§ 2.57 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw) rose to move that this House takes note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1983 (Cmnd. 8951).133
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name in the Order Paper.
§ It is one of the great strengths of our Parliamentary system that in your Lordships' House there resides a unique blend of knowledge and experience on so many aspects of our national life. Fortunately, that is particularly true when we come to debate the crucial questions concerning the defence of our country. Today, we shall hear the views of some who have spent their professional lives in our forces and have occupied great positions in their leadership. Now, freed from their immediate responsibilities, they will give the House and a wider public the benefit of their considerable experience.
§ Noble Lords will be delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lewin, the most recently retired Chief of Defence Staff, is to make his maiden speech in this debate. He has explained to me that he has a long-standing engagement this evening and will have to leave the debate early, but I feel sure that your Lordships will understand and agree that we are fortunate that he is able to contribute to today's debate.
§ I can therefore assure all noble Lords who take part in this debate that my colleagues and I will pay great attention to their views. For my part, I shall seek to present the issues as the Government see them and to indicate the nature of our response.
§ As one who has been closely concerned with the major decisions on defence during the last four years and at another period in the early 1970s, I have two main reflections. First, the really big decisions are the more worrying because they are both intensely complicated in technological terms and often far-reaching and irreversible. Second, my intense admiration for the dedication and leadership of our forces at the highest level has grown with my experience. Indeed, in a world so full of criticisms and recriminations, I can say that I look back only with gratitude to those Service leaders and staffs with whom I have been associated in these periods.
§ Of course it is true that there are those who question the fundamental basis of our defence policy, our membership of, and strong support for, the NATO Alliance. But I believe they are few in number, so it is important to proclaim both to our friends and allies as well as to our adversaries that collective defence through NATO enjoys very widespread support among the British people.
§ This NATO Alliance is no less important today than when it was formed 30 years ago. The nature of the threat and of the military balance is described in the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1983 which is the focus of our debate today. The Soviet Union maintains vast military forces, both conventional and nuclear. These are well in excess of what is required for defensive purposes. We have seen a tremendous expansion in the Soviet Union's armed might. Their forces are constantly being improved and modernised.
§ The Warsaw Pact now outnumbers NATO in central Europe by about two and a half to one in main battle tanks, artillery and fixed wing aircraft. Soviet superiority in numbers of weapons used to be offset by the superior quality of Western equipment. But we can no longer count on that advantage as the quality of 134 Soviet equipment increasingly matches that of our own. Their superiority in conventional weapons used to be outweighed by Western nuclear superiority. However, Soviet efforts over the last two decades have changed the position dramatically. They have achieved broad parity with the United States at the strategic level. There is a growing imbalance in their favour in conventional and intermediate range nuclear systems.
§ We must look not only at the capabilities of the Soviet Union, but also at their intentions. We have no reason to believe the Soviet Union is planning any immediate attack on the West. But intentions can change. They have shown what they are prepared to do when they see it is in their interests to resort to the use of military force, as we have seen in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.
§ The first duty of any Government is the security of their people. We must be prepared to devote the resources to ensure that we maintain modern and effective forces. There is no way in which we could face such a challenge alone. Our political and economic survival is so closely bound up with that of Europe and North America that our continued security and freedom cannot be taken in isolation. It is therefore an important strength of the NATO Alliance that it brings together 16 sovereign nations working together by consent.
§ Our own contribution to NATO is a substantial one, in which we can take pride. It is firmly rooted in our political commitment to the Alliance as the cornerstone of our foreign and defence policies. We have four major roles in NATO. First, there is the defence of the United Kingdom base itself. This vital task is not simply a matter of protecting our own homeland. The United Kingdom is an important base from which many tens of thousands of reinforcements, American as well as British, would reach the European mainland.
§ Secondly, we make a major contribution by stationing substantial forces in Europe, the British Army of the Rhine and RAF (Germany). Just as the presence of United States forces in Europe demonstrates American commitment, the British forces in Europe show our commitment to the Alliance and to forward defence.
