Everyone is suddenly talking about defence. Britain’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, discussed a ‘citizen’s army’. This has sparked nostalgia for National Service in some quarters (which Sanders rejected) and a more serious debate about defence spending in an uncertain world elsewhere. The prospect of a Trump presidency adds fuel to the discussion in Europe.
This week, I participated in a research workshop for a European client, building on a briefing note I wrote for them last year. I also presented on international defence procurement policy based on a paper I wrote for Prospect. I always find these discussions fascinating, as getting the countries' perspectives directly is much more helpful.
Colleagues in Poland, Estonia, Sweden and Finland have a genuine focus on the Russian threat, not to mention Putin’s not-so-little helper in Belarus. Other countries are also focused on what is happening in the Red Sea and Gaza, with the associated military and economic impact. With Pakistan and Iran kicking off as well, the Middle East risks a broader conflict, with ten countries now caught up in the fighting. For the first time, a Turkish colleague joined us, bringing another perspective to the discussion. He was more optimistic that the various players in the Middle East could reach a deal which would get the region back from the brink. Others were more sceptical that the Israeli Government would move on freezing settlements on the West Bank, an essential part of any long-term peace deal.
I pointed out that Britain’s defence spending is inflated by the fifth of the defence budget spent on nuclear weapons. If you take nuclear out of the equation, defence spending is about 1.75% of GDP, around the middle of the European league table. This means that the armed forces are struggling to keep existing equipment running. Even the Royal Navy, seen as a gainer in recent spending rounds, must decommission ships because it doesn’t have enough sailors. The Army is in even bigger trouble. When the Tories came to power in 2010, the British Army was over 100,000-strong. It is now due to fall to 72,500. Chatter about a ‘citizen’s army’ is not going to plug that gap anytime soon, and neither is the much-vaunted technology. As the Economist’s defence editor puts it, ‘Far too often, penny-pinching and short-termism have resulted in Britain buying high-end kit and then economising on the things that make it work properly.’
I was asked what a Labour Government might do – a frankly perilous speculation these days! I am impressed with Labour’s defence team’s approach, which appears to have a good grasp of the issues, including the need for procurement reform. The problem is that Rachel Reeves seems no more likely to challenge the Treasury’s short-termism, given her spending caution. Delaying expensive projects is a well-travelled Treasury route to balance the books. While Labour is comfortably ahead in the polls on most issues, they trail the Tories on defence and security by four points (YouGov poll below), although the gap is narrowing.
I suspect this reflects a traditional view that Labour is not strong on defence. In an uncertain world, this is something Labour cannot afford to be weak on. If European security worsens later this year, the risk is that voters may put this issue at the top of their list of concerns. James Rose has pitched a package of policy ideas to help Labour seize the agenda on defence that I largely agree with. These include replacing the weapons sent to Ukraine and reversing Tory cuts, laced with more traditional Labour policies on support for veterans and ending failed outsourcing. To this, I would add the proposals in my paper for Prospect on defence procurement, a concern reinforced by the Westminster Defence Committee. This package would also have economic spin-offs and would be welcomed by the defence trade unions.
There is an adage that it is the first responsibility of government in a democratic society to protect and safeguard the lives of its citizens. Labour’s leadership would do well to remember that.