Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q40  Mr Crausby: You go on in your White Paper to say that the money could be spent on conventional defence. Do you really take that position? To be fair, you mention that it should be spent on other things as well, but does CND take the view that there is a real alternative on conventional defence and that this £70-odd million that you calculate should be spent on conventional defence?

  Mr Kent: CND is a broad church. It includes pacifists and it includes people who are highly just war and ex military. There is an air commodore member of CND who would certainly take the position that we should be spending more money on conventional military defence. There would be Quaker members of CND who would say, "No, not at all." It is a wide open field, really, in that respect. It is certainly not excluded.

  Q41  Mr Crausby: I accept there are different views, but I am asking for yours. What do the witnesses feel about that? Do they see that as a real argument, that the money should be spent on conventional defence or is it a throwaway remark?

  Mr Kent: My own view is that I am a citizen of a country which believes in military defence and I feel I have to conform to the situation we are in and I would not want to see young British troops, or old British troops, being sent anywhere not properly equipped. That is my position, even though I do not believe in warfare and I believe we should be looking for non violent solutions to problems. In the interim, the people who are engaged in this sort of thing on our behalf should be properly protected. That is my position and I am sure many within CND would agree with it.

  Q42  Mr Crausby: What about other witnesses, do they believe that the money would be better spent on conventional defence?

  Mr Kent: Then they would have no argument with my air commodore. I cannot nail down everybody in CND to a particular point of view on this. There are different views.

  Mr Ainslie: Representing the Scottish CND, it is the same. There is a range of views and they would keep that in as an option. Personally, I am a conscientious objector, so I am not in favour of military expenditure. But that is a personal view. I am just stating what my personal position is.

  Q43  Mr Crausby: I was trying to establish whether that is a serious argument, that we should not spend the money on a replacement for the Trident platform but we should spend the money and replace that by conventional defence. Or is it just a command that is inserted in the alternative White Paper to strengthen the argument. Does anybody think that we should not spend the money on a Trident replacement but spend all of the money or part of the money on conventional defence?

  Mr Kent: Some people in the country certainly think that.

  Q44  Mr Crausby: Do any of the witnesses believe that?

  Ms Jones: That is the sort of discussion that we would have if we were to have a meaningful debate—as suggested by Tony Blair, I do not know how meaningful that debate would be—about whether we want to be a war-fighting or a peace-keeping country and then that would be integral to it. It would be one of the issues that was discussed. It is not really being put forward to us as an option and the Government have not put it forward as an option in the White Paper. It is something that could be discussed, whatever our personal or political situation is on the use of armed force. It is something that should be discussed and people should be given the opportunity to make decisions about that with all the information available to them about what the amounts of money would buy in terms of nuclear defence, conventional defence or other things that we might think it would be more worthwhile to spend that money on.

  Q45  Mr Crausby: It is reasonable to argue for a debate, but, as leading members of the peace movement, how would you plead that debate? Would you argue that the money should be spent on conventional defence rather than on nuclear defence or would you simply argue that we should not spend the money?

  Ms Jones: I personally would argue that that money would be invested in working out how we can resolve conflict internationally without drawing on recourse to violence. £76 billion worth of investment on how to keep the peace would be a wonderful way to spend that money.

  Q46  Mr Crausby: That is a perfectly reasonable position. I just want to know whether members of the peace movement are arguing not to spend the money on nuclear but to spend the money on conventional, or whether they are arguing in general not to spend the money on either nuclear or conventional.

  Mr Kent: I am just saying to you that there are differences of opinion. Some would be for spending it on conventional weapons, some would be for spending it on non violent security measures. I think we are entitled to have a difference of opinion on the expenditure.

  Q47  Mr Crausby: I am asking these witnesses. Do any of these witnesses believe that this money, as opposed to being spent on the Trident replacement, should be spent on conventional defence?

  Mr Kent: Certainly there are. I mentioned an air commodore—and I am not going to give his name. There are a number of people in CND who would certainly take that position, and in the wider peace movement. CND is not the only part of the peace movement. You refer to the "peace movement". There are Generals for Peace—God knows, there are all sorts of different organisations included under the "peace movement".

