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A Labour Party View of UK Defence Policy

Commentary, 18 March 2010
Defence Policy, Europe
In advance of the expected General Election in May, the Rt Hon Geoffrey Hoon MP, Secretary of State for Defence, outlined his party's policy of defence.
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I have now had the privilege of serving for five and half years as Defence Secretary. This has given me a longer term perspective than most of my predecessors.

Today, therefore, I want to take stock. To consider what has been achieved by this Labour Government. And to make clear Labour’s vision for the future.

But first, it is important to consider the context. To remember the situation we inherited when we came to office.

Defence thinking dominated by the experience of the Cold War.

Our global reputation tarnished by a lack of action in the Balkans.

We were isolated in Europe.

Major procurement projects years over time, billions over budget.

Our military demoralised by a series of defence cutbacks.

Indeed, during the period when Nicholas Soames was Minister for the Armed Forces, planned defence spending was cut by 15%.

His axe fell on the capability of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Several regiments were amalgamated. And as he conceded in this room last week, the “hoof print” of the Army in the UK was drastically reduced. Cuts all made long after the end of the Cold War – and in response to the Treasury and the disastrous economic record of the last Conservative Government.

My predecessor, George Robertson, started the process of putting things right. He established the Strategic Defence Review. A root and branch analysis, guided by our Foreign Policy objectives, rather than financial considerations.

The results of the SDR have been our blueprint. Reorganising our Armed Forces for the new challenges we face in the world. It received praise right across the world – indeed it has been imitated right across the world. And it proved beyond doubt to the public and to the military that Labour was serious about defence.

It charted and predicted many of the threats to the interest of our country, not least those created by the break-up of states and blocs at the end of the Cold War. But no-one could have predicted the carnage and destruction of September 11 2001.

It changed our world – and it required us to further update our defence policy thinking.

We should never forget that day. The ruthlessness of organised, sophisticated evil terrorists. This is what we are up against. We will stop at nothing to ensure our people and our country are properly defended.

This new and dangerous world makes it even more important for us to continue to invest in defence. Since I have been Defence Secretary there have been year on year increases in defence spending. Last year Gordon Brown announced another £3.7bn for the defence budget – adding to the longest sustained increased in defence spending for twenty years.

It has allowed us to use our Armed Services as a force for good in the world.

Intervening in Kosovo to prevent the slaughter of Muslim Albanians.

Defeating the rebels of Sierra Leone.

Promoting democracy and securing historic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In both these countries we have a defined and specific mission. And when that mission is complete we will bring our troops home - not a day later.

I cannot speak highly enough of the quality and bravery of our Armed Forces. Something I have seen for myself across the world. It is no exaggeration to say that they are the most professional in the world.

And the best Armed Forces deserve the best equipment and the best support.

We need to invest to ensure that our troops have the best new technology. To be on a par with the most advanced in the world.

Network Enabled Capability is not a fashion, as was suggested by my opposite number last week. It is the key to our defence policy.

It is essential that our troops have the equipment they need. They deserve nothing less.

And it is a completely false choice to suggest that giving our troops the best, most up to date equipment means that there will be fewer boots on the ground.

Indeed, under this Labour Government the number of trained Army personnel has increased from 101,360 in 1997 to 103,770 today. Every time the opposition prattle on about “defence cuts” or “cuts in the Army” please remember that simple fact. In 1997 there were 101,360 trained soldiers – now there are 103,770.

The changes I announced to the Army last year, backed by the strong support of the  Chiefs of Staff, mean there will be more boots on the ground, by reorganising the way we do things - ending the Arms Plot – freeing up battalions for duty.

As you all know, because of the improved security situation in Northern Ireland we have been able to reduce the number of infantry battalions needed to 36.

And at the same time we have increased the numbers and investment in support functions – logisticians, signallers, intelligence officers – that part of the Army most under pressure, with the shortest tour intervals and the most frequent deployments.
And we have set up a new unit to support our Special Forces. A vital component in our battle against international terrorism.

The changes I announced will also make life easier for families of service personnel – allowing them to put down roots in their communities – with knock on beneficial effects for retention rates and morale.
These changes are about improving our military capabilities – about improving our ability to use those forces around the world effectively.

Defence policy is one of the best examples of the successful engagement of this Labour Government in Europe.

From the new EU Battlegroups to the European Defence Agency, Britain is now leading the way, setting the agenda and delivering on our priorities. Improving European Defence capabilities. And ensuring that NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy.

The other cornerstone of our defence policy, is our nuclear deterrent. We go into this election committed to retaining it. Curiously it is not even mentioned in the Tory manifesto.

In this context we will also have to consider the question of Missile Defence. I understand that last week my opposite number professed to have forgotten his Party’s policy on the subject! Our position remains unchanged : we believe that a Missile Defence system may in time contribute to a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat from ballistic missiles – a strategy that includes non-proliferation measures, diplomacy and deterrence.  We agreed to a request from the US to upgrade the Fylingdales radar on the grounds that the overall security of the UK and NATO will ultimately be enhanced. The upgrade keeps open the possibility of acquiring missile defence capabilities for the UK should we desire such protection at some stage in the future. The US has not made any request to site interceptor missiles in the UK. Decisions on whether to take part in any missile defence system is a matter for a future Government.

I have read both the speeches made by my opposite numbers to this audience in recent weeks and I was disappointed that neither of them mentioned veterans affairs. Neither incidentally does the Conservative manifesto.

This is one of the most important areas of work in the MoD. Indeed, this Labour Government was the first to create the post of Minister for Veterans.

This Government has provided more resources for veterans affairs than ever before. Of particular note is the Heroes Return initiative, supported through the lottery, which has paid for thousands of veterans to return to the battlefields where they fought to remember fallen comrades.

As we celebrate sixty years since the end of the Second World War, veterans issues will remain at the centre of policy making under a Labour Government.

Before closing, it is important to set out what is at issue in this election campaign. In Defence, as in every other policy area, the electorate faces a choice. A strong, well thought out and consistent defence policy with Labour. Or an underfunded wishlist with the Tories.

You heard Nicholas Soames spell out his policies last week. You are all serious people. Experts in defence policy. You do not need me to tell you that his spending policies are for the birds – lacking any kind of serious or believable content.

I hope you will forgive me for setting out the Tory proposition in some detail.

Only last year, Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, made clear that he would freeze defence spending if the Tories are elected to office. This is equal to a £2.4bn cut in defence spending.

As a smokescreen to cover up the cuts, we then had the James Review. This was the Tory attempt to somehow go further than the Government’s own efficiency review, the Gershon Report. The James Review claimed that a Conservative Government could somehow find £1.6bn in efficiency savings in defence spending, on top of the £2.8bn we had already announced in the Gershon Report. They also said that another £1.1bn extra defence spending would come by diverting savings from “other Government Departments”. We have no idea which departments. I don’t think Nicholas Soames does either. The Tories claim this amounts to an extra £2.7bn for defence. Because this is greater than Letwin’s cut, they claim they would be spending more on defence than Labour.

You do not need me to tell you that there are a lot of very bright people at the MoD, both military and civilian. They have worked tirelessly to deliver the on the tough efficiency targets in the Gershon Review. Are the Conservatives seriously saying they could easily find another £1.6bn of savings? And that an unknown Permanent Secretary of some other Government Department will make cuts in his own patch to transfer £1.1bn to Defence? How many people in this room really believe any of this is possible?
Forgive me for deluging you with figures, but it is important to spell out the figures in some detail. Our spending plans are as follows. We will spend £30.9bn in 2005/06 rising to £33.3bn in 2007/08. £2.8bn of savings are built into the budget by 2007/8  - around 8% of the defence spending. An impressive sum by anyone’s standards. Civil servants and their military counterparts are working under great pressure to achieve these savings. But the Tory plans go much further – their plans are based on  efficiency savings of £5.5bn by 2005/6– effectively claiming that they will make up 16% of the defence budget from saving paperclips. It really is fantasy politics.

But the Tories have also made defence spending commitments amounting to over £2bn. If these commitments are to be met the money will have to come from somewhere. The Conservatives cannot credibly claim that this extra spending can come entirely from efficiencies. How will they balance the books having made specific commitments on ships and regiments?
It can only come from our procurement programmes.

By severely cutting our defence capability. As Nick Soames admitted last week he will have to take “difficult, non risk free decisions”.

Indeed, he had his own Howard Flight moment. Admitting that on top of the James proposals there would have to be more cuts – described euphemistically as “very chunky procurement decisions”.
Decisions that would put our existing procurement projects in jeopardy. We all know the chunks that he means.

Our aircraft carriers.

Our helicopter programme.

Typhoon aircraft.

Cuts that would weaken our efforts in the War on Terror.

This would mean that our Armed Forces would not have the best equipment. Morale would be undermined. Thousands of jobs would be lost in the British Defence industry.

Tory spending plans put our defence at risk at a critical time. Their spending plans are dishonest and dangerous.

And the Liberal Democrats cannot be counted on either.

I was amused to see that my Liberal Democrat opponent did not mention defence spending once during his speech to you. It could be argued that this was a rather significant omission!

It seems that the Lib Dems have only one clear defence policy : to buy equipment overseas and run down our defence industry.

Lord Garden has said our Aircraft Carriers should be built in the United States.

Lord Redesdale, the Lib Dem Defence spokesman, has said we do not need them at all.

In Defence, as in all policy areas, the Lib Dems try to face all ways at once. They cannot be taken seriously or trusted with our defence.

This is a vitally important moment to be debating defence policy in the United Kingdom. We face new threats. A more dangerous world than ever before.

And as I have setout today, this Labour Government has taken the difficult decisions necessary to ensure a strong defence for Britain.

Providing the resources.

Transforming our Armed Forces.

Buying the best equipment.

Securing our Alliances.

Looking after our veterans.

This work must go on. And if the British people agree – the serious work will go on.

 

 

Geoff Hoon
Geoffrey Hoon was appointed Secretary of State for Defence on 11 October 1999, as successor to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen who took up the post of Secretary General of NATO. Mr Hoon has been Member of Parliament for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire since April 1992. He served previously in the Lord Chancellor's Department as Parliamentary Secretary from May 1997, and was promoted to Minister of State there in July 1998.

He then joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in May 1999, as Minister of State with responsibility for Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa. He was made Minister for Europe on 29 July. While in Opposition, Mr Hoon held the position of Whip from 1994 until 1995, and then became a spokesman on Trade and Industry. Mr Hoon was Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Derbyshire and Ashfield from 1984 until 1994. During that time he was a member of the European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee. He was successively Chairman of the Delegations for Relations with China and the United States.

Before entering Parliament, Mr Hoon lectured in law at Leeds University from 1976 to 1982, and was Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1979 and 1980. He practised as a barrister in Nottingham between 1982 and 1984. Mr Hoon was educated at Nottingham High School and Jesus College, Cambridge. He was called to the Bar in 1978 by Gray's Inn.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

 

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