Michael Heseltine – 1990 Speech on the Crisis in the Gulf

The speech made by Michael Heseltine, the then Conservative MP for Henley, in the House of Commons on 6 September 1990.

I take issue with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) on just one small, cavilling point. That is his comment that, if Saddam Hussein had been able to hear our debate he might have taken comfort from it. I do not think that he could take comfort in any way from it. I believe that it reflects overwhelmingly the view of the British people that a great wrong has been done and that Britain is determined to play its full part in putting it right. That is the only conclusion that anyone who has listened to the debate could draw. It is positively healthy that there has been the occasional speech, representing a negligible quantity of opinion, in which a different view has been taken. The very isolation of those speeches indicates the strength of the overwhelming majority in this place.

The Government’s position I find exemplary. I have said consistently, as have so many others, that the Government have taken precisely the right view from the beginning of the crisis. However much we may have been out of touch during the past two or three weeks—we followed events as best we could, often only through the media of other countries—it is obvious that the process adopted by the Government has continued as it began.

The position that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out this afternoon is clear and exactly right. It is completely compliant with resolution 661 of the United Nations. The Prime Minister has set out for none to misunderstand her interpretation, backed by the best legal advice available to her. She has made clear, on behalf of the British Government, what she believes the resolution to mean. It means that we shall apply mandatory sanctions, that we shall enforce them and that, within certain circumstances, as my right hon. Friend defined, that might need the use of force.

It is necessary to have read only the occasional speech of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to know that the last thing that he wants, the Government want or our allies want is the use of force. No one can have any doubt, however, that in the mind of the Government, and presumably in the minds of our close allies, that context is not ruled out. It is not anticipated in any way in the short term but it is within our interpretation of resolution 661.

We are an open society and part of the open world. If there are those in the United States who believe that we have misinterpreted the resolution and who wish to disown what we claim to be the meaning of the vote that they cast, they have plenty of time to make their position clear. They can start to do that now. They can react at once to what we are saying the resolution means by saying that, when they voted for it they thought that it meant something else. If they do not do so, they cannot complain if we act upon the interpretation that we set out at an early stage.

The issue is whether we should return to the United Nations for further clarification if sanctions do not achieve the desired objective. Powerful arguments were put by the Leader of the Opposition and reinforced by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey). It is not that the law may be defective, but that there is a political dimension to the enforcement of that law which it might, on some subsequent occasion, be wise to pursue as opposed to legally necessary.

I wish to put another view. We all want the sanctions to work—that is not in question—but let us suppose we reach a stage where it is perceived that they are not working. We are not playing cricket. The object then would be to win at the lowest possible, though doubtless awful, cost. A lonely judgment will have to be made by a limited number of people about whether their action, unheralded, would be more or less likely to secure the objectives of the original resolution. They would have to weigh that against the advance warning of a change of tactics that going back to the United Nations would imply.

The announcement of a new dimension to the policy could provoke a first strike—or, as the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport said, a second strike, but from the Iraqis. Do we want that? I can think of no argument for saying that in a few weeks or a few months we should alert the Iraqis to a new dimension to our policy. Our task then will be to win quickly and decisively. That is the overwhelming reason why I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in replying to the debate, will give no further assurances. All the necessary assurances have already been given in the clearest language. To do so would only undermine the strength and clarity of our position in a way that he would be the last person to want to do.

The tragedy of the crisis is that it is dynamic and events are unfolding. I have agreed with the right hon. Member for Devonport from the beginning—I do not think that the Iraqis will launch an attack on us or move into Saudi Arabia, because that is the way for them quickly to lose. They will try to bust the sanctions. By now, they will be combing the world to find ways to do what sanctions busters have always done, which is to get around the sort of peaceful coercion that the United Nations has imposed. No one knows whether they will succeed, but that is their best chance of success.

If that happens, the dynamics will unfold and the moderate Arab leaders will begin to wonder whether they can win. The advocates of fundamental Islam will latch on to a new hero who is likely to advance their cause. The kingdoms of the Gulf will begin to wonder whether they can contain the ever larger numbers of people injected into their societies to spread the word that their days are numbered. All over the world, people will begin to say, “It is the Americans, the imperialists, the western powers and no one else.” Indeed, they will probably say that it is just the Americans. We have heard that today, but, to the source from which it came, it is always just the Americans. If the Iraqis got out of Kuwait as quickly as the Americans got out of Grenada or Panama, who would be complaining as loudly as we are likely to have to do?

The most difficult point of the debate—it is not just enmeshed in this particular policy dilemma—is that the reason why the Americans are hated is because they can act. They are prepared and they have the strength and the coherence to move decisively and quickly—

Mr. Faulds

Even if they are wrong.

Mr. Heseltine

That is a judgment that the hon. Gentleman must defend, as he did in his speech. This House overwhelmingly believes that, in this case, the Americans are right.

The issue is whether the Americans want to be isolated, alone and the big brother. Like so many right hon. Members, I served as a Defence Secretary in the NATO alliance. I agree that the Americans hustled us along. We have been trying to get the initiatives right and trying to keep our nerve. It would be a brave hon. Member who said that we could have done it without them. I could not say, with my hand on my heart, that all the European members of the NATO alliance were always in such agreement that they could be relied upon. I remember the footnotes and the qualifications. I remember the phone calls from national Parliaments saying, “Don’t do this, qualify that, hold back, wait a minute.” It was always the Americans who took the lonely, tough decisions, and that is where we are today. They have taken those decisions, and because our Government were the first to back them, we have contained the appalling damage of the occupation of Kuwait.

Now we want to try to help, but how? The way to help is to strengthen the American support. Other nations of like mind to ourselves should increase their commitment, whether military or financial, to the American endeavour. The greater the endeavour that we make, the more we can ask to be consulted and the more influential we shall be in—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he has overrun his time.