§ Thirdly, we make a major maritime contribution around our coasts and in the Eastern Atlantic. We are not—as a well-known publication on fighting ships would have us believe—planning to emasculate the Royal Navy. We will maintain a powerful modern fleet, capable of operating worldwide in addition to its role in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel, where the Royal Navy provides some 70 per cent. of all ready NATO maritime forces.
§ Plans for the fleet in the longer term envisage a carrier force of three ships, two amphibious assault ships, a substantial number of destroyers and frigates and an increasing number of nuclear powered Fleet submarines. There are currently 36 ships on order for the Royal Navy, including the third ASW carrier "Ark Royal", three Type 42 destroyers and four nuclear powered Fleet submarines. Seven Type 22 frigates are also on order, including replacements for three of the warships lost in the South Atlantic. We will order the 135 fourth replacement later this year and we have already announced our intention to order a further Type 22 frigate, another nuclear powered Fleet submarine, two more Fleet minesweepers and the first of a new class of conventionally powered submarines. In fact, this Government have already ordered 33 warships, valued at £1,875 million, since we first took office in May 1979, and the total value of these orders which we have just announced amounts to a further £600 million. It is also worth noting that expenditure on new warship construction in 1981–82 was the highest in real terms for the 19 years for which records are readily available.
§ And the fourth of our major roles is in the provision of nuclear forces. The United Kingdom's independent strategic deterrent provides a second centre of decision-making. This adds to the uncertainties facing a potential aggressor. It is an important contribution to the Alliance as well as the ultimate guarantee of our national security. The effectiveness of our strategic forces has been ensured into the 1990s by the Chevaline programme of improvements to the Polaris force, while Trident D5 will provide an effective deterrent into the next century. Successive British Governments have regarded the maintenance of an independent strategic capability as absolutely essential. This Government are no exception.
§ Lord Boothby
My Lords, will the noble Viscount forgive me if I ask him just one question? Can he give us an assurance that the light forces of the Royal Navy will be better protected against modern missiles in the future than they clearly were during the Falklands campaign?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that that is certainly our purpose and our intention and we shall work to that end. Our contribution to the Alliance must he good not just in its breadth but in its quality. At least as important as the quality of our equipment is the quality of our servicemen and women. As noble Lords will I am sure agree, that quality is of the highest and has been seen to be so whenever and wherever tested.
As to equipment, co-operation in the development and production of weapons systems offers a great deal of scope for nations to work together to spread costs and improve the degree of standardisation of our forces. There are already many examples of collaboration involving the United Kingdom, the United States and European partners which have produced equipment in service. Collaborative projects are not easy to set up and run; but the incentive to get them right is increasing as technology becomes ever more expensive. All allies have a duty to protect sensitive technology, and we are playing our part in doing so. But at the same time, we must not put up barriers to co-operation within the Alliance or our own defence capability might suffer. It is the exploitation of our technological strengths that, in combination with new tactics, can help to enhance conventional deterrence.
The policy of flexible response will continue to call for a range of conventional, theatre nuclear and strategic nuclear responses. This gives the Alliance the ability to respond in an appropriate way to any level of 136 aggression, or threat of aggression, without a potential aggressor being able to predict with certainty just what that response would be. With the massive Soviet strength in conventional, chemical and nuclear forces, reliance on conventional forces alone could not offer a credible deterrent.
We must nevertheless do all in our power to reach agreement with the Soviet Union to limit and reduce armaments and to build confidence. There have been successes in arms control, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the ABM agreements, but they have been hard won. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said last week, the need is for balanced, militarily significant and binding measures which can be verified. There can be no short cuts. Some have said that a simple freeze would be a quick and easy solution. But the Soviet Union has already undertaken a massive programme of expansion and modernisation. NATO is about to begin its modernisation, so a freeze now would confirm one side in perpetual superiority and condemn the other to perpetual inferiority. That is no formula for peace.
