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Another representation that has frequently been made to me—it is an argument that was made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short)—is that if Britain renews its nuclear capacity, that will send the wrong message to other countries who want to rearm. It might send the wrong message, but it will not change the decision that such countries will make or try to make, because fascists and totalitarian people and dictators do not listen to the logic of the kind of debates that we have in this House. Instead, they ask, “Can we throw our weight about more if we have a nuclear weapon?” and they say, “If it is possible for us to get a nuclear weapon, we will try our best to get that weapon.” To repeat a point that was made by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, if another country does not have that weapon, such people will be the first to say, “No, we will not engage in a diplomatic argument about the issues before us, and we will not even have a conventional warfare argument about our problems”—whatever they might be about, such as oil, Russia or the middle east—“because we have nuclear capacity and we know
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that you don’t have nuclear capacity and that is all that matters.” I could talk a lot more about that.

Representations have also been made to me that we do not know, and cannot imagine, who the enemy is. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made that point. However, that is the main reason for having a deterrent. According to the doctrine of uncertainty and ambiguity, we must invest in the cutting-edge of defence technology in the hope that others will understand that we are doing so and we will never have to use what we develop. If we do not invest in that, we will leave ourselves wide open to attack—or blackmail, which can be even worse—by others who hold different views from us.

I am currently reading a book for fourth level students about the history of Britain, and it is interesting to learn what people at one point in time thought would happen in the future and what actually happened four or five years later—in Scotland among other places, I might add. It is hard to predict the future. We do not know what will happen in China. What will happen if China breaks up into different parts? What will happen if Russia breaks up into different parts, or if someone who makes Putin look benign takes over and decides to throw their weight around within the Russian sphere of influence or in the middle east? If we have given away our nuclear capacity and we then try to have diplomatic or other arguments with such people, we will be in a very weak position. We do not know what the future holds.

My views on this matter are not in any way connected to always supporting the Americans. I do not always support them; I did not do so on Iraq. However, that is, in a sense, a short-term problem. The decision that we are discussing is a much longer term decision. I believe that we must take it in principle. It is no use saying that we will wait until 2014, which is what the Liberal Democrats are saying. It has been conceded this evening that the Liberal Democrats have no argument against the principle of nuclear capacity, and I am glad that they are prepared to support the design and development of any new capacity. However, I say, not only to Liberal Democrat Members but to some of my party colleagues, that that is not enough. What we are discussing is a big decision. We have to tell the British people what we believe in—what our principles are.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Many hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. I have therefore decided to invoke the shorter speech rule, which will operate from approximately 5.42 pm. From then, speeches will be no more than four minutes long. I hope that that will enable more Members to speak in the debate.

5.24 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Like a previous speaker, I have received not a single letter from any of my constituents urging me to vote with the Government tonight in favour of replacing Trident. However, not for one moment do I think that there is not a strong understanding in my constituency and throughout the country of the need for this House
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to vote in favour of a replacement tonight. Yes, our constituents put us here to talk about the most immediate and pressing issues that they face, and for many those are public services, NHS dentistry, and the closure of accident and emergency wards and local tax offices, for example. However, they also put us here to take the difficult and unattractive decisions that do not satisfy any immediate interests, but which are nevertheless vital to the national interest. The decision before us tonight is one such decision.

A number of constituents and local church and environmental groups have contacted me, expressing concern about, and opposition to, the notion that we should support replacing Trident. I do not intend to discuss all the various arguments, a number of which have already been covered more than adequately, but one idea that has some currency in the country is that Parliament has not been given enough opportunities to examine rigorously all the issues affecting the decision that we are about to take. That notion has been scotched well and truly, however. There have been three Select Committee reports and a White Paper, and numerous opportunities for Members to visit Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde, at Faslane and Coulport, in order to have frank discussions with a wide variety of service and civilian personnel in management and operational roles, and to question them about the nature of our deterrent and how it is managed. So Parliament has had adequate opportunity to scrutinise the issues before us.

A number of my constituents have also expressed the view that since the end of the cold war, the world has changed so fundamentally that nuclear weapons and the nuclear deterrent are redundant. A local church group said to me that since 9/11, the world had changed so much that nuclear weapons had no place any more. It is true that since the end of the cold war, the nature of the threat has changed; no one is pretending otherwise. It is also true that our nuclear capability and posture and the configuration of our nuclear resources have changed to reflect that change.

In some of the correspondence that I have received, the view has also been expressed that since 9/11 a new era has been ushered in, in which terrorist attacks have displaced the threat of strategic nuclear strikes, and that because nuclear weapons are less relevant in the war on terrorism, they are redundant in this new era. That view is dangerously misguided. Of course nuclear weapons are futile in deterring someone from blowing themselves up on the No. 12 bus, but so is most of the kit that comprises most of our conventional warfare capability. The fact is that the nuclear deterrent serves a very limited but vital purpose: to help create the conditions in which a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom would be futile, and therefore highly unlikely.

