HC Deb 18 December 1979 vol 976 cc501-24 2.22 am
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I approach this debate with contradictory sentiments. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has come himself to reply when it would have been so easy for him—as I expected him to do—to farm out the responsibility to one of his junior Ministers. It is therefore with regret that I have drawn him here at this time.

I regret even more that an issue of such magnitude and historic importance for this country, probably until way into the next century, should have been taken, or is about to be taken, without any significant public debate, and certainly, so it appears, without any real parliamentary debate. It is therefore a matter for sadness that only as a result of an end-of-term raffle is there any likelihood of debate in the House prior to a decision being made on the replacement of Polaris.

I am not blaming the Secretary of State. He has said on several occasions that he would like a debate, but, as his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to me on 14 November: I hope this will be possible —that is, a debate— but it is a question of finding time in what is a very full parliamentary programme. In the light of the Bills that are being introduced, not all of them essential, I argue, to the welfare of our country, that time could be found. One of these often largely contentious Bills could be temporarily shelved in order to allow the House of Commons to debate an issue of momentous significance. A short debate of this kind is not seen by anyone, I hope, as a substitute for the full debate that I hope will take place in the not-too-distant future.

A decision has been taken on the issue of theatre nuclear weapons. A decision has either been taken or will shortly be taken on replacing Polaris. We in the House of Commons have had minimal input into the decision-making process. I believe that Parliament has a right to be consulted and that that consultation should be a prelude to decision-making, whereas, if we are lucky, we shall be able to talk about it only after the decision has been made. I am reminded that Frederick the Great said "My people and I have a wonderful arrangement. I let them say exactly what they like, and they let me do exactly as I like." At least, the Prussians perhaps had an advantage over us in that they were able to debate.

The public have a right to be consulted, for the reason that was well put in the "Panorama" programme last week, on which the Secretary of State appeared. The commentator told the public: It is your bomb. You paid for it. If missiles are ever fired, it will be in your name. As members of the public are affected by the decisions that have been, or are about to be, taken, I should like to see a more meaningful debate. Maybe public debates are irritating. Perhaps there are troughs and peaks of interest, but certainly something of this importance should not be a monopoly of a handful of people. If we contrast the debate abroad on theatre nuclear weapons with what passed for a debate in the country and the House, I regard that comparison with some embarrassment.

Let us consider the debate taking place in the United States on SALT—not just in Congress but in public. When I was recently in the United States, I took part in the debate with an official from the State Department. I was most impressed by the voluminous documentation produced informing the public of every aspect of SALT. However, I am not certain what impact the numerous press officers in the Ministry of Defence have on public attitudes. I feel that we could learn a great deal from the United States about the dissemination of information. If members of the public are involved in the decision-making process, when a decision is made the fact that they took part and approved acts as a cement. If a decision is taken without genuine public consultation, future discontent is built up.

Turning to the question of dissemination of defence information, we may read the United States Department of Defence annual report, which contains 340 pages. The German equivalent contains 293 pages, even in an English edition. Our own expurgated version contains about 90 pages. That neatly summarises the attitudes taken by Governments in this country towards informing the public.

To take these historic decisions in such a hole-in-the-corner way is to invite a deluge of criticism. That is one more example of the unholy alliance between a small, secretive and mostly faceless defence elite and the inexorable power of bureaucratic momentum.

The decision to replace Polaris was not sudden. An Admiral of the Fleet recently said that the Ministry of Defence had been considering the options for a successor to Polaris for at least 10 years. Certainly the House has not made any significant input into considering the options.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will reiterate the words of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who, in a recent letter to me, said: I believe the House already has ample information at its disposal to make a decision on a Polaris replacement. I am wondering where the information is. Is it the four and a half pages produced by the previous Government in their submission to the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee? I do not consider that to be sufficiently informing this House or the public. The overwhelming contribution to that document came from outside organisations. The contribution by the Ministry of Defence informing this House and the Sub-Committee of the options available in the replacement of Polaris I regard as being rather insignificant and inconsequential.

A debate should take place on the basis of a great deal more information than we have been given hitherto. Are we in the House to be excluded from decision-making because we are not qualified, or is it because we are not to be trusted?

I recall articles that appeared in a number of newspapers recently, following, presumably, a press release from the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), saying that the Labour members of the new defence Select Committee should be positively vetted, and somehow seemingly suggesting that we were defence risks. I do not wish to be malicious to the hon. Gentleman, but somehow he suggested that the Labour members of the Select Committee were less reliable.