One of the major NATO modernisation programmes is of course the deployment of Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in Europe. The NATO twin track decision of 1979 was based on the need to modernise ageing Alliance theatre nuclear weapons and on concern at the deployment of new and more powerful Soviet SS.20 missiles, each with three warheads. The twin track decision warned the Soviet Union that NATO would begin to deploy its own deterrent systems, Pershing 2 and Cruise, by the end of 1983, although plans could be modified if there had been agreement at Geneva. At the time of the NATO decision, about 120 SS.20s had been deployed. There are now 351 (that is, 1053 warheads), two-thirds of which are targeted on Western Europe. Comparable NATO missiles have stayed at the same number over that period—none. We are clear that we cannot allow that massive imbalance to continue. If necessary, we will deploy our own missiles to fill the gap, but we would much prefer to achieve the same result through arms control.
The Government still hope it may be possible to reach some agreement limiting INF deployment if the Soviet Union shows a commitment to negotiate flexibly and seriously. But they have not done so yet. They have tried to divert attention to the British and French strategic systems, which they wish to count in the INF totals. There is no mystery about this: they wish to prevent the deployment of Cruise and Pershing 2s while retaining their own SS.20s. But they will not succeed. There can be no question of including our present Polaris force and future Trident force in discussion of INF: these are strategic and not theatre or intermediate systems and cannot be counted as such. In addition to our commitment to NATO, our ballistic missile submarines are our ultimate guarantee of national security. The force is and will remain at the minimum necessary to provide an effective deterrent.
Unless the current arms control negotiations render it unnecessary, we intend to take up to 160 Cruise missiles here, to be based at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth. Noble Lords will all be aware that, as was shown by the demonstration in London on Saturday, we still face criticism from groups opposed 137 to this policy. But our resolve is not shaken. I do not believe these groups are widely representative of the British people as a whole. We remain firmly committed to the NATO twin track approach and if an agreement which gets rid of the need for them cannot be reached at Geneva, then missiles will be deployed here as planned. The first ones will be operational by the end of the year. At the same time, there is no reason why talks should cease on deployment. That is not our wish or intention.
I have spoken about the crucial role of NATO; but the West also has vital interests and commitments outside the North Atlantic Treaty area. While acknowledging the primacy of NATO commitments, it is right that we should look after Western interests in other parts of the world. We contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in some key parts of the world: for example, by providing loan service personnel and training to help national armed forces. We also recognise the value of a military presence—for example, naval deployments from time to time—as a demonstration of interest.
The Falklands campaign provided a vivid example of the need to maintain this capability. Our forces were able to respond magnificently at very short notice, and to acquit themselves admirably in a very remote part of the world. While the flexibility and mobility of our forces were adequate in that instance, the lessons of the campaign showed us that improvements could be made in a number of ways. These are now being carried out so as to improve our capabilities for operations both within the NATO area, and elsewhere, should the need arise.
In the Falklands we continue to maintain a strong garrison to deter further military adventures by Argentina. This is necessary because Argentina has still not declared a cessation of hostilities. She continues to re-arm her forces while her leaders make bellicose statements. Not only must she renounce the use of force as a means to settle the dispute, but she must be seen genuinely to have done so. She also still refuses to acknowledge that transfer of sovereignty cannot be a precondition to negotiations and she refuses to acknowledge the Falkland islanders' right to self-determination. Without progress on these issues there is no prospect of negotiations.
Work is beginning on building the new strategic airfield at Mount Pleasant which, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, pointed out in his 1982 Falklands Economic Study, is so important to the islands' economy. An extensive programme of construction work by the Royal Engineers is continuing. The morale of our forces remains excellent despite the difficult conditions in which they work, and I should like to pay tribute to all those members of the forces who have served in the garrison and continue to do so.
It would not be right for me to talk about the activities of our armed forces today without paying a tribute to those who support the police on internal security duties in Northern Ireland. Great strides have of course been made since my own time as Northern Ireland Secretary in 1972–73. The expansion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and their success in combating terrorist crime, together with the stalwart assistance of the Ulster Defence Regiment, has enabled Regular Army support to be scaled down 138 dramatically since those early days. I count it as no small measure of success that we now deploy only two battalions on emergency tours to strengthen our resident garrison of six, whereas at the height of the troubles in 1972, when I was there, there were no fewer than 26 major units in the Province.
