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Nuclear Deterrent

Volume 210: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the nuclear deterrent.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the independent deterrent has provided this country with peace and security for 47 years? Has he received any representations from the 100 hon. Members who are members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? Are not they, rather than the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), the authentic voice of the Labour party?

It is difficult to know what is the authentic voice of the Labour party. Some two thirds of the members of the shadow Cabinet have or had an association with CND. I believe that at present, however, it is the policy of both the Government and the Opposition for Britain to keep nuclear weapons. That is certainly what the Labour party said during the last election, but whether that will be the Labour's policy in future is something on which we can only speculate and one of the great mysteries of the world in which we live.

If Trident nuclear weapons and Polaris are providing such a wonderful defence for freedom, what does the Secretary of State say to other nations about their potential for nuclear deterrence? Does he tell countries in the middle east that nuclear weapons are a safeguard for peace and advocate that middle eastern countries should have nuclear weapons? Does he agree that he should abide by the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty, clause 6 of which commits this country—as we are signatories to the treaty—to get rid of nuclear weapons? When will this country and the Government stop cheating on the treaty?

If the hon. Gentleman checked his facts before making wild allegations, he would realise that not only are we signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but, over the past 12 months, either I or my predecessor has announced the ending of nuclear artillery; the ending of the application of nuclear warheads to Lance missiles; the reduction in the number of nuclear dual-capable aircraft and, only two weeks ago, the ending of Britain's maritime tactical nuclear capacity. We are perfectly prepared to see any reduction in our nuclear potential when that is consistent with the ultimate safety of this country. The hon. Gentleman's disinclination to give priority to the ultimate defence of this country is well known.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that a nuclear threat can be deterred only by a nuclear deterrent and that Britain's independent nuclear deterrent has been vital to this country for more than 40 years for that reason? Does he further agree that the size of the fearsome armoury that still remains in the ex-Soviet republics and the spread of nuclear technology to some of the ugliest regimes in the middle east further emphasise the importance of maintaining Trident?

Sadly, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. I should have thought that our recent experience in the Gulf, when it became clear that the Iraqi Government had been seeking to develop a nuclear capacity, would be a clear warning to those who seek to deny this country the ultimate right to defend its people.

Will the Secretary of State try to explain to us the rationale behind the vast increase in the number of Trident warheads? The Government have told us over the past few years that we required the 250 per cent. increase in Trident warhead numbers over Polaris because of improved Russian anti-ballistic missile systems. The same Government are now acquiescing in United States-Russian co-operation to improve those anti-ballistic missile systems in Russia even further. Can the Secretary of State explain the absurd inconsistency that lies at the heart of the Government's approach?

There is no inconsistency whatsoever. The hon. Gentleman seems to forget conveniently the decision taken by a previous Labour Government to enhance Polaris through the Chevaline project because of their realisation that the defences against the nuclear deterrent had been increased at that time. In the same way, we have had to indicate the minimum nuclear deterrent required to ensure the protection of this country against any nuclear threat that it might face.

As for anti-ballistic missile defences, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is an anti-ballistic missile treaty. Any proposals to change that treaty would require the most careful attention, consistent with the credibility and effectiveness of the nuclear deterrents that we and the United States possess.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the decision taken by the Labour Government to adopt an independent nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace in post-war Europe? Does he further agree that there is a residual problem of decommissioning some of the atomic submarines? Have the Government come to any conclusions about what to do with them?

We are giving active consideration to our long-term policy on decommissioning of nuclear submarines. My hon. Friend is correct that the original decisions on nuclear weapons were shared by both sides of the House. It is unfortunate that the Labour party went through—and may still be going through—a spasm of hostility to the defence needs of Britain.