Lord West: "Brexit has made the world a more dangerous place"
With both major parties distracted by leadership battles, Lord West fears Britain has been left unprepared as it heads into potentially treacherous waters.
Labour MPs fearful that their party was about to tear itself apart over Emily Thornberry’s defence review can rest easy.
Until the political earthquake of June 23rd, Thornberry’s crucial decision on whether the party would back the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear programme was imminent, and a bitter confrontation between the pro- and anti- wings inevitable. Whatever else Labour’s worst ever week threw up, they were spared that at least.
Like just about everything else in British public life, defence policy is now stuck in limbo. Labour’s review has been mothballed, and Thornberry reshuffled. The government’s position on when it will bring forward the long expected parliamentary vote on Trident renewal is not much clearer, and we may well have to wait for a new prime minister. And with Scottish independence looking more achievable than ever – with all its implications for the UK’s submarine base in Faslane – the very future of the deterrent could even be in doubt.
On top of that, the UK must now look afresh at its defence arrangements with European partners, its borders and its maritime security.
For Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, the signs are deeply concerning. Amid the sound and fury of the Labour and Tory leadership troubles, the massive implications of Brexit on defence and security have been lost, he fears.
“Everyone has been running around like headless chickens,” he says. “I am shocked that the MoD didn’t have a plan of action, the MoD and the agencies and everyone else, for Brexit.
“Instead of them saying ‘right the worst has happened, this is now what we do’, they didn’t have a clue what they were going to do. They had no Plan B. The military, always, has a Plan B. They also have a Plan C. That’s what we’re good at.
“But I don’t think they’d been allowed to do that. That had not been allowed to happen because of politicians and civil servants. That is very worrying. So we now need to move very quickly to make sure we do have a plan.”
Crucially, West continues, the UK must act immediately to reassure allies that it is not seeking to dial down its commitments on defence, to Nato, or its vital role as the “bridge” between the United States and Europe. “Europe really needs the UK in defence and security terms,” he says. “We’ve been a force for good within Europe, and Europe is going to be weaker as a result of us going. We’ve got to really move quickly and ensure we do the right things to stay as engaged as possible with our European friends.”
His biggest fear, he adds, is that without Britain “holding their feet to the fire”, the EU nations will allow defence to slip down the agenda – at a potentially perilous time.
“Europe has been really poor at realising the importance of hard power. They’ve willfully not spent money on it. They hide their heads in the sand.
“I bet you not a single one of those chaps in Brussels has really been thinking about defence and security in terms of us going. They’ve all been concerned about the economic aspects, about movement of people. Hardly anyone there would have even thought about it.
“Europeans I’m afraid have forgotten that wars can happen. And it’s when you’re weak and when you don’t have military power that is when it’s most dangerous. That’s when things happen.
“So I think the fact that we’re stepping out of the EU definitely makes the world a more dangerous place. We’ve made the world a little bit more unstable and unsettled.
“I think that if we bury our heads in the sand, if Europe does that, if we actually get detached completely, and don’t involve ourselves in security and defence fully with the European leg of Nato, I think it’s much more likely that something nasty could happen inadvertently.”
He adds: “Let’s not go over the top about this. There’s not going to be Armageddon tomorrow. But it makes the world a more dangerous place. It would have been better if we’d stayed. Now we’ve got to make sure on the military and security level we stay engaged.”
While the government’s commitment to Trident renewal is unwavering, West urges ministers to ensure legislation is brought forward to this month, before the summer recess. Now is the time, he says, to seek stability and send a strong signal of intent that Britain will take its defence responsibilities seriously. “It shows that we are serious about defence. We need to make that decision and get on with it,” he says. “That gives us some certainty in that area, and then hopefully we can go for certainty in other areas.”
What of Lord West’s own party? If ever a strong opposition were needed, he admits, it is now. But instead, he fears, the current leadership appears more interested in trying to “destroy the Labour Party and set up a new party which would be more like a Socialist Workers Party”.
West has clashed with Jeremy Corbyn before, and has long been fiercely opposed to any attempt to water down the party’s commitment to Trident renewal. But the peer maintains that he kept an open mind about Corbyn’s project and his qualities as a leader, and was willing to accept that, whatever his faults, the man himself was “a nice chap”. Recent days, however, have forced him to think again.
