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14 Mar 2007 : Column 389

I am unconvinced about the massive cost of replacement. In particular, I have great reservations about the accuracy of figures provided to date. Government sources previously quoted Trident’s running costs at between 2 and 4 per cent. of the annual defence budget—approximately £1 billion per year. That has been revised upward to 5 to 6 per cent. in the White Paper by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. There must now be doubts over whether the global cost figure offered of £15 billion to £20 billion is accurate. Ministry of Defence procurement has a history of exceeding initial budgets. The contract for the new Astute class submarine has already doubled, before a single ship has been launched. Some observers have even put the cost for the full life of Trident’s replacement as more realistically between £76 billion and £110 billion.

The factor of fear and uncertainty has been a strong element in the arguments of those supporting a new system. People in Glasgow understood that at the height of the cold war. Given Faslane’s strategic importance and the US Navy base at Holy Loch, we felt the real threat posed by Soviet missiles targeted on Scotland. Times have changed. The cold war threat from the Soviet Union no longer exists and therefore the need for new nuclear weapons does not exist.

If we and other countries that have nuclear weapons pursue new nuclear weapons systems, the likelihood of proliferation and of nuclear threats will increase for many years to come. The Prime Minister’s argument that nuclear weapons are vital to our national security can, and is likely to be, adopted by other current non-nuclear states worldwide. That view is supported by Kofi Annan, who said at the 60th anniversary of the United Nations that the more those states that already have nuclear weapons increase their arsenals, or insist that such weapons are essential to their national security, the more other states feel they too must have them for their security. Therefore, failure to prioritise real international disarmament negotiations in the near future will only contribute to the ongoing problem of proliferation.

Lord Kinnock, who ended our party’s commitment to unilateral disarmament, has said that the Government have failed to make the political, technical or military case for enhancing Britain’s weapon system. He is right. The Government have not made the case for the need to replace Trident and for that decision to be made now.

I want to ask right hon. and hon. Members one question: why do we believe that it is right for Britain, the United States of America and Israel to possess weapons of mass destruction and expand their nuclear weapons arsenals, but that it is not right for other nations to develop nuclear weapons? Is it because we have more wisdom, because we are more responsible or because we are a rich nation? If we spent the billions of pounds that we are spending on war and our nuclear arsenal on alleviating poverty, we would live in a safer world.

6.33 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution to what has been an excellent debate.

As it was for the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), this was one of the most potent and divisive issues throughout my formative
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political years in the 1980s. I have been struck by the number of Members who have spoken of the issue as a matter of principle. When I resolved my position on the issue, I did so not on principle but on an entirely pragmatic basis. Given that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons is so horrific and enormous, I would have some difficulty in aligning myself with such a principle.

The arguments in the 1980s were threefold in their concerns: the concept of mutually assured destruction; the question of deterrence; and whether disarmament should be multilateral or unilateral. I always felt that that debate was fairly false. I never had much respect for the concept of mutually assured destruction. By the more swivel-eyed tendency to which we have heard reference today, that always seemed to be embraced as an opportunity rather than a threat. But in the context of the cold war, I was prepared to see some force in the theory of deterrence.

We live in a very different world now, however. In the 1980s, during the cold war, I was eventually persuaded to accept acquisition. I did so as a multilateral disarmer: I believed that the only real purpose for which the possession of such weapons could be countenanced was to get rid of them. I think that some justification for that position was provided by the progress that we made in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but, as I have said, the world today is very different. The threats to world security no longer come from superpower blocs; they come from regional conflicts, from rogue states and from cellular terrorist organisations.

In recent years, the arguments in favour of possession of nuclear weapons have become progressively thinner. A number of Members have spoken today about the position of Iran. I think that one of the major motivations for Iran’s seeking to become a nuclear power—which, like everyone else, I deplore—is the fact that Israel is believed to be a nuclear power. That is the way it goes. I think it is the major flaw in the argument we have heard from the Conservatives today, the ultimate logic of which is that eventually every sovereign state will have the right, and indeed the obligation, to become a nuclear state.

What the Government are asking of us today is of a different order from what I have been prepared to live with in recent years. They are talking not about maintenance, but about renewal and extension. If we approach the argument on a pragmatic rather than a principled basis, that is where the tipping point shifts. Where will be our moral authority to attend the nuclear non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010 if we back the Government’s position today?

6.37 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): If our friend the late Robin Cook were here today, he would vote against the Government. My friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) quoted extensively from what Robin said. Let me quote just a couple of sentences. Shortly before he died, Robin said this:

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The White Paper is full of assertions. Our friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made that point. It asserts, as if it were a truth, that

I simply do not believe that.