In her letter to me, the Prime Minister said: However the actual choice of a successor system will inevitably depend on highly sensitive, technical and operational judgments which could not be made public without damaging our vital security interests. I believe that the scope allowed to the House of Commons for debate on this issue by Governments is too narrow. I do not want information that is excessively sensitive and that, if it fell into the wrong hands, would be injurious to our national interests, but I believe that the parameters of debate could be widened considerably without jeopardy to national security.

My criticisms are directed not exclusively to the Secretary of State but to Governments in general. There is a mania for secrecy. If we are to believe reports in The Times, the last Labour Government adopted a secretive approach to the issue of a Polaris replacement.

I recall an article about Sir Winston Churchill when he became Prime Minister in 1951. He was surprised that the previous Government had spent £100 million on an atomic energy project about which the incoming Tory Government were totally oblivious. Secrecy is by no means a monopoly of this Government. It is true of Governments generally. A strong case could be made for changing that.

Underlining all discussion of nuclear weapons is the notion of uncertainty. There is our uncertainty about the intentions of our enemies and their capability to overwhelm us. There is the uncertainty that we seek to instil in the enemy regarding our own capabilities and intentions. There is also the uncertainty about our response to differing levels of attack on us or on our allies.

Added to this general uncertainty, one must mention the uncertainty over the replacement of Polaris. That means uncertainty over the cost, the timing of a decision, the usefulness of a deterrent and the type of replacement that would be most advantageous, given a decision to replace Polaris. There would also be the uncertainty about the role that Parliament would play in the process.

In a subject so clouded with uncertainty, there is one element of certainty. That is that Parliament has been blatantly ignored. On Monday the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) wrote in The Guardian We have been told nothing, and we have been in no way encouraged to examine the alternatives. It is not for us to reason why. It is not my intention to do and die. I and some hon. Gentleman on the Conservative Benches have said that we make decisions in the wrong way.

There is an element of gross uncertainty about the cost of replacement. The Government have not been as forthcoming as they should have been on cost. If Governments play their cards close to their chests, they have only themselves to blame if there is rumour and speculation, with figures quoted that may be grossly inflated. One way of undermining this kind of speculation and rumour is for Governments to be far more forthcoming with information.

Some quotes have emerged that suggest that a Polaris replacement will cost about £3,000 million. I have seen a maximum figure—there maybe higher maxima—of £8,000 million. Ian Smart, in his paper for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, estimates that a system consisting of five submarines and associated missiles would cost £2,500 millions to £3,250 millions at 1977 prices". A "Panorama" team recently argued that a fleet of five submarines and their missiles would cost £5,000 million at today's prices. Farooq Hussain, formerly of the IISS and now at Stanford University, estimated in the October edition of New Scientist that the total cost of a Trident fleet of four submarines would be about £6,000 million to £8,000 million". These escalating estimates bring a shudder to anyone who remembers the debacle of Blue Streak. They bring to mind two more recent procurement headaches—Concorde and Tornado. There is obviously a high degree of inaccuracy in predicting the development and production costs of any advanced technology system. That does not excuse the Government for not sharing their estimates with Parliament. Not only must we know what the Government think about what a Polaris replacement will cost; we must know where the money will come from.

A 10-year programme of, say, £5,000 million represents, on average, a yearly increase of 7 per cent. on the defence bill. That is a high percentage of the procurement bill. Where will that money come from? If the £5,000 million is to be found within the current defence spending plans, what projects will be scrapped? Something must give. May we be assured that the main battle tank, for instance, will not suffer; that the Tornado programme will continue; that the Navy's attack submarine programme is secure?

There are also uncertainties about the repercussions that could be caused by the building of Britain's new ballistic missile submarines. Of the two yards that produce Polaris—Vickers at Barrow and Cammell Laird at Birkenhead—only Barrow is now available. Will facilities at Barrow be expanded to handle the new construction programme, or will work on our attack submarines be sacrificed in favour of the new boats? Alternatively, will the new submarines be built elsewhere?

There is uncertainty about timing. There has been much talk about the urgency of a decision. The hurried nature of what is happening in the Cabinet and in Washington is an indication of the desire to speed up decision-making. On Thursday the Secretary of State said that a decision would be taken within the next few months. Some informed sources argue that a decision has already been taken. I am not in a position to certify that. However, evidence suggests that we need not rush to make a judgment.

Some of my colleagues may argue that we can postpone a decision for 10 years, or indefinitely. I do not say that, but there is no earthly reason why we should take a decision in the next few months. Last January the then Prime Minister said that a decision would have to be taken in the next two years. The then Secretary of State for Defence agreed with that when giving evidence to the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee. We must assume that its sources were reasonably authoritative.