  Ms Jones: I think we need a far more rigorous analysis of what our security needs are and then to develop strategies that are appropriate to addressing the particular security needs of the United Kingdom but also the more general security needs of the community of which we are a part.

  Q48  Mr Hancock: Surely the White Paper and the Prime Minister's statement have attempted to divorce the two issues. It is not even the latest debate that is initiated. The deterrent is taken out of that debate. You would agree with that.

  Ms Jones: It is extremely surprising that you can talk about Trident without actually talking about it in the context of security more generally. It seems really strange that there should be two separate discussions going on about whether we want nuclear weapons and whether we want to be war-fighting or peace-keeping. For me, they are all part of the same thing.

  Mr Hancock: We are a war-fighting country and the debate, I am sure, will end up coming to that conclusion. But there is also this debate about whether or not a nuclear deterrent in fact secures you from a nuclear attack. The Prime Minister is of the opinion that that is still a legitimate threat to the United Kingdom.

  Chairman: I would like to move on to Robert Key on that issue.

  Q49  Robert Key: Could I reassure Sian Jones that all of the members of this Committee have for many years been looking at all aspects of security. I was a member of the Defence Committee ten years ago that produced a report on the southern flank of NATO when we were saying that issues such as economic migration, the use of water, of food, and security issues were integral to the security of our nation. I think it is wrong of you, if I may say so, to assume that we are only interested in nuclear, but this inquiry is into a very particular, very narrow aspect of our defence. Could I broaden the questioning now to inquire of your views on the insurance policy aspect here, that the nuclear deterrent is seen as an insurance policy as part of our defence system. Do you think that maintaining a deterrent is in fact a useful insurance policy?

  Mr Kent: I think it is an insurance policy that ensures greater danger for this country because you do not take out an insurance policy against house subsidence that contributes to the subsidence of your house. It would be a bit peculiar if you did. I think possessing and continuing nuclear weapons into the middle of this century is a recipe for further danger and threat from other countries who take the same position about us, about security. I think it is not an insurance policy that is valid.

  Q50  Robert Key: Who is going to change their aggressive stance towards us and the international community if we do not renew Trident? Will al-Qaeda be impressed and change their ways if we do not replace Trident?

  Ms McDonald: I do have the view that nuclear weapons are irrelevant to terrorists. The nuclear weapons based in the UK are the easiest target and pose the real risk of terrorist attack involving nuclear weapons. That should be eliminated as a risk if we are serious about the security of citizens in the UK. On the question of the insurance policy, I agree with what Bruce says, that it is a simile that falls as soon as you look at it, but there is an insurance policy that we could take up—that we are already signed up to and other countries are too—and that is the non proliferation treaty. But of course it only works if you read the small print and comply with it. That is what we need to be doing.

  Q51  Robert Key: Which of course the Government says it is. I do not think there is any question that the Government says the non proliferation treaty is extremely important and they are moving towards that. But you contest that.

  Ms McDonald: I do.

  Mr Kent: You must ask the Government where they are doing their negotiating.

  Q52  Robert Key: What do you think public opinion says about their insurance policy argument? I think most people would say that the British public believes there is value in having a nuclear deterrent. Do you think the British public is wrong?

  Mr Kent: Yes. I think public opinion is in two minds. If you put to public opinion, as we have done: "Should you spend £75 billion or £25 billion and not spend it on the Post Office or National Health or whatever?" then overwhelmingly they say we should spend it on social needs. If you say: "Should we be the only country to get rid of nuclear weapons while others still have them and therefore be under threat?" then, indeed, public opinion will go in the other direction. But public opinion has to rely on what it gets in terms of information. When you get documents like this, which assume 110% the validity of nuclear deterrence, the public are going to believe it, and I do not believe it to be true.

  Q53  Robert Key: Chairman, for 30 years Bruce Kent and I have been arguing about these things. I am afraid I still think of you as a parish priest in Camden. When I was fighting Frank Dobson for his seat there in the 1979 elections, we used to meet in your parish church kitchen, I recall, from time to time.

  Mr Kent: I was of great political advantage to you, really! I assisted you in your career.

