One can sympathise with Liam Fox, shadow secretary of state for defence. Speaking to the think-tank First Defence on Tuesday night in what was billed a keynote speech on defence overstretch, he complained that keeping defence issues in the forefront has not been an easy task in a political environment increasingly obsessed with personality and trivia.
He could have been making a prediction as the only newspaper to cover his speech in any depth at all was The Scotsman.
Even the threat of global terrorism does not seem to have shaken some out of their complacency about our future security, he adds, declaring that it was essential "that we keep defence and security issues up the political agenda". That, he said, "is my task in the coming months".
He illustrated the nature of the problem "with a few facts and a quote". For the facts, this year we will spend only 2.2 percent of our GDP on defence. This is the smallest proportion of our national wealth that we have spent on defending our country since 1930.
By the time we finish the new Wembley Stadium, we will be able to seat the ranks of the whole of the British army inside it. The Royal Navy will be smaller than the French navy. And the RAF Museum at Hendon will have more attack aircraft than the RAF does now.
Then the quote:
A strong defence capability is an essential part of Britain’s foreign policy … By 1999 defence spending will have fallen to 2.6 percent of GDP … The people who have had to bear the burden of these cuts are our servicemen and women, overstretched and under strength as never before. The strain on our Armed Forces is huge. We have a continuing commitment in Northern Ireland. Our forces operate in the Gulf, the Balkans, Africa, the Falklands, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Germany and other parts of the world all at once.This was Tony Blair in February ’97, in full pre-election flow.
From the same Tony Blair in government, Fox noted, we have had further commitments overseas in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan with cuts in our armed forces of almost 40,000; the Army down 9,000, the Royal Navy down 10,000 and the RAF down 16,000.
In common with this blog, Fox then observed that there is little focus on Labour’s neglect of our defence forces. "The lack of general debate about defence and security policy – rather than domestic affairs – is doubly strange", he says, "given the varied locations in which British troops are currently serving."
Therefore, Fox argues, there is an urgent debate for this country to have: "Do we reduce our commitments to match the size of our defence budget or do we increase our defence budget to match our commitments?"
Part of the problem, he adds, "is that there is little strategic thinking about our foreign policy and so our defence policy has constantly to play catch up to overseas commitments that respond to the latest summit. An ad hoc foreign policy based on the latest summit communiqué is no basis for a sound defence policy for the United Kingdom." He then tells us:
Under David Cameron’s leadership William Hague and I are determined that the Conservatives will have a properly integrated foreign and defence review so that the size and shape of our armed forces will properly reflect the strategic interests and defence requirements of this country. That is what our policy group on national and international security, and the work we will do once it reports, is designed to do.He concludes that:
…we are weakened by the fact that the current Labour Government does not have a coherent foreign and defence strategy. With an increasingly threatening international environment the response of Blair and Brown has been to spend the smallest share of GDP on defence since 1930, cut the size of the army, navy and airforce while overstretching our service men and women, their families and their equipment. And if Blair and New Labour have failed our service personnel so they have failed this country. As Tony Blair himself once said "Britain deserves better". At least he got something right.Clearly, Britain does deserve better and, equally – as we have observed before - we really do need that debate.