In testimony to the same Committee, Ian Smart said that a decision had to be taken by 1980. More recently, Dr. John Simpson, of Southampton university, said that a programme using United States missiles would probably have to commence by mid-1983. Even more recently, Farooq Hussain said that there was no need for a decision to be taken before 1985 at the earliest. The original estimates of when a decision had to be taken were based on a submarine hull life of 20 years. This estimate was later increased to 25 years. I have heard from a source that I regard highly that the hull life is probably as long as 35 or 40 years. In January 1978 Farooq Hussain, while at the IISS, wrote: based on the estimated hull life of the submarines alone, it can reasonably be assumed that the UK SSBN fleet can be maintained throughout this century. That was in a memorandum submitted to the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee.

It has also been argued that, in addition to hull life, two further controlling factors are the shelf life of the Polaris missile propellant and the irradiation of the submarine hull. However, it has been shown that the shelf life can be extended by keeping the propellant cool and that there are no signs of hull damage due to irradiation.

Some would maintain that there is a fourth controlling factor—the United States presidential election. The argument that I have heard is that there is a need to speed things up now, as there could later be somebody in the White House who was perhaps less friendly, or the unless a decision is made very soon President Carter is likely to be otherwise engaged in his own campaigning.

I believe that this type of thinking could be outdated. The Polaris deal at Nassau was an Executive-controlled decision on the part of the United States as well as the United Kingdom, but the relationship between the Legislature and the Executive in the United States has changed so considerably that there is now in my view no certainty that any presidential decision would automatically receive congressional approval. Indeed, one source has said that the United States Congress could be less sympathetic to British ambitions than a Conservative Administrative would desire.

It is argued that the United States Congress could insist that the political price for Trident for Britain could be tight United States control of the missiles, perhaps even to the extent of making them dual key, as are German nuclear weapons acquired from the United States. Britain could then be in rather an embarrassing position.

There are, in my view, many advantages in waiting and not rushing into a decision. One advantage, surely, would be that the public could take part in a debate. This would reinforce the eventual decision. It is not automatic, surely, that just because there is a public debate the public will vote against. If the arguments are put sensibly, there is every likelihood that the public will come out in support.

If we postpone a decision for a few years, there could, by the mid-1980s, be better options available to us. Press reports of the Secretary of State's visit to Belgium last week indicate that he and Mr. Brown, of the United States Defence Department, lectured the allies on the need to upgrade conventional weapons. One advantage in postponing a decision is that we could surely upgrade our conventional weapons without the financial millstone that Polaris replacement would pose. We could re-equip, which would be to our advantage.

A further uncertainty about the position is that of the concept of deterrence. In addition to the uncertainties that I mentioned earlier in my speech, there is the question whether deterrence actually works. As Dr. Groom, of the university of Kent, neatly summarised the argument, while deterrence can be shown to have failed, it can never be shown to have worked. The Secretary of State, clearly, is committed to the theology of deterrence, but in the "Panorama" programme that I have mentioned several times, in which he participated, Paul Warnke, a former director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said that he saw no strategic value in Britain's deterrence and could not envisage a situation in which it would be used. In the same programme, Vice-Admiral Charles Griffiths, the United States Commander-in-Chief of Submarine Warfare, quite openly said that NATO does not need Britain's deterrent.

Lord Carver was also on hand to say that he could not visualise a situation in which Britain's deterrent would be used. In a letter to the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee, Lord Carver clearly stated the problem. He categorised Britain's deterrent as a form of insurance policy against the withdrawal of United States support for the defence of Western Europe, including Britain. He felt that this was very unlikely and would mean the end of NATO". He went on to say that a decision for a Polaris replacement was a judgment as to whether or not it is worth paying the premium to meet a risk which is so unlikely to arise. We are not talking about people who are pacifists opposing Polaris replacement with Trident; we are talking of people with considerable authority on defence matters. In reality, Britain's nuclear deterrent is considered by many people not to be a major part of NATO's overall deterrent strategy. That is a point over which we must ponder.

One gets the impression that the role of Polaris has not been completely thought out. Doctor Simpson, of Southampton university, has written: In comparison with the literature on the United States, USSR and French nuclear deterrent doctrines, little has been written on the roles the British Polaris force is designed to perform, the scenarios in which it would be relevant and the mechanisms through which its deterrent effect would operate". An argument that is frequently used is that one of the reasons for maintaining Polaris or its successor is that it would guarantee us a place at the highest tables. But that has been criticised. Peter Hill-Norton, although clearly in favour of Polaris replacement, has said: The argument that possession of nuclear weapons secures a seat at the top table is of doubtful validity. Britain has not participated in the SALT discussions; a majority of the participants in summit meetings such as those at Guadeloupe and Tokyo have been non-nuclear". He clearly sees the advantage of replacing Polaris with Trident, but the argument that it does not secure a top-table seat is one that has significance.

