David Steel – 1986 Speech on Libya

Below is the text of the speech made by David Steel, the then Leader of the Liberal Party, in the House of Commons on 16 April 1986.

No one can be in any doubt that the decision taken by the Prime Minister and her colleagues was very difficult. The argument that I wish to deploy is that, although it was very difficult, it was the wrong decision. In a sense, I am relieved that the briefings from the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday showed that there were senior Ministers who expressed doubts about the action that was taken and they included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the chairman of the Conservative party and the Home Secretary.

The Leader of the Opposition quoted what the Secretary of State for Defence forecast with remarkable accuracy on his local radio station. Here I disagree with the Leader of the Opposition. The Foreign Secretary said that he did not know of the decision when he met his European colleagues. That in itself is a comment on the way in which the decision was taken, and it will leave the Foreign Secretary extremely exposed among our European allies when he meets them in the future.

In arguing that the decision was wrong, the easiest way to come to that conclusion is to draw up a balance sheet of the gains and losses which have been incurred as a result of the action taken. The first loss is that a great many people were, unhappily, killed and that the act of revenge was out of proportion to the terrorist acts from which the United States suffered. It is a great mistake for the Prime Minister to slide, in her natural and right condemnation of Libya, into the assumption that all of the terrorist acts somehow have been inspired by Libya. Unhappily, that is not the case. They have come from other countries, too.

It is doubtful whether the action taken was legal under article 51 of the United Nations Charter. I do not think that ​ there is much point in going on in a debate, but at best it is a narrow balance of argument. It is clear from the words used by the Prime Minister both yesterday and today that in giving her consent to the use of British bases she did not seek to limit the attack to military targets, but included the severe risks and results that we saw in the centre of Tripoli.

The second item on the debit side is, I believe, that the action has now exposed Britons both in Libya and Britain itself to further terrorist attacks. I think that the Prime Minister has misunderstood the nature of terrorism. Before you have a terrorist, you have to have a fanatic. In order to breed terrorism, you have to breed fanaticism. My great fear is that this action in the last 48 hours will breed more fanaticism, not just in Libya itself, but throughout the Middle East. That is a more accurate forecast.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

With regard to breeding more terrorists, I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could comment on the American action the week before in the gulf of Sirte when they crossed that line. Does he believe that that would breed more terrorism? Would he like to comment at some point on the comments made by his right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) who said that he would like to have seen British ships alongside the Americans, going across that line?

Mr. Steel

The hon. Member must not take out of context what my right hon. Friend has said. He has argued for the case to be taken to the United Nations and for collective action to be taken against Libya by the Western powers, and that is a view with which I agree. I shall return to the question of the gulf of Sirte in a moment.

The third item on the debit side is that we have angered our allies. This is a time when European unity is important. We have 11 fellow members of the European Community, and not one of them has supported the view that we have taken on this matter. Several of them are rather closer to the situation than we are.

I was at a meeting with the Italian Defence Minister, Mr. Spadolini, in Sicily when the fleet began the exercises which led to this attack. I know that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are aware that no one would doubt Mr. Spadolini’s commitment to the NATO Alliance, but, as a result of the stationing of NATO bases on Sicily, and throughout the mainland of Italy, the mood in Italy is nervous. They, unlike us, are in line and within target range of Libyan missiles, so the weight of European opinion is important in this matter.

The fourth casualty in this exercise has been the postponement, rather than the cancellation, of the meeting between Mr. Shultz and Mr. Shevardnadze. The Soviet Union is wrong in asserting that this attack was part of a strategy to torpedo the Geneva talks. This has been an inadvertent casualty of the whole peace process, and I hope that it will be resumed as soon as possible, and that the Foreign Secretary will lend his weight to the resumption of these important talks.

The fifth casualty on the debit side is the effect that it has had—

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) rose—

Mr. Steel

No, I shall not give way.

The fifth casualty is the effect that it has had in boosting Colonel Gaddafi’s position both internally and externally in the middle east. His 16–year-old reign in Libya has been ​ a catalogue of misdeeds and malevolence. He is detested, and rightly so, by Westerner, Arab and African alike. He has invaded Chad, and tried to overthrow the neighbouring Government in Tunisia. He has meddled in Syria and Algeria and sponsored numerous acts of hijacking and terrorism, including the attempt to murder some leaders in Egypt. In Britain we too have suffered with the incident in St. James’s Square. Elsewhere in Europe, the terrorists that he has trained, sheltered and equipped have murdered Libyans in exile, and any foreigners who anger the colonel. The man is a menace, and is widely regarded as such. I fear that what this action has done is to boost his power, authority and status within his own country, and in the Arab world as a whole. All of this is on the debit side.

I come to the second point, which is the matter of the gulf of Sirte. These opinions that I give on Colonel Gaddafi’s status in the Arab world are not my own. During the Easter recess, I was in the Gulf States and every Government told me in relation to the action in the gulf of Sirte that surely we could have had more influence with the United States not to act unilaterally, that it would have the effect of boosting Colonel Gaddafi. That view must have been put to Vice-President Bush when he went round the same countries three days later. It appears that the United States has paid no attention to that particular argument.

When one looks at the fact that Jordan and Egypt are traditional friends, and have now joined in criticism of the action which we and the United States have taken, one must add all that together and then look at the credit side. The Prime Minister says that it will have helped to check terrorism. I am afraid that that must remain a hope, and not anything for which there is any evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, I think that there is every reason to believe that, far from stopping terrorism, this particular action will have boosted terrorism from Libya and elsewhere.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that it is not so long ago that he advocated bombing a very much less aggressive leader? Does he not remember Liberal policy to bomb Zimbabwe?

Mr. Steel

The hon. Member’s memory is faulty. Firstly, it was certainly not anything that I ever said and, secondly, the proposal was to damage the railway line carrying oil supplies across the desert.

The real argument which has been produced in favour of this action is that it has taught Colonel Gaddafi a lesson. That is undeniable. I believe the great powers, the great civilisations, do not enhance their reputation by giving vent to their frustrations in terrible acts of indiscriminate revenge, and that is how it is seen in the rest of the world.

There are three short lessons from this episode. Firstly, the United States Administration is right to complain of an inadequate European response to terrorism and to the acts of Libya. That is why I believe, and my party and our alliance believe, that the Government should take the evidence that they have both to the European Community and to the United Nations, and seek a collective response to Libya’s actions. Europe should act more unitedly, both against terrorism, and I believe, in the longer run, on the wider issues of the Middle East problem, on which Europe ​ has done nothing since the days when Lord Carrington was chairman of the Council of Ministers. I think we ought to revise those initiatives.

The second lesson is that we ought to look at the arrangements for the use of American bases. The Attlee-Truman accord is very much out of date. It was never published, and it should now be revised, published and approved. If damage is not to be caused to the NATO Alliance, there must be no doubt as to the conditions under which American bases in this country are used. The Government made a severe error of judgment. I believe that the British people will share that view and that they would rather see a Government with a broader view of British interests in the world and a Government who will think that it is conceivable, occasionally, to say no to the occupant of the White House.