HC Deb 26 January 1999 vol 324 cc145-7 3.38 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the prior approval, by a simple majority of the House of Commons, of military action by United Kingdom forces against Iraq. Let me be brutally candid. I do not think that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary—along, it had better be said, with most Members of the House of Commons, and the President of the United States and Mrs. Albright—have any real notion of the horror that is being unleashed against the people of Iraq.

The trite phrase, We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq is cant. Sanctions and bombing are actions that harm no one but the Iraqi people. If the Prime Minister had understood the high-tech savagery of that to which he was giving his agreement, he would never have allowed himself to step out of No. 10 Downing street in front of a Christmas tree to announce military strikes, and he certainly would not have chosen to be photographed, as he was, in the cockpit of a Tornado aircraft in Kuwait.

My right hon. Friend sitting next to me, the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), has served in war, as has the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). Some other hon. Members have experienced the V1s and V2s attacking London. I have experience only of firing guns on ranges in Lulworth and HÖhne-Belsen in Rhine Army, but the smell of cordite and the din were enough to give an inkling of the awfulness of bombardment.

Those colleagues who for age reasons have never served in the forces, and who have been inoculated against weapons of mass destruction by watching Indiana Jones and the like on television—I make no criticism of that—may have little real grasp of the enormities that are currently being perpetrated in our name.

We all gape at the fireworks over Baghdad from the comfort of our living rooms. When, with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), I saw the end result of laser-guided bombs, as I did at the Amariya—the shelter—in Baghdad in 1994—the carbonated torsos of women and sheltering children imprinted on the walls—it had the same sort of effect as when I saw the holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

It is not simply a matter of actual death and destruction. Imagine having young children in a city of 4.5 million, screaming every night, traumatised at the deafening sounds all around them. We must imagine terrified old people, bewildered by the west using high-tech to frighten them out of their wits.

The Prime Minister, quite honourably, sets out his stall as a Christian socialist. He will therefore know his Augustine and his Aquinas. Did they not have a good deal to say about everything possible being done to avoid war, as a condition of a just war? By no stretch of the imagination has that been done. There has been no light at the end of the tunnel on sanctions. It is not only my sponsors and I who think so.

For example, Archbishop Edwin OBrien, the archbishop of the archdiocese for United States military services, has said that the US bombing of Iraq is morally questionable, and that US military personnel should question their actions if ordered to take an action that is a clear violation of the moral law. Archbishop O'Brien said in a statement to the Catholic chaplains serving the US armed forces around the world that soldiers, airmen, seamen and marines are not exempt from making conscientious decisions when confronted with immoral orders. He continued:

I join the bishops of our country as well as the concerned voices of the Holy See and other hierarchies in calling on our president and his advisers to initiate no further military action in the Middle East. The archbishop praised the professionalism of the US military and noted that they are subject to the policy decisions of US elected leaders. He stated: Once civilian leadership decides a policy requiring military action, it is the sworn obligation of all in our armed forces to execute their mission in complete obedience unless in a specific instance the required action is judged clearly illegal or immoral. I am not criticising the armed forces of Britain or the United States, but Archbishop O'Brien stipulated the conditions under which a soldier decides the morality of an order. He asserted: In executing orders that might violate just war requirements military personnel face a serious moral challenge … Any individual who judges an action on his … part to be in violation of the moral law is bound to avoid that action. He went on to state: When clear moral conclusions that a particular act is unjust cannot be reached because, for example, of lack of sufficient evidence, the individual is justified in following the presumably better informed decision of his or her superiors. We must take that into account.

If I make my argument personal to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary, it is because members of the Cabinet are letting it be known that even they were not consulted about the current bombing, or the moral issues involved. Britain is, after all, supposedly a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential state.

The real object of the Bill is to try to bring home to each Member of Parliament, by vote, and each member of the Government exactly what he or she is supporting, and the moral dilemmas, such as those outlined by Archbishop O'Brien, that they face—death of civilians; inevitable collateral damage; making Saddam Hussein into a latter-day Saladin, even more popular with the Arab masses, if not with the Al-Sabah family in Kuwait, than was President Nasser in his heyday; and making little dent on mobile weapons which, if they exist, were certainly not found by UNSCOM.

Let us not pretend that this is a clear legislative proposal, in its final form. I make no such claim. There may be occasions on which the secrecy of an SAS strike is justified. It could, for instance, be an operation to rescue British nationals: in such cases, surprise is of the essence. There could be other occasions on which a response might be called for—a response to a perceived or actual scud missile attack.

No; what the Bill is about is the simple proposition that, in circumstances in which Britain is embarking on a protracted military operation with no clear end in sight, Parliament must be formally consulted and a decision must be made by majority vote, before our country drifts into a conflict whose consequences and objectives are far from clear. Incidentally, there is also a real risk that such a conflict could undermine the United Nations. It is no good talking about the authority of the United Nations when three out of its five permanent members—Russia, China and France—are against the proposals. There are also real questions to be asked when UNSCOM, which I visited seven weeks ago in Baghdad, turns out to be a nest of spies.

Before we got deeper and deeper into what could so easily turn out to be a Vietnam-like conflict with Iraq, the pros and cons should have been hammered out on the anvil of parliamentary argument. Had that been allowed to happen, this question would have been asked to the point of tedious repetition: What do we do after we have bombed and bombed and bombed? If the phrase keeping Saddam in his cage has any meaning at all, it surely means conducting a state of war for the foreseeable future.

As hon. Members who were here in the 1980s may recollect, I was no admirer of Mrs. Thatcher, but give her due: she at least agreed to, and possibly initiated, the recall of Parliament on 3 April 1982 to secure the imprimatur of the House before sending the fleet to the Falklands. In the case of Iraq—although it is arguable what the House agreed to in February 1998—that has not happened, at any rate not recently.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House who might take a diametrically opposite view from that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, the Bills sponsors and other Labour Members on the substance of the Iraq issue could feel perfectly comfortable about voting for at least allowing discussion of a Bill that is about clarity of thinking on military objectives, and about the proposition that before men and women are asked to risk their lives there ought to be a decision by vote in a democratically elected Parliament.

Finally, and ironically, there is a reason why the Bill should commend itself to the Prime Minister: it gives him time—a breathing space—in his dealings with the President of the United States. If the President says, Prime Minister, will you support a decision in favour of sustained bombing?, it is surely much better—

Madam Speaker

Order. Time is up.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. George Galloway, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. John McAllion, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Dennis Skinner and Audrey Wise.