We should not forget however that our forces, both regular and UDR, continue patiently and resolutely to get on with what is often a dangerous and unglamorous job while the world's attention may be focused elsewhere, and I should like to take this opportunity today to express my gratitude to them.
I have outlined today the very wide range of defence commitments which this country has. I hope I have made it clear that this Government are determined to maintain these strong defences. Our determination is amply demonstrated by the resources which we have provided for our armed forces over the past four or five years. Despite economic pressures and the need to control public expenditure as a whole, we have increased defence spending in real terms each year since coming to office. This year we will be spending some £15.7 billion on defence, a real increase of 17 per cent. over 1978–79.
As to the future, noble Lords will be aware that public expenditure in the years up to 1986–87 is currently under consideration in the normal autumn review. Our past record should inspire confidence that we shall continue to give substance to the high priority which we accord to the defence of the nation. I stressed earlier that the NATO Alliance is an association of free nations in which all members have an important part to play. The United Kingdom will not shirk its responsibility to its own people nor indeed to the free world. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1983 (Cmnd. 8951). —(Viscount Whitelaw.)
§ 3.22 p.m.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for setting the scene for this debate on the Defence White Paper. As the chairman of the important new Cabinet Committee on Public Expenditure he has a crucial responsibility in relation to the matters that we are debating today. One of my small criticisms of his speech is that he did not take the House into his confidence as to the measures he is proposing should be taken over the next few weeks. Like him I shall look forward—and I am sure the House will—to hearing the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lewin, and the speeches of those others who are so expert in the field of defence.
The White Paper raises issues of the most profound importance for this country and the world, and I shall seek to pose a number of questions to the Government upon their general policy and upon its financial implications. There are some matters upon which almost everyone in the House is agreed: namely, that our defences should be adequate and efficient: that, especially given the size of the bill, we should ensure that we are getting value for money; that defence policy should relate to a clearly defined foreign policy; and that we continue as members of NATO and play 139 our full and fair part in that alliance as described by the noble Viscount.
What does the White Paper say? First, it estimates that the Goverment will spend nearly £16 billion in the present financial year, including £624 million on maintaining the Falklands' Garrison and repairing the losses of the South Atlantic war. It makes clear that the Government's defence budget has risen by 20 per cent. after allowing for inflation during the first four years of Mrs. Thatcher's first administration. Are we getting value for money? That is the question which the House must ask. Are we getting value for money? Are our defences 20 per cent. better than they were in 1979?
I noted what the noble Viscount said about the new warships and their cost. I am not expert about these warships but I have read what the experts have said over the weekend, and they say that the projected cost is likely to be much in excess of what the Government have quoted at the present time. These are the facts we want to hear about, for at this rate of expenditure we in this country are spending more than any of our major European allies, whether our military expenditure is considered in absolute terms as a proportion of national income or per head of the population. That is more than West Germany; more than France; twice as much as Italy. As I understand it, the Government's commitment is to spend £17,300 million in 1984–85 and £18,300 million in 1985–86. There is considerable concern not only about the relative size of the British bill compared with that of its allies in Europe, but also about our capacity and our determination to meet that bill. The House will wish to know more about this at the end of this debate.
This Conservative Government have been in power for over four years, and they are likely to be in office for another four years or more. It is their policies which concern the nation at this time, and they have certainly not been a model of clarity, especially when it comes to giving an explanation about the way in which everything is to be paid for. The country is entitled to know whether the defence budget still stands, and whether the projections for the next two years are still valid.
It is said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is showing concern about defence expenditure and turning his attention to it. What the Cabinet have done is to turn the noble Viscount's attention to it. Both he and the Chancellor will be looking at it together. The annual escalation in the cost of defence equipment, for example, estimated at an annual average of 6 per cent. to 8 per cent. on capital production costs is an acute problem for the Defence Ministry and is, so we are informed, much in the mind of Treasury officials. These are the matters which the noble Viscount will be studying over the next few weeks.
