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Mr. Davies: I listened very carefully to what he said and I cannot imagine what other purpose there was of saying that Arctic warfare was so important and that we
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had only one icebreaker, HMS Enterprise, unless it was to make it clear that he thought we should start building icebreakers. Of all the ridiculous priorities in the world! [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) protests loyally in trying to defend his defence spokesman, but I cannot imagine what other interpretation could be placed on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He spoke for several minutes about Arctic warfare and HMS Enterprise. What other signal was he trying to send to the House?

Robert Key: It is so simple but clearly beyond the hon. Gentleman’s understanding. For those who did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) the first time, he said that NATO did not have adequate capability if we were looking at new scenarios in the north. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to deride my hon. Friend, but he did not deride him or my party when he served with me as a defence spokesman for our party.

Mr. Davies: When the hon. Gentleman and I served as defence spokesmen in the Conservative party we certainly did not get on to icebreakers or Arctic warfare as a serious challenge. That was in the last decade and I am not sure that the geopolitical situation has changed that much. I interpreted the comments quite differently. In referring to NATO not investing in icebreakers, it sounded to me as though the hon. Member for Woodspring felt that we, as a part of NATO, should be helping to make up that deficit. He said that the Canadians were investing; the implication was that we should be as well.

I am glad that we have had this matter exposed and I hope that the Conservative party now realises how utterly ridiculous, risible and foolish it would appear if it suggested that scarce military resources be spent on building icebreakers. The very best interpretation that can be put on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks is that they were totally irrelevant and that he was wasting the House’s time by raising an issue that even he did not think was relevant to the defence needs of the nation.

Mr. Kevan Jones: May I inform my hon. Friend that this is not the first time that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has raised the issue? He raised it on 1 May in a visit to Plymouth when he spoke at length on what he bored us with this afternoon. It is interesting that when he was asked to give a commitment to future basing or to the future of the surface fleet, unfortunately he could not.

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.

The judgment of the hon. Member for Woodspring needs to be reflected on, most urgently by the hon. Gentleman himself but also by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches— [ Interruption. ] No, I have not quite finished on this subject. The Secretary of State revealed something else that I found absolutely extraordinary. I listened to it with amazement, but I know that I heard the words quite clearly, and I think that I understand the English language. It appears that the hon. Member for Woodspring has put on his website a proposal that NATO should buy up the poppy crop in Afghanistan. I cannot think of anything quite so ludicrously
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misconceived. To do that would enormously increase the demand for the poppies and create an enormous increase in production. It would also greatly increase the dependence of farmers and peasants in Afghanistan on poppy production and divert them from diversification into the other crops that we are trying to encourage them to grow.

That is an extraordinarily ill thought-through set of policies. I raise this matter not because I wish to justify my leaving the Conservative party—I do not need to do that; I am very happy with my decision—but because I believe that the public need to be warned. The opinion polls show that the Tories are in the lead. That means that, if there were a general election tomorrow—I do not suppose there will be—and if the polls were reasonably accurate, we would have a Conservative Government and a Secretary of State for Defence with an obsession with icebreakers who wanted to buy up the poppy crop in Afghanistan. The public really need to reflect on these matters, and I do not apologise for raising them. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here now, but it is not my fault if he chooses not to sit through the debate, or if he chooses to make his speech and then simply walk out.

There is one final matter that I want to raise. As the House probably knows, the Prime Minister asked me just before Christmas to lead a study into national recognition of the armed forces, which meant examining the extent to which the public understand, appreciate, identify with and support the armed forces. That study has now been completed and submitted to the Prime Minister, and I hope that it will be published very soon. Obviously I do not wish to anticipate the recommendations that it will make, but I want to make one point in that regard.

Our conclusions were twofold. First, it will not surprise the House to learn that there is enormous public support and gratitude for the armed forces in our country, and that it is deeply and widely felt. That comes out quite clearly in the homecoming parades and in the success of the charity appeals that have been held over the past few months. There has also been evidence of that support in our debate this afternoon. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the relationship between the general community in Stafford and the military personnel based in the barracks there. That is an interesting example of a medium-sized town in which a very good relationship of that kind can exist.

There is a widespread sense that members of the armed forces are very special. Most human beings would not be capable of spending six months of their lives in a desert without even the occasional drink, with none of the pleasures of family or social life, under constant threat of being seriously wounded or killed, sometimes living on ration packs—not, as is sometimes stupidly said in the tabloids, for months on end; that certainly does not happen, but it happens during the course of individual operations—and leading an austere and dangerous existence. The people who are prepared to do all that are extraordinary human beings. As I have said, they play an indispensable role, and civilisation would not last very long if there were no men and women prepared to do it. There have been one or two nasty incidents that appear to illustrate a certain hostility towards the armed forces, but they are the work of a very small twisted minority of people.

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Our other conclusion was that, over the years, there has been an increasing separation between the armed forces and the rest of society, although not because anyone wanted that to happen. That separation is a reflection of two things. First, as each year goes by there are fewer people with experience of serving in uniform, or who have a close family member who has served in the armed forces. A generation or so ago, the second world war generation was still largely alive and every male—at least in principle—had done national service. Conscription ended in the early 1960s, but until then almost every family had a member with experience of the military. People understood the constraints, disciplines and dangers—as well as the camaraderie, pressure and tension—that accompany military operations. Such things were better understood in society as a whole then.