Even if one accepts that in the final analysis, and despite the considerable evidence to the contrary, Britain needs a deterrent of its own, it is still not clear which one it should be. The consensus in favour of Trident is not as complete as many would wish it to be. There have been serious arguments in favour of Cruise missiles mounted on conventionally powered submarines—an option which many argue is cheaper than Trident. Another option favoured would be a Cruise missile fired from the torpedo tubes of our existing nuclear attack submarines. That has been sensibly argued. There are also those who favour a system consisting of existing Polaris A3 missiles in new submarines.

I do not want to talk at length about the Polaris improvement programme, but I am not satisfied with the information that has been given. I have seen an article published by the hon. Member for Alder-shot arguing another alternative, namely, collaboration with France in some form of military Concorde project. However, I understand from a recent article in The Guardian that perhaps the hon. Gentleman's views have somewhat changed.

There is another argument in terms of options to be considered—not one put forward by a pacifist—that one should get out of the nuclear league. One of the very few things that Lord Chalfont said recently with which I agree was when he argued: It would seem perverse, therefore, that Britain should choose to expend on a new nuclear weapons programme money and other resources which would be more usefully devoted to strengthening our conventional forces in Europe, and to building up military defences which would enable NATO to meet an attack without being obliged to resort immediately to the suicidal use of nuclear weapons". Those are the many options that ought to be discussed. I hope that I have pointed out sufficient complications to merit a fuller and more public debate.

In both of the Secretary of State's major appearances, he has pointed out the impossibility of reaching the Russian people with the arguments. I hope that he is satisfied that the British public has been fully reached with the arguments. His boss has argued that her speeches help towards this debate, but a debate is a two-way street. Mindless sloganising, or the exploitation of fears, is not conducive to any rationality of argument.

I relate my final points to the role that Parliament ought to be playing in defence decision-making. Perhaps, through the creation of Select Committees, we have a chance to allow hon. Members to play a much more significant role. That can come about only if the Ministry of Defence is prepared to give information. It will come about only if we are given proper research assistance, and that means strengthening the Library and providing the Committee with adequate advice.

I believe that during its nine years the old Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee had just over 350 days of expert advice. I do not say that the reports were inadequate, but a Committee of 11 part-timers aided by part-time advisers is no match for the Ministry of Defence.

The people have the right to know on what assumption the Government work. If the assumption is known, the Government's policies will have more chance of being accepted. If there is insufficient authoritative information, it is rumoured—if the Government allow the new Select Committees to play a useful role—that the Committees will inquire, pry, disagree, demand and generally be a nuisance to Whitehall. That is how it should be. The primary basis of our Government structure must be democracy and not order, simplicity and administrative convenience. The House stands at a crossroads. Will the new Select Committees be the beginning of a meaningful parliamentary reform or will they provide yet another blind alley and non-event? The latter answer would be totally inexcusable.

I apologise for talking at greater length than I originally anticipated. However, it is an important debate and I am grateful for the Secretary of State's attendance. I look forward earnestly to listening to his comments when the time comes.

2.51 am
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has done the House a great service. Although he confessed to feeling contradictory sentiments, one message was clearer than any other—he advocated delay in a decision on the replacement of Polaris. I sympathise with his feelings, because in 1978 the former Secretary of State in the previous Administration, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), said that the Labour Government had no plans to develop the Cruise missile or a successor to Polaris. I am pleased, however, that the present Administration are now looking seriously at the question of nuclear strategy. A positive approach is right. I do not believe that it is sensible to delay a decision on the position of Britain's strategic deterrent any longer. The sixth report of the Expenditure Committee spelt out a clear warning in its sixth paragraph, which is a quotation from Mr. Ian Smart of the Royal Institute of International Affairs: The planning assumption must be that the existing British force"— the British Polaris— will cease to constitute a reliable deterrent at a date which, for technical reasons, is likely to occur in about 1993. It may seem that 1993 is far away from the point of view of the British deterrent, however, it is very close indeed.… Britain, if it were to develop and produce the new deterrent force itself, would need up to 13 years to complete the process. When it comes to deciding whether or not to prepare a replacement for the Polaris force, therefore, 1993 is no further away than 1980. We are on the threshold of 1980 and we know that the hull life of some of the Polaris boats will expire at the end of the next decade. Therefore, if we are to adopt a sea-launched strategic deterrent it is imperative to make an early decision.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South also postulated an increase in the conventional capability of the United Kingdom. That would be welcomed by everybody. However, I do not believe that over a period of 10 to 15 years the modernisation of Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent need preclude reasonable improvements in our conventional capability. For example, by better use of reserve forces we could get better value for money; by more rational European procurement we could reduce our equipment costs; and, perhaps, by a more rational assignment of roles within the Alliance as a whole there could also be savings.

