I take as my starting point this proposition by Richard North:
Brown is not fundamentally anti-defence, but he does regard the MoD as a structurally unsound department and one of the most wasteful in Whitehall – and that is saying something. He has thus been reluctant to pump money into it, knowing that most of it would be wasted … but he has been supportive of the UOR programme which has been a means of pumping money into the front line, by-passing the mandarins and the defence chiefs.
Brown has been waiting since 1994 to be leader of the Labour Party and hence Prime Minister, a position he always believed should and would be his. Thus he has always believed there would come a time when he would have ultimate responsibility for the defence of our nation, though at one or two points he may have felt himself sweating on the possibility that Whatsisname would manage to thwart him at the last hurdle.
As Chancellor, he has been uniquely placed for ten years, therefore, not only to enforce order and fiscal prudence on the MoD but also to lead the forward planning for our defence against the day when he finally won his prize. After all ‘prudence’ has been a consistent mantra of Brown in that office.
Yet instead of ensuring that the defence budget as a whole was effectively spent, he has chosen instead the blunt instrument of remorseless wide-ranging cuts, some swingeing, the effect being to bludgeon not so much the expensive procurement projects (the ones most in need of prudence and order) but the core of the services. Thus we have a navy which is smaller than that of France, enough to make any free-born Englishman smart, an infantry at its smallest since the time of Queen Anne and services which as a whole are reaching, if the siren voices of former Chiefs of Staff are to be taken at their word, breaking point.
In so doing he has allowed defence spending as a percentage of GDP inexorably to decline so that it is now down at 2.3% of GDP (and set, it appears, to decline to 2.1% by 2011), lower than such places as Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece and, tellingly, France. I pick the latter out as being a nation which has broadly similar interests and population and economy to the UK which feels the need to spend 2.4% of its GDP on defence. Yet France is not engaged, as we are, in two serious wars in the Middle East. Indeed, apart from the first Gulf War, France has scarcely been involved in a serious military conflict since the days of the wars in Algeria and French Indo-China.
Such a decline scarcely betokens an overall sympathy for defence.
What other manifestations of his disinterest in our defence are there? Well, if he is so keen to force the MoD into spending its money effectively, why did he fail properly to support Lord Drayson, the recently departed defence procurement minister, who by all accounts was trying to bring the sort of order Brown so desires such that Drayson felt constrained to resign to race cars at Le Mans?
If Brown had been genuine about his desire to enforce sound house-keeping on the MoD, why let go someone who seemed to be making reasonable progress in the arena of defence procurement, given that its programmes have been some of the worst for profligacy and incompetence over the years? And then replace that same individual with a failed party hack? This hardly smacks of interest in or sympathy for the interests of defence.
In addition, just look another piece of contempt that Brown exhibited for defence when he took over from Blair in June. He made defence a part-time appointment, giving Des Browne the additional responsibility of Secretary of State for Scotland knowing that Scotland would, because of the nationalist threat there, occupy a lot of Browne’s time. That scarcely indicates sympathy for the defence of the realm, though it does indicate a sense of priorities directed at sustaining Labour in power.
I take Richard North’s point about Brown supporting the military through the various Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) programmes. But I would contend that, politically, he has no choice but to do so: nothing hurts a political party in power prosecuting a war than the perception that they are not keeping the troops in the field adequately equipped and supplied. The great shell shortage of the early part of the Great War played a significant part in the decline and ultimate fall of the Asquith administration and every administration since has been sensitive to complaints of poor equipment, knowing how corrosive of the public’s view of competence that can be.
So, taken in the round, there is nothing in Brown’s relationship with Defence which suggests that he sees it as a cornerstone of the nation’s well-being. Rather he sees it as a suitable target for consistent and frequent cuts in funds which might then better be deployed on projects that will bring that which he desires above all things: a prolongation of his power and re-election as Prime Minister, the latter being vital to his place in history.