  Q54  Robert Key: Thank you very much. I believe you did, sir. But I still think of you, if I may say so, as a parish priest, as a Christian, and I am very interested in this Christian point of view and I think it is very important. I would like to ask you this: I think I am right in saying that Pax Christi takes the view that nuclear weapons are morally and theologically wrong and it is a very simple issue, therefore, if you take that on board. I, of course, as a member of the Church of England, have a rather more difficult problem because the Archbishop of Canterbury says, "Yes, they are wrong" but on Thought for the Day on the Today programme the other day the Bishop of Liverpool said that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle and we have to live in the real world and we have nuclear weapons. Who is right? The Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of Liverpool? Can you help me?

  Mr Kent: Yes, I commend you to the Pope. It is time you raised your sights! He said at the beginning of this year that nuclear weapons were fallacious and nuclear policies were baneful, and that is the strongest position from any Christian leader so far. John can say the entire Scotch hierarchy and the Church of Scotland are totally opposed to it, many Church of England bishops are opposed to it. I am sure you will be able to convert the Bishop of Liverpool in due course

  Mr Ainslie: Certainly the Church of Scotland's position is very strong on this, that is it morally and theologically wrong. In addition, Cardinal O'Brien, the leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, his line, in slogan terms, is to replace Trident with projects that bring lives to the poor.

  Q55  Robert Key: That is an aspiration to which I am sure we all live up. Can I pursue the Scottish dimension to this? In your evidence to the Committee the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament made very interesting points about the Scottish dimension and pointed out that the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament were opposed to the replacement and that the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament only won a motion by five votes, but, right at the end, you said this: "The plan to replace Trident and keep nuclear weapons in Scotland for 50 years will not improve the relationship between Edinburgh and London. It is likely to be a growing point of contention", and, today of all days, commemorating the Act of Union, is an important point, I think, to pursue this for a little bit. It seems to me quite extraordinary that we are about, apparently, to have a Scottish Prime Minister, we have a United Kingdom Government with Scottish members of Parliament in extremely powerful positions in the Cabinet—John Reid, Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander and, indeed, others. Why do not the Scottish people trust Scottish MPs and a Scottish Prime Minister on this issue?

  Mr Ainslie: The opinion polls show quite clearly that there is a stronger opposition to nuclear weapons in Scotland than south of the border by about 10%, so the anti-nuclear feeling is basically stronger. There is simply a difference between the two political processes, I think, between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is more varied and there you are going to work with coalitions.

  Q56  Robert Key: That is not my question at all. You are side-stepping it. The question is: why do not the Scottish electors who would put Gordon Brown in the position of being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom trust him and his judgment and the judgment of his fellow Scots elected MPs when it comes to this decision?

  Mr Ainslie: An anonymous survey of all the Scottish MPs by the BBC found that 30 out of the 59 were saying that they were definitely opposed.

  Q57  Robert Key: This is the Westminster MPs?

  Mr Ainslie: The majority of the Westminster MPs. I am not totally convinced whether that will materialise when it come to the vote.

  Q58  Robert Key: It would not be enough to change the mind of the Government, would it?

  Mr Ainslie: No, but I think what is a real prospect is that the Scottish Parliament, at some point in the future, in the longer term, is going to turn round and say, "No, we are opposed to this." The current position is that the Scottish Parliament maybe does not have much power and is looking at ways it might do something about it, but is that then making life more difficult? I am sure Jack McConnell would far rather he did not have this situation and being put in the position of forcing one of his ministers to resign over this issue.

  Chairman: I think we had better move on. I am relieved we have got off the theological basis for violence and nuclear weapons and everything. Let us move on. David Crausby.

  Q59  Mr Crausby: Thank you, Chairman. Proliferation for me is the more serious threat, on the face of it. Given that countries like Iran and North Korea at least appear to be interested in developing nuclear weapons, some people would argue that this is completely the wrong time for us to reduce our commitment to nuclear defence. How would you respond to that?

  Mr Kent: It is exactly the right time to start getting those countries round the table. How can we possibly lecture those countries about acquiring nuclear weapons while we are in the process of saying that we think they are essential for our security. I think it is exactly the right time to begin international negotiations involving those countries, because at the moment they are extremely cynical about our performance.

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