This is the third of our Pinning Down Farage articles, which scrutinise and expose the failings of UKIP policy. Click here to read the rest of the series.
“…The defence budget is one of the very few elements of public expenditure that can truly be described as essential. This point was well-made by a robust Labour Defence Minister, Denis (Now Lord) Healey, many years ago: ‘Once we have cut expenditure to the extent where our security is imperilled, we have no houses, we have no hospitals, we have no schools. We have a heap of cinders.’ ” — Margaret Thatcher
So began the UKIP defence policy, posted to its website in June 2013. Sadly, by October of the same year it had been deleted – reduced, appropriately, to its very own heap of cinders. Perhaps it was easier not to provide the detail to scrutinise, perhaps they changed their minds or perhaps the excellent Thatcher quote no longer sat comfortablt with the party’s new pursuit of Labour voters, who knows?
As we have discovered in other areas, this is one of the hazards of pursuing the detail of UKIP policy – it is a Schrodinger’s Cat, alive when convenient but instantly deniable and dead when not. To peer inside its box, it’s worth clearly distinguishing the three main versions of their defence policy that are to us.
In chronological order, as there is some evolutionary course charted within at least the first two, they are:
The 2010 manifesto
- Increase defence spending by 40 per cent/1 per cent of GDP.
- Expand the army by 25 per cent to 125,000 personnel, and double the size of the Territorial Army.
- Commission three new aircraft carriers and 70 other vessels to restore the Royal Navy to its 2001 strength.
- Continue Trident in the short term, then replace it with four British-built submarines using American-made missiles to preserve an independent nuclear deterrent.
- Introduce better pay, conditions and medical care for forces personnel and their families.
- Increase defence commissioning by an extra £4 billion a year.
There are some other bits and bobs – from withdrawing from EU military projects to restoring the names of historic regiments – but this is the gist of the pitch. It’s worth noting at this point the inconsistency of the policy with the manifesto’s view on fiscal matters. This was a pitch which condemned public spending and deficit finance, while simultaneously calling for tens of billions of extra spending on pet topics. It may be that defence can be argued as an exception, but that was never attempted – admittedly, that’s a relatively common political cop-out, but this is a particularly egregious example.
The 2013 policy
So how had things changed by last year? Here are the notable shifts visible in their 2013 policy:
- Don’t increase defence spending… “The UK defence budget is adequate, but the apportionment is so poorly thought through as to border on the absurd.” This is quite a departure from an increase of 40 per cent, as proposed in 2010.
- …no, wait, do increase defence spending. “The UK defence budget will be restored to 2010 levels.” At no point is it explained how this fits with the declaration in the same document that spending is actually adequate. To clarify, the UK will spend about £3 billion more on defence in 2015 than in 2010 – I assume from their tone that UKIP are actually arguing for a restoration to 2010 levels had they kept pace with inflation, but they don’t say.
- Close the Ministry of Defence – and replace it with a “new defence ministry” in which forces personnel have primacy over civil servants. It’s unclear as to how this would differ from simply reorganising the Ministry of Defence. Or what would happen to defence operations while the MoD is closed.
- Improve pay, housing and conditions. Or at least take them “into account…in future arrangements”. This at least is in keeping with the 2010 manifesto, if rather less clear.
- Review the design of new aircraft carriers. “UKIP is unconvinced by the decision making process… and will review the options, which may impact on the design of the carriers.” It’s unclear what part of the decision making is unconvincing, but a potential redesign means a delay in the carriers’ production.
- Cancel the Trident replacement and accept that Britain does not have an independent nuclear deterrent. Somewhat at odds with the UKIP vision of an independent, powerful Britain, the policy paper instead proposed “advanced nuclear cruise missiles to be delivered by air, sea or sub-surface combat units”, developed at an optimistic cost of £5 billion.
But then, as noted earlier, the policy vanished. It was a confused and sometimes confusing document, but at least it existed and had some detail. It’s possible, of course, that that was the problem – pesky interviewers have a nasty habit of asking questions about policies when you write them down.
