Amid Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond making perfectly clear last week that to pay for announced increases in NHS spending that taxes will have to rise, the Prime Minister, Theresa May refusing to be drawn on whether the UK should remain a ‘Tier One’ player in defence, NATO Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg expressing concern over the future of the Alliance whilst at the same time emphasising the importance and need for Britain, amongst other member states, to spend more on defence, suggestions this morning in various of the Sunday press that Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson ‘is prepared to undermine both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister’ in his battle with the Treasury and Cabinet Office to increase spending on defence comes just a couple of weeks ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels and also, the proposed visit to the UK by President Trump.
To use the old cliché, these are very interesting times and with all government departments wanting more money and government hands tied in respect of previous promises in relation to being limited in terms of which taxes it can rise to pay for increased spending demands it is hardly surprising that the Treasury and Cabinet Office are baulking or should I better say, resisting demands to raise spending on defence.
The battle between the MOD, HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office over perceived need by the MOD that spending on defence must rise in order for us to be able to counter the range of increased traditional and new types of threat comes at a very awkward time for the Prime Minister. Her disarming remarks last week that questioned broad plans contained with the ‘Modernising Defence Programmes’ review process, headlines of which had been due to be published during the NATO summit, demanding instead that the MOD further justify its plans whilst at the same time creating unnecessary doubt over the UK’s continuing status or desire to remain a ‘tier one’ military power demonstrate to me that Mrs. May is being leaned on heavily by the Cabinet Office and Treasury not to give way to Mr. Williamsons’ demands for an increase in the defence budget.
While I make no allowances for exaggeration or truth in either of the two main defence related stories that have broken in the press this morning, I note that the Sunday Times is suggesting that a group of Tory MPs are said “to be threatening to vote against the budget this autumn unless the prime minister increases defence spending”. To that end the newspaper reports that MPs were left furious last week when Mrs. May refused to commit to retaining Britain’s status as a “tier one” military power, a situation which effectively means that we in the UK are able deploy the full spectrum of nuclear, conventional, cyber-forces. The Sunday Times went on to report officials as saying that No 10 “wants to avoid Britain having to cite its nuclear weapons as being sole justification for remaining one of the five permanent Security Council members along with America, France, Russia and China”.
A similar story is to be found in other newspapers but the Mail on Sunday goes one serious step further carrying a front page story suggesting that Gavin Williamson has [supposedly] threatened to “break” Theresa May’s government if his department does not get £20bn over the next 10 years. Citing a discussion that he apparently had with “service chiefs”, Mr Williamson is reported to have said that he will “crush” the Treasury over the issue and is also reported to have said in the Mail on Sunday report that “I made her – and I can break her.”
Personally, in the knowledge that Mr. Williamson is such a staunch supporter of Mrs. May, I find remarks that he is claimed to have made difficult to believe and for the most part I would play much if not all of this down. A political animal at heart albeit an ambitious one, I just cannot believe that having only been in the Secretary of State for Defence role for such a relatively short period that he would at this time overreach himself in such a manner.
So, unless all this just might have come from someone inside the Treasury and someone else who might well bear a grudge against Mr. Williamson, I suggest that some of the rhetoric being seen and used today might well be based on a ‘notion’ being fed into the debate by those outside the MOD.
That said, it is certainly true that true that Mrs. May has so far failed to support Mr. Williamsons’ requests for additional funding for defence and it is very well known that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond who spent several years attempting to cut the cost of defence, is fighting hard to counter the arguments that we need to spend more on defence.
While I dislike such language, rhetoric and innuendo as seen in press articles today being seen by the public I am, as I know most of you are, very supportive of the need to spend more on defence. To that end in the ongoing ‘debate’ on the need to raise spending on defence I will give my absolute support to what Gavin Williamson is attempting to do. But it is equally right that no matter what you and I might believe that the MOD must fully justify a case for higher spending on defence – not just to government but also to the public.
Given that my personal belief is that we should be spending considerably more on defence than we are I suspect that you may find my last remark rather odd. My point though is that unless we carry the public onside, unless they can be also seen to support the need to spend more on defence, unless they understand not only the level of threats against us how these have now risen to a level that we as a nation are now forced to consider whether we have the ability, technology and sufficient capacity to counter threats, I fear that the notion expectation will carry too little weight. The public must be on-side this. If they are and they can be persuaded to understand the message of need portrayed and of why then, in my view, government has no option but to react in a positive way.
It is a well-used adage that the first and most important aspect of government is keeping the nation safe. Yes, even though we are doing defence on a shoestring we are undoubtedly relatively safe. But we are safe only in the aspect of what we know to be the threats that we can satisfactorily counter rather than those that we do not know. Tomorrows wars will undoubtedly be very different to those that we know and understand today – we must be ready and prepared for both.
Last week the House of Commons Defence Select Committee called for the amount of money that we spend on defence to be raised closer to 3% over the roughly 2% we purport to spend today. This is hardly the first time that HCDC has called for spending to increase but increasingly such voices of concern have been seen by government as irrelevant and all too easily dismissed.
Again a personal view, but I believe it is time to ditch this ridiculous defence spend in relation to GDP argument. What matters is what we need rather than a percentage calculation that has increasingly less real meaning. Better by far that HCDC should have spent their time examining closely how each of the armed forces spend the money that they are allocated, what each believes they need to do the job properly and equally, how each have recognised that defence does need to be affordable meaning that each must be able to show how they are adapting to changed requirements and proving that they were making themselves more efficient.
The bottom line is that we undoubtedly need to raise spending on defence. To do so will, just as for the raised spending on the NHS, require that we raise taxes. Rather than quarrel in public, let hear a better message from the MOD as to why we need to spend more on defence, the increased level of and very different threats we face today and why it matters that we are better prepared. Let them demonstrate this to the public of also of how they are attempting to make defence more affordable and efficient. Then let the Government say loud and clear what its real and underlying strategy for defence is, where and what it is that it wants Britain to be in a post Brexit environment, where it believes we stand with the geo-political changes that are going on all around us, our role in NATO, the future discourse with the US and how it intends to support our allies in the future.
CHW (London – 24th June 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785