2016 09 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry7

On 18 July the House of Commons debated a Government motion on the UK’s nuclear deterrent. It was clearly designed to further expose and undermine the Corbyn led Labour Party. The motion (see below) was carried by 472 votes to 117.

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech is reproduced as well as a bizarre contribution from Labour’s Mike Gapes, a critic of Jeremy Corbyn and a former active member of CND.

Resolved, That this House supports the Government’s assessment in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review that the UK’s independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent, based on a Continuous at Sea Deterrence posture, will remain essential to the UK’s security today as it has for over 60 years, and for as long as the global security situation demands, to deter the most extreme threats to the UK’s national security and way of life and that of the UK’s allies; supports the decision to take the necessary steps required to maintain the current posture by replacing the current Vanguard Class submarines with four Successor submarines; recognises the importance of this programme to the UK’s defence industrial base and in supporting thousands of highly skilled engineering jobs; notes that the Government will continue to provide annual reports to Parliament on the programme; recognises that the UK remains committed to reducing its overall nuclear weapon stockpile by the mid-2020s; and supports the Government’s commitment to continue work towards a safer and more stable world, pressing for key steps towards multilateral disarmament.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) May I start by welcoming the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and congratulating her on her appointment as Prime Minister? I wish her well in that position, and I am glad that her election was quick and short.

I commend the remarks the Prime Minister made about the horrific events in Nice. What happened was absolutely horrific: the innocent people who lost their lives. One hopes it will not be repeated elsewhere. I was pleased she mentioned the situation in Turkey, and I support her call for calm and restraint on all sides in Turkey. After the attempted coup, I called friends in Istanbul and Ankara and asked what was going on. The older ones felt it was like a repeat of the 1980 coup and were horrified that bombs were falling close to the Turkish Parliament. Can we please not return to a Europe of military coups and dictatorships? I endorse the Prime Minister’s comments in that respect, and I pay tribute to the Foreign Office staff who helped British citizens caught up in the recent events in France and Turkey.

The motion today is one of enormous importance to this country and indeed the wider world. There is nothing particularly new in it—the principle of nuclear weapons was debated in 2007—but this is an opportunity to scrutinise the Government. The funds involved in Trident renewal are massive. We must also consider the complex moral and strategic issues of our country possessing weapons of mass destruction. There is also the question of its utility. Do these weapons of mass destruction—for that is what they are—act as a deterrent to the threats we face, and is that deterrent credible?

The motion says nothing about the ever-ballooning costs. In 2006, the MOD estimated that construction costs would be £20 billion, but by last year that had risen by 50% to £31 billion, with another £10 billion added as a contingency fund. The very respected hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) has estimated the cost at £167 billion, though it is understood that delays might have since added to those credible figures—I have seen estimates as high as over £200 billion for the replacement and the running costs.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con):

Is not the true cost the one we remember every Remembrance Sunday—the millions of lives we lost in two world wars? Would the right hon. Gentleman care to estimate the millions of lives that would have been lost in the third conventional war that was avoided before 1989 because of the nuclear deterrent?

Jeremy Corbyn:

We all remember, on Remembrance Sunday and at other times, those who lost their lives. That is the price of war. My question is: does our possession of nuclear weapons make us and the world more secure? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Of course, there is a debate about that, and that is what a democratic Parliament does—it debates the issues. I am putting forward a point of view. The hon. Gentleman might not agree with it, but I am sure he will listen with great respect, as he always does.

Ian Paisley:

In the past, the Labour leader’s solution to a domestic security threat was to parley with the Provisional IRA. What would his tactics be in dealing with a threat to all the peoples of this nation?

Jeremy Corbyn:

Towards the end of her speech, the Prime Minister mentioned the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and multilateral disarmament. I was interested in that. Surely we should start from the basis that we want, and are determined to bring about, a nuclear-free world. Six-party talks are going on with North Korea. China is a major economic provider to North Korea. I would have thought that the relationship with China and North Korea was the key to finding a way forward.