“I’m not even convinced now he’s a nice chap. I have to say, in leadership terms, I’m afraid I don’t think Joe Average in this country would follow him as a leader even out of curiosity. That’s the problem.
“Everyone says what a nice chap he is, but if he doesn’t understand that, I’m beginning to feel that maybe he’s not quite such a nice chap. That there’s something rather more unpleasant lurking there.”
Despite West’s experience as First Sea Lord, the Labour peer says Corbyn has never sought his counsel on defence or the nuclear debate. West says he had hoped to discuss the case against unilateralism with the party’s leader, but believes Corbyn’s now delayed defence review was never intended to foster an open discussion.
“I had hoped that maybe he had the capacity to learn, to absorb things, in the nuclear argument, to hear all the debate, because it seems to me such a logical argument.
“I’m convinced we shouldn’t be unilateralist. I don’t think it achieves anything. It keeps us less safe. It doesn’t help multilateral disarmament, because we won’t be involved in any of the discussions. We just wouldn’t even be part of the debate.
“I think it’s a stupid thing to do. I’d hoped that he’d see that. But more and more I’m beginning to say, I don’t think he’s got the mental capacity to grasp some of these big issues. That’s a horrible thing to say but I don’t think he has.”
West adds: “It’s too easy an option isn’t it? To stand up and say ‘I hate nuclear weapons’ and everyone cheers. Everyone hates nuclear weapons. I hate nuclear weapons. That’s bloody wet, isn’t it? It’s a wet thing to say.
“It’s like saying you hate war. Everyone hates war. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there and they don’t happen. But what he’s got to do is say what is the most important thing to be certain of the safety and security of the British people?”
He accuses Corbyn and his recently reshuffled shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry of “pushing flaky and bogus studies” on the vulnerabilities of Trident to cyber and drone attacks in a deliberate attempt to avoid what he sees as the real question – should Britain pursue unilateralism or remain a nuclear power?
“They’re pushing these studies and they’re doing it as a way of sort of undermining Trident really because they want to be unilateralist. Drones do not make submarines detectable. It is nonsense. Anybody who knows about the sea, submarines or technology knows that.
“They’re trying to become unilateralist through the back door. And that’s a betrayal of the British people. They’re betraying the British people.
“If you want to be unilateralist, bloody well say it. It’s a perfectly valid thing to argue for, and I have no difficulty with people arguing for it. But don’t betray the British people by pretending you don’t want to be unilateralist but actually aiming for that through the back door.”
If all this wasn’t enough, a new front in Labour’s civil war is due to open up. Later this week the long-awaited Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq will finally be published.
As First Sea Lord at the time, there are, of course, restrictions on what Lord West can reveal. Like the rest of the country, he awaits the report's final conclusion, although he admits that at 2.7 million words in length “just reading the thing people are going to want to shoot themselves”.
But there’s one conclusion West has no doubt about. Sources told the Sunday Times last month that the report will make it clear that Tony Blair “did commit himself at an early stage” to standing alongside the US and taking military action. It’s a claim Lord West stands by.
“I think there had been a decision that we were going to invade Iraq, that that was going to happen, but they were looking for a reason to actually do it,” he says.
“Of course Blair and everyone else will say no we didn’t make the decision until right up to it. You can always say that can’t you. But I would not have told the fleets, the Royal Navy and the Marines, to be ready for war in the northern Gulf by the end of the year, I would not have sailed the Mine Countermeasures Force for the Middle East, so they were in place for operations. You don’t wake up in the morning and think that – some bastard told me to do it. That’s why I did it.
“All the people involved say ‘we hadn’t made our decision right up until the UN resolution’ and all these other things. Well, you can argue that you never make the final decision till you make your decision. But actually they’d bloody decided. That’s the reality.”
West says that, where the report finds people had made mistakes “they should be exposed”. But crucially, he adds, the reaction to the report must be about learning lessons and not settling political scores.
“It will be used by Momentum and people like that to say how awful these Blairites are. But I don’t think it will do what we wanted it to do, which was to let people really study it to learn the lessons,” he says.
“I will be fascinated to see what it says. What one really wants out of it is lessons so that we don’t make the mistakes again. I have a horrible feeling what other people want is to be able to get at people. It should be there to learn real lessons.”