Memo from the Prime Minister: UK Defence status quo is not an option

Every generation or so, the British prime minister is faced with a decisive choice over the direction which the UK should take in world affairs.  This time round, economic restraints will also contribute to a fundamental reassessment of grand strategy and defence policy. However, reassessment need not mean retreat and we must maintain an ability to deter so our allies and potential rivals will listen. 

By Bernard Jenkin MP for

How should the Strategic Defence and Security Review be conducted?  Here is the policy advice I gave to the Conservative Leadership before the election.  It is in the form of a memorandum which the new Prime Minister might have given to the Cabinet Secretary a few days after walking into Number 10. 

Every generation or so, the British prime minister is faced with a decisive choice over the direction which the UK should take in world affairs.  In 1940 Churchill turned his face decisively against a negotiated settlement with the Nazis; in the 1960s Harold Wilson decided to withdraw from east of Suez; while in 1982, Margaret Thatcher made the decision to stand and fight over the Falklands, thereby ending years of British decline in foreign affairs.  Tony Blair followed the US into the Balkans, and coined the term 'humanitarian interventionism'.  With an annual budget deficit of £155bn, David Cameron and his new administration is confronted with just such a choice. 

Debt control has to be the new government's 'main effort', so defence will have to accept limitations, but this does not mean that the Government cannot plan for what sort of country we wish to be, in say, 2020.  Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 in the middle of another, admittedly less severe, fiscal crisis.  Her Government increased defence spending by nearly 30 per cent in 6 years (0.9 per cent of GDP).  If the UK is not to become ever more vulnerable, then Mr Cameron can and must ensure that resources match his policy.

Defence reviews over the years have always been constrained by the costs of defence.  Harold Wilson was forced to withdraw from east of Suez in 1967 following Sterling's devaluation.  John Nott's infamous 'Bermudagram' of 1981, which would have restricted the UK solely to a north Atlantic role in the Cold War, was driven by what he thought we could afford.  The 1998 Strategic Defence Review, widely praised for its inclusive nature and robust conclusions, but rapidly dated in the wake of 9/11, was never fully funded.  None of the post-war reviews, however, has been launched in such difficult financial and international circumstances as today. 

Defence will need to carry the support of the Foreign Office, Department for International Development and (not least) the Treasury about how the UK secures our safety, security and prosperity, and how best to articulate the country's national interests for the next generation.

The defence status quo is not an option.  Commitments and resources have been increasingly misaligned since 2001.  The Armed Forces have operated outside the SDR planning assumptions for ten years.  Professor Chalmers' recent paper for RUSI, Capability Cost Trend: Implications for the Defence Review, has suggested that even if defence spending rises only with inflation, then capability cuts of 8.5 per cent are likely to occur over the course of the next Parliament.  If cuts of 10 per cent are imposed on MoD, then capability cuts could be doubled. 

A 'radical reassessment', as suggested in RUSI's recent British Defence and Security Survey, seems inevitable, with retrenchment being the most likely outcome of such a reassessment.  However, retrenchment and loss of influence is not in the UK's long-term interests.  Reassessment need not mean retreat and we must maintain an ability to deter so our allies and potential rivals will listen. 

Simply having more of everything, however, is not only unaffordable but would also fail to address the incoherence of UK grand strategy which has plagued British defence policy since the end of the Cold War.  A radical reassessment of who actually does UK strategy is required in order to decide what the rational priorities of defence policy should be: what threats and conflicts the UK needs to be able to deter or counter; what capabilities we need to maintain to do so; and how we can better utilise assets we can afford.  We will have to rely even more on our people - our skills and our technology - to be the force multiplier.  We must learn to carry a smaller inventory of standing capability and high-cost equipment on standby, while maintaining a defence industry capable of producing the best defence equipment and material at shorter notice.   

A Memo to the Cabinet Secretary from the Prime Minister
Click here to download and read how the Prime Minister could establish the terms of reference for the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex, was Shadow Defence Secretary 2001-03, and on the House of Commons Defence Committee (2007-10)

The views expressed above here are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.


Explore our related content