Image by David Scullion

The Case for defence

The Conservatives can hardly claim to be the friend of the armed forces

Election Notebook

‘Defence’ has scarcely featured in this election campaign. Except in garrison towns, Royal Navy ports and constituencies where defence industry companies are significant employers, the issue is far down the list of voter priorities.

YouGov’s tracker of the issues that voters regard the most important has ‘defence and security’ at 8% (12% among Tory supporters, but only 2% among Labour voters). The two categories are linked but not always combined in terms of popular priority, with ‘security’ covering concerns that are more applicable to last week’s London Bridge atrocity (better intelligence and policing, sentencing policy and initiatives against radicalisation, concerns about borders being ‘too open’). The role played by the armed forces in defending the realm has become less clearly perceived. Or, because of its engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan, regarded as inciting rather than preventing terrorism.

Since the Cold War’s end, the Conservatives can hardly claim to be the friend of the armed forces. As a proportion of GDP, British defence spending has slid from 2.85% in 2000, to 2.75% when Labour left office in 2010. It is now 2.3%.

Nor is the problem only one of budget constraint. It is also a saga of continuing MoD mismanagement. Last year the National Audit Office suggested that procurement policy was so over-budget that it could create over the next decade a funding ‘black hole’ of between £4.9 billion to £20.9 billion. The vagueness of the range is almost as concerning as the figures themselves.

Who has a grip on this? Misallocation of resources and questionable priorities have marched in step. Not only do we have not enough aircraft, there is no longer the capacity to train pilots. An RAF fast-jet pilot requires 4 years’ training. Cancellations and postponements mean it is now taking seven years. If this was the NHS, it would lead the news.

Labour’s manifesto makes no promise to defend the self-determination of any British territory

Attuned to what it thinks the public wants, defence merits just half a page in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. It promises to increase MoD spending by 0.5 per cent above inflation for the next five years and to build a new generation of Type 31 frigates and armoured vehicles in the UK. Beyond defending the sovereignty of Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and other overseas territories, the strategic objective is contained in just one sentence, “We will stand against terrorism and extremism around the world.” Which is good to know.

If manifestos were to be believed, there would be not much to choose between Labour and Conservative. Both commit to meeting NATO expectations of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP in defence, and both will maintain Trident.

The reality, of course, is that Trident will be up for negotiation when Jeremy Corbyn finds himself reliant upon the Scottish Nationalists for a parliamentary majority. It is also hard to believe that a man who has dismissed every British military intervention since 1945 will suddenly, upon assuming office, be finding time for regimental dinners. In 2014, he hoped to “close down Nato, invest in people, invest in peace, invest in jobs, invest in hope, not create the intolerance and detestation that is led by wars and leads also to racism and intolerance in our own society.” Labour’s manifesto makes no promise to defend the self-determination of any British territory. The omission is intentioal. How could it not be when its leader believes Las Malvinas son Argentinas?

Being to the right of Jeremy Corbyn is hardly an achievement. The Conservatives’ greatest problem is that it is hard to make defence the dividing line it once was, when your armed forces have been cut to the point where they would struggle to retake British territories even if there was a resolve in Whitehall to do so. Beyond which, few voters are now instinctively engaged by our NATO Article 5 commitment to defend the Baltic States if they were attacked by Russia, let alone its extension to Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Many would be more concerned by the risk if their attention was drawn to it.

NATO spent 42 years confronting the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact. It has now sustained a further 28 year afterlife.

Being to the right of Jeremy Corbyn on defence is hardly an achievement

It is a sign of waning interest that media attention for NATO’s 70th anniversary summit in Watford and London today has been almost entirely focussed on what Donald Trump wishes to say whilst in the UK about the NHS. This is despite the uncontainable President’s best efforts to slap down Emmanuel Macron’s musing about the “brain death” of NATO as “nasty.”  The reality is that each of NATO’s 29 member representatives will be given only four minutes to speak, in a meeting due to be wrapped-up in three hours. This gives a clear indication that this summit is about closing down debate, not opening it.

Yet, Macron was attuned to a significant strand of opinion when he called for the alliance to focus away from confronting Putin and to become better organised to fight terrorism.

Given how little priority current Labour and Lib Dem voters appear to accord defence, it is hard to see a more hawkish stance from the Conservatives reaping great electoral dividends unless put in a different context. Most Britons do feel safe in their beds from Putin. Less so, from other threats.

If it was credibly suggested that a UK led by Jeremy Corbyn would be regarded as no longer a safe ally for signals intelligence and that Britain might be bypassed within the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance between Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, then there is the possibility for national security to at least finally enter public consciousness during election campaign.

We have not received this warning today. And if not today of all days, then presumably we shall not hear it until Jeremy Corbyn actually is in Downing Street.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover