11 May 15. In the first of what I expect to be four commentary pieces looking at ‘what happens next for UK defence’ over the next few weeks now that a Conservative Government will be running the country with a majority of twelve MP’s in the House of Commons I will attempt to look at some aspects of the future politics of defence. The intention here will be to attempt to work out whether we might be better or maybe worse off under the new administration than we were under the last. Apart from the politics of defence, I will over the next couple of weeks look at defence from the positions of military, industry and defence exports.
Most of us involved in and around the UK defence scene would I think agree that defence has been allowed to fall far too far down the political agenda. We may well be the sixth largest economy in the world and free of serious problems impacting on the Eurozone but to all intents and purposes we place defence far lower down the political agenda than they do. And yet we are an island race and, apart from the US, we provide the largest amount of support to NATO. Whilst it is also true of politicians to claim that we spend more on defence than many of our NATO partners do my answer to that is simple – there is very good reason for that. I am mindful too that we are still looked up to by the rest of the world not just for the role that we used to play in international diplomacy but also in how we train and equip our armed forces personnel to do the vitally important job that they do. Last but by no means least, is to remind that defence and the fantastic defence industrial base that we remains hugely important to the nation as a whole not just from a military perspective but also in terms of retention of sovereign capability, exportability, jobs and skills. It also impacts on how the rest of the world sees us and of itself forms a natural deterrent effect.
They used to say that defence was always safer under the Conservatives than under Labour but in the rather long period of time that has elapsed since that statement was first made it may well be true to say that since Margaret Thatcher left office defence has been allowed by all governments of whatever colour to fall further down the agenda.
To say that defence in the UK is in a mess would I think be an understatement. While I accept the requirement and the intense effort that has gone in to make defence more affordable and efficient I consider that we have now reached an intolerable position in terms of capacity and in particular regard of the limited air and maritime capability that we have at our disposal. My view is that unless the Government takes heed of the many warnings we could soon find ourselves in a position where the military is not only no longer in the position to properly defend the nation but also to carry out the obligations that we have made to NATO together with other international commitments such as defending our dependent territories.
You have heard me say it before and you will hear me say it again and again – Foreign Policy is inextricably linked with Security Policy and Defence. We have in the name of affordability as opposed to that of national strategy on all three of the above allowed ourselves to fall into a position where we have neglected to decide where it is we wish to be and indeed, what it is that we wish to be in the world.
“Strong defence is”, as I will always remember a frail Lady Thatcher reminding me once again on the very last occasion that we met back in 2010 with the then Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox providing support supporting her, “the most important of all responsibilities of Government”. Five years on, the lack of capacity and resilience in UK defence is there for all to see. Worse perhaps is that in the name of political expediency the voice of our Service Chiefs have been silenced.
It was however pleasing to hear on Friday, just hours after coming back from Buckingham Palace, that Prime Minister David Cameron wasted no time in announcing that there would be no change from incumbent members of the Cabinet holding what are commonly regarded as the four most important positions in Government, that of Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Defence and Home Secretary. And yet how frustrating, if hardly surprising, was it that the BBC in its infinite wisdom chose only to mention that Philip Hammond, George Osborne and Teresa May had retained their positions, choosing to make little of any reference to the announcement from No 10 that Michael Fallon would continue in the very important job of Secretary of State for Defence. What this tells us is that we must all work harder to put defence back on the public agenda as well.
This morning the Daily Telegraph suggests in an interesting article that Tory backbenchers have warned the Prime Minister that they may block key legislation unless he accepts demands for defence spending to rise sharply. At the very least some backbenchers are apparently calling for Mr. Cameron to make defence the ‘highest priority’ in the next parliament and commit to the agreed NATO agreement that all member states should work toward spending 2% of GDP on defence. They have, according to the article, apparently threatened to rebel against any proposed cuts. The article reports for Defence Minister, Sir Gerald Howarth saying “there was strong feeling against defence cuts in the party that will soon surface”. He added “that there can be now no excuse. Because the Tories are no longer ‘beholden to the Lib Dems.
While I commend the reported comments from Sir Gerald and agree that with the work in relation to SDSR 2015 all but done the case for defence should, in this more toxic world in which the level of threat against us has dramatically risen, be raised and raised again I am not sure that threatening to revolt will carry sufficient weight to change the opinions of the Cabinet Office and Treasury. To be fair to Mr Cameron, he does get defence even if some of the promises he has made are not necessarily deliverable. Better by far at this stage that rather than threaten to revolt and thus make it even more difficult for the Tories to govern that we should all work behind the scenes to raise defence not just in the political arena but in the public one as well.
With the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) shortly to get under way Defence will of course need much help to get the message across. Possibly just a day after publication of the CSR (sometime in early November I imagine) will see publication of the SDSR 2015 White Paper. Although no doubt this would be denied in the MOD a great deal of work that will form what emerges in SDSR 2015 has already been completed. At what level industry has and will be involved remains, just as was the position six months before SDSR 2010 was published, remains unclear. In my view the voice of industry is hugely important and I remain concerned that once again it will be academics as opposed to military voices that, just as they did in SDSR 2010 having scrapped Nimrod MRA4 without proffering any ideas of replacement, will leave damage in their wake through unfinished business.
The politics of defence requires that the voices of all those who need to speak are heard. That, apart from policy makers and those engaged in the Treasury and Cabinet Office, should also include not only military and industry voices but also specialist and we, the so-called ‘talking heads’. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Future Force 2020 ambitions that can’t be remedied in SDSR 2015 we need to remind ourselves that the reason SDSR 2010 failed was because it was policy as opposed to strategy and that it was driven by affordability as opposed to what defence required. We must ensure that the same mistakes are not made again and that this time we progress rather than fall back.
Whether or not changes at the Cabinet Office such as the fact that Francis Maud has stood down as an MP will make any difference in the Cabinet Office attitude to defence remains to be seen. I hope so and I hope that in future I may not need to regard the Cabinet Office as the premier enemy of the State in regard of defence. Bad enough that the Treasury will be hard to please but by chipping away I am sure that our chances of improving the prospects for defence are better under a Conservative Government than they were under the previous Coalition.
We must give the Secretary of State for Defence a little time and of course, new ministers that will be appointed today or tomorrow time to bed in. But there can be no let-up in the voice of reason that is there solely to push the importance of strong defence forward and to remind of the increased level of threats and probability of future challenges ahead.
That the case for Trident replacement has been eased should not be taken to mean that press and media will not fuel the debate further in the months ahead. We must be on our guard and stand ready to defend the need to retain the independent nuclear deterrent capability and present it for what it is and for what it has achieved over the past fifty years – a long period of peace.
On the subject of spending 2% of GDP on defence I fear that this will continue to fall on deaf ears in Whitehall unless there is some kind of fudge that artificially brings more loading of matters that are currently on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget onto defence or that they use Trident replacement to fudge the figures. Even so, I think that the battle is lost across other NATO member states notwithstanding that Germany and France are now increasing spending on defence. The way forward is to agree that each member state should spend a minimum of 6% or 7% of public expenditure on defence.
Defence politics is never easy and it conflicts with so many other demands. But let us hope that after years of decline defence is now seen and heard for the vital importance that it is to the nation and that there is acceptance by the new political elite that it needs to go up the political agenda. Am I more confident about the future than the past? Just a little – and remember, a little can go a very long way!
CHW (London 11th May 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785