Now that Governments of all hues leak like sieves, it was just a matter of time before the truth (which this Government abhors and avoids like the very plague) came out. Thus a piece by Robert Fox effectively confirms much of what Defence of The Realm had to say about him, that whatever may lurk in the undergrowth of his past, he was at least a successful businessman who had tried but, faced with entrenched and insuperable problems, failed to bring order to the disaster area which the defence procurement brief at the MoD had become and therefore elected to make better use of his energies. Taken together with the observations of General the Lord Guthrie to which I adverted on Wednesday, we can now properly say that it is a matter of considerable regret that Drayson has gone off to more playboy fripperies such as motor racing. What is more alarming is that into this mess has been pitched a failed politician from the early to mid-Blair years, Ann Taylor (now lady Taylor) who, though she first held office under Jim Callaghan, has never run a spending ministry, having served only as a whip or as Leader of the House of Commons. It may be, therefore, that we should begin to look more carefully at the circumstances which have allowed the appalling state of affairs which defence procurement has now become and where responsibility for that lies. So why not let us start right at the top with Gordon Brown, a man who has never, save recently when it became politically incumbent upon him ritually to do so, shown any interest in or sympathy for the Armed Forces of the Crown. A significant part of the problem there, apart that is from a lifetime of Socialist antipathy to the military, is that he has spent years and years on the Treasury Brief, whether as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1987 to 1989 before becoming Shadow Chancellor in 1992-1997 and as Chancellor from 1997-2007. Although we sometimes complain that Ministers are sometimes given too little time in post to make a good fist of it (John Reid is a case in point, he having had more jobs than a gap year student in recent years, though whether he would have proved any good at any of them even if he had been given ten years in which to do them is a moot point), there is also a case for saying that Ministers can be left where they are for too long. Certainly Brown shows evidence of this as he has tried to demonstrate to the nation that he has any sort of vision beyond a spreadsheet.
Seventeen years out of the last twenty as Treasury Shadow or Chancellor may well have deprived him of a clear view of broader horizons. When you spend such a long time seeing the MoD as an enemy of prudence rather than as one of the most important offices of State, such an attitude becomes an ingrained habit almost impossible to lose. There is, sadly, every sign that he has carried this state of atrophy into his present job where he continues to behave as if he was still Chancellor. His appointment of lady Taylor to be Drayson’s successor is evidence of this atrophy and neglect. Thus it comes as no surprise that he should, upon coming into office as Prime Minister, view the post of Minister of Defence as one which might safely be left as a part-time one to be doubled up with that of Secretary of State for Scotland. It tells you everything you need to know about Brown’s political priorities: the pursuit of power comes before everything in his firmament, before even the safety and defence of The Realm.
Therefore he appoints a fellow Scots Junta member, Des Browne, to the post at a time when protectingLabour’s Scottish flank has become a more vital business for the Labour party than protecting Britain’s national interests. Having found itself ejected from power north of the border in circumstances where independence for Scotland would have profound implications for Labour’s ability ever again to form a government of what might remain of the UK, Browne’s eyes are ever drawn North, away from the vital interests of The State.
So, whilst Brown protects his source of power, our source of nationalprotection is allowed through neglect and incompetence to wither on the vine. Almost every day now a new warning comes that the military, stretched now almost beyond endurance, is getting close to meltdown. Yet Brown’s response to the loss of one who was trying to make as good a fist as possible of the post of defence procurement is to appoint a political cadaver from the Necropolis of the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Well, we must not allow him off the hook: he it is who is principally responsible for the current appalling state of our defences and it behoves the Opposition now to call him to account for it.
Defence used to be a strong suit for the Conservatives. Under Margaret Thatcher defence was used as a bludgeon with which to beat Labour, though even she made cuts that harmed our interests: the proposed axing of HMS Endurance undoubtedly sent a message that was misheard by the Argentine Junta that mistook it for a sign that we would not fight to recover the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thatcher, together with Ronald Reagan, held the line throughout the 1980s in a way that undoubtedly led to victory in the Cold War.
Yet, as with so much of the legacy she left, the Tories could not wait to dismantle our armed forces with the collapse of the Soviet Union and, before the shape of the world that would emerge to fill the vacuum left by that collapse became clear, moved to slash defence spending as fast as they could. We are now, though Labour must bear the lion’s share of blame, paying some of the price of that precipitate policy today.
With the Armed Forces and the Defence of the nation coming back to the fore, it might have been expected that the Tories would move quickly to reassert their dominance in this field. Sadly their Shadow Minister Liam Fox has been largely invisible in the post and Tory policy on Defence is as unclear as it is on Europe. There has been an element of tinkering at the margins: I heard one suggestion which was that they would promise to have three new battalions of infantry as some sort of election pledge. If it was not so serious, one would fall about laughing at the lack of vision involved in that. Then one gets this sort of curate’s egg from Tory MP Douglas Carswell in The Telegraph. The Tories really have to up their game.
We have, however, surely reached a moment where we have to decide what the threats to the security of the United Kingdom of the 21st. Century are and how best to plan long-term to meet them. The launch of the United Kingdom Defence Association is to be welcomed if it now stimulates such debate, though we should immediately make it clear to the Jolly Jack Tars, The Pongoes and the Fly Boys that they are not about to be given the key to Hamley’s Toy Store. And it would be as well to wrench the focus of some away from the immediate threats of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and of Islamo-Fascism and back onto the threats which may emerge in the second quarter of the century, such as an irredentist Russia loaded to the gills with Petrodollars and a China which has at its disposal a blue water navy based on carriers and nuclear submarines.
As such we are now facing a debate every bit as important as the one which faced us in the 1930s when politicians and then heads of service struggled to work out what the purpose of each of the services was. It seems extraordinary to us now, but in the early 1930s until shortly before the Second World War began the Army could not bring itself to believe that it would ever need to have a Continental Army such as the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 again. Only when it was clear beyond a peradventure to even the dimmest of politico-military minds what Hitler was up to did we finally buckle down to creating a new BEF. Then it was almost too late. We may not be so lucky again.
Today some see it as impossible that we might have to revert to having armed forces we had in the Cold War, yet out there the world is getting uglier by the day. We stand on the possible brink of a major struggle for resources of all kinds but already have the serious problems of the Islamic Terrorism, the Middle East and Pakistan with which to contend. Tinkering at the margins is simply not good enough anymore.
Even when we were a World Power we were pretty good at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Kaiser was reputed, almost certainly erroneously, to have referred to the BEF of 1914 as a ‘contemptible little army’: in fact another German appreciation of it at the time was as ‘a perfect thing apart’. If we strove to end up on a modest budget with three such services once more, we should be doing rather better than we are at the moment.