In search of the Royal Navy’s political friends (Part 1: the mainstream parties)

The general election due in May this year promises to be a tight contest and the result is unusually difficult to predict. Whatever the complexion of the new administration a defence review will be conducted in October that will be critical for the future of the RN and the security of the nation. The rise of UKIP and the SNP have altered the political landscape and may decide which of the major parties takes power. Labour’s traditional Scottish strongholds look set to be devastated by the SNP and the UKIP support in England threatens the Tories. These minority parties could then have significant influence on defence planning. UKIP being broadly pro-defence spending while the SNP is virulently anti-Trident and inconsistent and parochial on other defence issues. Against a backdrop of extreme turbulence in world affairs and to the discomfort of all the major parties, defence spending is rapidly becoming an election issue, something that has not been the case since the end of the Cold War. A growing number of MPs have recognised the complacent assumption “there are no votes in defence” is no longer true and a cross-party group of 37 mostly Tory MPs passed a motion on 12th March that “defence spending should be set to a minimum of 2% of GDP”.

Conservative Party

The badly botched defence review of 2010 still casts a long shadow over any analysis of the Tories record on defence. Hasty and lacking strategic direction, it seriously damaged the Royal Navy in particular. In June 2010 David Cameron stood on the deck of HMS Ark Royal and proclaimed his gratitude and “huge pride in the navy” then in October 2010 axed Ark Royal along with a swathe of ships and personnel. Trust in Tory defence promises has never really recovered. If there had been some honesty, admitting we had to significantly reduce defence capability for financial reasons instead of maintaining the lie that in spite of cuts “we will retain the full spectrum of capabilities” some credibility could have been maintained. Had it not been for BAE wisely locking the MoD into unbreakable construction contracts, the QE class carriers would also have been axed in 2010, carriers which are now central to claims by the Tories of their commitment to the navy.

The previous government undoubtedly left a financial and managerial mess at the MoD and some credit should go to Philip Hammond who at least brought some stability to defence management during his tenure as defence secretary. The NAO states MoD cost over-runs and delays have been significantly reduced and the figures for 2014 are the best since 2001.


Under the coalition government defence spending has fallen, although the new equipment programme has continued pretty much as planned by Labour. The result is not just a smaller navy, but a hollowed out force short of people, spares and ammunition. Decisions on the Type 26 programme and the Trident successor submarines have been unnecessarily delayed but at least are progressing.

In theory strong support for the navy should be a natural fit for “the party of defence” committed to trade-led growth and international partnerships. Sources within the RN suggest David Cameron has become slightly more enlightened and privately supportive of the navy’s case during his time in office but is hamstrung by a Chancellor determined drive down public spending while courting popularity through ring-fencing the NHS, education and overseas aid budgets. Having lectured Europeans on raising defence spending to the NATO “2% minimum”, Cameron is now indulging in creative accounting to include war pensions and even the security service budgets to make it appear the UK will meet that target. Such futile deceptions simply add to the evidence that the Tories are untrustworthy.

Precious few MPs who do not have related constituency interests have bothered to make defence issues their business but of those that have, the vast majority are Tories. The MPs Julian Lewis, James Arbuthnot, Rory Stewart and Tobias Elwood are examples of Tory MPs who can be considered as properly informed friends of the Navy. Portsmouth North MP, Penny Mourdant is a colourful character and a naval reservist who has championed the Navy in Parliament. Sir Peter Luff served as a junior defence minister in this parliament (but is retiring). He has had to tow the partly line but has been willing to engage in sensible debate about the Navy and, like several Tory MPs is clearly unhappy about the state of the RN.

Of around 50 MPs in this parliament who have served in the forces or reserves, the vast majority are former Army officers with just 4 MPs from an RN background and even less for the RAF. The same is true in the mainstream media where defence reporting is dominated by former soldiers. Unsurprising there is much more media coverage and debate about cuts to the Army than the Navy.

