Bernard Jenkin – 2022 Speech on NATO and International Security

The speech made by Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

I will be as quick as I can. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who made an articulate and thoughtful speech, but I wonder why he said nothing about the SNP’s attitude towards nuclear weapons, because it is now beyond any credibility and devalues everything that he contributed to this debate. By far the greatest contribution that Scotland makes to the defence of Europe is hosting the nuclear deterrent at Faslane. The idea that this would be uprooted by an independent Scotland, and that Scotland would then present itself as a good member of NATO, is utterly ridiculous. What is more, we now know from Iain Macwhirter’s article in The Herald yesterday that this opinion is completely out of step with Scottish public opinion: some 58% of Scots want to retain the nuclear deterrent and only 20% want to get rid of it. When will his party change its policy and adopt the nuclear deterrent as its policy?

Stewart Malcolm McDonald

I will be brief, as I have just given a long speech. When we put this matter to Scottish people in elections, they always return a majority of Members, not just from my party but from the Scottish Labour party, who oppose hosting the deterrent in Scotland. On the deterrent being in Scotland and the independence of NATO, is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that the entirety of the UK’s nuclear capability should be exclusively hosted in a sovereign foreign country, no matter how friendly and neighbouring that country is? It would be unprecedented in world history, and I suspect he does not support it himself.

Sir Bernard Jenkin

The answer is that it is one of the policies that encourages Scots to vote to remain in the United Kingdom, which was the outcome of the referendum held on Scottish independence.

I will concentrate my remarks on a background debate that has been going on, which is whether this 85-day crisis that we are now in is evidence that somehow NATO has failed. I wish to contest that idea. It became axiomatic for decade after decade that war between major powers was unthinkable. It became our ingrained expectation. I was born 21 years after the end of the second world war, and it is now 77 years after the end of the second world war. Generations in this House and in our country have no folk or family memory of one of the defining moments, if not the defining moment, of our national history. Western Europe and the free world has to that extent become a victim of the success of NATO—success being peace in Europe and beyond Europe for decade after decade.

That success was based on two fundamental foundations: nuclear deterrence and NATO. That is not just because it provided collective security in Europe, but because it was binding—and still is binding—the US and Canadian security guarantees into the European security guarantees. It is the joining of transatlantic security that has made NATO so effective. Incidentally, one of the tragedies of the European Union is that it has gone down the path of trying to create a separate autonomous defence alliance outside NATO, which has corroded that automatic assumption that the United States and Europe will always act together.

Some still say that NATO has failed because of Ukraine, but NATO never declared that it would defend Ukraine. NATO is hardly to be accused of failing to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it never specifically said that it would seek to deter that. There have been political failures by the Governments of NATO members in recent years, individually and collectively, but as the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), said earlier, it was all laid out at the Munich security conference in 2007 by President Putin. Then we had the invasion of Georgia, the cyber-attacks, the Litvinenko murder, the violation of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty—incidentally, that was unilateral rearmament by the Russians, rather than disarmament—the invasion of Crimea, the Salisbury poisonings, hybrid warfare, the weaponisation of gas, and the destabilisation of the Balkans. We ignored all those signals—the clearest possible signals—but the failure of the UK, the United States, the German Government and the French Government is a failure of our national strategies, not a failure of NATO.

Moreover, we can now say that NATO conventional forces are rather less inferior to Russian armed forces than we might have feared. The Russian forces, which are much larger and more extensively equipped than ours, have proved catastrophically incapable of delivering their intended effects. They are riven with corruption and have poorly maintained and poorly designed equipment. They are poorly led and incapable of conducting air superiority operations over a neighbouring country with meagre air defence of its own. They cannot defend their ships or run their logistics effectively.

In addition, we are finding that Russia has not dared to attack NATO countries even when they are actively supporting the resistance with arms to Ukraine. The first important lesson to take from the conflict is that we started out feeling much too timid about provoking Russian escalation. Perhaps the timing has been perfect, but I think we could have moved quicker and faster. I am delighted by the scale of the United States’ response to the crisis now, and I wish it had come earlier.

Still, we must be ready to respond to Russian escalation, the possible use of chemical weapons and even the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine. That risk would rise significantly if Russia declared that captured Ukraine territory was now sovereign Russian territory, because that would trigger a whole set of defence doctrines in Russian military doctrine that would legitimise in Russian minds the use of tactical nuclear weapons. I do not expect the Government to comment on this point, but I have every confidence that NATO’s SHAPE—Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe —in Belgium will be war-gaming escalation scenarios and will not be ruling out a vigorous response, as even the shadow Defence Secretary adverted to, involving co-ordinated retaliation to make sure that that escalation would be met with sufficient deterrence.

The second key lesson is that it is evident, if it was not obvious already, that the world is watching this conflict. The global implications of the outcome in Ukraine are profound. President Putin must not be seen to have gained from his illegal aggression, because of all the consequences for every other autocratic regime that is eyeing the neighbouring territory of another sovereign state. If we want to deter China, North Korea and any number of despotic regimes from thinking that they can behave in that way, we have to think in the same way that John Major and President Bush thought about the invasion of Kuwait, and that Margaret Thatcher insisted we had to think about the Falklands. The outcome of the conflict will be not just a watershed moment in European history, but a turning point in the history of the world. We must succeed and ensure that the Ukrainians win their war.