James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con):

How would the right hon. Gentleman persuade my thousands of Korean constituents that it is a good idea to disarm unilaterally while their families and friends living in our ally South Korea face a constant nuclear threat from a belligerent regime over their northern border?

Jeremy Corbyn:

I, too, have Korean constituents, as do many others, and we welcome their work and participation in our society. I was making the point that the six-party talks are an important way forward in bringing about a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula, which is surely in everybody’s interests. It will not be easy—I fully understand that—but nevertheless it is something we should be trying to do.

I would be grateful if the Prime Minister, or the Defence Secretary when he replies, could let us know the Government’s estimate of the total lifetime cost of what we are being asked to endorse today.

It is hardly surprising that in May 2009, an intense debate went on in the shadow Cabinet about going for a less expensive upgrade by converting to air-launched missiles. The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said at the time that “the arguments have not yet been had in public in nearly an adequate enough way to warrant the spending of this nation’s treasure on the scale that will be required.”—[Official Report, 20 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 84.]

Seven years later, we are perhaps in the same situation.

The motion proposes an open-ended commitment to maintain Britain’s current nuclear capability for as long as the global security situation demands. We on the Opposition Benches, despite our differences on some issues, have always argued for the aim of a nuclear-free world. We might differ on how to achieve it, but we are united in our commitment to that end.

In 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) embarked on a meaningful attempt to build consensus for multilateral disarmament. Will the Government address where these successor submarines are going to be based? The people of Scotland have rejected Trident’s being based in Faslane naval base on the Clyde—the SNP Government are opposed to it, as is the Scottish Labour party.

We are debating not a nuclear deterrent but our continued possession of weapons of mass destruction. We are discussing eight missiles and 40 warheads, with each warhead believed to be eight times as powerful as the atomic bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima in 1945. We are talking about 40 warheads, each one with a capacity to kill more than 1 million people.

What, then, is the threat that we face that will be deterred by the death of more than 1 million people? It is not the threat from so-called Islamic State, with its poisonous death-cult that glories in killing as many people as possible, as we have seen brutally from Syria to east Africa and from France to Turkey. It has not deterred our allies Saudi Arabia from committing dreadful acts in Yemen. It did not stop Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in the 1980s or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It did not deter the war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s, nor the genocide in Rwanda. I make it clear today that I would not take a decision that killed millions of innocent people. I do not believe that the threat of mass murder is a legitimate way to go about dealing with international relations.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab):

As Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend will be privy to briefings from the National Security Council. Will he explain when he last sought and received such a briefing and what is his assessment of the new Russian military nuclear protocols that permit first strike using nuclear weapons and that say that they can be used to de-escalate conventional military conflicts?

Jeremy Corbyn:

Britain, too, currently retains the right to first strike, so I would have thought that the best way forward would be to develop the nuclear non-proliferation treaty into a no first strike situation. That would be a good way forward. I respect my hon. Friend’s wish to live in a nuclear-free world. I know he believes that very strongly.

I think we should take our commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty very seriously. In 1968, the Labour Government led by Harold Wilson inaugurated and signed the non-proliferation treaty. In 2007, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South rightly said that “we must strengthen the NPT in all its aspects” and referred to the judgment made 40 years ago “that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was in all of our interests.”

The then Labour Government committed to reduce our stocks of operationally available warheads by a further 20%. I congratulate our Government on doing that. Indeed, I attended an NPT review conference when those congratulations were spoken. Can the Government say what the Labour Foreign Secretary said in 2007 when she said that her “commitment to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is undimmed”?

Is this Government’s vision of a nuclear-free world undimmed? My right hon. Friend also spoke as Foreign Secretary of the “international community’s clear commitment to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone”.

Indeed, at the last two nuclear non-proliferation treaty five-yearly review conferences there was unanimous support for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone across the middle east, which is surely something that we can sign up to and support. I look forward to the Defence Secretary’s support for that position when he responds to the debate.