Secondly, a cultural change has taken place. I do not want to go outside the ambit of the debate, but it is generally agreed that, over the past 20 years, society has become increasingly hedonistic, short-termist and individualistic. Some might say that it has become more atomised, but I want my remarks to be a statement of fact rather than a long social critique. The fact is that the military must be based—they cannot be otherwise—on a more traditional ethos involving concepts such as public service, team effort, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty and discipline. The social and psychological divergence that has taken place is not healthy for the country as a whole or for the armed forces, because it means that people increasingly lack the familiarity, contact and knowledge on which positive feelings of gratitude and support for the military can be based. Therefore, our recommendations will be directed above all to finding ways to narrow the gap that I have identified.

Other countries have achieved that. The evidence from America is clear: 30 years ago, after the Vietnam war, the relations between the general public and the military were very bad. To anyone who knows America now, that is extraordinary, given the American public’s support for, and identification with, the military. The relationship can only be described as symbiotic. It is immensely impressive and very moving, and of course we cannot move that far in one leap. Our traditions and psychology are very different—no doubt people will say that Americans are more effusive by nature than we British are—but nevertheless there are some interesting lessons to be drawn from other countries. For example, Canada and France are other democracies that regularly deploy troops in combat situations.

If our military are to do their job, it is very important that people support, understand and have contact with them. They need to feel that the pressures and sacrifices that they face are fully appreciated by the general public.

4.23 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) more in sorrow than in anger; it will be one of his last defence speeches, and I suspect that we will miss his amusing ramblings after the next general election. Despite that, I wish him well with the recovery of his left hand. He seems not to have finally developed his left hook yet, but I wish him very well in his retirement. I now wish to return to reality.

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I sometimes wonder whether we have come very far since 1892, when Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem “Hurrah! For the Life of a Soldier”. You will recall it, Mr. Deputy Speaker:

A few weeks ago, the Tisbury branch of the Royal British Legion invited me to address it at a public meeting to talk about the military covenant, and this I was privileged to do. At a full church of St. John the Baptist in Tisbury, I addressed this theme: “Tommy Atkins: do we care?” Of course, in my constituency, Her Majesty’s forces are part of the fabric of our community, as are the families who follow the flag and the industrial, scientific and administrative civil servants on whom the fighting units depend. For us, it is all part of the community in which we live, and we do not consider the military to be in any degree separate from the rest of our community. We know that that is not the same all over the country, as in places where there is not the same density of military activity and personnel. There are also in south Wiltshire a large number of retired service personnel who mind very much about the reaction of the younger generation to Her Majesty’s forces—the way we think about them, the way we treat them on the street and, above all, the way that we, as politicians, ask them to do the impossible and do not provide adequate resources for them to carry out their role, which we admire so much.

That occasion gave me an opportunity to remind the Tisbury branch of the Royal British Legion that defence has changed enormously since the operational requirements to defend our country in the second world war or to fight for other people elsewhere in the world. That is one arm of our capability in defence, as is the defence of our homeland territory, but we no longer face hordes of Russian tanks approaching across the north European plain. We face a completely new sort of threat, and we have had to respond to that. Much of it, around the world, is to do with ideas, and much of it is to do with resources. Population is one of the greatest drivers of instability in the world. That is recognised in the development, concepts and doctrine centre—an excellent directorate-general in the Ministry of Defence that is often neglected but absolutely crucial to our understanding of what is going on. It points out that sustained population growth, aggressive economic competition around the world, and increasing consumption, particularly in the far east and in Asia, together with rapid modernisation and urbanisation, will result in intensive exploitation of and pressure on resources of all kinds. Those tendencies will be aggravated by the consequences of climate change, environmental changes and an increased human footprint on the globe. Consequently, the availability and flow of energy, food and water will be critical in future, with potential fluctuations and imbalances in production and distribution at global, regional and local levels. When resource challenges are identified, population expansion has the greatest single impact relative to local resources and economic growth.

All that, together with the expansion of global media and information and communications technologies, will heighten people’s sense of grievance and marginalisation
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and differences between the haves and have-nots nationally and internationally, leading to increased tensions and instability around the world. We can add to that the spread of communicable diseases. Those are already a feature of human life, but enhanced international travel makes it easier than ever before for them to move around the world. Familiar diseases may be eradicated but others will take their place.

We face a completely different sort of defence threat, and we need to adopt a different defence posture. Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of our excellent Defence Committee, pointed out, we must keep our eye on the ball as regards evolving relationships between nations within NATO and our neighbours. I mentioned Greece a little earlier. It is important that we understand that much of the future of NATO depends on countries such as Greece managing to come to an accommodation with neighbours such as Turkey, particularly over Cyprus. That is crucial to the forward development of NATO relationships, not to mention the future of the European Union. I make no apology for mentioning the critical role that Greece has to play, and I hope that it realises the responsibility it carries in that respect.

