Moved by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon
That this House takes note of the United Kingdom’s role in addressing global challenges posed by terrorism, conflict, climate change and mass migration.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon (LD): My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to lead this debate on behalf of my party.
A little over 100 years ago, in the midst of the last conflict in which a collection of military primitives in a faraway mountainous country defeated the most powerful military force on earth—I refer of course to the Boer War and the British Army—AE Housman wrote the poem A Shropshire Lad. It is famous for marking the futility of war and its pity. What is sometimes a little overlooked is the fact that it was also predicted that we were seeing a change in the times. I draw your Lordships’ attention to one stanza in particular—which, by the way, was said to echo in Churchill’s brain in the 1930s:
“On the idle hill of summer,Sleepy with the flow of streams,Far I hear the steady drummerDrumming like a noise in dreams.Far and near and low and louderOn the roads of earth go by,Dear to friends and food for powder,Soldiers marching, all to die”.
What Housman seemed to identify was that the long sylvan summer of stability of the 19th century was drawing to a close. The years in which he wrote the poem marked the last great shift of power from the old nations of Europe to the new rising nation of the United States. In the vacuum left behind by the old powers of Europe was played out the two great, terrible Golgothas of the 20th century.
You might argue that history comes in two phases. In one of them, the gimbals on which power is mounted are steady, stable and unchanged—these are predictable times, times when we can look ahead with confidence and know what will happen. They are not necessarily peaceful times but they are at least unbewildering times. Then there are the second phases, which are the times of change, when power shifts—these are turbulent times, puzzling times and, all too often, bloody times. We are living through the second of those, not the first. All is changing, although you would not think so to look at our foreign policy or our defence policy, for they are anchored firmly in the past and pay no attention to the new world which is now emerging. In this speech, I want to talk about two of those power shifts and then a third element which I think changes everything and needs to be addressed if we really want a foreign policy that serves the interests of our
.......When I was a young soldier fighting in the jungles of Borneo in the last of the imperial wars, if you were to ask me about the defence of Britain I would have said that it depended on a strong Navy, a strong Army, a strong Air Force and strong allies. Today that no longer applies. Today the Minister of Health is involved in the security of Britain because pandemic diseases are a threat to our security; the Minister of Industry—if we had one—would be involved because the cyber capacity of our enemies is a threat to our security; and the Minister of Home Affairs is involved because what that second-generation Muslim family in that terraced house in Bolton does is a threat to our security. The
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security of Britain no longer rests with the Ministry of Defence but with our capacity to network across the piece. It is the network—not the vertical high ground and the command structure—which is the paradigm structure of our age, and Whitehall knows that not at all.
Imagine that it is not me speaking today but that the year is 1879 and Lord Roberts of Kandahar is telling you about Afghanistan—not about how he lost but how he won. He would talk about his screw guns and his brilliant generalship. He would not mention drugs or poppies growing in the fields because they were not connected to anything. Afghanistan has always been a centre of the opium trade. Nowadays it is connected to crime in our inner cities. He would not have mentioned the mad mullah in the cave, although he had those too. The mad mullah of the time was called the Wali of Swat, about whom Edward Lear wrote a poem in which he asked who or what is the Wali of Swat; is he short, is he fat, is he squat? He would not ask today who or what was Osama bin Laden because he is connected to that terraced house in Bolton. Everything is connected to everything. He would not talk about collateral damage—he caused a lot of that—because it did not matter.
Nowadays that piece of American high explosive falling on that wedding party in Afghanistan inadvertently matters very much and it is round the world a nanosecond later. Everything is connected to everything. It is no longer our vertical ability that matters but our ability to network. The most important thing about our nations and our organisations are the interconnectors, the docking points, that help us to build the wider coalitions that produce effective actions, rather than pretending stupidly sometimes that we can act alone or only with our friends.
One final thought. Now that we are interconnected and the enemy is now inside the gates and not only outside, something else has changed. For the past thousands of years—I suppose since history began—defence has depended on collective defence; it is been our capacity to stand together that matters. If you are interconnected, you share a destiny with your enemy. It was the realisation of that that enabled me as a young diplomat in Geneva in the 1970s to participate in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. We understood that we shared a destiny and that using the weapons that we possessed would destroy not only ourselves but the others. It was an understanding of that shared destiny that brought peace, at last, to Northern Ireland. It is a failure to understand that shared destiny between Israel and its Arab neighbours which is the biggest impediment to peace in the Middle East today.
So it is that, in the modern interconnected age, it is not only collective defence that matters but an understanding of common security as well. This has been the common proposition of saints, heroes, visionaries and poets, but now it moves from a moral proposition to a necessity to shape and frame our policies for the future. The great John Donne’s poem states:
“Each man’s death diminishes me,For I am involved in mankind. Therefore send not to knowFor whom the bell tolls,It tolls for thee”.
For him, it was a proposition of morality; for us it is part of the equation for our success, perhaps even our survival.