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab):

My right hon. Friend is speaking about previous party policy. At the shadow Cabinet meeting last Tuesday, it was agreed that current party policy would be conveyed by Front Benchers. When will we hear it?

Jeremy Corbyn:

I thank my hon. Friend for his view. As he well knows, the party decided that it wanted to support the retention of nuclear weapons. We also decided that we would have a policy review, which is currently being undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis).

My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) is as well aware as I am of the existing policy. He is also as well aware as I am of the views on nuclear weapons that I expressed very clearly at the time of the leadership election last year, hence the fact that Labour Members will have a free vote this evening.

Other countries have made serious efforts to bring about nuclear disarmament within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. South Africa abandoned all its nuclear programmes after the end of apartheid, and thus brought about a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the continent. After negotiation, Libya ended all research on nuclear weapons. At the end of the cold war, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, although they were under the control of the former Soviet Union and, latterly, of Russia. Kazakhstan did the same, which helped to bring about a central Asia nuclear weapons-free zone, and in Latin America, Argentina and Brazil both gave up their nuclear programmes.

I commend the Government, and other Governments around the world who negotiated with Iran, seriously, with great patience and at great length. That helped to encourage Iran to give up its nuclear programme, and I think we should pay tribute to President Obama for his achievements in that regard.

The former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo said: “To say we need nuclear weapons in this situation would imply that Germany and Italy are trembling in their boots because they don’t have a nuclear deterrent, which I think is clearly not the case.” Is it not time for us to step up to the plate and promote—rapidly—nuclear disarmament?

Mr Kevan Jones:

Like me, my right hon. Friend stood in May 2015 on the basis of a party policy which had been agreed at our conference, through our mechanisms in the party, and which supported the renewal of our continuous at-sea deterrent. He now has a shadow Front Bench and a shadow Cabinet in his own image, who, I understand, agreed last week to present that policy from the Front Bench. Is he going to do it, or will it be done by the Member who winds up the debate?

Jeremy Corbyn:

My hon. Friend is well aware of what the policy was. He is also well aware that a policy review is being undertaken, and he is also well aware of the case that I am making for nuclear disarmament.

Caroline Lucas:

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, a multilateral process is currently taking place at the United Nations. More than 130 countries are negotiating, in good faith, for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s refusal even to attend, let alone take part in, that process raises serious questions about their commitment to a world without nuclear weapons?

Jeremy Corbyn:

I think it is a great shame that the Government do not attend those negotiations, and I wish they would. I thank them for attending the 2014 conference on the humanitarian effects of war, and I thank them for their participation in the non-proliferation treaty, but I think they should go and support the idea of a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons. No one in the House actually wants nuclear weapons. The debate is about how one gets rid of them, and the way in which one does it.

There are questions, too, about the operational utility of nuclear armed submarines. [Interruption.] I ask the Prime Minister again—or perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can answer this question in his response—what assessment the Government have made of the impact of underwater drones, the surveillance of wave patterns and other advanced detection techniques that could make the submarine technology—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker:

Order. Mr Shelbrooke, I want you to aspire to the apogee of statesmanship, but shrieking from a sedentary position, despite your magnificent suit, is not the way to achieve it. Calm yourself, man; I am trying to help you, even if you don’t know it.

Jeremy Corbyn:

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Can the Prime Minister confirm whether the UK will back the proposed nuclear weapons ban treaty, which I understand will be put before the UN General Assembly in September—probably before we return to the House after the summer recess? That is an important point.

Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con):

We can all agree that nuclear weapons are truly the most repugnant weapons that have ever been invented by man, but the key is the word “invented”; we cannot disinvent them, but we can control them, and that is what this is all about—controlling nuclear weapons.

Jeremy Corbyn:

If this is all about controlling them, perhaps we should think for a moment about the obligations we have signed up to as a nation by signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, article VI of which says that the declared nuclear weapons states—of which we are one—must take steps towards disarmament, and others must not acquire nuclear weapons. It has not been easy, but the NPT has helped to reduce the level of nuclear weapons around the world.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP):

I am stunned to hear the argument that has just been made from the Tory Benches that we cannot disinvent nuclear weapons. That argument could be employed for chemical and biological weapons.

