15th March 2010
The debate is about defence in the world, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary focused a bit narrowly, if I may say so, on Afghanistan. I do not entirely blame him, because the attempts to challenge the Chilcot inquiry evidence given by the Prime Minister, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Iraq conflict was launched, were fairly unworthy. I was genuinely surprised and concerned by the proncunciamentos from certain former senior officers, including chiefs of staff who are now Members of the other place. They have a right to speak—[Interruption.] Some say that they have a duty to speak, but if our soldiers decide to become party political animals when they retire, the relationship between the military and the Crown might alter, which should give us some cause for reflection. That is all that I would say.
I asked the House of Commons Library about the finances, and I have listened to the conflicting points of view that have been expressed today. I was told that the defence budget went up by 31 per cent. between 1997 and 2003—by 17 per cent. in real terms, which is about £7 billion extra on top of the steadily inflation-plus growing defence budget. I have never been able to understand why the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time is blamed for the distribution of that money, having given our military many extra pounds and pennies.
We have 140 officers at the rank of general costing £6 million-plus leading our armed services across the Army, Air Force and Navy. We have a very good Ministry of Defence senior executive capability, who are also handsomely paid. It is surely their job, having been given the extra money, to decide how it should be spent. If Iraq and Afghanistan came de novo blindside, and had never happened before in recent military experience, it would be difficult to adapt, but we fought a war in Iraq in 1990. Our soldiers, who were stationed in the region, were knocking on Saddam Hussein’s door for several months before the invasion, and we have been in Afghanistan for nine years. On the whole, when we make a comparison with the beginnings of other conflicts, whether of the first or second world war, or other major military campaigns throughout our history, we can see that we begin poorly and finish well. Our armed forces adapt very, very quickly and invent new techniques.
I am not a military expert and I always defer to Opposition Members who have been serving officers, but I am at a loss to explain why all these generals, admirals and vice-marshals have been incapable between 2001 and today, or between 2003 and today, of restrategising and reprioritising. We have many more admirals than we have ships on deployment overseas. We have a large number of major-generals. I sat next to a major-general from the Irish Guards in a second-class compartment on the train from Doncaster last week. I do not mind how MPs travel or whom they meet on the train, but it is a rum show when a major-general from the Irish Guards has to travel on an off-peak cheap-day standard class return ticket to make modest economies for the military.
I do not want to focus on Afghanistan. Instead, I shall widen out to other geo-strategic concerns. The hon. Member for Woodspring spoke about our enemies and adversaries, but he did not define them. I tried to tempt him to say whether China might be one in future. I agree entirely with his analysis. We want a liberal, friendly China, but undoubtedly the extraordinary rate of increase in its military prowess is very powerful.
The hon. Gentleman spoke warmly of President Sarkozy. We have seen some interesting remarks from the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition about Mr. Sarkozy and his height. The shadow Defence Secretary would never be accused of heightism, but he cannot seriously engage with France and appeal to France to be our ally while spending all his time attacking every article of French defence policy.
The French presidency, which takes over the European Union when the Spanish presidency finishes this July, wants to see the establishment of a new intervention force under PSC. I can see the eyes of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen glazing over at that bit of jargon. Now that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has left, let me tell them that PSC stands for permanent structure co-operation under the Lisbon treaty and is a very significant development in our common approach to European defence activity. The French presidency also wants greater contributions to the financing of European security and defence operations. Those are two examples of what France stands for—in other words, more common European authority and more money for Europe.
Dr. Fox: I am interested in the point about the funding of PSC. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting a funding mechanism that sets down specific contributions according to GDP for each member of the European Union for PSC? If he envisages that or a different mechanism, what impact will that have on the rather pathetic levels of funding that some of those countries are making for their existing NATO obligations, without adding new ones?
Mr. MacShane: I am making no comments; I am talking about what the French are proposing. If the Opposition are serious about their new desire for a bilateral relationship with France on security and defence matters, they will have to take that on board. I have read reports in which the shadow Defence Secretary was quoted to the effect that, in forging a bilateral relationship with France, we will sink the European Defence Agency. If he wants to correct me, I am happy to take the correction.
