The lesson of 1914, wrote Lloyd George, is that minority governments can be fatally distracted by peripheral matters: “During the eight years that preceded the war, the [Liberal] cabinet devoted a ridiculously small percentage of its time to a consideration of foreign affairs . . . Education, Temperance, Land Taxation, culminating in the most serious constitutional crisis since the Reform Bill – the Parliament Act – Home Rule, and the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales: these subjects challenged an infinite variety of human interests, sentiment and emotion.
The Tories, the “party of defence”, are showing the same signs of distraction. Free schools, HS2, another Heathrow, women in combat: these subjects too challenge an infinite variety of human interests, sentiment and emotion. Worse still, the premise of our national security strategy, that the debt crisis is the greatest strategic threat, is beginning to anaesthetize ministers to the dangerous side effects of the cure – the hollowing-out, indeed the evisceration, of our armed forces.
The desperate measures to eliminate the £38bn “black hole” in the Ministry of Defence budget bequeathed by Labour were initially presented as an exigent and temporary expedient. However, Liam Fox, the Coalition’s first Defence Secretary, warned in a leaked letter to the Prime Minister: “Frankly, this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR [strategic defence and security review] and more like a ‘super CSR’ [comprehensive spending review]. If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us.”
Well, it has continued, and the cuts – cumulatively far greater than promulgated in the 2010 SDSR, including the wholesale loss of key capabilities – are eye-watering. The destruction of RAF maritime surveillance, for example, was highlighted by the lumbering search for the Cheeki Rafiki. If we can’t find an upturned yacht in the Atlantic approaches, what chance of finding anything hostile? Nor is what you see on paper of our austerity armed forces the whole truth: they are increasingly hollowed-out. Besides the plan for reservists to replace regulars, which the recent National Audit Office report suggests is best described as wishful, many army units simply don’t have the equipment their role implies. Instead weapons and vehicles are allocated for training or operations from a central pool.
While pragmatic, this means that soldiers cannot continuously prepare for war – and therefore be continuously ready. It is like saying that, because not all fire engines are used at any one time, their number can be cut and each brigade given a few appliances to train on, or during the dry season. Worse still, the pool for mechanised infantry consists of vehicles 30-years old, with nothing in the pipeline to replace them. We have yet to see the 1930s expedient of cardboard cut-outs on bicycle frames to represent armoured vehicles, but it may only be a matter of time.
The trouble is that, increasingly, the MoD sees the defence cuts not as risks to be managed for the time being, but perfectly adequate long-term solutions. Ministers are becoming habituated to our dis-armed forces. When General Sir Richard Shirreff, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said recently that he feared cuts had already hit the UK’s military capabilities hard, particularly the navy, which had been so “cut to the bone” that it could not take part in NATO maritime operations, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, dismissed his views as “nonsense”. Yet Shirreff was the officer responsible for coordinating NATO’s response to the Crimea crisis; if such a man speaks nonsense we are, as Private Fraser would say, all doomed.
The MoD now instinctively reacts with vacuous irrelevance – or worse – to any criticism of the cuts it once saw as evils forced on it. A spokeswomen responding to Shirreff’s warning said: “The UK maintains some of the very finest and best equipped armed forces” adding that after the its cut by 20,000 troops the army would be “more flexible and agile”. Who do they think can believe this? And yet more cuts are being considered – presumably to make the army even more flexible and agile. From next year the UK will probably sit at 23 proportionately in the league table of troops committed to NATO operations.
In July 1914, Churchill wrote to his wife that Europe was in “a kind of dull cataleptic trance”. So now, it seems, now the MoD. If Vladimir Putin – being more Kaiserlike than Hitlerite – were to call ours a “contemptible little army”, all our soldiers could do would be to echo their forebears in the British Expeditionary Force and call themselves defiantly the “New Contemptibles”. Putin is pouring oil-money into his forces. According to a Brookings study, Russian defence spending has increased by 79 per cent over the past decade. By World Bank calculations, Putin’s defence budget is now 4.5 per cent of GDP, while from 2016 ours will be more like 1.7 per cent. Even Greece, basket-case though its economy is, spends a higher proportion on defence than does Britain.
What is to be done? Liam Fox spelled it out in 2010: “As we approach the next general election and prepare for the next Defence Review in 2015, a commitment to meet Future Force 2020 will be a key signifier for those political parties dedicated to the vision of a Britain active on the world stage and protected at home.” We need that clear statement of commitment now – a commitment to restore the capability lost during ‘austerity’. And David Cameron has the perfect opportunity to do so – in September, when he hosts the NATO summit. By announcing that Britain will commit to the North Atlantic Council’s target of at least two per cent of GDP he would not only signal the Tories’ intention of restoring Britain’s defence capability to pre-austerity level, but also give a lead to those NATO nations not pulling their weight. We gave a lead before, in the 1980s, when the NATO Cold War target was 3.5 per ent; the result was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1916, just before Lloyd George became Prime Minister and reinvigorated the war effort, the CIGS, Sir William Robertson, complained that “Since the war began, diplomacy has seriously failed to assist us”, to which the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, replied “Diplomacy in war is futile without military success to back it.” Grey had already demonstrated, catastrophically, that diplomacy in peace is futile without the prospect of military success to back it. However good the photo-opportunities with Angelina Jolie, William Hague knows the limits of soft power. Today, just as in 1914, we are letting the lamps go out.