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The government’s decision to call off the multi-year Comprehensive Spending Review, announced on 21 October, has left the future of the Integrated Review uncertain and senior defence leaders very frustrated. There is now little prospect of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) getting the medium-term financial settlement which it needs to drive through the transformation in the UK's defences which it has championed for the last several years. Instead, it faces another year of planning blight, with all the associated delays and wasted resources that this entails.
Nor can we assume that there will be a Comprehensive Spending Review, along with a resuscitated Integrated Review, in 2021. After the 2008 financial crisis, two years elapsed before the austerity-driven 2010 Spending Review and accompanying Strategic Defence and Security Review were completed. It could take just as long before the Treasury is able to fully assess the damage done to the country’s finances by the coronavirus crisis. The MoD, along with most other spending departments (apart from health and schools), could be in for a long wait.
Yet the Integrated Review was never only about agreeing a new set of defence priorities. Much of the discussion over recent months, repeatedly highlighted in extensive consultations with external experts, has centred on the need for a new vision for British foreign policy. Although the British people decided to leave the EU more than four years ago, ministers have still not made a clear policy statement on how they see the UK's role in the world once Brexit is completed. Without an assured financial underpinning, such a document would inevitably be high-level in some respects, especially in relation to resource prioritisation. But it could still provide clear guidance and direction on foreign, security and defence policy issues that are not primarily about money. These could include, but would not be limited to, the UK's relations with its key allies in the US and Europe, the reasoning behind the much-trailed ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, the importance the UK attaches to tackling the global climate emergency, and how it plans to respond to the challenges of great power competition, most notably in relation to Russia and China.
The document could set a seal of approval on key aspects of the now-stalled Integrated Review process, while leaving others – those involving longer-term finance – in abeyance for now. To avoid confusion, it might be best not to label this document an ‘Integrated Review’. Possible alternatives might include ‘The UK's Foreign Policy Vision’, or even simply ‘The UK in the World’.
It makes no sense to publish such a paper in November. The decision to publish the Integrated Review in November never made geopolitical sense, situated as it would have been at the start of the presidential interregnum in the US and near the end of the UK’s hard-fought negotiations with the EU on their future relationship. The only reason for November publication was programmatic, namely the need to ensure that the Integrated Review’s commitments were fully funded.
That rationale has now gone. It therefore makes sense for the Integrated Review to be replaced with a ‘UK in the World’ paper, to be published in spring or summer 2021. This new timetable would allow the UK to take proper account of where the US is heading under a Democratic leadership, or (just possibly) the need to assess the implications for the Western alliance of a second Trump term. It would also provide a platform for the government to explain its vision on future relations with its European neighbours, with particular reference to foreign, security and defence cooperation.
The next full Integrated Review might not be until the autumn of 2022. The country needs a clear statement of how ministers see the UK’s role in the world well before then.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.