The French are fully committed to the European Defence Agency, as I believe we should be. It is preposterous that so many countries in Europe have their own procurement, research, development and implementation policies, so each country in Europe is making its different military vehicle, helicopter, rifle and even, at times, bullet. That seems to me to be an absurdity. We in Europe are rich in men, if we take on board Turkey, but we are very weak and poor in kit.
Dr. Fox: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. As he knows, I am no fan of the EDA. Leaving aside the European element of the European Defence Agency, why should countries such as the United Kingdom, which has a large private sector research budget, want to share intellectual property with countries that do not invest in such defence capability?
Mr. MacShane: It is roughly for the same reason why, on the day that the Falklands war broke out 28 years ago, the very first call received by Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, was from François Mitterrand, offering her all the details, capabilities and research technology behind the Exocet and the Super Etendard. He understood instantly what was at stake. The rumour goes—I am sure it is only a rumour—that within a day, British arms salesmen were going round their clients saying, “You see what happens if you buy from the French? They betray their secrets to someone else.”
Dr. Fox: I am very interested, because a crucial issue is coming up. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that we would not have had those problems had we had a common procurement policy in Europe. If he is suggesting that the EDA should become a common procurer, that is a very different argument from the one currently put forward by EDA proponents.
Mr. MacShane: I am making one simple point: on the issue of our soldiers and those of our allies in Europe who are prepared to fight, patrol and take containment measures alongside us, the notion that we can have 27 separate procurement policies—46, if we enlarge the number to include the Council of Europe—is just not sustainable.
Whenever I, as a NATO Parliamentary Assembly member, go to Washington, I find that the comments and suspicions that undoubtedly existed eight, nine or 10 years ago about European defence capabilities—hugely fuelled, let it be said, by the speeches, pamphlets and comments that the hon. Member for Woodspring has energetically produced over the years—have all evaporated. Now, 4-star generals, senior members of the State Department and the Department of Defence tell me that the United States wants a more coherent European approach.
Today, in Latvia, there are processions commemorating the Waffen SS division from Latvia which fought in world war two alongside the Nazis. One of the Opposition’s new party allies will be taking part in those celebrations. The Conservatives cannot insult Mr. Sarkozy, Mrs. Merkel and the other leaders of Europe’s centre-right parties by pulling their party out of a formal political alliance or family grouping with them and expect to be taken seriously. Therefore, when I hear the Opposition say that they have suddenly fallen in love with France, that all the jokes about France are inoperative and that all the xenophobia and contempt for France that we have heard from them in recent years is inoperable, I think that most French policy makers would take it with a big pincée de sel—pinch of salt.
Let us move on to the wider strategic questions. Who are our adversaries and enemies? I agree about cyber terrorism, terrorism generally and failed states, but I am not sure that it is the job of military forces to make successful such states. I am also very concerned that, under this Government and without any clear thinking from the Opposition parties, we do not have an holistic approach to bring together all our foreign policy players—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the different Departments that spend money overseas and, of course, the Ministry of Defence.
Our soldiers very bravely stopped the most awful butchery in Sierra Leone some 11 years ago, and today that country is the biggest per capita recipient of DFID aid. I am sure that the DFID people down there work very well, but why, after 11 years, is Sierra Leone the poorest country in Africa, despite the huge DFID and modest military presence? We have to ask much harder questions about our overseas aid. I say that to my hon. Friends, too, who to some extent just bow before the contemporary political god of foreign aid and do not ask searching and hard enough questions about whether it delivers what we desire—not simply the alleviation of poverty, which in many sub-Saharan countries has not happened, but better governance and more stability.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that the Ministry of Defence, in promoting the comprehensive approach, along with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID, has moved considerably, particularly on Afghanistan? When I recently visited Afghanistan with the Defence Committee, we were told that our provincial reconstruction team in Helmand set the example of the best performance of such teams across the whole of the country. Does he agree that we are in fact making progress in this area and showing a way forward?