Jeremy Corbyn:

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have achieved the chemical weapons convention, a ban on cluster weapons and other things around the world through serious long-term negotiation.

Angela Smith:

My right hon. Friend is fond of telling us all that the party conference is sovereign when it comes to party policy. Last year the party conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining the nuclear deterrent, so why are we not hearing a defence of the Government’s motion?

Jeremy Corbyn:

Party policy is also to review our policies. That is why we have reviews.

We also have to look at the issues of employment and investment. We need Government intervention through a defence diversification agency, as we had under the previous Labour Government, to support industries that have become over-reliant on defence contracts and wish to move into other contracts and other work.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Unite policy conference last week, which I attended. Unite, like other unions, has members working in all sectors of high-tech manufacturing, including the defence sector. That, of course, includes the development of both the submarines and the warheads and nuclear reactors that go into them. Unite’s policy conference endorsed its previous position of opposing Trident but wanting a Government who will put in place a proper diversification agency. The union has been thinking these things through and wants to maintain the highly skilled jobs in the sector.

Our defence review is being undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for her excellent work on the review. [Interruption.] Whatever people’s views—

Caroline Flint rose—

Jeremy Corbyn:

Alright, I will give way—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker:

Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman has signalled an intention to take an intervention, but before he does—[Interruption.] Order. I just make the point that there is a lot of noise, but at the last reckoning—[Interruption.] Order. I will tell the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) what the position is, and he will take it whether he likes it or not. Fifty-three Members wish to speak in this debate, and I want to accommodate them. I ask Members to take account of that to help each other.

Caroline Flint:

Under the last Labour Government, because of our stand on supporting non-proliferation, as a nuclear deterrent country we were able to influence a large reduction in the number of nuclear warheads around the world. Does my right hon. Friend really think that if we abandoned our position as one of the countries that holds nuclear weapons, we would have as much influence without them as with them?

Jeremy Corbyn:

We did indeed help to reduce the number of nuclear warheads. Indeed, I attended a number of conferences where there were British Government representatives, and the point was made that the number of UK warheads had been reduced and other countries had been encouraged to do the same. I talked about the nuclear weapons-free zones that had been achieved around the world, which are a good thing. However, there is now a step change, because we are considering saying that we are prepared to spend a very large sum on the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to article VI of the NPT—I am sure she is aware of it —which requires us to “take steps towards disarmament”. That is what it actually says.

In case it is not obvious to the House, let me say that I will be voting against the motion tonight. I am sure that will be an enormous surprise to the whole House. I will do that because of my own views and because of the way—

Mr Jamie Reed:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I apologise for having to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but we have a point of order.

Mr Reed:

I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on the accuracy of the language used by the Leader of the Opposition. We are not voting tonight on new nuclear warheads; we are voting simply on the submarines used to deploy those missiles. That is fundamentally different from new missiles.

Mr Speaker:

The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that it is up to each right hon. and hon. Member to read the motion, interpret it as he or she thinks fit, and make a judgment accordingly. It is not a matter for the Chair.

Jeremy Corbyn:

The issue of course is the submarines, but it is also the new weapons that will have to go into those submarines as and when they have been built—if they are built.

We should pause for a moment to think about the indiscriminate nature of what nuclear weapons do and the catastrophic effects of their use anywhere. As I said, I have attended NPT conferences and preparatory conferences at various times over many years, with representatives of all parties in the House. I was very pleased when the coalition Government finally, if slightly reluctantly, accepted the invitation to take part in the humanitarian effects of war conference in Vienna in 2014. Anyone who attended that conference and heard from British nuclear test veterans, Pacific islanders or civilians in Russia or the United States who have suffered the effects of nuclear explosions cannot be totally dispassionate about the effects of the use of nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapon is an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction.