When I asked Ministers three weeks ago to supply me with the Attorney-General’s advice—the legal advice that allowed the Prime Minister and the Government to say that—I was told that it was confidential. I am not prepared to take these matters on trust, not after Iraq, not after weapons of mass destruction and not after the “45 minutes” assertion. If the Prime Minister came here and told us that we had to invade Iran, do you think the military would go along with that without having sight of the Attorney-General’s—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to draw the Speaker into the argument. That is one thing that I will not allow.

Mr. Prentice: I do not think it possible that the Prime Minister could persuade the House of Commons to embark on a military adventure against another country without tabling the Attorney-General’s opinion. I think that this is such an important matter, for all the reasons that we have heard during this long debate, that it is unacceptable for the Government to proceed on this basis.

The way in which the Government have consulted the Labour party has been an absolute disgrace. All the motions that were put before the Labour conference in September were ruled out of order as the matter was going to be referred to the national policy commission. When it was discussed at the national policy commission there was a debate—there always is—but no vote, because under new Labour nothing crystallises into a vote. The only time when I ever vote is when I am here in the House of Commons. That is disgraceful.

I hope that my hon. Friends will, like me, vote for the amendment, and if the amendment is lost I hope that they will vote against the Government.

6.40 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I say that I—along with, I suspect, several other Scottish Labour MPs—will vote against Trident’s replacement this evening. I would vote against Trident’s replacement wherever in the United Kingdom it was based, but the reality is that it is based in the west of Scotland and for many decades vast majorities of people in Scotland have made it clear that they oppose nuclear weapons being based in Scotland. I think that that is because they, perhaps more than people in any other part of Britain, are very aware of what those weapons represent. They are weapons of mass destruction that have been designed to target civilian communities and to maximise death and suffering.

We know what the outcome of the use of a nuclear weapon is; we learned that in Hiroshima. The only country in the world that has ever used nuclear
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weapons is the United States of America. I believe that the primary function of this debate should be to encourage us to do everything we can to make sure that such weapons are never used again. One of the most important things that we must do to make sure that they are never used again is to make sure that as few of them as possible exist in the world and that as few countries as possible have them.

If today we vote for Trident renewal, that must be a breach of the non-proliferation treaty. We are talking about 17 years of development of a new nuclear weapon system at, we understand, a cost of more than £20 billion. That is to develop a new and more sophisticated form of weapons of mass destruction. That is a very serious matter for this House to agree to. If we decide to go ahead with Trident renewal today, we will send the wrong signal to those countries that currently do not have nuclear weapons. What we will be saying to them is that a country such as Britain, which is stable and powerful and the fourth richest country in the world, needs nuclear weapons for our defence. If we need them, we must agree that other countries might also need them.

I welcome the fact that we are having this debate. This is the first time that the Members of the House of Commons have had the opportunity to take part in a debate before such a decision is taken. The Government should be congratulated on that. It is partly because of the strength of feeling on the Labour Benches—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I shall now call the Front Benchers. I call Dr. Liam Fox.

6.43 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Our debate has been very good, often thoughtful, and at times subdued. It was started in the best possible way with truly excellent speeches by the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Throughout the day, the argument has fallen into several clear areas: the principle of deterrence and the case for possessing any nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom; the timing of the decision to replace the Trident deterrent; the cost implications; and the implications of our decision for disarmament globally.

The bottom line in the debate has been that we live in a risky and unpredictable world. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said that threats can emerge and re-emerge, as well as diminish, with little warning. The era of the cold war ended unexpectedly abruptly, and we have no idea where the threats of the future might come from. As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, it is necessary for us to live in the world as it is, rather than imagine that we are living in the world that we wish to live in. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said in a very thoughtful speech, being strong deters attack but being weak can be an invitation to war and threat.

Therefore, in a risky world, we need flexibility. It is not, as the House has often been told today, a choice between nuclear deterrence and spending more money
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on conventional defence. In an uncertain world, we require flexibility to deter credibly, and where possible, to deal with threats to the United Kingdom or to British strategic interests.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said at the outset, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented; they will remain part of the international security picture in the future. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and their attempted acquisition by Iran are real threats to our security. The opponents of our nuclear programme in this House today are, in effect, demanding that liberal democracies disarm in the face of dictatorships. We in this House do not have the right to gamble and to play fast and loose with the security of future generations, as Members in some parts of the House are asking us to do.

