatever decision is taken tonight, it is absurd to suggest that the House and the country could not reconsider that decision if, unexpectedly, there was the prospect of major progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament. The contracts for the new submarines will not be decided until 2012 at the earliest. Whatever Ministers might say, if the world moves in a much more favourable direction, decisions can be reconsidered and taken in the way the hon. Gentleman might wish.

We live in a difficult and uncertain world. Russia is not turning into a modern, democratic society as we might have wished, and is rearming in a significant way. Russia under President Putin is no threat to the United Kingdom, but who can predict who might rule from the Kremlin and have available nuclear weapons with which to threaten the peace of the world in the next 50 years? Only a few years ago, a Mr. Zhirinovsky, who, interestingly enough, led a party called the Liberal Democrats, made considerable progress in moving towards power in Russia. Of course, he has been rebuffed, but none of us can be certain about what will happen in that country.

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