I am not an expert, but no-one who read the proceedings of the Select Committee on Defence in another place last year can be in any doubt that the system of procurement is gravely deficient in this country. The noble Viscount and his colleagues will have read with interest, as I did, the important series of articles on defence published in the Financial Times on 10th October. These articles dealt with all aspects 140 of defence in great detail and asked a number of important questions.
They made the point that second only to social security defence comes highest in the league table of British Government spending, and they say:It is hardly surprising that defence is a prime candidate for cuts as the Treasury attempts to keep overall Government spending within tight limits".Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, when he comes to wind up the debate will deal with the following questions. First, will the Ministry of Defence be required to cut more than its fair share of expenditure in the next financial year, 1984–85? Is it not the case that the Estimates for that year are already about £300 million above planned targets? It must not be forgotten that when the new Chancellor excitedly cut expenditure by £500 million immediately after the election nearly half of that figure was defence expenditure. We have heard nothing about that in the speech of the noble Viscount.
There is a second and even more important question than that, and that is whether the Ministry of Defence will be able to fulfil its commitment to increase defence spending by 3 per cent.—that is 3 per cent. per annum in real terms—beyond 1985–86. In his new position again as chairman of that important committee the noble Viscount will have a special responsibility.
In view of the pledges made by the Conservative Party in the election we are entitled to clear answers on these questions. The rising cost of defence equipment is a matter which the Government have not properly faced up to, although it has been and remains a central problem. I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, is to speak in the debate for he has always recognised this problem.
An article in the Sunday Times on 11th September quoted the noble Lord as saying:We stay on the certain road to absurdity or we get better at the risk-taking business".He was dealing with cutting costs. It has been alleged that Britain's defence cost record has been 30 per cent. worse than that of most NATO countries. There is ample authority for saying that. Sir Frank Cooper, for example, the former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, said in a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies:The only safe statement is that sticking to one's last is the way to disaster. Change is difficult but change is necessary and possible".Sir Frank Cooper then called for reviews by groups which would—and I quote—
take a more dispassionate look than those immersed on a day-to-day basis in defence management".This whole area is so fraught with difficulties that, in our view, consideration must be given to a full-scale inquiry, perhaps even a Royal Commission, into the Ministry of Defence. The present uncertainty which surrounds its operations is one of the least satisfactory aspects of Government administration. I am quite sure that the appointment of the noble Viscount to the chairmanship of the committee is attributable to the worry which exists in the Cabinet about the department.
141 It is the fact that our military resources are extended across the world. Against the background of Britain's NATO commitment we must ask whether they are overstretched. The noble Viscount referred to "Fortress Falklands", and at some stage—sooner rather than later, we hope—we must look carefully at this again.
Perhaps later we can be told more about the position in Belize. The Foreign Office has said that the British garrison will remain there for what is called "an appropriate period", but it was unable to say what "appropriate" meant. The Prime Minister is said to have discussed the Belize situation with President Reagan when she was in Washington. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the results of those talks. Are British troops to remain in Belize, or are United States troops to replace them there?
We all noted Sir John Nott's recent remarks with great interest, especially his concern about the Falklands garrison. Dr. Paul Rogers, in the Guardian on 3rd October, estimated that the true cost of running the Falklands' defences at present is close to £1,000 million a year, excluding the cost of building the new airfield, replacing lost ships and capital equipment. That is a truly massive expenditure which we must take into account when we consider these Estimates.
I now turn to another matter referred to by the noble Viscount, and that is Trident. The House will be aware that we on this side are opposed to Trident. The reasons for this are well known, and I shall not go into great detail. We do not think we can afford Trident. Its costs will create an imbalance in our defence structure, and it will make the whole task of disarmament far more complex and difficult than it is at present. Of course, there are those on the Conservative side who share these doubts with us. Page 7 of the Statement says:There has been no change in the estimated cost of the Trident D5 system since last year other than for…general inflation and exchange rate changes. At average 1982–83 prices, the estimate is approximately £7½billion.This is a huge figure, but what is the latest figure? That is what the House will wish to know. Is it not the case that by now the cost is in excess off £10 billion? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will tell us at the end of the debate. This volume of expenditure on Trident is bound to throw the defence policy out of kilter. It is so large a proportion of the overall defence bill that expenditure in other fields will be severely reduced. To this extent it will begin to dictate defence policy rather than be a part of it.
