Watch Mike's contributions to debate on the renewal of the UK's nuclear deterrent and his intervention on the new Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Mike Gapes MP: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on becoming Prime Minister. Will she confirm that, when the Labour Government of Clement Attlee took the decision to have nuclear weapons, they had to do so in a very dangerous world, and that successive Labour Governments kept those nuclear weapons because there was a dangerous world? Is it not the case that now is also a dangerous time?
PM Theresa May: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course, the last Labour Government held votes in this House on the retention of the nuclear deterrent. It is a great pity that there are Members on the Labour Front Bench who fail to see the necessity of the nuclear deterrent, given that in the past the Labour party has put the British national interest first when looking at the issue.
I want to set out for the House why our nuclear deterrent remains as necessary and essential today as it was when we first established it. The nuclear threat has not gone away; if anything, it has increased.
First, there is the threat from existing nuclear states such as Russia. We know that President Putin is upgrading his nuclear forces. In the past two years, there has been a disturbing increase in both Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons and the frequency of snap nuclear exercises. As we have seen with the illegal annexation of Crimea, there is no doubt about President Putin’s willingness to undermine the rules-based international system in order to advance his own interests. He has already threatened to base nuclear forces in Crimea and in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic sea that neighbours Poland and Lithuania.
Secondly, there is the threat from countries that wish to acquire nuclear capabilities illegally. North Korea has stated a clear intent to develop and deploy a nuclear weapon, and it continues to work towards that goal, in flagrant violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Mike Gapes: My hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) referred to their mothers, who were at Greenham Common. So was I. I did not meet their mothers, or at least not as far as I am aware, but there were tens of thousands of us who protested against nuclear weapons and the decision on the Cruise missiles, the Pershings and the SS20s. CND had hundreds of thousands on demonstrations. At that time many people believed that we faced the possible advent of a nuclear war. There was real fear in society.
The leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, has been compared in some debates with our current leader. I worked for and with Michael Foot. He was a great patriotic anti-Fascist. He stood up to the generals—the junta that took over the Falkland Islands—and he spoke in this House on a Saturday morning and made the case for why we had to liberate the Falklands from Fascism. I believe that Michael Foot tried his very best to unite the Labour party, even though he had divisions in his shadow Cabinet. He would not have taken the position that is being taken today by Jeremy Corbyn.
Michael Foot strove for international agreement and he worked for disarmament, but I and many others who were parliamentary candidates in 1983 know that we went into that election with what became known as “the longest suicide note in history”. In Ilford North where I was the candidate, the Labour vote almost halved and I only just kept second place from going to the new Social Democratic party. The Conservatives were rampant.
Afterwards, I was working in the party’s headquarters on the defence policy. We tried to square the circle by producing a policy document called “Defence and Security for Britain”. It had a Union Jack on the cover. We emphasised strong conventional defence. We called for a defence diversification agency, and we thought that that would be sufficient under Neil Kinnock, our leader, to do much better in 1987. We did do better, but defence policy was still a factor in our losing in 1987. So we had a policy review, which included visiting Moscow, which we did in 1989. Gorbachev was talking about a nuclear-free world by 2000. In that context the Labour party shifted its policy towards one of independent steps, but within a global multilateral framework.
That policy was denounced by the historian E. P. Thompson. I do not have time today to elaborate on this, but I will write about it. In 1989 he denounced the Labour party for going back on its unilateralist position. I wrote in the CND magazine, “What is this unilateralism? Is it a tactic to get something better or is it a quasi-religious totem for left-wing atheists?” I stand by that description of some of the views that we hear today. It has become a quasi-religious totem, rather than a practical means to take measures that bring about real and profound international change. That is why I will be voting for the Government’s motion this evening.