I want to take head-on the argument in the amendment to the motion. The basic case made by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and of many who spoke in support of his ideas was that we are beginning a so-called process of rearmament that is encouraging others to develop nuclear weapons. That is nonsense. There is no way that what we are voting on tonight could be described as rearmament. We have a single delivery system and a minimum credible deterrent, with a falling number of warheads, and there has been a 70 per cent. cut in our nuclear arsenal since the cold war. We are within not only the letter but the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty. That view was echoed in a number of excellent speeches, including that by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who made those points extraordinarily clearly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) brought another dimension to the debate. In an excellent speech, he touched on the intervention of the Churches—many of us have had letters from them—regarding the moral implications, which have frequently been cited in this debate. Let me briefly deal with that issue. According to some, it is apparently not only unchristian to use nuclear weapons, but irreligious even to retain them to prevent a war. Yet if these arguments are valid, they are also timeless—retrospective, as well as applicable to the future.

Purely for the sake of argument, let us hypothesise that nuclear bombs were not dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that mass conventional warfare continued well into 1946, culminating in a fiercely resisted invasion of mainland Japan, the murder of the remaining allied prisoners of war and an overall death toll greatly exceeding the horrific losses in the two bombed cities. This poses a dilemma for some. Would it have been better for many more to be killed in a continuing conventional conflict, as long as nuclear weapons were not used—or should it be accepted that the ghastliness of total war overrides the question of which weapons are used to minimise casualties and end the war as rapidly as possible? The immorality of mere possession is even harder to argue, and I am glad that that ethical dimension came out in today’s debate.

It was interesting to be reminded in glimpses today of a time when politics in the House of Commons was perhaps a little more colourful. We had a full parade from the unreformed Labour left of the national self-loathing that we used to see regularly. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about post-imperial vanity, and of Britain
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vaingloriously strutting around the world. He talked about the pre-emption of the parliamentary vote, as though any decisions that MPs take freely that are not in accord with his view were not legitimate. That was echoed, of course, by the candidate for the leadership of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). He talked about Parliament being bounced into a vote, and he said that the electorate should be consulted. It seemed utterly to escape his notice that the Government were elected—as he was—on a manifesto commitment to retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent. It might be worth reminding him that when Labour was unilateralist it was entirely unelectable.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) said that we must lead by example in attempting to create a more peaceful world, but as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out, a previous Labour leadership found that other nuclear states were utterly underwhelmed by gesture unilateralism. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, in a powerful speech, it is nonsense to suggest that if we give up Trident others will meekly follow behind. He reminded his colleagues that they would have remained unelectable had he and Lord Kinnock not changed their party’s position from unilateralism to multilateralism.

The timing of the decision has been a cause of genuine division and some confusion in the House today. The Foreign Secretary made the case clearly at the outset. Our first Trident submarine will be out of service by 2022 and our second by 2024. We need to have a new system in place by then. If we estimate that it takes 17 years to design, build, test and deploy a new system, this is the right time to make the decision.

The time scale was the fig leaf used by the Liberal Democrats to disguise their utter confusion and division on the issue. The intellectual spaghetti dished up by the Liberal Democrat spokesman reminded us of the difference between parties that have to confront the realities of government and those that are merely interested observers on the sidelines. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that it was not the time to give up our nuclear deterrent, but he was utterly incapable of describing an international strategic environment in which it would be appropriate to give up the nuclear deterrent. He said that we should leave the decision to the latest possible date. But if we are to avoid the possibility of a capability gap in the future and retain our skills base, this is the time to make the decision. We should be in no doubt that this evening is the big strategic moment to take that decision. I cannot help but feel that the delay that the Liberal Democrats propose is only to cover the fact that they cannot muster the political courage to face up to this most crucial decision. Today they were revealed at their most pathetic.

The cost issue has been raised by several hon. Members, and the Foreign Secretary mentioned how the replacement would cost 5 to 6 per cent. of the defence budget and the development and purchase phase would cost 3 per cent. of the defence budget. I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence, when he winds up, will discuss how the Treasury intends to deal with the years in which those costs occur simultaneously, to ensure that our conventional forces do not suffer.

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There have been many other good contributions, notably from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who pointed out that if the NPT had prohibited upgrading and modernising of nuclear forces, China, Russia and the US would never have signed up to it. In another excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) made it clear that the argument was never that the nuclear deterrent was designed to deter all threats, but that it was meant to deter nuclear blackmail and attack, which it has certainly done.

We cannot predict the future. The nature of the threat that we face has changed quickly from the cold war to a range of other threats, and it could change quickly again. The onus is not on those of us who wish to retain a deterrent, but on those who want to scrap it to tell us why they believe that they can predict the risks that we will face in half a century’s time. Tonight is not about the Conservative party coming to support a Labour Government; it is about doing what we believe to be right for the country’s national security. We in the Conservative party have been consistent and clear about our belief in nuclear deterrence. The cold war did not just end; it was won with a clarity of purpose and political resolve, not least on the part of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Peace through strength has a strong historical track record. This is no time to abandon that track record, or our security.

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