Simon Hughes: Defence debate at Eastbourne, 1986

Simon Hughes in the debate on the Alliance defence commission report; Liberal Assembly, Eastbourne, 23 September 1986.

‘Twelve fingers on the button’

Chair (Paul Hannon): And I now call Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, to speak in favour of the first amendment.

Simon Hughes: Paul [applause] we haven’t got a lot of time Paul, I’d ask the Assembly to support amendment 1, and amendment 2, and even though I have reservations about what the motion leaves out, I shall be voting for the motion as a whole.

There is no substantial difference of direction in what is said in amendment 1 or amendment 2. They are both perfectly consistent with our policy and our precedent.

The Liberal Party Assembly, if we pass the amendment – look at the words – will support the following commission’s proposals and recommend them to those who negotiate for inclusion in the programme for government. It’ll go into the negotiation process. Today we must assert the Liberal view for that process, we must reflect Liberal traditions and aspirations and we must give the view that we believe that the Liberal Party should hold for Liberals up and down the land. We are giving guidance to our leadership as to what they should negotiate for government.

We are reaffirming our tradition, both general and specific, in 1984. A tradition of continuance in NATO, co-operation in Europe, providing an effective defence and moving towards a non-nuclear British European defence system. Paddy is wrong, Tony Greaves is right. The wording does not preclude discussion about any matter in the short term or in the medium term. [applause] And the wording is consistent with amendment 2, which the Standing Committee and the leadership and the whole party, I think, accept.

What the amendment doesn’t do – it doesn’t provide the final position for the election. It doesn’t risk the Alliance – David Owen in his good speech yesterday manifested his commitment to disarmament, and he and all his colleagues will work with us in honesty and integrity, and we will do far better than any other government has done in Britain since the war.

And it doesn’t preclude co-operation, now, tomorrow or ever, with the French or anybody else on nuclear weapons or anything else. David Steel, last night in his address to candidates, said that he believed co-operation with the French could reduce the number of nuclear submarines. I agree.

What should be the way forward? The aim should be, [quotes] ‘to develop with our European partners a non-nuclear contribution to European defence’. That should be the aim. This amendment doesn’t rule out the European option, with which we wholeheartedly sympathise. We should build strong links with our European neighbours to ensure that our community is well defended.

Where we disagree is in the belief that our contribution – that contribution – should be a nuclear one. Only one of our European partners, France, has nuclear capability. I hope we wouldn’t wish to see other countries developing a membership of the nuclear arsenal – a Euro-nuclear bomb mountain, twelve fingers on the button. [applause]

France, if seeking to co-operate with us, wouldn’t contemplate a dual-key arrangement over their missiles – even less likely that others would come in. Sanctions, Libya, the CAP demonstrate the problems that could arise. But conventional weapons wouldn’t pose such difficulties. All EEC member countries have them, a partnership of equals in which we could work together for peace in Europe and the world, consistently with Liberal traditions: Europeanism, nuclear disarmament, a strong Europe, afraid of neither Russia nor the USA.

David Owen said yesterday that we mustn’t negotiate out of fear. We needn’t do that. We have NATO as our strength and our base. The negotiating away of our independent deterrent wouldn’t affect deterrence in the world. We wouldn’t suddenly be overrun by a red plague. To the contrary – we might, by beginning to make a concession, be the catalyst that starts the process which removes the evil of nuclear weaponry from the world. [applause]

Europe cannot provide a base of nuclear strength from which we can negotiate. Not unless we countenance the unthinkable increase of nuclear capability to the other ten members of the twelve. NATO is strong. Let us now with that strength build a strong and effective Europe without moral and strategic and party difficulty.

What’s the challenge? Co-operate with Europe as we have already advocated since 1940 and ’50 and beyond. Advance a disarmament policy in collaboration with our friends. Have a European collaboration which our leaders seek, a defence and disarmament policy which breaks new ground, different from the Tories, different from Labour, credible. Let’s keep friends with the Americans, not render them our enemies. David – leader David – I ask you and David Owen to lead us in that direction as you have advocated all time in the past.

Fellow Liberals, we could change the direction of British defence and disarmament policy. But we are a party. Many of us joined this party because of its aim and its goal: a non-nuclear Europe in a non-nuclear world. We have never voted to replace independent nuclear deterrent. Not only must we not do so now, but our policy must be to do so never – and to replace an independent British nuclear deterrent by a European nuclear deterrent – even if that concept was workable – is not an acceptable alternative. [applause]

To work with the French, yes. To replace nuclear weapons in Europe, no. Replacement is not possible for this reason: because the principle is fundamental. Break it once and we’ve broken it forever. Nobody could ever be certain what would happen after that.

To accept the amendment gives us consistency, credibility and courage. Those opposing have admitted the flaws of their arguments and in their interpretation of the wording. Remember who we represent: Bermondsey, Berwick, Rochdale, Roxburgh. We must be determined that our young people, our children and our grandchildren, have a non-nuclear world to inherit.

We are on the verge of responsibility. There’s no more important subject – the battle is not between us, the battle is for our future. I urge you to accept both amendments and the resolution and be proud of all that we stand for. [applause; standing ovation]