Trident Renewal


Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

It is a great privilege to follow John Woodcock, who gave an extremely eloquent, entertaining and serious speech.

I will try to speak briefly. The great challenge here is to try to work out, after nearly 60 or 70 years of this debate, what new there is to say. The huge ethical issues that have been raised by Opposition members and the huge strategic issues that have been raised on this side of the House have been gone through again and again.

The one thing we should perhaps say is that, at the beginning of the 21st century, certain kinds of argument should no longer be relevant. The first argument that I do not believe we should be having is fundamentally an argument about economics. This is a large question. As was pointed out by Opposition Members, it is a question of Armageddon. It is question of deep, deep strategy. This is the fifth-largest economy in the world and we should not be making the decision on whether to keep nuclear weapons on the basis of either the belief that we could save some money by cutting them or alternatively the belief that we should retain them in order to keep some jobs in a marginal constituency. It is much more important than that.

What can we say? The first thing that we notice is that the nature of deterrence and the threats that we face have changed. The threats that we are facing now, particularly posed by Russia in Ukraine, which has been raised again and again, are not exactly the same as the kind of threats raised by the Soviet Union. I say absolutely straight out that I will be voting in favour of the retention of the Trident nuclear deterrent. It is a very important thing for us to do. But I have enormous respect for the people on the Opposition Benches who have anxieties about it, and it is to them that I want to address a few short remarks.

The history of the last 30 years, unfortunately, has shown that the kind of arguments made by people in favour of nuclear disarmament were, in the end—although well intentioned and frequently led by impressive intellectuals, bishops and scholars—proved wrong. In the end, it turned out that the people who were characterised as Dr Strangelove—the people written off as irrational and macho—had a better understanding of the mentality of Stalin and a better idea of how to protect western Europe. They should be thanked for the work they did, which contributed in no small way to ensuring that, today, we have had 70 years of the greatest and most productive and prosperous period of peace in Europe conceivable. We should also thank the Labour party for its contribution to the setting up of NATO and the commitment it has made to the nuclear deterrent since the second world war. We should continue to work together on this.

But the threat that we now face is a different one. We do not know what Putin is doing and before we decide how to deter him, we need to work out what the threat is. Is he intending to use nuclear weapons? We have noticed, for example, that he has been investing heavily in his tactical nuclear arsenal. He has also committed a great deal of money towards modernising his nuclear arsenal. He has been running exercises recently, including the deployment of a nuclear bomber to Venezuela. At the same time, the activities in which he is engaged, and which have been laid out by his chief of staff Gerasimov, are all arranged around the idea of ambiguous warfare, almost at the very opposite end of the spectrum from nuclear war; the use of special forces, intelligence operatives and cyber warfare to create a situation such as in Donetsk where he continues to be able to try to claim deniability while putting Russian special forces and Russian weapons in on the ground. The question for us in coming up with a deterrent is how we deal with that threat.

What does the United States do to protect NATO? What is the United Kingdom prepared to do to protect NATO? Listening to the debate, I am not clear—I would be interested to hear what the shadow Spokesman says on this—as to what Britain is proposing to do with our nuclear weapons if Russia were to attack a Baltic state. We knew what we were proposing to do in the 1980s. The basic concept of the tripwire was that we had forces on the ground and were the Soviet Union to attack those forces, nuclear weapons would be fired at Moscow. In this debate there now seems to be some ambiguity. Are British nuclear weapons used only to defend British soil, or would they be used to defend the Baltic?

Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

Is not the question: what will America do if there is an attack on the Baltic states from Russia? Our involvement in this is peripheral. We do not provide a deterrent; America does. We are clinging to this virility symbol as a gesture of our old national pride when it is not relevant. The whole point of multilateral disarmament is to reduce the number of nations with nuclear weapons down to two. By possessing them we are encouraging other nations to acquire them.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but I think the fundamental nature of our disagreement is going to be about our whole relationship

to the NATO structure and the kind of role we wish to play within it. Although the hon. Gentleman is speaking very eloquently about nuclear weapons, I suspect he would also disagree with many Government Members about conventional weapons, and the role we generally play in protecting countries like the Baltic states against attacks from Russia.

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene again, I would be very interested to hear what he proposes Britain should do to defend the Baltic states against such an attack.

Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

I know the Baltic states very well: I visited them four times in the ’80s and ’90s. I am not suggesting that we pretend some fantasy nuclear war is going to take place with us as the main participant. Where we have been successful is in humanitarian interventions in places like East Timor and Sierra Leone. Where we have failed is where we have gone into Iraq and Afghanistan with all guns blazing. We are good at humanitarian intervention and that is where our money should be invested.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

With respect, as I suspected, the hon. Gentleman is focused on issues like East Timor and humanitarian intervention which have very little to do with the question of NATO. This whole idea of an attack on one being an attack on all is fundamentally predicated on the idea of deterrence. It is fundamentally predicated on the idea that we in the UK, as a major member of NATO, would protect these states if they were attacked, and my suspicion is that the hon. Gentleman has no strategy whatsoever on how to defend them. Giving up on the nuclear weapon is simply a symbol from the hon. Gentleman—a virility symbol, perhaps—of actually giving up in general on our obligations to protect NATO states. If I have misunderstood, I am very happy to take another intervention.

Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. If he went to Tallinn or Vilnius and asked the people there who they would look to to defend them if Russia attacked, they would say they look to America, not us.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

We can, of course, agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. That is true. One of the questions is working out what Britain is going to do, but of course the biggest question for Vladimir Putin is what the United States is going to do. But the reason why these questions, and the uncertainty around them, are relevant is that Vladimir Putin’s decisions on whether to use ambiguous warfare, conventional troops or nuclear weapons will be guided by his perception of what we—the United States or Britain—are likely to do in response.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole point of article 5 of the NATO treaty is not the question of which of the members of NATO an attacked country will look to to get most military help; rather, it is to take any uncertainty out of the question of who will declare war if a NATO country is attacked? Therefore, if a NATO country is attacked, our existing obligations are to declare war on the attacker. Does that not mean that we must be very careful how widely we extend NATO membership?

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

I agree absolutely, and that is a very important point. This NATO obligation is an unbelievably serious and important obligation. We have stretched it absolutely to its breaking point. If we are going to be serious about it, we have to follow through and that absolutely means we should not be giving guarantees to people we have no intention of protecting. We should not be writing cheques we are not prepared to have cashed.

The nub of this issue is, of course, that deterrence depends not on whether Britain would use a nuclear weapon, but on whether the other side believes that we would use it. Therefore, the most important support for our nuclear warheads lies not in the Trident missiles or even the submarines; it lies in the character of our nation, which is why there is absolutely no point in our having a discussion about a nuclear deterrent without looking at our defence strategy and posture in general. Deterrence cannot make sense if we get ourselves into a situation, which I sometimes worry my hon. Friend Sir Nick Harvey is getting himself into, where we believe that simply investing in fancy bits of kit is going to keep us safe. If people do not believe we are going to use them—that we are serious about using them—they will be entirely meaningless.

We can see the problems already, so let us just run through the various justifications that have been laid out here for nuclear weapons. The first was P5 membership. The big question for Britain on P5 membership is whether we are serious about our role in the United Nations at all. Why are we not contributing more to UN peacekeeping?

The subject of Iraq has been raised. The big question on Iraq is not our posturing about caring about terrorism or saying it is a tier 1 threat, but what we are actually doing? At present on the ground outside Kurdistan, while Australia has 300 soldiers, and Italy and Spain are deploying 300, we have exactly three. That means that Britain is not displaying and consistently demonstrating seriousness. This is not about combat troops; it is about being able to analyse the mission, have an intelligent conversation with the Iraqi Government, engage with our coalition allies and play the global role that our enormous defence budget is supposed to provide us with.

On Ukraine and Russia, again, we cannot simply rely on kit; we need to be doing things. The big question for us in Britain is how are we responding to the ambiguous warfare that we can see being propagated in Ukraine? What kind of investments are we making in military intelligence? What kind of investments are we making in cyber and in special forces? How much do we understand the situation on the ground in Ukraine and Russia?

On NATO, it is fine to talk about how important it is for us to be in NATO and to have nuclear weapons, and indeed it is. But it is meaningless if we are not going to stick to the commitments that we made in Wales of 2% of GDP. The most important thing we can do to deter Russia now is to ensure that Russia believes that NATO is serious about defending itself. If we say in a Wales summit that we will spend 2% of GDP, and if we go around telling other countries to spend 2% of GDP—and we should be telling other countries to spend 2% of GDP—we must retain our own promise and commitment, otherwise the nuclear deterrent will not be taken seriously.

Putin will look at us and ultimately conclude that there is a minimal chance of our doing anything if he were to intervene in the Baltic, because in respect of the rapid reaction force commitments, the framework nations—Germany, France and Britain—appear to be struggling to commit in 2016 to maintaining a deployable brigade. It seems to be very difficult to get the countries to work out how that will be funded in 2016. Whereas Russia can deploy 40,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice, the NATO deployment rates are running at about six months.

If we do not reach out to the public, which is why this debate is important, if we do not talk about why Britain is a global power, why we care about the Baltic, why we care about the global order, why we set up NATO, why we have nuclear weapons in the first place, all this will be lost.

To conclude, the fundamental rationale for all this depends on something on which Paul Flynn and I disagree. This is the nub of the disagreement: do we believe in a world order? Do we believe in NATO? Do we believe Britain is a global power? Do we wish to play a role in the world? If we do, I will vote in favour of those weapons, but the deterrent will not make sense unless the character of the nation is in place, otherwise what we will be doing is creating something a little like the gold inkstand on the Table—a golden pinnacle on top of a cathedral, when the foundations and the structure of that cathedral are lacking and the faith of the nation has been lost.

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