I would like to add to what my right hon. Friend said about what is happening in Iraq. Very rarely is the Royal Navy mentioned in connection with Iraq, but its role there is crucial both in protecting the oil terminals on which the future prosperity of Iraq depends, and in training the Iraqi navy. The role of the Royal Navy should never be underestimated or forgotten. We wish to pass over what happened last year, and I think that we will. We have managed to expunge much of it and learn from the experience of it.

We should also pay tribute to the other partners in the naval operation there, notably the Australians. The Australians operate with coalition taskforce 158, which operates in the north Arabian gulf; they are part of the protection force for Iraqi oil platforms and they are very welcome. They are doing a first-class job, and they are making a substantial contribution, along with their frigate, in the north Arabian gulf. That particular maritime component, in the shape of the frigate HMAS Arunta, is the 17th rotation of an Australian ship since 2001. The Australians call that Operation Catalyst, incidentally.

The Australians have an interesting concept of partnership with NATO. They have a rather more developed and sensitive view of the relationships between strategic defence organisations around the world. They do not want to join NATO, but recognise that partnership with NATO is crucial for global well-being and defence. The new Australian Government are developing plans in their defence White Paper for the size, capacity and shape of Australia’s defence for the next 20 years. I hope that in this country we will take seriously the need to develop relationships with Australia. They do not wish to be part of NATO, but they have relationships of their own in the Pacific with New Zealand and the United States. In the Pacific, other relationships exist between, for example, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, which are very much in our interest.

People in this country have never had cause to contemplate the fact that there is a direct relationship between our standard of living and quality of life in this country—our ability to import white goods from China and electronics, television sets and motor cars from all
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over the world—and the security of our trade routes. Today, 90 per cent. and more of our imports are still coming by sea, and Australia is part of a global defence, particularly as far as south-east Asia and the far east is concerned. When thinking of defence in the United Kingdom, we need to think about our relationships with friends—kith and kin, if I may say so—on the other side of the world. That is important.

I will not mention icebreakers, but I would point out that Australia has territorial claims over 40 per cent. of Antarctica. Australia’s new arrangements, agreed by the United Nations, for the potential exploitation of mineral reserves in Antarctic waters not immediately abutting Antarctica are important for the future energy supplies of the free world. I hope, therefore, that we see that as part of the equation, and as another reason why we should be serious about our intentions towards our partnership with Australia.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was absolutely right to talk about the importance of the Arctic. Denmark happens to have the presidency of the Arctic Council—not many people have heard of that—from 2009-11. Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called a high-level meeting later this month on the Arctic region, to be hosted jointly by Denmark and Greenland, and Denmark’s Defence Committee met our Defence Committee only last month, when that business was mentioned.

Canada, the United States, Russia and Norway, as well as Greenland and Denmark, will discuss the importance of gas and mineral exploitation and redrawing global trade routes round the north-west passage. All that is important to us, too. I would be grateful if the Minister could find out between now and winding up whether we will attend that conference as observers. The relevant United Nations treaty provides that observers may attend such meetings. Will the British Government attend?

I want to consider the defence budget. Member after Member has said that we provide around 2 per cent. of our gross national product to the budget but that many other NATO and European countries do not, and that there is a lack of political will. That was one of the big messages that the Defence Committee sent to the Bucharest conference in our report on the future of NATO. Our citizens do not genuinely understand what our forces are for. They understood that in the second world war, and in the days of empire, they understood why we had armies and went out and conquered other countries, but they do not understand now—and we do not make it plain—why it is in their interest not only to defend our ideas of freedom and uphold the United Nations charter, but to have a significant defence interest, thus ensuring that our quality of life and standard of living are maintained.

There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is a force for good in the world. Above all, we defend British interests around the world. To do that, we need global reach. We simply must ensure that we can reach anywhere on the globe—in partnership, not necessarily alone. To do that, we must be realistic about defence and have the political will to pay for defence. The United Kingdom must tackle that, as must our European and NATO partners.

I regret to say that Government Front Benchers, Opposition Front Benchers, the Treasury and our shadow Treasury team all need to be convinced by people such
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as me that our constituents care, too. That message was emphasised at the meeting of the Royal British Legion in Tisbury last month. My constituents, whether retired service personnel of all ranks, families following the flag, scientists or simply those who admire and recognise the need for strong forces, understand that we must pay. They have the political will.

One or two senior figures in the shadow Cabinet groan when they see me coming, because they know that I am going to say, “Double the defence budget.” I am on record as saying that, and I repeat it: we should seriously consider doubling the defence budget. That would have an electrifying effect on this country’s economy and much else for which the nation stands. We need to rebuild confidence in our nationhood and a good way of achieving that is through a substantial increase in the defence budget so that we do not simply moan and whinge about the lack of resources for the military but tackle the problem. Politicians in the House of Commons must convince our electors that we need to pay for defence. I hope that that message will come from my constituents loud and clear. I believe that I represent them properly when I say that no one has yet disagreed with my proposition that we need a substantial increase in defence expenditure.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but we are running out of time. If contributions can be kept reasonably brief, I shall do my very best to call all of them.

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