Ladies and Gentlemen, Churchill once remarked about a London dinner, “It would have been splendid: if the wine had been as cold as the soup; the beef as rare as the service; the brandy as old as the fish; and the maid as willing as the duchess.” Happily, I’m confident that tonight’s fayre will be as splendid as the company; I’m grateful to the Government Hospitality team - particularly Annette Moore, and the Government Butler David Allen.
Let me also thank Professor Mark Welland - the Chief Scientific Adviser - and his staff for organising this dinner to mark the 35th Stocktake of the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement - surely one of the most historic and enduring Treaties between Britain and the US; indeed between any nation. I gather you have had a very successful day.
For over 50 years, the MDA has ensured that our nuclear deterrence programmes remain aligned and mutually supportive. It has allowed us to discuss and plan aspects of our national nuclear deterrence in the finest detail. That’s indicative of the depth of the relationship between the United States and Britain.
Even now, the technical challenges faced by our scientists and engineers are immense - from maintaining a nuclear stockpile beyond its originally envisaged lifespan to the certification of warhead safety, security, and performance in the absence of explosive nuclear testing. Indeed, maintaining a cadre of suitably qualified and experienced people is itself no small challenge.
So my sincerer thanks you all for what you do on our behalf. You’re part of a complex and largely invisible web of day-to-day interactions between Britons and Americans deep inside each other’s establishments, laboratories, and headquarters. I’m delighted that Britain with its nuclear technical experts is making such a positive contribution to that relationship. The current level and depth of collaboration is unprecedented. Although they may not know it, when people talk of the ‘Special Relationship’ they’re talking about you.
Because your unique skills are as essential as ever. This year’s events alone remind us what a volatile world we live in. Financial uncertainty - not least the prospect of the US defaulting on its debt next Tuesday - tumultuous unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and the death of Bin Laden are a sharp riposte to those who have failed to acknowledge this fact. My friends, we are living in unprecedented times. So it’s right to take stock of our approach to Defence and Security.
With the Cold War far behind us, some have argued that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons has less relevance than ever. Certainly, the main theme in recent headlines has been disarmament. In Britain, this was backed in our Strategic Defence and Security Review by the reduction in our requirement for operational nuclear warheads.
But while we will continue vigorously to pursue multilateral global disarmament, I think we have to look at this from a wider perspective and more profoundly. We should remember the fundamental lessons which we applied during the Cold War, and which are equally applicable in the 21st century.
As some of you may know, I had the privilege of serving as Margaret Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Her indomitable belief in the power which economic, and thus military, strength bestows on a nation was one of her defining qualities. She understood the importance of a rules-based international system in our armoury. And she grasped as well as anyone that warfare is not, and never has been, solely about the art of war-fighting. It includes having the national resilience and political determination to face down threats; accepting the risks to life and limb which that entails; and having the self-belief, patience, and will to stay the course.
She brought these core beliefs to bear when the Falkland Islands were invaded. She did so again when - along with one of America’s greatest Presidents, Ronald Reagan - the West faced down the tyranny of the Soviet Union. And as Saddam Hussein would discover, she knew that if the international community backed down in the face of unprovoked hostility it would be a betrayal of our values and security.
Above all, her faith in the power of deterrence was resolute from first to last. Nuclear weapons can not be dis-invented and we are seeing today both vertical and horizontal proliferation. For example, Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would accelerate proliferation elsewhere in the region as others refuse to countenance a nuclear-armed Iran.
That’s why, in an unpredictable world, Britain’s position must remain unchanged. We are committed to the concept of a “minimum credible deterrent”, long-championed by us in opposition and now in government through the SDSR - and most eloquently by my Parliamentary colleague, Dr. Julian Lewis.
We have acknowledged the different position of our coalition partners, and will review the costs, feasibility, and credibility of alternative systems and posture to a continuous at sea deterrent, based upon a ballistic missile submarine. But our bottom line remains that Britain will continue to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, and our commitment to the 1958 MDA is as strong as ever.
This does not mean we can rest on our laurels.
Britain and the US must be in the vanguard of shaping an international environment which minimises the risks of diversion, and inadvertent or unauthorised use of nuclear materials. We must - as President Obama has said - enhance the safe, secure, and effective management of the nuclear capabilities which we have at the moment. Our co-operation in this field is, I hope, as strong as the deterrent itself.
We must also provide better value for money where possible, not least through collaboration. That’s why the British and French Governments have agreed to design and build a joint hydrodynamics facility at Valduc which meets both nations’ sovereign requirements. Engagement between the P3 nations on nuclear deterrence is likely to become increasingly active.
And closer collaboration will help us to make progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; deliver the commitments we signed up to in last year’s NPT Action Plan; and determine the future of NATO’s nuclear defence and deterrence posture. It also applies to areas which fall under the NPT, including a focus on nuclear arms control verification research - in which the US and the UK are world-leading.
Ladies and Gentlemen, those who drew up the 1958 MDA were far-sighted indeed. Just as the US and the UK, working together, led the world into the nuclear age in the 1940s, the MDA can help us to lead the world towards our long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
But until the threats we face are gone, Mrs. Thatcher’s equally far-sighted words still hold true: “A world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.” Your help in balancing progress on disarmament with keeping our deterrent credible and safe remains a key task of our time. Long may you continue to be able to provide the support.