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The ministerial row over Huawai reminds me of one of Margaret Thatcher’s most infamous bust ups

However the Westland affair was, in the end, rather more trivial than today’s question of whether to allow a Chinese company to provide the UK with important infrastructure

Tom Kelsey
Monday 29 April 2019 15:49 BST
David Lidington on whether Huawei is secure enough to build 5G network: 'We have undertaken a very thorough review of the entire 5G supply chain'

Leaks about defence issues, a prime minister with her authority crumbling beneath her and Conservative ministers manoeuvring to take the top job. It could well be 1986. At that time, the Westland crisis engulfed the Thatcher government. This begs the question: is Huawei another Westland?

Perhaps the most significant thing we can learn from the release of the state records on Westland is how what is in the public domain is often a bad guide to political realities. The debate over the future of Westland – an ailing British helicopter manufacturer in need of rescue – was, in fact, a lot more trivial than it seemed at the time. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that Huawei is a much more serious dispute.

During the mid-1980s, Westland was seen as a great ideological debate. Whether Britain sought a European or American takeover of the company was cast as a fight between Europhiles and Atlanticists, between Michael Heseltine, the secretary of state for defence, and Mrs Thatcher.

Yet, there was actually much agreement in the Cabinet that a European solution to the Westland crisis would have been, in principle, the best way to proceed. Leon Brittan, an arch-Thatcherite, explicitly told Sir John Cuckney, the chairman of Westland, about the government’s preference for a European solution. The Cabinet did not want to see the helicopter industry entirely dominated by the United States.

The conflict was less about ideology and more about practicalities, leadership ambitions and the conduct of Thatcher’s government. The key point was that Cuckney did not think that the European solution Heseltine proposed was viable. For the Cabinet, this ended the matter. With the one exception of Heseltine. The secretary of state for defence then started to escalate the public politics of his cause, leading to open civil war.

A letter appeared in The Times written by Heseltine, claiming that an American takeover of Sikorsky would rule out Britain’s future involvement in European helicopter projects. Soon after, a letter from Patrick Mayhew, the solicitor-general, criticising the “material inaccuracies” in Heseltine’s leaked letter was itself selectively leaked to the Press Association. Heseltine would resign days later.

For all the bloated rhetoric at the time, Westland was a relatively trivial matter. As was well-known in Whitehall, Britain had never really had much of a capacity to design helicopters. Westland mainly produced American-designed military helicopters under licence. It employed barely over ten thousand people. Moreover, as time has shown, the European helicopter industry did not need Westland to avoid American dominance.

Heseltine, the crown prince of the Thatcher years, was probably looking for an excuse to resign. In his memoirs, Norman Fowler, a Cabinet minister at the time of the Westland crisis, recorded how the relations between Thatcher and Heseltine had broken down long before helicopters mattered to either. Fowler remarked: “I doubt whether any intervention would have more than postponed the evil day.”

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Whether Westland was in European or American hands wasn’t particularly geopolitically significant. Huawei, unlike Westland, could well represent a far deeper argument over a genuinely major long-term question (even if we are still in the dark about what specific issues the national security council and Cabinet discussed). These are not simply technical questions over the risk-reward trade-off in letting a Chinese telecoms firm help build Britain's 5G network. There is surely more at stake.

The whole issue of relations with China is immensely complex and important. While it would have been unthinkable even in the 1980s for Britain to have given Chinese enterprise any role in building the UK’s infrastructure, we now live in different times. Many Conservatives think that Britain, especially amongst the Brexit uncertainty, needs to court Chinese investment.

Indeed, Chinese involvement in Hinkley Point C, a nuclear power station under construction in Somerset, was not in the end blocked by Theresa May, despite its atrocious economics and again its potential security risks. Similarly building a 5G network with a company that has received money from the Chinese security apparatus might be seen as the price to pay for good relations with an emerging superpower. These are powerful reminders that in the real world of Brexit it will not be the UK which will be sovereign.

Obviously, the leaking of the national security council discussion over Huawei, and the revealing of the doubting ministers, was certainly, in part, another set piece in the on-going drama about who will take over from Theresa May. Yet, unlike the Westland crisis, the Huawei dispute could also be a major ideological debate about an issue that really does matter for Britain’s future.

Moreover, there is at least the possibility that this leak was not entirely cynical. Making public the deep reservations that Cabinet ministers had over Huawei was not about ending a dispute, but about ensuring that one happened. Indeed, this leak could have been done in the national interest. And unlike Westland, perhaps it was not a politician who was ultimately responsible for the leaking.

In any case, we do the seriousness of the matter at hand a disservice if we assume that Huawei dispute is merely about the upcoming Tory leadership contest. Our public politics can still, on occasion, be about more than individual ambitions.

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