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Defence by default

We need a proper conversation in the Labour party about what we think about defence. Recent events in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq are demonstrating that potential threats to our national security and to world peace still exist and are evolving. We are being reminded that, if we ignore them, they do not ignore us. As we seek to show we are a party of government, we have to face up to some hard questions about defence.

The level of British spending on defence has become a matter of international concern. Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, reminded David Cameron during a visit to London last month that Nato members are committed to spending two per cent of GDP on defence. Many Nato members do not meet the commitment, but the United Kingdom has kept spending above this level, though it is well below the five per cent and more figures of the early 1980s. At the moment, spending is just above two per cent and the government says this will continue for the next couple of years, though ministers have refused to commit to ensuring that will continue to be the case. The outlook also depends on the growth of GDP. The Financial Times reported last month that a study commissioned within the armed forces predicts that spending will fall to 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2016, and to 1.6 per cent in 2024-25.

Alongside concerns about the level of spending are questions about the direction of spending. What matters is not so much hitting a percentage of GDP but spending effectively to meet our national security needs. The government ran a hasty ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ within a few months of the last general election. It is widely regarded as flawed. Perhaps the most infamous example of the mess our military spending is in is the debacle of the new aircraft carriers, with billions wasted on changing specifications for the new joint strike fighter, which, predictably, is also turning out to cost a lot more than estimated. The number of people in our armed forces is being reduced but plans to shore up capability by employing 11,000 additional reservists have been sharply criticised by the National Audit Office. It appears the target figure was arrived at without the Ministry of Defence actually knowing it was achievable. The plans are now regarded as so unrealistic they are on a Whitehall list of risky projects and the NAO believes the policy will cost more than if we had kept a higher number of regular personnel. Supply and procurement represent a problem that has hardly ever been solved. The challenge was met in the world wars by separate cabinet level responsibility. Perhaps we need something similar across government today.

Labour would benefit from a conversation about what we might need our military for, and what international role the UK should have, being clear-headed about past military interventions. Otherwise, spending cuts will determine defence policy by default, without a meaningful debate. When we later decide we have to use armed forces in a significant way, we will discover we cannot easily get back ‘the years the locusts have eaten’ (Winston Churchill’s use of a Bible verse to describe a previous lack of prudential military planning). Future generations will not thank us. This applies to both equipment and people, including the standard of living armed forces personnel can expect. We need to know, independent of vested interests, what kind of armed forces we need and what it will cost. That means Labour needs to exercise leadership in this area rather than find ourselves adopting whatever strategy the coalition has cobbled together. Hoping for the best is not a credible national security policy.

Yet we are still in a time of spending cuts and serious needs in the country today. Shadow cabinet members have to find ways of reducing and controlling spending before making the case for spending money that would otherwise be used elsewhere. They are not likely to get much of a hearing in any event, particularly if they are responsible for a department that cannot keep spending under control. That should prompt an honest review of the threats to our security, the contribution we can make to global peace, and significant reform of the way we do defence in the UK.

This article was first published by Progress in the July 2014 magazine and on the website.

Progress, 25 July 2014, 03/08/2014

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