HC Deb 02 March 1981 vol 1000 cc31-2W
Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will publish in the Official Report his letter dated 10 February to the hon. Member for Melton regarding the views of the British Council of Churches on nuclear weapons and disarmament, in view of the statement of Government policy contained in that letter.

Mr. Nott

The letter which I sent to my hon. Friend is reproduced belowThank you for your letter of 16th January with copies of the resolution carried by the British Council of Churches at their General Assembly on 24th November, and of the speeches by Dr. Greet and the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am most keenly aware of the grave ethical issues raised by nuclear weapons, with their appalling power. But we face these issues in a world where nuclear weapons inescapably exist. They cannot be disinvented. The Soviet Union is a huge power of totalitarian ideology, with a massive and growing military strength and a proven willingness to use that strength when it thinks it can get away with doing so. It makes no secret of its determination to impose its ideology and its political dominance upon others. In such a world Western Governments are not merely entitled but positively bound to protect their peoples' right to peace and freedom by something more substantial than just good motives and hoping for the best. As Christians, surely we are bound to uphold the essential dignity of individuals against the contempt of human rights demonstrated by the Russian leadership. Deterrence has helped to keep Europe at peace for over thirty years, despite circumstances that were often difficult. It is still very stably keeping the peace, and the occasional speculation one hears that somehow nuclear war is closer upon us now seem to me quite baseless. To abandon our security system now, in favour of some alternative one which would be quite unproven and which indeed one seldom hears coherently or concretely described, would be immensely dangerous; and accordingly it is not obvious—to put matters mildly—that such abandonment would be of compelling ethical merit. I yield to no-one in my abhorrence of war, especially nuclear war; where I part company with the unilateralist is in my judgement of how war can be most surely prevented. The hard truth is that without a nuclear capability the Alliance would be unable to deter attack or to resist blackmail based on the threat of attack. Given that, the possession of nuclear weapons by NATO as part of deterrence seems to me plainly justifiable. Its central desire and aim is that nuclear weapons should never again be used, by either side. So far as the United Kingdom's own nuclear contribution is concerned I would see no integrity in any ethical position which demanded abandonment of our own weapons as fundamentally immoral, while remaining content to shelter under the nuclear umbrella of the United States through membership of NATO. I am, of course, aware of other sorts of arguments urged against British capability, like cost, or the non proliferation considerations which I believe may have underlain the view expressed in the British Council of Churches' resolution in December 1979; but these, with respect, are matters of practical judgement and political opinion, not ethical principle. I adhere to the view, taken by all post-war British Governments and re-endorsed recently in public by our Allies, that our capability contributes valuably to the assurance of Western deterrence. No-one can view these matters as easy, in ethical or any other terms. I note that in their recent statement the Roman Catholic Bishops were unable to reach a clear conclusion. I have much sympathy with the view put recently, in an article from a Quaker viewpoint, by Mr. Sydney Bailey:"Today there is no policy about the threat or use of nuclear weapons which does not pose appalling moral and practical dilemmas"—and he was speaking equally of unilateralism and of NATO deterrence. For myself, I come out where I see the Archbishop of Canterbury does on the fundamental issue: I cannot see unilateral renunciation as the right or responsible course. Like him, too, I look to arms control as a path of improvement. But in the real world, where business has to be done with the Russians, the West will not secure arms control by giving them what they want before negotiation starts. I deplore, like the Archbishop and Dr. Greet, the amount spent on arms. I would like to spend far less, if we could do so without making war more likely. But to ignore that condition—as so many people did in the 1930s—may bring down on us costs, above all in human life and freedom, far exceeding those of any peacetime provision for defence. Perhaps I could pick up one other point from Dr. Greet's speech. He talks of"a defence policy that envisages a pre-emptive first strike with nuclear weapons". If by this is meant a policy that would attempt to disarm an adversary by destroying his nuclear capability, then I can assure Dr. Greet that the West has no such policy; nor does it either possess or plan to acquire the sort of capability that could make disarming strikes a real option. Fears to the contrary can rest only on misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the nature of modern nuclear armouries and technical developments.

Ministry of Defence

2nd March 1981.

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