Many colleagues throughout the House will vote for weapons tonight because they believe they serve a useful military purpose. But to those who believe in multilateral disarmament, I ask this: is this not an unwise motion from the Government, giving no answers on costs and no answers on disarmament? For those of us who believe in aiming for a nuclear-free world, and for those who are deeply concerned about the spiralling costs, this motion has huge questions to answer, and they have failed to be addressed in this debate. If we want a nuclear weapons-free world, this is an opportunity to start down that road and try to bring others with us, as has been achieved to some extent over the past few decades. Surely we should make that effort rather than go down the road the Government are suggesting for us this evening.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):

My hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) referred to their mothers, who were at Greenham Common. So was I. I did not meet their mothers, or at least not as far as I am aware, but there were tens of thousands of us who protested against nuclear weapons and the decision on the Cruise missiles, the Pershings and the SS20s. CND had hundreds of thousands on demonstrations. At that time many people believed that we faced the possible advent of a nuclear war. There was real fear in society.

The leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, has been compared in some debates with our current leader. I worked for and with Michael Foot. He was a great patriotic anti-Fascist. He stood up to the generals—the junta that took over the Falkland Islands—and he spoke in this House on a Saturday morning and made the case for why we had to liberate the Falklands from Fascism. I believe that Michael Foot tried his very best to unite the Labour party, even though he had divisions in his shadow Cabinet. He would not have taken the position that is being taken today by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).

Michael Foot strove for international agreement and he worked for disarmament, but I and many others who were parliamentary candidates in 1983 know that we went into that election with what became known as “the longest suicide note in history”. In Ilford North where I was the candidate, the Labour vote almost halved and I only just kept second place from going to the new Social Democratic party. The Conservatives were rampant.

Afterwards, I was working in the party’s headquarters on the defence policy. We tried to square the circle by producing a policy document called “Defence and Security for Britain”. It had a Union Jack on the cover. We emphasised strong conventional defence. We called for a defence diversification agency, and we thought that that would be sufficient under Neil Kinnock, our leader, to do much better in 1987. We did do better, but defence policy was still a factor in our losing in 1987. So we had a policy review, which included visiting Moscow, which we did in 1989. Gorbachev was talking about a nuclear-free world by 2000. In that context the Labour party shifted its policy towards one of independent steps, but within a global multilateral framework.

That policy was denounced by the historian E. P. Thompson. I do not have time today to elaborate on this, but I will write about it. In 1989 he denounced the Labour party for going back on its unilateralist position. I wrote in the CND magazine, “What is this unilateralism? Is it a tactic to get something better or is it a quasi-religious totem for left-wing atheists?” I stand by that description of some of the views that we hear today. It has become a quasi-religious totem, rather than a practical means to take measures that bring about real and profound international change. That is why I will be voting for the Government’s motion this evening.

Of the 117 MPs who voted against the motion there were 54 SNP members, 48 Labour, 3 Plaid Cymru, 3 SDLP, 1 Green (Caroline Lucas), and 1 Conservative (Crispin Blunt).

The 48 Labour were: Diane Abbott, Graham Allen, Paul Blomfield, Nicholas Brown, Richard Burden, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler, Ruth Cadbury, Ronnie Campbell, Sarah Champion, Ann Clwyd, Jeremy Corbyn, John Cryer, Paul Flynn, Vicky Foxcroft, Roger Godsiff, Helen Goodman, Margaret Greenwood, Nia Griffith, Louise Haigh, Fabian Hamilton, Carolyn Harris, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, (Dr) Rupa Huq, Imran Hussain, David Lammy, Rebecca Long Bailey, Rachael MaskellJohn McDonnell, (Sir) Alan Meale, Ian Murray, Lisa Nandy, Kate Osamor, Stephen Pound, Angela Rayner,  Marie Rimmer, Naz Shah, Tulip Siddiq, Denis Skinner,  Andrew Smith, Jeff Smith, Jo Stevens,  Graham Stringer, Jon Trickett, Keith Vaz,Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner.

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