Ann Widdecombe – 1987 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Ann Widdecombe in the House of Commons on 28 October 1987.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my first speech in the House in this important debate. In doing so, I pay tribute to my distinguished predecessor, Sir John Wells, who served the constituency with dedication and distinction for 28 years. His period of service will be remembered by his former constituents with respect and affection, as I am sure it will also be remembered by Members of the House. He earned respect for his exemplary chairmanship of many important parliamentary Committees and affection for the colourful way in which he sometimes drew attention to the needs of his constituents. On one occasion, he arrived for the day’s business on a horse. On another, he enlivened proceedings in the Chamber by eating an apple—a Kentish apple, of course—during the debate. I hope to follow his example in dedicating myself to the service of my constituents, but I shall not be eating any apples in the Chamber, as history attests rather strongly to the unfortunate results of ladies eating apples where they should not.

My constituency has suffered badly from the recent wind storms. As a horticulturist, Sir John Wells would have understood all too well the misery and devastation suffered by many farmers, expecially the fruit farmers whose industry takes up such a large part of the constituency that I have the honour to serve. I hope that the Government will see fit to provide some compensation, in however cautious and measured a way, to those who have lost their livelihood not just in the immediate term but for years to come, because it will be some time before replanted trees can be expected to produce crops which will generate income.

Leaving the country areas for the town of Maidstone, I am proud to have in that town concrete and tangible evidence of the Government’s firm commitment to the National Health Service in the shape of a large new modern hospital. I regret to tell the House, however, that, due to inequitable distribution of funds by the South East Thames regional health authority, that hospital is not being used as fully or as beneficially as it should be. On an appropriate future occasion, I hope to draw attention to the difficulties experienced by my constituents as a result of that inequitable distribution of funds.

I address myself to the debate and to the Opposition amendments in the sure knowledge that I address myself to a subject of the utmost importance and interest to my constituents. I begin by congratulating the Government on the Defence Estimates and particularly on the sound basis on which they have drawn up plans for the nation’s security. I believe that the people of Britain will draw great comfort and reassurance from the fact that they are governed by a party which is wholly committed to an effective nuclear deterrent.

I spent many hours yesterday and some today listening to Opposition Members decrying the Trident programme. I thought that they had been sufficiently effectively answered yesterday, but today we have heard the same tired arguments, based on the same flawed logic. Both in their amendments and in the many distinguished speeches that we have heard, the Opposition have claimed that the Trident programme is undesirable because it eats into conventional defence expenditure. There is a severe absence of logic in that statement. It is true that if we did not spend the money on Trident we could use it to purchase conventional weapons or, indeed, anything we liked — sacks of potatoes, biros, pounds of butter, or whatever. If we are to spend Trident money on something other than Trident, we must ask ourselves whether the optional thing that we are purchasing is capable of doing the job of Trident. If it is not capable of doing that job and fulfilling the aims of Trident, it does not matter that we could buy it with Trident money. It is totally irrelevant.

The sole objective of Trident is to deter a potentially hostile force from launching a nuclear attack on this country, or to deter a hostile force with overwhelmingly superior conventional forces from attempting to use that superiority to launch a conventional attack. Therefore, if we are to give up Trident to buy conventional weapons, we must demand that those weapons are an equally effective deterrent.

The statement on the Defence Estimates suggests that, if we devote all the Trident money to conventional weapons, we might be able to buy and maintain 300 tanks for an armoured division. I am sure that it is very laudable and worthy to buy 300 tanks for an armoured division but, when the Warsaw pact countries have a superiority of 30,000 tanks, it will not be a very effective deterrent. We can do the same arithmetical exercise for artillery, where we are outnumbered by 3:1, and in anti-tank guided weapons by 1.6:1. We can continue that exercise, but we shall not end up with a replacement that serves the same aim as Trident. We shall simply replace something designed to do one job with something designed to do a totally different job.

Opposition Members were not terribly kind to the Government last night when summing up. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) said that he would not award a CSE pass to the Government for the reasoning behind their Defence Estimates but, after listening yesterday and for several hours today to the Opposition, I do not believe that they have reached a standard of elementary logic which would get them through the 11-plus. Perhaps that is why they have such an antipathy towards that examination. My nephews and nieces at the age of eight or nine, let alone 11, could have told Opposition Members that, if they are given the bus fare to get home and they spend it on a taxi ride, they will not get the same value because the bus will take them only a few yards.

