Bernard Jenkin is Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee and MP for Harwich. He is a former Shadow Defence Secretary.
This is the conventional wisdom from people who do polling, and who do what passes for “strategy” in modern politics: “There are no votes in defence”. So the Conservatives have made all sorts of promises about spending on schools and hospitals, on old age pensions, even on pensioners’ bus passes and heating allowances – but not on defence.
Last Friday, the Lords spent a day arguing about amendments to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill, whose main provision is to fix into law the UN-recommended 0.7 per cent of GDP floor for spending on overseas aid. This commitment is important and I support it, but there is silence on the question of the equivalent Nato commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. We need this, not because we want war, but because we want to keep the peace.
We all know the difficulties. The more areas of government spending which are “protected”, the less credible it is that we can achieve our overall spending reduction targets. Our political strategists are still struggling to keep our vote share much above 30 per cent. (In the bad old days, didn’t they used to call that “flatlining”?)
So here are two bits of advice. First, the voters are alienated by the main political parties when we avoid the blunt truth. Second, don’t risk continuing putting your theory that “there are no votes in defence” to the test.
Just look at five recent developments….
- Last month, the SNP led a debate in the House of Commons on the renewal of Trident`. Despite the ambiguity of some messages coming out of Labour before the debate about their possible alliance with SNP in the event of another hung parliament, the Labour front bench gave complete and solid support to the maintenance of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. They restated their commitment to replace our four ageing Trident ballistic missile submarines at the start of the next parliament. Labour were furious that some Conservatives questioned this, understanding full well the dangers of being painted, like the old Labour party of Michael Foot, as a party of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Last Tueday, an interesting Early Day Motion on Defence Spending appeared on the order paper, warning that “the UK faces a growing and ever more complex range of current and future threats, many of which were unforeseen, such as the Ukrainian crisis”, and called for “at least two per cent” of GDP to be spent on defence. Look at the names on this motion. There may not be many, and they don’t include the blind loyalists from either side of the House – but they do include those who know about defence: a former Labour defence secretary, two former Conservative defence ministers, the Liberal Democrat defence veteran, Sir Menzies Campbell, and both the past and present chairmen of the Defence Select Committee.
Last Thursday, that committee published a devastating critique of government policy on Iraq, Syria and ISIS. In December last year, the Prime Minister said of ISIS, “We must use everything we have in our power to defeat it,” but the committee found “a significant gap between the rhetoric of Britain and its partners, and the reality of the campaign on the ground.” It refers to the UK’s “lurch from over intervention to complete isolation”; how “UK officials, ministers, and officers have failed to set out a clear military strategy or Iraq or a clear definition of the UK’s role in the operations”; of the failure in “finding and making use of the many British citizens with deep experience of Iraq”; and says that “integration across a number of departments, namely MoD, the FCO and DFID… has seemed lacking so far.”
Also last Thursday, the world learned that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French President, were travelling to Moscow for discussions about the escalating catastrophe provoked by Russian aggression in the Ukraine. It is already clear that they did not go there to face Putin down, but to appease him. The EU has form on the appeasement of Russia. In 2008, as the US Sixth Fleet was deployed to the Black Sea and Russian troops were moving into Georgia, Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s former President, flew to Moscow and unilaterally accepted the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, once again, Europe’s leaders have split Nato. Despite the vanity of insisting that the Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine were all included in the now infamous EU-Ukraine association agreement, they are giving them up at the point of the tyrant’s guns.
Last Friday, Professor Michael Clarke, the Director General of RUSI and an intellectual force behind the 1998 Strategic Defence and Security Review, lamented the grim truth about our defence budget in the Daily Telegraph. He observed that “British Defence Policy is a slow-motion train crash unfolding before our eyes”. He warned of the “blowback” from “the overlapping crises in the Middle East, and the way in which President Putin has been rewriting the rules of European Security”. He pointed out that sticking to the two per cent GDP target would mean an extra £125-160 billion on defence between now and 2025 and that, without at least some of this, MoD cannot begin to deliver even the pared down policy set out in the 2010 SDSR.
If the two battered main parties want to restore some trust in their “brands”, and draw back some of the disillusioned voters who are retreating to the extremes, they would do well to speak honestly about the challenges and costs we face. Whitehall’s capacity to address such future challenges is also the subject of an inquiry by my own committee (PASC). It is now apparent that the 2010 review left the UK with unacceptable gaps in capability, such as maritime reconnaissance and cyber warfare capability. Grand speeches against ISIS, or joining hands in Paris in the name of free speech, on their own mean nothing to our enemies. As they spread their terror to our own cities, the voters are already blaming their leaders. We have lessons to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from these, we should not encourage voters to draw the wrong conclusions, or more failure will compound their despair.
The message should be clear. The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. We Europeans need to spend more on military, diplomatic and intelligence capacity, and the UK needs to be the leading example – not because we want war, but because we want peace. We need more capacity to understand, to persuade and to deter our enemies: to contain them with a peaceful but military policy, which signals our will and ability to respond if necessary. It must be evident that we can and will prevail.
We seem to inhabit a period parallel to the 1930s, when Stanley Baldwin, then Prime Minister, refused to rearm the country in the face of the rising threat from Hitler’s Germany, simply because there was no public appetite for it. Today, like then, we don’t have an option. If we are not prepared to pay for our own security, we may find that other countries will also refuse to do so.
“No votes in defence”? What would have happened to Margaret Thatcher if she had been unable to re-take the Falkland Islands?