Mr. MacShane: I am always happy to say that British is best, but I do not want to focus too much on Afghanistan. I am worried that more of our soldiers have died there than died in the Falklands, and considerably more than the number who fell in Iraq. That is often described as President Bush’s war, but the successful election that has just been held there suggests that we may now be moving towards a more stable Iraq. Yes, there will be violence and explosions; for heaven’s sake, the British isles have known plenty of those in the past 30 or 40 years. However, I always now say to Iraqi asylum seekers who come to see me: “You can go home. You can return with the English you’ve learned; you no longer need to demand the right to settle and stay permanently in our country.”
We need to look at other parts of the world. The glaciers and ice around the north pole are melting at a ferocious rate, and very soon we will have warm water there. That is warm water not in the sense that you and I would go swimming in it, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in the sense that it is fully accessible to merchant and other naval vessels from China, Japan and Korea going to Europe and right through to Canada and the United States. Alongside that new waterway, we have some powers whose commitment to settling differences by peaceful negotiation and resolution under international law or methods that are democratic is, to put it mildly, open to question. Therefore, among our priorities over the next period, let us not underestimate the importance of the Royal Navy. We will need to have a northern dimension to our foreign and security policy before long, and we should be thinking hard about it now.
I do not want to keep teasing the shadow Defence Secretary about my favourite country, France, but he spoke so warmly of Tory-French relationships that I wonder if he would care to comment—although we cannot make this a duet—on the fact that the French Government have just sold four Mistral helicopter and troop-carrying warships to Russia. The admiral in charge of the Russian fleet in the Black sea has said, “If we’d had these warships during the Georgian conflict, what took us some 40 hours we could have done in 25 minutes.” In exchange, Russia is selling arms galore to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and has offered military aid to Guatemala. I do not know whether this is a new form of the old trade triangle, whereby the French sell their hi-tech kit to the Russians, causing great concern in the Baltic regions and around the Black sea littoral states, and in exchange the Russians sell their kit to southern American countries, causing further problems of stability there. If we are to engage with our French friends on that matter, we need to be more fully engaged in Europe.
We also need to explain to our nation as a whole—I do not think that we have done so—what is at stake in our military presence in far-flung corners of the world. The support when the coffins come back is clearly enormous, but are we articulating sufficiently, with clarity and authority, the fact that 21st-century Britain must maintain a defence profile and must be involved in security and defence issues around the world? I say to many of my hon. Friends and, above all, to the utterly irresponsible Liberal Democrat party, that we cannot afford to give up our nuclear deterrent. I have just come from the funeral of Michael Foot in Hampstead. Michael was passionate about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I am a huge admirer of his, but on that he was wrong. It would be the utmost folly for my party to think that the British people are ready to sign up to any significant reduction in our deterrent capability.
We must also consider whether we as parliamentarians are sufficiently engaged in defence debates. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that any chatter from the Foreign Office that the very modest funding for the Western European Union might be reduced or removed will be wrong. It is important, as Members of all parties take part in it and learn about defence issues. I should also like to see a stronger NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation after the election. I say to the Clerks, a very distinguished representative of whom is sat at the Table, that some of the proposals to make working at the assembly more difficult, onerous and unpleasant are not to be encouraged.
In passing, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is standing down at the next election. He was a distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a distinguished leader of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation, and we will sorely miss him.
Mr. Arbuthnot: May I place on record, I think on behalf of the Defence Committee and probably also on behalf of the whole House, the fact that the contribution of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) to the defence of this country has been utterly outstanding and beyond compare?
Mr. MacShane: I obviously believe firmly that, if we are returned to power with a handsome majority, the defence of our nation will be secure in the hands of my party, as it was under Ernest Bevin and Denis Healey and has been since 1997 under successive Defence Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries. In case for any reason that majority is not quite as handsome as I might wish, I say to the Conservatives that they have not served the cause of the defence of our realm by their chipmunk moaning and groaning about every aspect of defence policy. There has been some playing of politics. I am as partisan as the next man, and it is a difficult matter—Lord Salisbury famously said, “If you listen to the doctors you are never healthy; if you listen to the theologians you are never saved, and if you listen to the generals you are never safe.” I believe that this Government and our armed services have helped preserve the safety of our nation in recent years. Whatever happens, if I am returned to this place I will continue to give them my full support.