If we spend the Trident money on 300 tanks or whatever—frigates are much beloved of the Opposition —we shall find that we have gone not even a few yards or feet but only a few inches towards an effective deterrent, whereas Trident would do the entire job, so the logic is flawed. If we all took to the hills—as the Opposition came perilously close to suggesting not long ago—and invested our Trident money in bows and arrows, those bows and arrows might outnumber those of the Warsaw pact countries and would be about as useful as some of the arguments put forward by the Opposition.

Opposition Members are trying to have it all ways when they argue that, if we are to have an independent deterrent, it must be truly independent. I am not quite sure what Opposition Members stand for. The distinguished and right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said that we do not have a truly independent deterrent because the Americans will do the servicing. We said very clearly—I am sorry that the Opposition did not understand the point—that we shall always have control over some of the missiles. Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously believe that, when he sends a suit to the cleaners, he has no clothes at all and must come into the Chamber in a state of sartorial dilapidation because he has no suit?

Finally, in desperation, Opposition Members decided to try to claim that the conventional imbalance was a figment of the Government’s imagination, that it did not exist, and in support of that they triumphantly produced a document brought out by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and quoted it with the reverence normally reserved for Holy Writ. They said, “Look, this says something entirely different.” I have read that document and I find that within its figures there is ample evidence, which is clearly set out and not at all disguised, that the Warsaw pact enjoys an overwhelming numerical superiority of conventional weapons. I commend page 226 to the Opposition for further study. They may not have got that far.

The amendment submitted in the name of the Leader of the Opposition is serious, because it exhorts the Government to take a headlong flight to abandon and abolish all battlefield nuclear weapons simultaneously with reductions on the conventional side. That is simply and solely the wrong timing. There must be no further reductions beyond the INF treaty agreements. There must be no further reductions in nuclear weapons until such time as the conventional imbalance — whether one believes the Government’s document or the IISS document—is eliminated.

In that context, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for reassurance later. It is said that the statement on the Defence Estimates was drawn up at a time when the finer ramifications of the INF proposals, particularly the inclusion of shorter-range intermediate missiles, had riot been fully understood. Such are the massive implications for our conventional spending, not only for Britain, which already spends the third highest percentage of gross domestic product in NATO on defence, but for all our NATO partners, that we should be assured that not only will there be no simultaneous negotiations for the reduction of battlefield nuclear weapons, but that there will be a good long cool gap before any agreement that we may reach on conventional weapons while we assess the implications.

So desperate were the anti-Trident Opposition that they said that there was supposed to be an escalation of the arms race. One sees such words in the amendments. That is interesting. An arms race implies that each side is trying to keep up with the other, but as I read it, the number of warheads on Trident is a lower proportion of Warsaw pact warheads than Polaris was when we first had it. So that is not an escalation.

The Opposition used the worn-out argument that because the warheads were independently targeted, we had increased our numbers. However, if one is talking about an arms race, one must also look at what the other side is doing. Surely it is only prudent, when designing a system, to say that if one ever reached the highly undesirable state when one needed to increase one’s warheads, one should have the system to make that possible. The cost of the Chevaline operation that was forced upon the Labour Government can be interpreted as the cost of not having sufficient forward defence planning at the time of procurement.

I regret that in this, my first speech in the House, I have had to devote so much time to the wild and woolly arguments of the Opposition. I am also rather surprised that they are still putting forward in the House the Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning that lost them the June election. I say to them: Come back from Wonderland. Do not go through the looking glass with Alice. Instead, stay in front of the looking glass and take a good long look. Do the Opposition’s policies reflect public opinion? No. But more importantly, do their policies have any bearing on the real world? Surely the answer must still be no. Thus the Opposition should stand at that looking glass and look in. But my belief is that the general public, as exhibited in poll after poll, have reason to be thankful and grateful to the Government who have drawn up their plans on a sound and effective deterrent rather than being able to offer no strategy and no alternative.