The Prime Minister’s most recent and perhaps his last word on defence in the world was a plea that we engage in a national debate on the precise extent of Britain’s future military commitments.
In the tenth year of a premiership whose primary legacy will be of its military adventures, this seems an especially paradoxical exhortation. The truth is we don’t need “a national debate”. We need wide, insightful, thoughtful and visionary leadership. Our fellow Britons are willing to be inspired with a sense of vision about the nation’s role in global affairs. As in so many other fields, the Prime Minister has squandered the almost limitless fund of goodwill he had some years after his initial election.
As modern living gets ever more complicated, so modern politics seems to demand ever more simplistic sound-bites. Yet these are troubled times for our global community, requiring statesman-like leadership and foresight.
History, as ever, provides a keen sense of perspective. In 1823, the then US President James Monroe proclaimed new direction for US foreign policy whereby any European interference with the nations of the Americas would be regarded as an act of aggression. The Monroe doctrine, as it became known, was to define and inform the US’s relationship with the rest of the world for almost a century to come. Thereafter as the armies of great European empires battered themselves to submission during the second decade of the last century, President Woodrow Wilson outlined a distinctive approach to a foreign policy. He believed it was the duty of the United States to protect democracy and people’s right to self determination across the globe. Both foreign policy declarations were led by powerful US presidents with a keen eye on the international agenda and both doctrines stood the test of time.
The more recent Bush doctrine, however, will almost certainly end on 20 January 2009, the final day of his presidency. On that terrible September day a little over five years ago, the action of 19 terrorists fundamentally changed the course of world history and radically altered America’s international outlook. In its aftermath, the Bush administration unveiled a national security strategy which formalised the Bush doctrine of military pre-emption, unilateralism and the extension of democracy by means of regime change, if necessary. Yet the hasty invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which followed and the ensuing mess and destruction left in their wake have discounted the Bush doctrine to such an extent that its faint flame will be snuffed out along with the dying embers of the current administration.
For the foreseeable future the United States remains the sole economic and military superpower. Naturally with lack of a firm indication as to future US thinking in global affairs it is difficult for this country to make any prediction as to our own outlook. In many ways the most disastrous legacy of the Bush doctrine might be an inclination from the next US presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, to become much more isolationist in international affairs. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and for so long as the United States remains the only military superpower its potential unwillingness to play a primary role spells a disaster for democracy and freedom.
One unintended consequence of the Bush doctrine has been the rapid push towards nuclear proliferation. In the aftermath of 9/11 the decision to wage war on the then Afghani and Iraqi governments, whilst turning a blind eye to the antics of North Korea, gave the clearest possible indication to Third World dictators that the possession of nuclear weapons or material would bring with it immunity from regime change. Small wonder that Iran has escalated its nuclear programme so swiftly. Somewhat closer to home the focus for our own armed services must, I believe, concentrate upon a wide ranging and extensive peace-keeping role, ideally under the umbrella of the international community. In addition there will inevitably be need for our army, in particular, to focus on fighting insurgence in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
I come from a military family. My father served in the army, my grandfather in the RAF and various other relatives have served professionally (outside war time) in the armed forces. However, like the overwhelming majority of MPs, I have no personal military experience. It’s all a great contrast to the experience that all of us have here in many other spheres of public life the majority of parliamentarians have spent a decade and a half as products of the education system, which at the very least at tertiary level has been state run. Similarly all of us have, at some time or another, used the National Health Service. Hundreds of us have served as local councillors and therefore have ? or at least should have ? more than a passing understanding of the critical day-to-day importance of local government.
When Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of our Armed Forces in the Middle East, spoke out in desperation at the overstretch experienced by our armed forces and their lack of equipment, he raised a vital issue. It is almost unheard of for a serving military official to criticise politicians in this way and I know from speaking with Sir Richard directly that he did so out of sheer desperation. Certainly if such overstretch or failure to provide proper equipment was taking place in our hospitals or schools it would have become a national scandal in double-quick time. No doubt scores of MPs from all parties and all over the UK as well as countless lobbyists and other campaigning professionals would have been banging their drums. Somehow it always seems a little less glamorous to spend tax receipts on our army, navy or air-force.