So far there has been a refusal to commit a future Tory government to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. At the time of the 2010 SDSR the Tories promised 1% annual increase in the equipment budget from 2015 but it is unclear if even this will be honoured. Many of the cuts made in 2010 were reluctantly accepted by the services on the Tory promise that there would be many more resources available after 2015.

So if the Tories are re-elected we can expect more of the same or worse. Without additional funds there will be an increasing gap between promises and reality.

Although there is some ‘headroom’ in the 10 year, £163Bn budget, the cost of the Trident successor submarines and proper manning and equipping of the two carriers has not been fully accounted for.

 

Labour PartyWhether you believe in the Tory claim of a “£38Bn blackhole in the defence budget” left by Labour or not, what is certain is that The Blair and Brown governments left a legacy of profligate incompetence at the MoD. Labour presided over the procurement debacles of the Nimrod MRA4, Voyager Tanker, FRES Army vehicles, Type 45 destroyers and the Astute submarine programmes as well as a deliberate cost-inducing delay to the carrier project. Billions of pounds of tax payer’s money allocated for our defence has been carelessly wasted with no one held accountable.

Mismanagement both by politicians (Labour in particular) and the MoD has arguably been a bigger contributor to the poor state of UK defence than simply lack of funding.

Labour’s 1998 defence review was thorough and sensible with a maritime focus and committed to building the carriers. Unfortunately it was never resourced properly. Blair indulged in foreign military interventions but funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by raiding the defence equipment budget. In a time of economic prosperity Labour indulged in a huge spending binge on Health, Education and Welfare but provided no new money for defence.

Finding Labour MPs who fully understand the navy or even defence in general is difficult. Birmingham MP, Gisela Stuart is probably the best long-term advocate while Labour’s shadow defence minister, Kevan Jones has had a long, but controversial involvement in defence issues. In the House of Lords, Labour peer Admiral Lord West has used every opportunity to forcefully make the Navy’s case in Parliament and the general media.

Labour politicians instinctively want to spend more than cut but their dismal track record of mismanagement means prior to the election they are trying hard to stick to spending limits and offer costed policies. When pressed, Labour will also not commit to the 2% GDP minimum if elected and promises simply to “review every pound spent in defence”. A Labour chancellor may be more willing to increase defence spending but whether this will actually efficiently deliver to the fontline is questionable. The issue of the nuclear deterrent has always divided the party and although Labour is officially committed to replacing Trident, there is a strong suspicion that it may not follow through. A true test of Labour integrity will come if it has the opportunity to take power in a deal with the SNP who may demand the scrapping of Trident.

 

Liberal DemocratsWhether the Lib Dems will still be a ‘mainstream’ party after the election remains to be seen as they are now consistently polling 4th, well behind UKIP. Their pronouncements on defence may soon be as irrelevant as their contributions to defence policy making in this parliament. Ideologically committed to the abolition of the nuclear deterrent but forced into compromise in coalition, they have ordered yet more futile studies into cheaper alternatives to four-submarine CASD (Continuous at Sea Deterrence). All independent studies have concluded there is no cheaper or better credible option.

The Lib Dems are committed to a half-baked policy of  3 submarines that only conduct deterrent patrols at times of international tension.

In 2013 the Lib Dems adopted a policy stating “we needed to reassess the UK’s place in the world and the military capabilities to enable us to achieve it”. Strategy-driven defence policy is sorely needed and the other parties have often forgotten this or cobbled together a ‘strategy’ as an after-thought to Treasury-driven cuts. Like Labour, the Lib Dems want a very extensive defence review in 2015 but have not committed to their own spending targets.

Other than their anti-nuclear stance, the Lib Dems are not known for great passion or contributions to the defence debate. Over the years there have been some exceptions such as Menzies Campbell and Former Royal Marine, Paddy Ashdown. Nick Harvey served well as Armed Forces minister in this Parliament and does not accept his party line on CASD. Nick Clegg has rightly said the Tories “must come clean on defence spending, they cannot shrink the state and also somehow pretend that they can fund everything in sight”.