24 Apr 15. Rare though this may well be, I find myself in general agreement with points made in an interesting editorial published in The Guardian today in respect of defence that suggests “without the SNP’s opposition to renewal of Trident there would [have so far] been almost no discussion about defence in the election”. Absolutely right – an appalling a consideration particularly given the increased level of threats that we all now face.
The Guardian editorial goes on to say that “given the scope of the debate [that] Britain needs [to have] of which Trident’s future is but one part, this absence [of election defence discussion] shames all the main political parties. The silence is” it suggests “dishonest since the parties know that after May 7th swingeing cuts will force important decisions”
While I may take issue with the “swingeing cuts” suggestion that the author chose to use on the basis that such has been the change in geo-politics since the last defence and security review back in 2010 and also, such has been the subsequent destruction of defence capability since then, that the message today should be about increasing defence spending I can conclude that this is as good an account as you will be likely to read.
I would add here that the availably of so much evidence very clearly showing how our military forces lack of both capacity and resilience in terms of conventional force and equipment capability means that we little if any choice in my view but to totally reconsider our whole approach to future defence and security and particularly, the dangerously low level of priority that we have allowed defence to fall on the national political agenda.
Any attempt to further the wider debate on defence is welcome by me just as are reminders of the inextricable link between foreign affairs and defence which I have talked on many times before. The Guardian raised the following “Two questions” it said “underlie the [defence] debate. What kind of country do we want to be? And what external threats face us and our allies? One approach to the first would advocate a scaled-down military that more closely reflects Britain’s reduced global standing – a super-Denmark, as one Tory describes it. An alternative answer would emphasise a force and reach that would allow the UK to maintain a disproportionate world influence. Yet neither approach means much without a realistic appreciation of current dangers related to, say, Russia and failed states where terror groups prosper, and of plausible but unknown future threats too”.
I could not argue with a word of the above and while I, unlike ‘The Guardian’ it seems, have absolutely no misgivings whatsoever about the need to replace Trident deterrent capability I would also say that, just as we had done thirty years ago when we replaced Polaris with the current fleet of four Vanguard class submarines, we should do this outside of the specific defence budget.
We have of course failed time and time again to get the message of what real deterrent capability is, what the real purpose of having Trident is and the huge importance of linking what Trident has achieved in relation to maintaining peace and stability that we have all enjoyed in Europe for the past seventy years. We can easily take all this for granted but as I have watched the various voices opposed to trident airing their views I am left with a degree of foreboding that tells me we are at fault form failing to get the value message of what strong nuclear deterrent capability provides. All forms of defence capability play a role in deterrence of course and we should never ignore the importance of how air and maritime power plays so strongly into this. Neither should we ignore national security and the vast amount of effort that goes in to ensure that our skies are protected from would-be aggressors.
At the heart of the defence and foreign affairs debate is, as I have previously outlined, the need to decide first and foremost where it is and what it is that Britain wishes to be in the world. That requires leadership, something that arguably has, in the world of political correctness and the seeming need of our political leaders over the past couple of decades to fuel borrowing to achieve growth on one hand and on the other, fuelling over-expectation and of what the state should be expected to provide. For too long we have lacked leadership, ambition and motivation.
As the 6th largest economy in the world we have both a duty of care and responsibility to play out part in the world. Yesterday the world looked up to us and our ability to not only project but for our strength in diplomacy. Today as I say I believe that we lack ambition and I fear that under the guise of affordability over the past dozen or so years we have allowed far too many of our former great national strengths to be weakened that many fewer nations look up to us now than used to. We lack so many of our past skills today and crucially we ignore the value that strong foreign policy brings to the economy of our nation in terms of our ability to trade in international markets. We do so at our peril just as we also do in allowing defence to be so weakened. Those aged over 50 do get the latter message but sadly those under do not.
Perhaps also in part relation to foreign policy but also to how Labour might further damage the relationship with banks it is interesting to note the timing that HSBC has chosen to make an announcement this morning that it is considering moving its headquarters out of the UK. True, Asia makes up 80% of HSBC business and the bank may feel somewhat aggrieved at how it has been treated not only in terms of the recent tax scandal but also following huge regulatory requirements put in place since the banking crisis 2008. Equally true might be to suggest that it is looking at the additional taxation burden that a Labour administration would place on the bank should it stay headquartered in London.
On another related subject, note how Labour leader Ed Miliband who I might add had fully supported Prime Minister David Cameron’s correct intervention through the use of Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 air strikes in Libya in 2011 is now blaming the Prime Minister for failing to put in place post Libya conflict planning. In the speech that will or has already been delivered to Chatham House Miliband contests that Britain has under Cameron lost global influence and that the PM was indirectly responsible for the tragic events and loss of life that we have witnessed in the Mediterranean in recent months. How appalling is the use of such terminology and I may hope that Mr. Miliband will pay a very heavy price at the polls for making such unnecessary damaging claims. With press and media all over this earlier in the day having presumably been given pre-release of the speech it seems that Labour has very quickly gone onto the back foot on this one before the speech has even been delivered.
The very suggestion that the Prime Minister was responsible for any part of what he is being sadistically accused by Mr. Miliband as being responsible for in the migration events this week is not only a damaging personal affront to Mr. Cameron that requires a very active response from his own party but also one that shows just how little knowledge and understanding that Mr. Miliband has of foreign affairs, diplomacy and conflict resolution. And as we all know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and particularly when we are talking about defence and diplomacy.
Whilst I accept that the alliance that took action against Libya to remove the Gaddafi regime are at fault for failing to have a post conflict strategy I would remind Mr. Miliband that like so many conflicts that the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have been engaged there was little if any prior notice to our decision to take action before we went in. I suspect that when political commentators analyse what Mr. Miliband tells Chatham House, or maybe of what he was originally intended to say by his hapless speech writer, he will be seen as the loser on this one.
I am left to conclude what a great pity it is that the Coalition Government chose to maybe ‘lean’ on the Chilcot Committee looking into the events that led to Tony Blair’s war in Iraq and of how Parliament might have been misled that the final report should not be published until after the election. Just as Mr Miliband so easily accuses the Coalition Government of failing to leave a plan to support Libya so it is that we can so obviously see that when we finally departed from Iraq there was no obvious post conflict policy put in by them.
I understand that Mr. Miliband is also now claiming to be likely to cut defence less than the Tories would. With Mr. Miliband’s own “if you think defence is going anywhere other than further down the agenda under Labour you are not living in the same world as me” words ringing in my ears (he said this to me in a private conversation at the Sun Military awards in December last year) the auto suggestion that defence might be placed on a higher priority than the Conservatives is unlikely to inspire any confidence. While we have not been told what Tory defence policy is in terms of the level or nature of perceived cuts Labour cannot ever again be trusted on defence.
A subject for next week for me but have you noticed the distinct lack of mention about airport runway expansion by any of the political parties in this election campaign? Shame on them and shame too on those that have prevented airport expansion from being an election issue that it probably deserves to be including perhaps members of the Howard Davies airports commission itself for having allowed themselves to sit on their hands and be silenced. And while I am about it, what little we have heard about HS2 in this election debate – or am I missing something?
CHW (London 24th April 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785