The total strength of all our armed services now is around 200,000 a mere fraction of the 1.3 million who work in the National Health Service. Similar numbers of teachers, lecturers and educationalists work in the predominantly state-run education system.
The overall man-power strength of our army is down from over 300,000 in 1960 to just 108,000 last year. Our Royal Navy which performed logistical heroics a near quarter of a century ago in the Falkland Islands would simply be unable to contemplate such an expedition today.
Today’s army is under-equipped, poorly-housed and under-paid. Yet never has there apparently been less public interest in military affairs, not withstanding the fact that for the past five years we have been at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq and before that in Kosovo. Over 200 British military personnel have died these theatres of war. Seemingly limitless amounts of public money can be found and wasted ? on the National Health Service or in education. Yet unless there is to be a massive scaling down of British commitments across the globe, the regular army is seriously undermanned and as a result there is insufficient time between operational tours for training and family life.
To a large extent the population at large takes for granted the amazing work of our armed forces, particularly in high profile conflicts or difficult peace-keeping roles across the globe. It is a hackneyed phrase to refer to Britain being the ‘envy of the world’. I suspect our financial services industry and the best of our creative industries still deserve that accolade. Without doubt in my mind it also applies to the work of our armed forces. Ultimately whether the resources are there or not British people can always rely upon the military to get on and do the job. I appreciate that this is not an issue simply about funds there is clearly a need for a major rethink in defence procurement, but it is truly disgraceful that we expect many of our young men and women to put their lives at risk without the proper equipment.
Like many this side of the House who believe in a minimalist government, I also contend that this country should place its military expenditure as a top priority. If that requires making cutbacks in the already heavily funded public services then so be it.
Of course we shall have the opportunity to debate in the House the need to modernise and replace our Trident nuclear missile system. I must confess I am increasingly persuaded of the view that the £25 billion cost and more of Trident. Replacement over the next decade or so results in a greater diversion for public money from the armed forces’ real needs. We need to look at all this afresh. Surely we need to prioritise conventional military expenditure even the expense of investment in the nuclear deterrent?
Overstretch applies not only to regulars but also to the Territorial Army. Speaking with experts in the field it is clear that the TA is being expected to undertake a much more prominent role than should be the case. Systematic cuts in the 1990s first through Options For Change under the Conservatives, which with hindsight now seems rather optimistically misguided as we sought a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War alongside the need to keep a firm rein on public expenditure at that time. But this government also was responsible for a forty per cent cut in the Territorial Army budget within a year of its taking office. Yet at the same time we’ve had to call upon it to plug gaps in the regular army to an unsustainable extent. Frankly you can only call up the TA to serve with the regular army once. The government never calls up the same people a second time round and understandably neither employers nor families will tolerate continued TA membership and this very valuable resource will cease to exist.
Immediately, I believe the Minister of Defence will soon come to the point of deciding whether for practical purposes we can feasibly stay in Iraq as well as performing our substantial commitments in Afghanistan. Evidently there are important political considerations to be involved in any potential withdrawal ? the demands within our Armed Forces have reached breaking point.
In the medium term I believe there is a role in the international community that we cannot simply walk away from. Peacekeeping commitments are likely to become ever more complex and widespread. That means we need to recruit more soldiers which we can only achieve by greatly increasing the financial and other support that we give the army.
The problem of overstretch is apparent to many who know far more than me in this area and that all began during the course of the last Conservative government. Nevertheless today’s Ministry of Defence needs to act and act fast. Above all, I am convinced that the crucial work that our armed forces do on our behalf earns them the right to be treated differently. Our armed services cannot be run like any other government department. They deserve our unqualified support and in taking on ever-increasing commitments they must receive commensurate resources.