Finally, the hon. Member asked whether deterrence works. One thing that I do know is that in the areas of the world where aggression could have been met by a nuclear response there has, on the whole, been peace, and in the peripheral areas, where the super-Powers have sought political advantage by proxy and where no risk of nuclear exchange has ensued, there has been suffering, misery and war. One has only to look at Cambodia, South-East Asia, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

I believe that the doctrines of the late Sir John Slessor and others, who advocated a strategic deterrent role for this country, were right. They have ensured our peace in the past and we should now address ourselves seriously to the modernisation of our strategic deterrent.

I believe that strategic deterrence is important for this country, first, because we cannot assume in an era of nuclear parity that the Soviet Union will not use its growing strategic nuclear strength to exert political pressure and nuclear blackmail on other countries. We can never be certain of that, and as members of NATO it is reasonable and right that we should make our own contribution to the overall strategic deterrents of the Western Alliance.

Secondly, we cannot be sure that the interests of the United Kingdom and those of our great friends the United States will be totally identical for ever. Looking ahead over the life of the new strategic nuclear delivery system, it seems possible that in a generation or so there may be different perspectives between us on political issues and on security matters that are of great importance to the people of this country and Western Europe. That in no way diminishes or places a lesser emphasis on the crucial importance to the future of freedom and peace in the Western world as a whole of the relationship between the United States and the European members of the Alliance. However, the strength of the Alliance as a whole is enhanced if both the Europeans and the Americans play their full part, and that includes the strategic nuclear field.

Particularly at this time, we would do well to consider the implications of the United States nuclear guarantee. We all quite rightly welcome the decision that the NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers have taken to enhance the theatre nuclear capability of the Alliance, which is wholly admirable. However, in this country we are conscious of the fact that ultimately the decision whether to use these weapons, after due process of Alliance consultation, will rest with the United States. The great and paramount merit of having a strategic nuclear deterrent in British hands is that ultimately it will be a British Prime Minister who will decide.

Lord Hill-Norton, in his first-class article in The Economist on 15 September, entitled "After Polaris", put the issure more clearly than ever I could. He said: The value of Britain's missile submarines to the alliance lies not in their numbers but in the fact that they are a nuclear force committed to the alliance (as yet France's nuclear forces are not yet) with the centre of decision about their use elsewhere than in the hands of an American president. This increases the uncertainty that would face a Russian leader in deciding whether he could take the risk of using his nuclear weapons either operationally or as an instrument of political threat. It is this element of uncertainty that is at the heart of the whole concept of deterrence. By making a credible contribution ourselves, we increase the element of uncertainty in the minds of the Soviet policy makers.

I turn to the relative merits of the different systems. I do not claim to be an expert, nor do I decry as vociferously as does the hon. Member for Walsall, South the evidence available to Members of this House. I think that the report of the External Affairs Sub-Committee is an admirable document. There is much in it that merits close study. I do not think that within the constraints of security we could have expected anything better.

I am much taken with the fact that three-quarters of the globe is ocean. I am also conscious of the fact that, for a deterrent to have the maximum effect, one must increase the target able area of a potential adversary. Again, Lord Hill-Norton produced a telling statistic when he said that at a range of 2,500 miles—the range of the existing A3 Polaris missile—an extra mile in range brought an extra 15,000 square miles of target able area. Nor are ballistic missile submarines especially vulnerable. Of course, anti-submarine warfare techniques will improve. But antisubmarine warfare techniques will mean that attack submarines will be just as vulnerable as Poseidon and Trident boats. My view is that the Trident missile constitutes the most cost-effective strategic nuclear weapon for this country.

We could go for intermediate range ballistic missiles, but for an island that is highly populated and has only a small area, and with our potential adversaries in the Warsaw Pact already having a great intermediate range ballistic missile capability of their own in their growing SS20 deployment, I do not think that this would be wise.

I suppose one could look at an air-launched system. But there is no replacement for the V-bomber force as such in the strategic deterrent role. Again, there is merit in looking at the total spectrum of deterrence and nuclear capability. There is merit, too, in ensuring that the Tornado force, which the Royal Air Force will have in the strike role, should be equipped with air-launched Cruise missiles. As Lord Hill-Norton made clear in his article, this is by no means beyond the technical capabilities of the United Kingdom. The French are apparently engaged in a Cruise missile programme of their own, and perhaps we could well consider this project as a joint co-operative one.

