HC Deb 11 February 1997 vol 290 cc124-6
3. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the United States about the cost, relevance and morality of nuclear weapons. [13715]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)

Nuclear weapons have successfully deterred war in Europe for more than 50 years. That is their financial and moral justification.

Mr. Mullin

Did the Secretary of State see the recent remarks by General Lee Butler, the former chief of US Strategic Command, who said that nuclear weapons were inherently dangerous, hugely expensive, militarily inefficient and morally indefensible? Did the Secretary of State also see the remarks of Sir Michael Atiyah, the former President of the Royal Society, who, in his farewell address 14 months ago, said that nuclear weapons were fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources and a significant factor in our relative economic decline?

Does the Secretary of State think that history will show that those who were so keen on nuclear weapons will turn out to be the extremists and those of us who were against them may turn out to be the moderates?

Mr. Portillo

I do not agree with the two interesting quotations that the hon. Gentleman just made, but if his point is that many people agree with him, he is, of course, right; he speaks for the majority of the Labour party. At one time, 19 members of the present Labour Front Bench agreed with him. At one time, the Leader of the Opposition was a member of national CND. At one time, the Labour party spokesman on defence was a member of parliamentary CND. I perfectly understand that the hon. Gentleman feels aggrieved that he used to have all these people agreeing with him; whereas he has stuck to his opinions, these wimps have changed their minds.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is the true voice of the Labour party—a Labour party that has consistently called for defence cut after defence cut?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman is not only the true voice of the Labour party, but the courageous voice of the Labour party. He has tried to say today that there are many who agree with him. He need have no fear. After the next election, I am confident that the Labour party will revert to type, win or lose.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

When the Secretary of State has the opportunity to meet the new United States Secretary of State of Defence, Mr. Cohen, will he discuss with him the significance of the remarks recently attributed to the Russian Defence Minister: that the Russian nuclear arsenal has become unmanageable and that there appears to be a loss of effective command and control? In those circumstances, is there not a need for a joint initiative on the part of the United Kingdom and the United States to endeavour to prevent rogue nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists?

Mr. Portillo

That is a matter of great concern and interest to the international community. I am pleased to say that there has been the most intimate co-operation between the United Kingdom, the United States, the Russian Federation and others. I am frequently in touch with my Russian opposite number. Indeed, I have been in touch with him very recently. He has not raised with me any immediate concerns, but he knows that the international community is willing to do what it can to ensure that there is not proliferation in the very dangerous manner that the hon. and learned Gentleman just mentioned.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot disinvent nuclear weapons, and that the real danger with the proliferation of surface-to-surface missiles is the fact that they can fall into the hands of very unstable regimes that are able to target most of Europe?

Mr. Portillo

There are all sorts of new dangers in the new world that we now face. Nuclear deterrents will remain cost-effective and morally justified because they can avert nuclear or other war disaster. That is why I am so confident about the opinion that we have always held, and why, because it is common sense, we understand why 19 members of the Labour Front Bench have had to change what they say to come into line with common sense. Whether they have changed their minds is a matter that only they and God can know.

Mr. Llew Smith

Will the Minister tell the House what are the total lifetime operational refit and decommissioning costs of Trident, on top of the £12 billion that taxpayers have already provided for its construction?

Mr. Portillo

When the hon. Gentleman tackles the cost of nuclear weapons, he is on the very weakest part of the argument. I believe that the total cost of the nuclear programme will be about 2.5 per cent. of the defence budget over the life of the nuclear deterrent. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed my view that the opinions expressed in the main question are widespread in the Labour party, even today. I congratulate him, at least, on sticking to his convictions and opinions. Where are the other brave men and women who will rise and say that they have not changed their minds either?

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