It was with some anticipation that the Labour and Conservative parties outlined their prospective defence policies during this year’s conference season. The occasion provided one last opportunity to showcase some individuality ahead of what promises to be a tight general election. Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker could at least boast a year’s experience with the defence portfolio, unlike his Conservative counterpart Defence Minister Michael Fallon, a beneficiary of July’s reshuffle. He replaced colleague Philip Hammond, lauded for navigating a successful three-year stint through financial difficulties.
Confident at last of reviving its defence credentials, Labour went straight for the jugular. Mr Coaker used his conference address to attack ‘the Tories [for lacking] any strategic vision’. As far as he was concerned, the MoD has promoted a culture of ‘prolonged mismanagement of projects and neglect of our troops’, consequently ‘diminishing Britain’s ability to effectively respond to…threats’. Bold claims from the party whose operations in Iraq and Afghanistan left a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. As a matter of urgency, the Coalition was obliged to swiftly implement swingeing cuts in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). But for the Shadow Defence Secretary this was dismissed as ‘rushed’ legislation, responsible for ‘mistakes in planning and implementation’. His criticism of government bureaucrats for the perceived ‘absence of focus on national security and future threats’ undoubtedly left a few white knuckles in Whitehall.
Labour’s solution? An ‘SDSR that [is] strategically-led and financially responsible’, though Mr Coaker offered no indication of how his review would be any more ‘strategic’ than the last. It is symptomatic of a much wider existential crisis in British foreign policy that diplomatic objectives have not been more defined. The divergent pressures of the EU, Washington, NATO and the Gulf states have resulted in overextension, leaving civil servants to divvy up the coffers. To suggest that Labour would address this problem in a defence review was both misleading and unfair. But to his credit, Mr Coaker did highlight the Conservative intention to undertake the 2015 defence review ‘behind closed doors’. Regardless of whether a Labour government would more effectively execute a review (something it hasn’t attempted since 1998), it would at least be ‘an inclusive, transparent discussion’.
However, concerns were raised over Labour’s approach to the defence budget, not least because ‘financial responsibility’ works both ways. At no point during the fringe events did Mr Coaker commit to NATO’s minimum defence expenditure threshold of 2% GDP. This was despite the success of last month’s NATO Summit, at which Prime Minister David Cameron committed British troops to the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and long-term deployments in Eastern Europe. To allow the defence budget to sink below 2% would from the outset put a Labour government on the back foot, jeopardising Britain’s international standing.
In stark contrast, Mr Fallon was adamant in his own keynote speech that Britain cannot let its guard down by neglecting defence requirements, making a promise to ‘go on spending 2%’. Well, at least ‘for the rest of this spending review period’, which equates to roughly 12 months. He emphasised that the defence budget has become the biggest in Europe, and second in NATO only to the United States. He also pledged to spend £164 billion on military hardware over the next decade (‘because we’ve sorted out the budget’) and recapped his purchase of 600 new armoured vehicles at the cost of £3.5 billion. A further £4.4 billion was pledged to Britain’s naval bases, which will secure 7,500 jobs. A stinging finale saw Mr Fallon criticise Labour’s ‘13 years of mismanagement’, which has ‘left a terrible legacy’ of debt.
However, much of the speech was repackaged from the NATO conference. It is easy for a governing party to roll out some illustration of progress, and certainly Mr Fallon was not without fault. His words had a disturbing finality to them; balancing the budget has been tough ‘but it’s done.’ Such self-assurance loses elections. For example, the Coalition has faced sustained criticism for reducing the armed forces (82,000 by 2020), which will be impossible for the next government to reverse if required. It is also unclear whether the MoD’s stipulation of 30,000 reserves personnel will actually be achievable by the 2018 target. Despite claims during a fringe event that the British Army enjoys more ‘deployability’ than ever before, it cannot be ignored that the 2010 SDSR was an exercise in economy as much as it was about strategic restructure.
As the two parties left their conference venues for the last time, they could see the long road to polling day ahead. Defence, of course, will be a peripheral issue; key battlegrounds remain the economy, housing and the NHS. However, from a foreign policy perspective, the election will have huge implications. It will determine who undertakes the 2015 SDSR and therefore who dictates the future of Britain’s military capacity. Without concrete manifestos certainty is an absent luxury, but Labour looks more likely to cut the defence budget for a PR-friendly review. After all, without Afghanistan to consider, it may feel it can afford to take a back seat depending on how operations in Iraq develop. Conversely, a Conservative government could view its latest hardware investments as an excuse to curry favour in Washington with further global projection. If Britain is facing another decade in the Middle East, the Conservatives will have the stomach for it – the legacy of Tony Blair does not hang over their heads. Yet for all Michael Fallon’s swagger, it is ironic that Vernon Coaker was the one to promise defence reviews on a ‘statutory basis’. If only New Labour had been so conscientious.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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