Picture credit: The MOD twitter feed
Despite its relative lack of salience as a motivating issue for voters there is an interesting discussion to be had on how a Corbynite Labour party can use defence policy to attack the Conservatives in an area of perceived strength.
The last few decades of British defence policy have been characterised by constant out-of-area and expeditionary deployments that have been hindered by massive personnel reductions and scandalously poor procurement and program management. At some point the delusion will no longer hold and UK defence policy will have to reflect reality rather than aspiration. Which of the two major parties will be able to supply sufficient vision to implement the necessary changes?
DISHONEST OR STUPID: THE CHOICE IS YOURS
An examination of the defence policies manifestos that the two major parties prepared for the 2017 General Election reveals two similarly brief offerings. One is deceptive to the point of dishonesty and the other is merely lackwittedly ignorant.
The Conservative offering is platform focused, a vulnerability to which we’ll return, as it is largely a list of hardware that the government has bought, is buying and will continue to buy with taxpayers’ money. It also displays a certain amount of creative ambiguity when it comes to future intentions. For example, the Astute submarine program will be ‘completed’ but there is no commitment to the full seven boats so completion can be artfully redefined as six boats should necessity dictate. This type of misleading language reveals less about the actuality of Conservative defence policy than it does about their cynical assessment of the average voter’s analytical capacity.
Now picture the scene inside Labour party HQ in April 2017. May has just called the Election That Never Wasn’t and a policy platform must be hastily assembled. Some junior wonk with Ronnie Corbett glasses and a W.G. Grace beard has been charged with writing the defence policy. He is still shaking from last night’s cocktails and he thinks he might have tweeted something about Jews while he was drunk. He has fifteen minutes to draft a defence policy or Seumas will know why. The result is a puerile blend of platitudes about the UN and peacekeeping combined with some hastily assembled facts from Wikipedia with which to bludgeon the Conservatives.
Despite the utter and manifold failures of Conservative defence policy from 2010 onwards the Labour manifesto chooses to highlight the withdrawal from service of the Harrier and Ark Royal. These decisions were taken seven years ago in the 2010 SDSR and there is no examination of why these decisions were poor or any offer of a competing vision. Like the Conservatives the statement is platform focused as if that were the most important consideration of defence policy.
CONSTRAINED BY THE CORE
The Conservatives have a defence policy problem. Their core vote expects to have their dessicated pleasure centres of nationalism and martial reverence stimulated by the long pale finger of Williamson. This means areas of defence that actually have a negative effect on the nation’s military capabilities, Red Arrows – I am looking at you, are untouchable lest the bowls clubs, WIs and golf courses of Middle England combust with Daily Mail directed incendiary rage.
Since the end of World War 2 every Conservative government, with the notable exception of Sir Edward Richard George Heath KG, MBE, has left office with lower defence spending as a proportion of GDP than it inherited. So while the Conservatives have a marvellous track record of slashing defence spending they are politically, culturally and organisationally incapable of making the types of radical and imaginative changes the country needs.
THE STRATAGEM OF THE CENTRAL POSITION
The contemporary Labour party periodically moves between three positions on defence policy. These are: disinterest, embarrassment and internecine conflict over nuclear weapons. Despite the longstanding ambivalence of the Absolute Boy toward the Absolute Bomb I believe that Labour will enter the next General Election campaign with a policy of replacing Trident. There a few good reasons for this but principal among these is pragmatism; the program will simply be too far advanced to cancel by 2022.
In the past week alone the government issued a $126m contract for long lead items relating to the Dreadnought boat missile compartment to General Dynamics in Rhode Island. By the time of the next election a great deal more money will have been irrevocably spent eliminating cancellation as a realistic option.
Labour could seize the initiative on defence policy by pivoting away from the usual technocratic arguments about hardware and, instead, adopt a strategy that focuses on the armed forces’ most precious and most mismanaged asset: the people.
For decades defence procurement policy has been subordinated to a strategy of centrally managed industrial welfare. My expectation that Labour would be able to break this cycle of dependency on work creation schemes is nugatory. However, a Labour defence policy that put people at the centre could be relevant and compelling.
DO LESS WITH MORE
Here are some worthy ideas worthy of consideration in the Corbyn government’s first defence white paper.
The most important and central plank of the new policy should be to face reality and reverse the now decades old doctrine of doing more with less. The focus of the UK forces should be overwhelmingly on the North Atlantic, the GIUK gap and the British Isles. Call it the East of Skegness Policy. British forces have been in more or less constant combat in the Middle East for 26 years. It is now safe to conclude that whatever it is that we are doing there isn’t improving the situation and that we should stop. This strategic pivot would end long out of area deployments and thus greatly improve morale and retention.
The armed forces are a large and complex organisation that increasingly requires many technical specialists. They are constrained into to recruiting into exactly two positions: apprentices and management trainees. Every other vacancy must be filled by internal recruitment. Recruitment and retention should be aided by improving pay, housing and other similar issues. The retention problem is particularly grave once officers hit the OF-3 or OF-4 level in their late 30s or early 40s. The forces lose a lot of potential senior talent at this level so consideration should be giving to allowing people to move in and out of reserve status with relative ease to get some of them back.
All three services should be much better integrated with the creation of ‘purple’ uniform posts such as medics or other specialists who can move between combat arms during the course of their career. A United Kingdom Defence Force with a single administrative spine should be the ultimate goal.
The final strand of the defence policy should be the treatment of veterans. This doesn’t mean poppies or charities or similar facile nostrums. It should consist of a thorough and structured program to prepare, emotionally and professionally, every servicewoman and man for life after the forces.
As the young people who end up killed, maimed or mentally damaged are overwhelming working class from the more deprived areas of the United Kingdom this is the sort of class issue that Corbyn could sell with energy and authenticity.
Dura Ace is a PB regular and served as a Fleet Air Arm officer for 20 years