The 2014 conference speech
A year later came the next instalment in our story. Mike Hookem, the newly appointed defence spokesman, delivered a speech on defence policy to his party’s conference in Doncaster. Or rather, he gave a speech on veterans’ policy:
- Guarantee veterans a job in the police, prison service or border force after twelve years of service. As with the Government’s efforts to encourage veterans into teaching, for example, this is a sensible idea.
- Fast track veterans for mental health care, social housing and public services. Again, a simple policy it is difficult for anyone to disagree with. Indeed, some Tory councils are already doing this with their own services, as far as possible.
- Create a Veterans Department. This sounds a bit more radical than it is – Hookem clarified after the headline announcement that it would sit within the MoD (which presumably isn’t going to be closed down any more, though he didn’t say). A one stop shop for handling issues relation to veterans would be useful – but bizarrely he also intends it to encompass the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and other bodies that are currently independent charities. It would surely be wiser to work with these organisations rather than nationalise them.
In itself, it wasn’t a bad speech. We can quibble about some of the detail, but it’s hard to disagree with treating veterans better. However, it simply is not a defence policy. Compared to last year’s document, wrongheaded as it may have been, where were the plans for defence spending, the MoD, commissioning, the nuclear deterrent or a host of other topics?
It seems the UKIP defence policy has simply been swept clean, apparently to avoid questions or debate. While there was some evolution from 2010 to 2013, in the last year there has been an abolition of almost the whole policy platform.
The other question, of course, is what would UKIP do with our international presence, should they eventually decide what it ought to be?
We know something about their stance on the EU – though as I covered last Thursday, there’s a big difference between what they claim and what they actually do.
More broadly, though, where would we sit in the world?
Perhaps the best sources on this are Mike Read’s UKIP Calypso and the various pronouncements of Nigel Farage.
The former lays out the trade position: “Commonwealth, not Common Market”. Traditionally, UKIP has favoured free trade outside the EU as a broad policy – even sometimes considering unilateral free trade to be in Britain’s economic interests. But as is so often the case, of late they have allowed their opportunism to get in the way. Their concerns about the TTIP trade deal with the USA haven’t stuck at the lack of democratic consent in the process, but instead have extended into the language of protectionism. It’s unclear as to what their stance would now be on free trade even if negotiated by a self-governing Britain.
The latter source, Farage’s various calls on international matters, are more troubling. Despite the 2010 and 2013 calls for strong armed forces, UKIP’s leader has effectively declared that Britain should not be willing to actually use them. When it comes to crises abroad – even those such as the rise of ISIS, which clearly threaten the UK if left unchecked, he has adopted an isolationist stance.
Even some of his own party officials thought it obvious that air strikes were the right thing to do, which led to this memorable instant u-turn from Suzanne Evans when she learned on air that her leader disagreed. Instead, UKIP ended up complaining that the vote was timed to disrupt their conference – and, by implication, those suffering under ISIS and those who might suffer at their hands in future could go hang.
Of course, we also know of his admiration for Vladimir Putin as “an operator” – and UKIP conspiracy theories about Brussels somehow deliberately causing war in Ukraine persist despite the killing of British citizens when Moscow-back separatists shot down flight MH17. Apparently their dislike for the EU means they are now willing to apologise even for murderous foreign powers, a position which is troubling to say the least.
While the 2013 policy argued for special forces in particular to be equipped to deal with terrorist threats abroad, now the regular cry is “it’s none of our business”. Sadly, there’s no principle to fathom – it’s a simple matter of electoral opportunism again. With all three main parties recognising that Britain has a moral responsibility and a self-interest in defeating threats outside the British Isles, UKIP has calculated that there are disgruntled voters left ripe for the picking.
The grim truth is that despite the seriousness of the matters involved, UKIP policy has more to do with copying the Lib Dems of old than with what is right or desirable.