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UK DEFENCE – YES, BOTH LABOUR AND TORY PARTIES NEED TO BE VERY MUCH CLEARER ABOUT DEFENCE By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

fallon13 Apr 15. Amongst other things, a week away from my desk on vacation provides good time for thinking, reflection, reading and observing comments made by others and particularly for me within matters relating to defence.

With press and media rounding on comments made by the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon last week particularly relating to personal observations on the Labour leader made in his ‘Times’ article on Wednesday there has been no shortage of substance to read. The real subject matter was the strength of argument and reasoning behind Tory policy for Trident replacement although from what followed you would have been forgiven for not knowing this. Having watched Mr. Fallon attempt to cope with an appallingly bad Sky News interview that centered, as it was bound to do, not on the specific defence policy but on unnecessary personal remarks in relation to potential future Labour policy on Trident I was left with the feeling that another excellent opportunity to demonstrate that the Tory Party really had got the message on defence had been lost. My second thought was to conclude that it is of little wonder that the electorate is so disinterested in politics if this really is the best that Sky News can do in terms of interviewing technique.

I have already covered Trident replacement and will do so again in the future. Suffice to say that not only is the policy of maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent capability correct the importance of maintenance of skills and the ability that the UK has and will need in the long term future must not be lost in this argument either. While I am sure that Mr. Fallon was of course correct to observe that Labour Party policy in respect of Trident would almost certainly be bound to become obscured should it form any part of the next government, a serious subject of concern in itself, what concerns me more is that we have yet to see definition of what Labour Party policy would be in terms of conventional defence!

A particularly interesting editorial in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ last week suggested that both Labour and Tory alike need to be very much clearer with the electorate about future defence policy. It also gave a lie to the long held political view that there are no votes in defence.

You will not be surprised to know that I for one very much agree with comments such as these and would add only that foreign policy should be included as well. Once we used to be looked up to for our diplomatic skills, our leadership and the role we could play in terms of international diplomacy. Not any longer. On that score Britain not only appears to lack serious foreign policy judgement it seems that today we are increasingly being seen by our peers as merely being observers.

The truth is that we have lost the ability to believe in ourselves and we are, it seems, content to follow the initiative, acts and leadership of others. We lack long term ambition and given the lack of political will and a wish only to pander to the short term and needs of those that for too long have spoon fed on a belief that the government should provide for all manner of personal wellbeing it is hardly surprising that the view of Britain that is observed by many of those in the rest of the world has never been lower.

That aside I am not sure that it will ever be possible to reverse the absolute dishonesty that has allowed a far too large percentage of our population to believe that we can keep on affording the ridiculous levels of money that we pour into health and welfare. It is a political choice of course but in the end short term policy are rarely seen to succeed.

Defence and foreign policy are intertwined and without an understanding of what it is and where that you wish to be in the world that defence and security policy can also become obscure.

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton waded into the overall defence and foreign affairs debate last week suggesting that British leaders who embrace “peace through strength” are now very rare indeed. Peace of course is greatly assisted by knowledge that you have strong policy objectives, ambition and defence particularly in the form of deterrent capability. Our enemies and world be adversaries are watching what we do and I rather doubt that they are showing any particular fears.

While John Bolton did not go as far as others last week suggesting that the US perhaps now has a stronger relationship with France than it does with the UK when it comes to playing its part in western defence he did draw some interesting conclusions as to how a weakened British attitude towards defence may also reflect on a weakened America too. His real point though was that reduced UK expenditure on defence and the failure of the Prime Minister to reaffirm that if the Tories are elected that the UK would spend 2% of GDP on defence sends the wrong signal to fellow NATO partners that until now had looked on Britain to be a nation of its word. To this I would add that Labour has so far said nothing of what it would spend as a proportion of GDP or of total government spend on defence either!

Defence spending in the UK has as we all know been cut to the core already. The lack of necessary scale and resilience in defence is already there for all to see. Sadly, I suspect that we will go on ignoring the ever-rising number of threats that face us and that if what I personally believe to be the thought process and real defence policy directive behind both of our main political parties transpires we will see further large and dangerous cuts in the years ahead. This must not be allowed to occur.

Notwithstanding that both Tory and Labour parties will launch respective election ‘manifestos’ this week and that can be expected to provide reassuring words in relation to defence voters must not be allowed to be deceived. The bottom line is that whatever they might include as being formal policy on defence should be read as being as circumspect and short on real intention and truth. Labour has a long history in this respect but so too do the Tories. Had, for instance, the latter party gone into the last election back in 2010 suggesting that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy capability would be slashed by between one quarter and one third I suggest there would have been howls of anguish from press and public alike. That of course is just what has subsequently occurred under the Coalition Government. Note then that just five years ago there was, apart from the need to balance the defence budget, no hint or suggestion from Mr Cameron and his colleagues of the devastation that would be allowed to occur in UK defence in the Tory Party manifesto.

History shows that while the Tories are no friends of defence they generally have for the most part maintained a more responsible attitude toward defence policy overall. But what about Labour?

Leaving Trident replacement aside I am not sure that Labour has a real policy on defence at all. Yes, there will be something along the lines of what Shadow Labour Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker has been suggesting over the past year in his meetings with industry and the military but ask Labour leader Ed Miliband about his attitude to defence policy, as I had the misfortune to do back in December last year, and sadly you get a very different answer. In his mind defence will take a further back seat meaning it falls a lot further down the agenda.

In fact Labour has nothing to offer the electorate on defence but false promises and hope. I may intensely dislike what the Coalition Government has done in terms of further weakening the whole structure of UK defence capability albeit that it has probably succeeded in making it more efficient but quite frankly Labour policy on defence, such that it is, should be feared.

As the Defence Secretary himself observed last week, manifesto promises on defence made by either of the two main political parties “can easily be jettisoned when deals are made to form a government”.

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

Tel: 07710 779785

 

 

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