There has been a lot of discussion this afternoon of what is unknown about the future strategic threats that this country will face in the decades ahead. There is indeed a lot that we do not know, but there are some assumptions that we can make. We can assume that the number of countries seeking to acquire a nuclear capability will increase. Although we might have no idea of the intent in the decades ahead of countries that will have such a capability, we can fairly safely assume that the march of political freedom and liberalism across the globe will not progress uniformly. There will continue to be points of collision between
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the values of liberalism—it is one of our country’s destinies to promote those values throughout the globe—and manifestations of tyranny. So it is not totally outlandish to envisage a scenario in which the UK might once again be a target of a nuclear state.

In a world in which an increasing number of rogue states and illiberal regimes are seeking to acquire a nuclear capability, it is essential that a core of strong liberal democratic nations retain their nuclear deterrents for the foreseeable future. While it is difficult to identify any nation on earth now whose nuclear capability combines with an aggressive intent to pose an existing threat to the UK, the fact is that we can never say that such a threat will not re-emerge in the decades ahead. A minimum credible nuclear deterrent is therefore vital. Trident has proved successful as a flexible and secure platform for maintaining that deterrent, and the time has come for the House to make the positive decision to replace it.

5.30 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Unlike the Foreign Secretary, I was never a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Nor have I ever been a unilateralist or a pacifist. On the other hand, I have never had anything to do with the kind of swivel-eyed, Dr. Strangelove-type reactionaries, who for some reason I always associate in my own mind with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

There is something worrying about the occupants of the two Front Benches coming together on an issue that has echoes of Iraq all over again. Much of the argument has been made on the basis of fear, uncertainty and disinformation. We all know where similar arguments took us in March 2003. This is obviously a different subject, and there are strongly held feelings on both sides. I also appreciate that some hon. Members have strong constituency interests, but I have noted two points especially in the debate today.

The first was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) when he said that he had a sense of déj vu. So did I, especially when I heard the speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). They had the benefit of consistency in what they had to say, but they were talking about a situation that obtained 20 or 25 years ago. Matters have moved on a great deal since then.

The second point is about the way in which the same tactics are employed to knock down propositions that have not been put. I have heard many references to unilateral disarmament, as if hon. Members would have a chance to support that option tonight. That is not true; it is a fallacious argument, and it is typical of the kind of debating cul-de-sac that we are taken into on such occasions.

The key question is time. I am reminded of the classic film “Clockwise”. The John Cleese character organises his day to the very second so that he can ascend to the heady position of chairman of the Headmasters Conference. Of course everything goes awry, but he is determined to have his day. I tend to think that this debate is connected to the Prime Minister’s approaching abdication from his post. That
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is behind the rush to push the issue to a conclusion tonight. I can see no other reason why this decision must be made now.

Many hon. Members have talked of this decision being an insurance policy. This must be the only insurance policy to be taken out against we know not whom, based in countries we know not where, and with weapons we know not what. We are told that at some point in the indeterminate future we may need weapons against a country that will repeat the threats of the 1970s and 1980s. Frankly, I just do not buy that.

Nor do I buy into any of the other arguments that have been put about the need to take this decision now. I wonder why the Americans need a mere 13-year lead-in time to build one of their superior submarines, compared with the 17 years that we need. That is very odd. We will also be going back to the very same supplier who provided us with an inferior product before, which—according to the latest Government estimates—will last only 25 years, when the Americans’ system lasts 40 years. That is most perplexing. What happens to our procurement policies—

Des Browne: Let me deal with the point about the design life of the submarines. They were ordered to last for that long. They were designed for 25 years because that is what the Government of the day said that they could afford to buy—not because the people who built them could not make them last longer. They could, of course, have made them to last longer, as the Ohio class submarines were, but they would have cost much more.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s advice, but that was 30 years ago, and time has moved on—not only that, but it depends on who we believe about the design life of these particular vessels. Until comparatively recently, we were told that the lifespan of the Vanguard class submarine was 30 years minimum—not 30 years maximum, not 25 years with a possible extension of another five years, but 30 years minimum. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to point to the Select Committee report, but I am telling the House what Ministers and senior members of the Ministry of Defence—including Lord Moonie, with whom I checked this information today—stated at the time, as a matter of public record. They were adamant that there would be a minimum life of 30 years.

Is it not strange that our American friends base the life of their vessels from the ship-going period of their commission rather than from when they are first launched, as there is a gap? If the figures are fiddled around with, it is possible to argue, given the lead-in time and the lifespan that we now attribute to those vessels, that we should be putting in our orders now. It seems, however, that the figures—and, indeed, part of the science—have been conjectured to fit around the political desirability of taking a decision now.

We are told that we have expert advice. The one issue on which I agreed with the Prime Minister on 4 December was the fact that such things are “a matter of judgment”. It is indeed a matter of judgment, and for every scientist who says that this is what we should be doing now, other scientists can be produced who say the opposite. For example, Dick Garwin has already been mentioned, and advocates of the Select Committee’s paper will agree that he appeared before it. However, Dick Garwin did not speak, as someone claimed he did, only on
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behalf of Philip Coyle; he also spoke on behalf of Ted Postol, who designed the Trident system in the first place, and Frank von Hippel, who was one of the designers of the warheads that we copy.

I have to say that if eminent scientists are giving advice—they actually believe in nuclear deterrence and are party to these decisions not only as scientists, but as leading members of various administrations—it behoves us to listen to what they have to say. We should not be bounced into taking a decision here tonight that pre-empts the sort of informed debate that needs to happen before the House can take a properly objective and science-based decision.

5.38 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): In the current uncertain international situation and all the threats of proliferation, I believe that this is no time for Britain to give up its nuclear deterrent. North Korea has already tested a nuclear weapon and Iran is in the process of developing nuclear weapons. Those developments clearly put pressure on other powers in their regions to consider acquiring nuclear weapons themselves. Such proliferation could lead in the longer term to a possibility of one or more such states posing a threat to Britain.

The goal that we should all be striving for is to rid the world of all its nuclear weapons, but I do not believe that that can be achieved by Britain unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons. We must participate in multilateral negotiations. In that context, the next nuclear non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010 are of immense importance, and the Government should be doing all they can to make those talks a success.

What I find puzzling is the Government’s proposal to declare now that we will proceed to build replacement Trident submarines after the conclusion of those talks, irrespective of their outcome. That is a proposal whose logic I simply cannot understand. In order to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, the only decisions that need to be taken now are to participate in the missile life extension programme and to commence the initial concept and design work for the replacements to our Vanguard-class submarines. I believe that the Government should authorise that work. However, I do not support the Government’s decision now, which is far too premature, to build a new generation of submarines some time in the middle of the next decade.

Emily Thornberry: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with what I understand is the Lib Dems’ policy—cutting half the Trident weapons and extending the life of the other half for seven years?

Mr. Reid: I certainly support Liberal Democrat policy, and I will come to that later in my speech.

If we had to take the decision today to build replacement submarines I would certainly vote in favour, but we do not need to take the decision for several years. The Government should have asked Parliament today only to authorise participation in the missile life extension programme and to start the concept and design work on possible replacement submarines. It is vital that Parliament should be given a future opportunity to vote on whether we actually proceed to building the replacement submarines.

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I simply do not understand why the Government want us to take that decision today. I can only speculate that the Prime Minister wants to take as many decisions as he can before he leaves office. He seems to want to commit the Government to decisions that do not need to be taken until after he has long gone.

The vast majority of the costs associated with any replacement system would begin to be incurred only at the main-gate approval stage. That is when the actual manufacture of replacement submarines would begin. The concept and design work that takes place before main-gate approval incurs only a small proportion of the overall procurement costs. Therefore the final decision on whether, and if so how, to procure any successor system could be taken at any point up to a decision on main-gate approval without incurring significant procurement costs. The main-gate approval for the replacement submarines is likely to take place in about 2014.

Scheduling the final decision for a more realistic date in the next decade would give Britain several years that should be put to good use in trying to create the circumstances in which maintaining our nuclear deterrent would prove unnecessary. As I said in response to the intervention, I fully support the Liberal Democrat proposal of an immediate cut in Britain’s nuclear arsenal of 50 per cent. to reinvigorate multilateral disarmament talks and re-energise the negotiations. The remaining warheads would be sufficient to provide Britain with a credible deterrent.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman explain exactly which 50 per cent. he would cut?

Mr. Reid: Fifty per cent. of the current missiles would be cut. Such a significant reduction to Britain's nuclear arsenal would send a strong signal that Britain continues to meet its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and is serious about cutting nuclear weapons. If Britain used all its influence to spearhead a renewed drive towards disarmament and expressed a sincere willingness to give up our remaining nuclear weapons if sufficient progress were made towards total worldwide nuclear disarmament—in partnership, I hope, with a more sympathetic American Administration after George Bush has gone—the next NPT review conference in 2010 could make progress again after the failure in 2005.

By keeping our options open for some years, we can make a final assessment of whether we need to insure against an uncertain future with the advantage of being several years closer to that future and better able to judge it. Taking a decision on replacing the Trident submarines now pre-empts the outcome of the 2010 talks and greatly reduces the chances of their success. We should do all we can to make the talks a success and, after the talks, review the situation. If sufficient progress has been made by then towards a world free of nuclear weapons, we may not need to build replacement submarines. On the other hand, the talks could fail, in which case the right decision will be to build replacement submarines to carry the Trident missiles. But that is a decision to be taken in the middle of the next decade, not now. The Government have failed to convince me in the debate of the need to take the decision now, so I shall be voting for the amendment to postpone the decision to build replacement submarines.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The four-minute limit on speeches now operates.

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