Friday, 22 November 2013

Ring-fence Defence of the Realm

Of all areas of Government spending, defence is the one area that suffered during the years of Labour mismanagement.  Despite fighting two wars at once, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Government continued on a peacetime budget, stretched our armed forces to breaking point and failed to honour the military covenant.  This disastrous approach led to the defeat in Basra and the British public’s dramatic change in its view of foreign intervention – whereas once most of the public saw Britain as a force for good when it intervened militarily abroad, after Blair’s foreign adventures, the public no longer seems to believe that we will intervene for the right reasons or make things better when we do intervene.

Whether this failure by the Exchequer to fund our forces in the frontline had anything to do with the Chancellor’s hostility to a prime minister so keen on exercising the Royal Prerogative to send our troops abroad and as a means of spiting his political rival cannot be proved.  In all other areas of public expenditure Gordon Brown was profligate in his spending of taxpayers’ money and government debt.

With the election of the Coalition Government we have seen drastic defence cuts as part of an overall policy of reducing the large deficit incurred by Labour.  Sadly, as defence saw serious under-funding during the Labour years this means that in effect the defence budget is being hit harder than other budgets, particularly the NHS, which saw lavish spending under Labour.

Of course with our aging population there is a strong case that the NHS should be exempt from spending cuts.  On the other hand, with recent scandals in the NHS it is also clear that spending large amounts of money on the health service does not necessarily ensure a better service for the patient.  Of course, it does expand the number of people working in the public sector, who thereby need government expenditure to remain high to keep them in work.

There is something slightly difficult in trying to justify why departments that did very well out of Labour should receive special treatment when defence is in real terms being hardest hit.  While defence expenditure is not a means of creating or protecting employment, it is very troubling to see those who have risked their lives for us being made redundant.  With regard to the impact of cuts on dockyards such as Portsmouth, while it cannot be argued that money should simply be spent to keep the workforce in work, it can be argued that it is not in the national interest to lose skills that may be necessary in the future.

Meanwhile, the undoubtedly politically-courageous policy of ring-fencing international aid has been zealously adhered to.  It is a courageous policy because it would clearly be very unpopular in a recession to spend taxpayers’ money on poverty abroad rather than at home.

Of course the British public are rightly generous when emergencies such as the recent disaster in the Philippines occur.  Indeed it is right that in such an exigent situation Government money is spent as a means of relieving the suffering of our fellow humans.  That is not the sort of international aid that the British public distrust.  They rather distrust regular payments of their tax money to countries with expanding economies and corrupt governments.  One would have to move in very rarefied circles indeed to believe that such a policy would be popular.

Ring-fencing international aid was therefore no election gimmick.  It is rather a clear foreign policy, which aims to influence by so-called soft power and to head off problems such as anti-Western terrorism by paying money to countries that dislike us.

The British public has less reservation about defence expenditure and the reason is perhaps that
defence of the realm is the first duty of the State.  It is a public good, which cannot be provided by private companies for profit.  It works as a result of an altruistic concept of patriotism. 

It is unlike other public services in that it is not about delivering a service to each of us as individuals, but all of us as a nation.  It cannot therefore benefit from an internal market, whereas other public services can often learn from some aspects of the market.

Defence expenditure is paying for an insurance policy against unforeseen threats.  While the Government no doubt identified important new threats through its strategic defence review, when threats become manifest they have often been unforeseen.  Would we have necessarily forecast the invasion of the Falklands as a threat, when we were more worried about a nuclear Soviet Union?  Would we have foreseen the threat of Islamism?  Judging by the State’s tolerance of Islamic extremists who fomented discontent, hatred and sedition in the 1990s, probably not.

So while it is regrettable to see such a drastic reduction in our professional armed forces (with the Army shrinking by 20,000 men) and a planned reliance on the amateur (in the best sense of the word) element of the TA, it is also worrying.  With Ship-building ceasing at Portsmouth, no aircraft carriers until 2030 and the cutting back of regiments such as the Royal Fusiliers, Britain seems to have embarked on a change in its historic role that has even worried the United States.  This could be as serious a turning point as our withdrawal from the East of the Suez Canal.

The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, is an honourable politician.  For example, unlike many politicians, he took a principled stand on the issue of same-sex marriage.  One of his greatest skills is his business acumen.  It is important that he remembers though, that the Armed Forces do not operate like a business, but according to older values.  Cost-cutting is necessary across departments, but defence is the department that should be cut least.  Changing Britain’s world role must be about our national interest and values, not just the bottom line.  


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