If Britain is to continue to meet the Falklands expenditure and continue to play a global naval role in defence of other scattered points across the world—indeed, if we are to have a significant Navy and to build the new ships to which the noble Viscount has referred—and if we are to maintain an effective presence in Germany, how can we afford Trident as well? That is one of the central questions in the whole debate: whether we can buy Trident and at the same time maintain a reasonable conventional capability without increasing defence costs by several billion pounds. It is my duty from the Box on this side of the House to put this question seriously to the Government. If the Government persist with Trident, where is 142 the axe to fall on conventional arms? One cannot have both.
Does not the acquisition of Trident mean that our conventional contribution to NATO must suffer? The noble Viscount stressed the importance of our NATO membership, and I agree with him. What does Trident mean to the Western Alliance in real terms? Is it important to the Western Alliance? I am open to correction by the noble Lord when he winds up, but I understand that Trident will represent only 2 per cent. of the total nuclear capacity of the West. The USA's nuclear arsenal provides the remaining 98 per cent. Which is the more effective contribution to NATO? Is it the 2 per cent. on Trident or a progressively modernised conventional contribution?
It is also a fiction to imagine that the acquisition of this system will make war less likely. Both sides have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times over, as the House is well aware. This is what makes the case for cruise missiles so dubious. To seek to match missile for missile when the nuclear capacity on both sides is so vast is a futile exercise. This was the point made by Professor Michael Howard in his article in The Times some months ago. He wrote then:The SS.20s remain a very small proportion of the enormous nuclear forces that the Soviet Union is capable of launching against Western Europe. The belief of some strategic analysts that the Russians can be deterred only by the installation of precisely matching systems—that ground-based missiles must he matched by ground-based missiles—is naive to the point of absurdity".Professor Michael Howard is not an enthusiastic supporter of my party; in fact. I understand he is a warm supporter of the party opposite, and I hope that they will listen to the words of an acknowledged expert who is sympathetic to them. We should also remember that the decision to deploy cruise missiles was taken long before the planners knew about SS.20s.
The constant escalation, therefore, from one system to the next is one of the more frightening aspects of the situation. No sooner is one sophisticated weapon off the drawing board than the designers are working on some new horror. This is something that quite properly causes deep concern to the man in the street.
The noble Viscount referred to the so-called NATO "twin track" decision in December 1979 about cruise missiles. There is grave doubt whether that decision was right or tenable. Some experts doubt whether there is a good military case for cruise, and the political reactions to cruise in Europe are known to all of us. Saturday's demonstations reflected the feelings in Europe. We now read—this takes place during the Geneva talks, and I wish the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to pay particular attention to this point—that the first cruise missiles will become operational in Britain on 15th December. The plan is to instal them at Greenham Common, capable of being fired, ten days before Christmas. The Observer newspaper reported on Sunday that one flight of 16 missiles would become functional on this date. They have chosen a most inappropriate date. We are entitled to be told in this debate precisely what is happening about cruise missiles in this country. Is the Observer report accurate? And it was reported in the Sunday Times as well. If so, why is this step being taken while the Geneva talks are still in progress?
143 I find the position both confusing and depressing, and I feel sure that this view will be shared by noble Lords in all parts of the House. I read with great interest the letter which the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, wrote to The Times yesterday. No doubt he will enlarge on it when he comes to speak. He made the point—with which I agree—that there is no insurmountable harrier in the negotiations at the present time. With a little determination by both sides, with a little support from us and from the French and the other allies, there could be a solution to this problem. Would not a settlement in Geneva be a great triumph? Would it not, if it were achieved, make these deployments unnecessary?