What about the cost? I believe that for the Trident force to be effective the United Kingdom must have a minimum of five boats. That would provide two boats permanently on station. Ian Smart, of Chatham House, says that the cost would be between £3,000 million and £4,000 million. I shall not argue over the figures, but I feel that this is a very small insurance to pay for the security of this country well into the next century.

If one looks at the annual cost of BAOR at more than £1,000 million, and the cost of local administrative and communication services in the defence budget of more than £500 million, one realises that the running costs of the present four-boat Polaris force, at £126 million, seem very reasonable. It is a maximum of 2 per cent. of the total defence budget. That is a very reasonable insurance premium. One must recognise that the cost of modernising the British strategic nuclear deterrent will be spread out over a considerable number of years.

I must again turn to Lord Hill-Norton, because his is a classic document of clarity and concise and logical argument. He writes: Although these estimates are probably conservative, when spread over a period of 10 to 12 years they average only 4 to 6 per cent. of defence budget of the present order of £8 billion. Even so"— he rightly admits— these are considerable sums, which at the peak of the programme might rise to some 6 to 8 per cent. of the total defence budget. That is true. But we spend £19,000 million per annum on social security, and the figure is rising. We also spend about £3,000 million per annum on servicing the Government's debt. In other words, it costs us as much to pay for our past profligacy as it would cost over the next eight to 10 years to pay for our future security. It ill behoves this country to have a set of priorities that puts past profligacy before future security.

These are most urgent and important matters. The1957 White Paper on defence marked a turning point in British defence strategy. It was the point at which we consciously decided to move from a system of conscription to a system of all-Regular volunteer forces and, as a concomitant of those, to a posture of deterrence. We were to become for the next generation a strategic nuclear Power. The first stage was the V-bomber force, the Valiant, the Vulcan and the Victor, followed by Polaris.

With hindsight, I do not believe that the decision was wrong. It meant that we assumed, on behalf of the Alliance and on behalf of the people of this country, a responsibility in nuclear matters that other European members of the Alliance, except the French, did not assume. That was a special position that we undertook.

I do not believe that this is an appropriate time for us, either consciously or by refusing to take decisions to make the necessary financial sacrifices, to become the first strategic nuclear Power to opt out of the business of strategic nuclear deterrence, particularly in the increasingly dangerous and uncertain world in which we have to live.

3.7 am

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

I listened with great attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). Like all his speeches on these subjects, it was well researched and thoughtful. I seek only to tackle one aspect, namely, his call for greater public discussion and a wider forum of debate on the replacement of our nuclear deterrent.

It may be unpopular for me to say that I believe that this is a singularly inappropriate subject for the House of Commons to discuss. There are two levels at which the matter could be discussed. The general level is the question whether we should or should not have a successor as an independent nuclear deterrent. The more detailed level is the question of the form that the deterrent should take and the rival merits of the different weapons systems on offer.

The hon. Gentleman cited examples of where discussion has taken place in great depth, namely, in the United States and parts of the European Continent. It seems to me that, if anything, the effect has been to muddy the waters, delay decisions and probably retard the whole process, with no benefit to the defence capabilities of the countries where these discussions have taken place. It is easy to see why. Following an election, primary defence decisions are entrusted to the Cabinet of the party that wins the election, it being assumed, as invariably happens, that during the election that party has made clear its attitude to defence and that the electorate has decided that that party shall form the Government for the next five years.

If we throw these decisions open in general terms to this Chamber or to other for a of discussion, we are open to every kind of pressure group, publicity seeker, amateur strategist or half-professional journalist who gets hold of some facts, not all, and presents a picture biased in one direction or another. The public, whom the hon. Member for Walsall, South seeks to enlighten, are more likely to have their faculties blurred by the plethora of conflicting evidence of the differing pressure groups, cries of conscience, expediency, and so on, to which they will be subjected. That is at the general level.

Questions of detail are outside the ken of the House. A large proportion of them are covered by security matters. The best parts of the hon. Gentleman's speech were those in which he quoted from the Prime Minister's letter in reply to him.

The technical details that we would have to master if we were to apply ourselves rationally and productively to the appropriate successor system would not, for security reasons, be at our disposal. Therefore, we must accept that, following an election, the Government of the day make these decisions in conference with whatever expert evidence they summon, and that is that.

