HL Deb 28 November 1983 vol 445 cc435-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent the agreement with the United States to consult before the firing of any cruise missile, is held to be consistent with the statement of Dr. Kissinger which, explaining a previous lack of consultation over a nuclear alert, said, "… allies should be consulted whenever possible. But emergencies are sure to arise again, and it will not be in anyone's interest if the chief protector of free world security is hamstrung by bureaucratic procedure …".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, on the occasion to which the noble Lord referred, United States forces were placed on a relatively low level alert which did not involve the immediate prospect of action, and the British Government were informed at a very early stage.

The operational use of facilities in this country was not in question. Had it been it would have been governed by the understanding between the British Government and the Government of the United States which provides for a joint decision to be made on any use of United States bases in the United Kingdom.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for that Answer. But is it not a fact that the alert to which he referred included the United States nuclear forces in Europe? Is it not a fact that Dr. Kissinger, in the records to which I refer in my Question, actually says that he was sorry that he was only able to tell the United Kingdom one hour after action had been taken? Looking at that experience in depth, is there any evidence in that experience to suggest that in an emergency the United States will feel compelled to consult their allies before taking action?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I imagine that the noble Lord is relying upon a letter to The Times which referred to this matter and which, indeed, included a considerable quotation from Dr. Kissinger's memoirs. Unfortunately, that quotation was a selective one and, in relation to this particular matter, omitted the words: at issue were only readiness measures, not actions". As I say, had any action been contemplated, the formal agreement procedure—with which the noble Lord is, I imagine, by now well familiar—would have come into play.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, far be it from me to undervalue a letter to The Times, but, as someone else might have said, "Why look in The Times if one can read the book?" If one reads the book fully, one will see quotation after quotation which says that in an emergency the United States would not be able to consult their allies. For example, perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to the quotation at page 713 in which Dr. Kissinger said: Imminent danger did not brook an exchange of views and, to be frank"— and this is the important point— we could not have accepted a judgment different from our own. With all that evidence before us, is it not just possible that the overwhelming majority of the British people, on this one issue at any rate, are right and that the Government are wrong?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the fact remains that the passage in the book to which the noble Lord refers includes the words which I read out just now, and, for reasons best known to the author, those words were omitted from the letter which recently appeared in The Times, and which I imagine has given rise to the noble Lord's interest in this matter, although, of course, I understand that he has the book in front of him now. The fact remains that the use of British bases by the United States is subject to agreement between the two Heads of Government concerned. I do not think that the noble Lord will expect me to repeat the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister when she answered a Question on this matter some months ago.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that the kind of context in which this matter could arise would be a crisis which has probably been accumulating at least over weeks, if not days, and that in the course of such a crisis consultations are inevitable?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, indeed, consultations would, of course, take place in the kind of circumstances to which my noble friend refers. But before the bases could be used, there would have to be more than consultations; it would have to be with the agreement of the British Prime Minister.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that, although consultation might take place during the course of a crisis, on the question of actually firing a difference of opinion might arise? In the event of such a difference of opinion, is it not the case that physical control on the spot, operated through officers responsible to Her Majesty's Government, is the only means we have of ensuring that those weapons will never be fired against the will of the Government of the people of this country?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords. The United States is, of course, our closest ally and the fact remains that the weapons which they have in this country cannot be used without the agreement of the British Prime Minister.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, would the Minister accept that, although the United States is our closest ally, that did not stop them in the so-called consultation before they invaded Grenada telling us what they intended to do and going ahead? Will the noble Lord make sure that the meaning of "consultation" is the same on both sides of the Atlantic? As a final safeguard, will he ensure that we get dual key to make sure that no mistakes arise?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a wholly different matter. Grenada is nothing to do with NATO. There was prior consultation on that matter, and the United Kingdom's views were, as the noble Lord knows, made clear.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not true that, if it was ever contemplated that any of these weapons were to be used, there would be a situation of such crisis in Europe that the Prime Minister of this country and the President of the United States would be practically permanently on the telephone to each other on open link, and it would be unavoidable that decisions of this sort would not be taken without really serious consultation? If they were ever taken, in effect the whole system of deterrence would have failed, and the object of deterrence is to stop any of these wretched weapons ever being used.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is, of course, quite right that the whole purpose of our defence policy is to prevent an occasion arising when the use of these weapons might become necessary. But, in the light of the situation that prevailed nearly 30 years ago, the Prime Minister and the President of the United States at that time thought it right to reach a formal agreement which was subsequently made public in a communiqué issued by Mr. Churchill and President Truman.

Lord Morris

My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government ascribe the same importance to the views of Dr. Kissinger as apparently noble Lords opposite do?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a matter for noble Lords opposite, not for me.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, would the noble Lord be good enough to make it clear that the agreement to which he refers and to which the Prime Minister refers is the same agreement as that which was operative at the time of which Dr. Kissinger writes, when consultation did not take place? Further, is he aware that I entirely agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, said about a crisis developing over a period of time? But Dr. Kissinger says that there came the point when: our nerves taut from several all night vigils, we reacted in a manner bound to escalate tensions even further". It is at this point, when there have been several nights of vigil, that I am afraid a mistake will be made which will be the ultimate one.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the events which the noble Lord describes and which Dr. Kissinger describes in this book were not, of course, launching weapons or using weapons, or anything like it. It was raising the level of alertness I think by two points. The noble Lord will know that the Americans have a five-point system in this particular regard. Therefore, it is not the case that there was any risk. As I say, there was only this raising the alert. Such raising the alert does not require the prior agreement of the United Kingdom. Had any question arisen of the use of those bases for purposes of the sort that the noble Lord has in mind, then, of course, the agreement of the British Prime Minister would have been required.