As I am away on a military related visit during the middle part of this week this will probably be the only defence related piece to emerge until sometime next week. Although later than I had intended, let me also say that the promised maritime related defence piece will definitely appear during next week. Today however and short of time ahead of meetings, I would like to make a few comments on defence past, in the form of the death that was announced over the weekend of Lord Healey plus also a few thoughts in relation to current and future defence related thinking that might just be raised at the Conservative Party Conference by the Prime Minister in Manchester.
Past – Lord Healey
If ever UK defence had as its Secretary of State a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character it was surely none other than Denis Healey. Primarily responsible for cancelling the TSR2 programme in 1965; for pulling Britain back from involvement ‘East of Suez’ albeit with great reluctance and for imposing the most stringent defence cuts that the country had seen since the Duncan Sandys defence cuts in 1957 this was the Minister who set out to reduce the cost of defence by one-sixth. In doing so his intention was to meet obligations contained in the Labour Party manifesto published earlier that same year. Knowing my views on defence matters you may wonder why I would even bother to seek to remember a man who not only changed the concept and attitude of how voters would see defence over a generation but one who would later preside over the running of the economy very badly. The fact is that Denis Healey was such a prominent politician through a large part of my professional life that, loathe much of what he did when in Government as I do, it would be wrong to ignore.
Ironically the Conservative Party, in 1966 fresh into a second period of opposition in the House following an election that had seen Labour under Harold Wilson command a majority in the House of Commons 97 seats failed to raise that much discontent when the 1966 Healey defence estimate cuts were announced. True, Mr Enoch Powell, the then Conservative spokesman on defence, did challenge the government’s claim that defence spending had risen sharply since the last real defence review of 1957. But, other than that, real opposition was muted. The fact is that despite the savage Sandys defence cuts announced in 1955 defence spending remained relatively stable as a percentage of GDP during the final eight years of Tory government that lasted until 1964.
While one Labour Government Minister in the form of Christopher Mayhew, Minister for the Navy did resign following the Healey 1966 defence cuts along with the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir David Luce, both in protest to the cancellation of the CVA-01 aircraft carrier programme (the planned two ships would have been built to replace HMS Ark Royal 1V and HMS Eagle and arguably, had cancellation of CVA-01 not occurred, Argentina would have been far more unlikely to consider invading the Falkland Islands 15 years later) there was little other dissent.
Despise Denis Healey, Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Wedgewood Benn all you will in terms of the manner in which they cut defence, weakening the nation in the process and worse, damaging UK sovereign defence capability by scrapping TSR2 and saying it would purchase inferior US built F-111 aircraft (a decision that was thankfully later to be cancelled) and by letting the world know that Britain wanted to take a back seat on the world stage Denis Healey did one thing in 1966 for which the nation and particularly our economy can be very grateful for – in that same year he accepted the recommendations of the Ryder Report which led to the creation of the Defence Export Services Organisation. Over the best part of fifty years that followed DESO would work hard and achieve great success in enhancing our defence exports. It was the envy of our competitors and its success in meeting objectives and winning business for Britain was manifest. Sadly, after 1997 and endless rounds of staffing and resource cuts the almost self-financing DESO was moved from Ministry of Defence responsibility to that of UK Trade and Industry in 2007 presumably, as I mentioned last week when commenting on Baroness Shriti Vadera’s part in this, in the hope that it might wither on the vine. Thank you Lord Healey for the part that you played in the success story of DESO.
I met Denis Healey on a couple of occasions and whilst I may have loathed his ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’ philosophy he had some other admirable qualities. Today the Labour Party has no inner statesmen of the calibre of Wilson, Jenkins, Wedgewood Benn or Denis Healey. They lack not only leadership but credibility. I have no knowledge whether Lord Healey, who died at home last week after a shirt illness at the age of 97, had any knowledge of how the party has shot itself in the foot yet again in recent weeks but I rather hope that such events passed him by. A character he was and no matter what your party allegiance, one that those of us of a certain age will always remember with both fear and affection.
Present and Future – Is Mr. Cameron Getting the Message on Defence?
Has the Prime Minister really fallen in love with defence as he states that he intends to double the number of Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) vehicles in the UK equipment portfolio from ten to twenty when our current fleet of ten Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles are replaced by the US built ‘Protector’ in a few years’ time? The PM also says that more resourcing will be given to our special forces and implied that these will be increased although I am bound to question that from a shrunken number of front line troops available to choose from finding enough of the right calibre people will not be as easy as it was in the past.
The answer is that Mr Cameron does actually get defence and the need to have strong UK capability far better than some of his Treasury and Cabinet office colleagues. And there is the rub – be careful what you wish for and don’t believe anything that you are told. Defence as a whole may have hit rock bottom in the UK over the past year and the message that it has gone far too far down has now been accepted by the government but don’t think for one moment that a radical change of plan is imminent. SDSR 2015 will be what it is – light touch and with a mix of positive aspects for both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force mixed with intentions to make defence more efficient. Overall, I am content that we do not have to fear a repeat of the disaster that SDSR 2010 clearly was. Future Force 2020 is of course more than just aspiration, it is an intention. I am far from being complacent of course and there will be aspects in SDSR 2015 that we will all dislike. But at least this time we do not have a Government that is against defence. They have seen and observed and I believe that they have learned from the now very clear number of bad misjudgements made in SDSR 2010 together with unfinished business left over. The promise of a £500m annual increase in defence procurement spending is in my view not only welcome but it is I believe very genuine.
We will of course all listen to the references Mr. Cameron males in relation to defence in his speech at this weeks’ party conference in Manchester and we will hope of course that what he says is backed up by agreed intention and agreed strategy of all the others involved. Defence no longer has the energy or capacity for any more political spin. It requires a new understanding of what needs to be done of we are to meet the increasing level of threats against us and the role that we must play in defeating terrorism and threats of aggression wherever they appear.
Our future in relation to defence is NATO dependent and we must all realise the vital importance of NATO and the stability that 28 nations working together provide. We must of course ensure that, as we have consistently done, that we play a leading role within NATO. We must get a better and clearer message about what NATO is and what it does to the public. Mr. Cameron has the perfect platform on which to do this later this week but I don’t suppose he will bother.
Last but not least I may hope that in pushing forward the need for better defence the Prime Minister might say a word or two in praise of the UK defence industrial base and confirm that the Government really does believe very firmly in maintaining UK sovereign defence capability, that we need to spend more on research and development and in training to maintain precious skills. Over to you Prime Minister, I will continue to live in hope.
CHW (5th October 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS