Article on Labourlist by Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP
Over the weekend I attended my first ever Lib Dem conference. Don’t worry, I went because I was invited by the Fabians to speak at a fringe meeting on challenging populism. Despite the obvious irony of a party that has delivered little other than shallow populism, I enjoyed the event.
Today the Lib Dem conference gathers to discuss defence. The strategy of simultaneously taking credit for and distancing themselves from the record of the Government of which they are a part is in full swing. The country will be as confused as they will be contemptuous. Seeking credit for solutions to problems which they helped create is a limited political strategy to say the least, and one that is brutally exposed on examination of Lib Dem defence proposals.
Labour has long argued about the dangers of the Government’s defence cuts delivered in the 2010 Defence Review, when Lid Dem Nick Harvey was No. 2 to the then Defence Secretary. This left us with aircraft carriers bereft of aircraft, a gap in maritime surveillance and allowances for frontline personnel slashed. In 2010 Nick Clegg said these decisions would “make Britain secure in the long run”. Now, in an extraordinary admission, his party proclaims in its conference policy statement on defence, ‘Defending the Future, UK Defence in the 21st Century’, that capability gaps “present a significant military risk, diminishing the UK in the view of both allies and potential adversaries.”
Many will have read about the growing unrest over the Government’s plan to make 20,000 soldiers redundant and the problems in trying to fill the personnel gap with reserves. Not only is this changing capability but the planned rise in number of reservists has been hit by a recruitment crisis and the redundancies carry on regardless, meaning the Army faces a potentially significant shortfall in personnel. Despite signing up to this policy in 2010, the Lib Dems now say “the government’s current plans have not been sufficiently well thought through…To cut the number of regulars before recruiting and training sufficient reservists is not the best approach”, echoing the criticism Labour has levelled for the past year.
A primary plank of the Government’s claim to credibility on defence is having brought budgetary stability to the MoD. Labour has supported elements of this, for example ten-year planning cycles, but highlighted real worries, for example that equipment spending may come at the expense of greater cuts to the Army and the damning assessment of the National Audit Office that, despite claims otherwise, the defence budget is not in balance. Making matters worse, the Lib Dems have now highlighted a “£12.5bn gap in the equipment procurement budget between around 2018 and 2032” and stated that Government spending plans still do “not address the anticipated MoD spending bulge around 2020”.
Going even further, the Lib Dems highlight their concern over the very same welfare issues that Labour have been fighting on, for example support for veterans, and say this has “compounded by anxiety about cuts in the numbers of service personnel, including redundancies very shortly before due retirement dates.”
In summary, the Coalition Government’s defence policy – according to one half of the Coalition – is characterised by capability gaps, risk over Army numbers, a multi-billion blackhole in defence equipment spending and anxiety amongst service personnel.
To address this, the Lib Dems propose not radical reform but limp retreat: “As a middle-ranking power, the UK cannot aspire to full-spectrum capabilities that would permit unilateral action around the globe”. Of course war weariness, unavoidable financial constraint and security threats growing in number and complexity place unprecedented burdens on the UK defence budget and strategy, but ambition, foresight and creativity are required rather than a limiting of our global role.
Policy propositions speak volumes, so let’s look at the Lib Dem’s on a central issue to UK defence – the nuclear deterrent. They propose to “end Continuous At-Sea nuclear patrols” with a “declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles”. Not only, therefore, do the Lib Dems want our nuclear submarines to be part time, but when they are at sea they want to tell the world that they will be impotent, practically eradicating any deterrent effect for what in truth would be a minimimal saving. Labour’s view is that our deterrence policy must keep us on the path of multilateral disarmament, but the Lib Dems’ policy is laughable. Only the Lib Dems could get in to government, commission a study in to alternatives to Trident and then choose an option that was not even looked at by the commission because it was not deemed serious enough.
The defence and protection of UK national citizens and interests at home and around the globe is the primary duty of government and any party which aspires to govern. The Lib Dems’ demolition of their own record on defence and the incredibility of their policy propositions shows they have a long way to go.