I know that the "Panorama" programme, much cited by the hon. Gentleman and others, is threshing around and citing literally half-baked evidence. It must be half-baked, because it cannot get its cake into the oven. Even if it could, it would not know how to operate the dials. Of course, that can sometimes make people think that they are obtaining a mastery of a subject that, in my view, is outside their grasp.

At the end, the hon. Gentleman gave the show away, because, although he presented his argument in depth and very well, we all know that he is opposed to the concept of our having an independent nuclear deterrent. I have heard him on this subject from time to time in the Chamber. He is always lucid and, by his lights, reasonably persuasive, but we know that he is opposed to it. Even if we had the capacity to debate this matter on the scale that he would like, I doubt whether many people would find that their opinions were altered at the end of the day.

Mr. George

The hon. Gentleman has fully earned the title of the hon. Member for the ancien regime, which I read in one newspaper. That is not meant maliciously. In that article your argument was incredibly elitist and you were, in effect, saying that neither the House nor the public has the competence to assimilate the arguments. As regards the argument that you entrust a Government with power to make decisions, looking at the Conservative Party's manifesto, I see no indication—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Order. In an intervention the hon. Gentleman should address to the hon. Member who has the Floor some comment that requires an answer.

Mr. George

Are you being elitist, or over-elitist, in assuming that only a few people have the competence to make this decision?

Mr. Clark

I had in fact concluded my speech and had not meant to detain the House longer. However, I am prepared to treat that as an intervention. The hon. Gentleman was asking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I assume he meant to ask me whether I was an elitist. Of course I am an elitist, and I am glad to admit to being an elitist.

3.15 am
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Francis Pym)

The House is glad to have had the opportunity of the debate. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for introducing the issue, and for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark).

The drift of the hon. Gentleman's speech was the need for debate in the House on the whole subject. He knows that, in principle, I agree with that and wish to have such a debate. His speech was also concerned with the principle of the strategic deterrent rather than the cost of it, which was the advertised subject for the debate. I make no complaint about that, but that was the drift of his speech. He spoke a great deal about uncertainty—I will deal with that in a moment—and that is important. He went out of his way to air every possible doubt and to fan uncertainty. He quoted various press articles and programmes, and he presented to the House a case that was at least tendentious, if not misleading. He did not mean necessarily to do that, but that was its effect.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, the hon. Gentleman raised the whole question of nuclear strategy. I am not sure, at this hour of night and in these circumstances, that it is the appropriate moment to deploy the entire case, as it is an extremely important issue. That strategy, supported as it has been by Governments of both parties, has worked, in the sense that it has prevented war and preserved peace in Europe—at any rate, it has played its part in contributing to that, although it is not the sole reason for preserving peace in Europe. I would certainly say, and I think the House would be of the opinion, that it was a major contributory factor.

Against that background, and in the context of the knowledge that Polaris, our present strategic deterrent, will come to the end of its useful life in the 1990s, surely it is entirely right that the Government should give its future and continuance the most careful and profound consideration, which is what we are doing. My hon. Friend for Ruislip-Northwood used the phrase "he total spectrum of deterrent capability". That is precisely what I and the Government have been deeply concerned with following our election in May.

Listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I had some regret in having been so forthcoming and frank about the consideration that we are giving to the matter. I think that I have the agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton in saying that. I am here tonight, rather unusually for a Secretary of State, precisely because I mind about the argument and precisely because it is an important matter, which affects the lives not only of British citizens but of those who live in the countries of our allies.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a mania for secrecy. On the contrary, I have tried to lead the argument from in front for the last two or three months. Every week I have made a substantial speech about the thinking behind nuclear strategy, whatever view one takes about it, in order to try to create a public debate.

I know that the hon. Gentleman would disagree, but I think that on the whole there is abroad acceptance of the argument underlying the nuclear strategic argument in the United Kingdom. We have lived with it for a long time. I certainly do not find the public debate irritating, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—quite the contrary. I have tried to lead it from in front. I might have said nothing for three months and waited for people to come back at me, but far from doing that I have tried to present the reasoning in a positive way. I should have liked a parliamentary debate. I still hope that we shall have one. There has been nothing hole-and-corner about my attitude to the matter, and it is no less than fair that that should be said.

There has been a greater deal of public information. I have tried to help the discussion about the modernisation of theatre nuclear forces which occurred last week. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have said many times that we are considering profoundly what the future of our strategic system will be.

The hon. Member alleged that the uncertainty exists. Of course, a decision on this matter will end uncertainty. Until that decision is taken, there will be uncertainty. The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. He referred to timing and cost. In trying to excite a public debate and deploy the arguments, one, in a sense, increases the uncertainty. The way to end uncertainty is not to have a public debate but to take a decision and end the uncertainty. I have tried not to do that, because it matters to carry not only this House but the British people with us. That is why I have sought to present the arguments, whether or not people agree with them.