People everywhere are concerned about the success of the disarmament talks, and the hopes and fears of countless millions are concentrated upon that table in Geneva. I myself believe that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House is anxious to achieve effective disarmament. I am bound to say to him, however, that there is a widespread feeling that the Government in their actions have given the impression that they are less than enthusiastic about disarmament.
I do not wish to repeat what I said in our last debate on foreign affairs, but it would be intolerable if the Geneva talks failed without this country being given an opportunity to sit at the table. And this applies to the French as well. You cannot argue on the one hand that this country's nuclear capacity is important as a bargaining counter, if you are not given the chance to bargain with it. It is difficult to envisage multilateral disarmament based on bilateral talks. We should, I believe, move to participate more actively in the negotiations.
Furthermore, our stance in the United Nations on some issues has been less than satisfying. For example, the General Assembly which met on 13th December had a resolution before it sponsored jointly by Sweden and Mexico, which called for a nuclear freeze—not on one side but on the manufacture, deployment and testing of nuclear weapons by both super powers. It was adopted by 119 votes to 17. I am sorry to say that Britain was one of the 17. The reason given on page 8 of the White Paper is that the freeze would perpetuate and legitimise Soviet superiority.
Here, again, we are up against the kind of escalation mentality which was deplored by Professor Michael Howard. I am under no illusions about the Soviet Union. I am certainly not one who criticises the Americans while giving credence to the belief that somehow the Russians are more conciliatory. We have it on Mr. Andropov's own word that he and his colleagues are not naive. Personally, I never thought that they were. I was glad to hear the noble Lord speak of the need to reach agreement with the USSR. But one of the least edifying spectacles of modern politics is that of the leaders of great nations bombarding each other with menaces and insults across the continents and at the same time continuing to produce nuclear arms which can destroy mankind. It is regrettable that Mrs. Thatcher feels it necessary to join in this and to do so herself with measured aggression.
We know what the USSR stands for and what it believes in. And it knows that we believe in something 144 substantially different. Nuclear weapons are not going to change that state of affairs quickly. They can obliterate them both but they cannot change them. I repeat that the hope and the common sense must come from the table in Geneva and that in such a critical stage of world history it would not be unreasonable now for President Reagan and Mr. Andropov, instead of shouting at each other across 5,000 miles, to arrange to meet at an early date in the interests of the millions they represent—and the rest of us as well. At the same time, when communications are easier than they have ever been, there seems to be a reluctance to meet at the highest level when the truth is that frequent conferences between senior representatives of the super powers are indispensable in their influence for peace and real understanding.
It is clear that, as in the tragic case of the destruction of the Korean airliner, critical events can occur without the immediate knowledge or possible intervention of national leaders. We must ask whether the lessons of this tragedy have been learned. I am sure that noble Lords read in The Times yesterday Mr. James Callaghan's powerful article about this and about the need for a meeting of leaders.
There is a feeling—and I am bound to put it to noble Lords opposite—that this Government are too prone to gallop in the wake of every American initiative, whatever that may be. We should be a little more independent, as the Americans were when Britain was the super power! I do not recollect in my reading of history that the Americans galloped after us as we seem to be following them. The Prime Minister's Washington speech was not one of her better efforts. The people of this country would be happier if she were seen to be more active in seeking agreement at Geneva and also in bringing United States and Soviet leaders together for practical talks in concert with President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl.
My Lords, we are all agreed, I think, that we are passing through a most critical time in world history. I have the uncomfortable sense, which I am sure is shared by many noble Lords, that we have become a country with no room for manoeuvre. We are not negotiating; although we are most closely affected. There are armaments on our soil over which we do not have practical control; there is no dual control. Matters are being discussed which affect our destiny and we are not there to share in the discussions; we have surrendered our proxy to somebody else. So has a great nation come to a sorry pass. We are bobbing in the wake of a powerful ally, helplessly but hoping for the best.
I value the friendship of the United States, but this Government have become too subservient to that country's present Administration. The Prime Minister, herself, has gone too far. Let us play a more independent and constructive role in the United Nations, in NATO and in the EEC. That is what our people expect of the Government in these most unpredictable times.