Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution to what has been an excellent debate.
As it was for the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), this was one of the most potent and divisive issues throughout my formative political years in the 1980s. I have been struck by the number of Members who have spoken of the issue as a matter of principle. When I resolved my position on the issue, I did so not on principle but on an entirely pragmatic basis. Given that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons is so horrific and enormous, I would have some difficulty in aligning myself with such a principle.
The arguments in the 1980s were threefold in their concerns: the concept of mutually assured destruction; the question of deterrence; and whether disarmament should be multilateral or unilateral. I always felt that that debate was fairly false. I never had much respect for the concept of mutually assured destruction. By the more swivel-eyed tendency to which we have heard reference today, that always seemed to be embraced as an opportunity rather than a threat. But in the context of the cold war, I was prepared to see some force in the theory of deterrence.
We live in a very different world now, however. In the 1980s, during the cold war, I was eventually persuaded to accept acquisition. I did so as a multilateral disarmer: I believed that the only real purpose for which the possession of such weapons could be countenanced was to get rid of them. I think that some justification for that position was provided by the progress that we made in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but, as I have said, the world today is very different. The threats to world security no longer come from superpower blocs; they come from regional conflicts, from rogue states and from cellular terrorist organisations.
In recent years, the arguments in favour of possession of nuclear weapons have become progressively thinner. A number of Members have spoken today about the position of Iran. I think that one of the major motivations for Iran’s seeking to become a nuclear power—which, like everyone else, I deplore—is the fact that Israel is believed to be a nuclear power. That is the way it goes. I think it is the major flaw in the argument we have heard from the Conservatives today, the ultimate logic of which is that eventually every sovereign state will have the right, and indeed the obligation, to become a nuclear state.
What the Government are asking of us today is of a different order from what I have been prepared to live with in recent years. They are talking not about maintenance, but about renewal and extension. If we approach the argument on a pragmatic rather than a principled basis, that is where the tipping point shifts. Where will be our moral authority to attend the nuclear non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010 if we back the Government’s position today?