There is no timetable. These are very big issues. The 1990s are over 10 years away. We have to make a judgment. We have thought it right, as a Government, not to rush in suddenly but to examine the various possible options with the utmost care and to form our views, in time, of course, for the consequences of any decision that we take to enable whatever system we decide to use to be produced in time, but, subject only to that, to examine the options with the greatest care. If we were to postpone that process, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, we should be continuing the very uncertainty of which he complains. So we are attempting, in a sensible and civilised way, to look at all the options most carefully before we come to a decision.

The hon. Member was frank in ackknowledging that it would be wrong to ask this or any other Government to put upon the table any matters or information that could be regarded as secret and relevant to national security. I am grateful for his acknowledgment of that fact. But, subject to that, I want the greatest possible discussion about the matter. We shall take our decision in the next few months, which is a fairly vague phrase but is indicative of the sort of time scale that we have in mind. It will enable us to assess the relative and comparative issues about the options available to us.

That brings me to the question of cost. That is clearly a major factor in the decision that we have to take. Equally clearly, the cost will vary according to which option is chosen. There is inevitably, at the moment, a high degree of inaccuracy about the relative figures, because the programmes that have to be costed must be examined very carefully. But we must remember that of all the major weapons systems that have been put into service with the British Forces, the one that has varied least from its estimated cost before it was embarked upon has been Polaris, because it was an existing system. Whether that will apply to its successor remains to be seen. It depends on the option.

It is extremely unhelpful and misleading to give currency to wild figures, such as 7 per cent. of the defence budget, when no decision has been taken. Even if some of the figures bandied about—whether £4 billion or £5 billion—for the total capital cost are true, and those figures are not wildly wrong, whatever the option, they are not so enormous when seen as a proportion of the total defence budget. Obviously it is an enormous sum of money, but it is not uniquely expensive for a defence project. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to the Tornado programme. That is more expensive.

One needs to keep the matter in proportion. As any major weapons system is spread over a number of years, so was Polaris and so will be its successor system. So far, Polaris has cost less than 5 per cent. of the defence budget per annum over its life. Its current expenditure—its running costs—is l½ per cent. of the defence budget. Its capital cost has been paid for. I cannot predict whether the successor will be more or less, but it will be of the order of one-twentieth of the defence budget.

We must also remember that expenditure on strategic nuclear forces has been a permanent regular part of our defence spending for 30 years. It is not new. Every major weapons system, with its replacement, has been a regular part of defence spending—and that will be true of the successor to the Polaris system. The proportion of the budget that we spend on a successor is likely to be much smaller than the proportion of the defence budget allocated to the V-bomber force when that was introduced in the 1950s. One must get these matters in perspective.

In terms of the addition to deterrents, the Polaris force has represented good value for money and has made its contribution to the preservation of peace. It is the Government's view that the same will be true of the successor. There will not be total reliance on it, because the nuclear threshold must not be lowered. That is the importance of our conventional strengths. We must not allow the Alliance to lower its nuclear threshold, because the object of the exercise is never to use the deterrent but to let it represent a threat of such a magnitude that no potential aggressor would be prepared to enter an argument in the first place.

That is probably as much as it is appropriate to say at this hour of the morning, but I hope that I have dealt with most of the points that have been raised in the debate.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The right hon. Gentleman is not going to say—is he—that because the debate has taken place with only a thin attendance the House should therefore not debate the issues? Will he take the opportunity to make clear that as soon as we come back from the recess there will be a major debate?

Mr. Pym

The hon. Gentleman is one of the most assiduous attenders of all hon. Members. However, had he been present at the beginning of my remarks he would have heard me say that I did not take that view. He knows that I have taken such a view from the outset. I acknowledge the problems that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has had. I have not made anything remotely like a major speech on the strategic argument, but I have tried to take up some of the issues that have properly been raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, South. I am here in person because I think that the whole issue matters so much.

I hope that in the fullness of time—at the end of what I hope the House will come to recognise as a most careful and thorough appreciation of all the problems—there will be a sound conclusion in the recommendation, whatever it is. I have no idea what it will be. I have no idea when it will come to a recommendation. I assure the House that the utmost care and trouble is being taken by us to try to reach what is, in our judgment, in the national interest and the best for the nation, neither making too much of it nor minimising it.

I shall deploy the arguments when I get the opportunity in the House. In the fullness of time I shall announce our decision. Naturally, when that is done the matter will be fully debated.