TOWARDS THE NEXT STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW – 2 March 2015
Dr Julian Lewis: It is always the peril for the last ship in the convoy that it is the most likely to be torpedoed. As the last ship in the Back-Bench convoy in this debate, I shall resist the temptation to be diverted from holding onto my strategic aim – even though I am sorely tempted by the contribution of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) to use up the entire remaining eight-and-a-half minutes talking about Trident. Instead, as an effort in intellectual discipline, I shall keep that subject to last to see whether I can get through the other items on the agenda, which are three: the question of process; the question of resources; and the question of content.
First, on the question of process in relation to the Strategic Defence and Security Review that is due in 2015, why should it be in 2015, how long should it take and who should do it? We have two recent examples of Strategic Defence Reviews: one in 1998 and one in 2010. The one in 1998 was strategic but unfunded. The one in 2010 was funded but unstrategic. We do not need another unstrategic review, but that is what we will get if we rush the process. Something that the Labour Government were very right to do when they came into office in 1997 – I am delighted to see my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), a former Defence Minister, agreeing with this point – was to take about 18 months to draw up the Strategic Defence Review, as it was then called; and they did it comprehensively and inclusively. There was nobody with something worth contributing to the process that led to the review who was not given an opportunity to do so, and we should do that next time too.
Sir Bob Russell: Can my hon. Friend recall whether on that occasion the Treasury intervened and tried to trump what the review sought to achieve?
Dr Lewis: I am doubly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking a question that I cannot possibly answer, having been in opposition at the time, because it gives me extra time and allows me to direct him to the Shadow Minister, who I am sure will be able to answer it when he sums up.
The next question is who should do the Strategic Defence and Security Review? I must say that I disagree with my hon. and very learned Friend the Member for Broadland (Keith Simpson) – “learned” in the academic sense of that word – when he paints a picture of how wonderful the process of the National Security Council and the National Security Strategy is. Frankly, I am not impressed with it. I thought that the strategy document itself was apple pie and motherhood. I did not see much in it other than a ranking of tiered threats, most of which were fairly obvious, and those that were not may well turn out, in relation to state-against-state conflict being ranked in the third tier, to be absolutely wrong.
I am concerned about the decision-making process in defence. I will not go into that too much now because, as the Chairman of the Defence Committee, which I have recently had the privilege of joining, is well aware, we are about to produce a report on that very subject. Yet, I would like to flag up something that I hope will appear in his draft in due course, and it is this: when we are trying to work out a sensible, comprehensive, coherent and well-informed strategy, it is useful to have substantive contributions from Ministers and civil servants, but we also need contributions from the military.
We appear to have dismantled the collective giving of military advice on strategy to politicians by the Chiefs of Staff, along with the healthy tension between them and the politicians that contributed so much to the outcome of successful campaigns in decades gone by. I am not impressed when we find that the whole burden of giving military advice on strategy to the Government falls on the shoulders of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the immediate chain of people below him, when in fact that used to be the collective responsibility of the heads of the Armed Services. I am not impressed when we find that the civil service has done away with what has been termed “domain competence” at the highest levels. We can find ourselves, as I do on the Defence Committee, facing a Permanent Under-Secretary of State, the head of the Ministry of Defence, with next to no background in defence himself, and hearing him tell us with great pride that the new head of the Army is pleased to look on himself as a chief executive officer for his Service. We are not going to get sufficient military input from that sort of configuration. We are getting non-specialist civil servants, we are getting the military insufficiently included in the process, and we are getting politicians flying by the seat of their pants. It is not good enough.
In his own excellent speech, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex did not have time, I am delighted to say, to refer to an article by Max Hastings which appeared in the Guardian on 8 November 2005. It is headed:
“Our armed forces must have a voice in how to defend us”
and it states:
“strategy in its proper sense – a doctrine for the prevention and prosecution of war – has been allowed to atrophy. Very few people in uniform or out of it, within the Ministry of Defence or beyond it, devote intellect and energy to anything much beyond saving money and getting through today. And those who do so are firmly discouraged from allowing any hint of their ruminations to escape into the public domain, to fuel an intelligent debate.”
Given that the entire strategic role is now devolved on to the shoulders of just the Chief of Defence Staff, it was disturbing to me to read – I do not know whether it is true – that the CDS was instructed by his political masters not to deliver a lecture. If that is true, it is appalling. [Interruption.] I am delighted, again, to have that sedentary endorsement from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex.
On resources, I am thrilled that there has been such unanimity about recommending us to put forward the NATO minimum contribution of 2% of GDP for defence. Can hon. Members imagine anything worse than signalling to a powerful adversary that we are going to send 75 military personnel as advisers into a non-NATO country which we are not able and not obliged to defend, much as we sympathise with it, but for the first time since the 2% formula was set, we are in danger of not meeting it ourselves?
Sir Hugh Bayley: I am getting slightly tired of Government Members talking up 2% as if it were a great achievement. Five years ago it was 2.5%, so the defence budget has been cut over the past five years by 20%. When Labour came to power it was £22 billion. When we left power, the defence budget in cash terms was £39 billion; now it is £24 billion – a real-terms cut. When are these cuts going to stop?
Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with the thrust of that intervention, although as I stated in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I well remember Tony Blair saying in, I think, 2007 that over the 10-year period that he had been in office, the defence budget had remained fairly constant at 2.5% of GDP, if the cost of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was included.1 The situation is therefore even worse than the hon. Gentleman thinks, because in effect core defence expenditure also declined under his Government. Nevertheless, the thrust of what he says is on the right lines.
I shall quote very briefly from the Government’s response to the report that the Defence Committee produced before I joined it. The Government replied on 27 October 2014:
“NATO Allies have also collectively agreed to reverse the trend of declining defence budgets and aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows and direct defence budgets to be as efficient and effective as possible. Allies currently meeting the NATO guidelines to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defence will aim to continue to do so. . . Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level will halt any decline in defence expenditure; aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; and aim to move towards the 2% guidelines within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.”
When the Prime Minister came back2 from that NATO conference in Wales, he made a statement from the Dispatch Box, speaking very much along those lines. So I thought:
“I have not always been as immensely helpful to the Prime Minister as I might have been, because he has done some things I really couldn’t stand, such as putting off the decision to sign the Trident main-gate contracts till 2016, when they should have been decided in this Parliament. So I’ll ask him a helpful question.”
“Will the Prime Minister then give an undertaking that, as long as he remains Prime Minister, that 2% target will be met?”
To my dismay, I found that that was not a helpful question at all. It was an unhelpful question, so I have been asking it time and again ever since.3
I will now be unable to get on to the content of the next Strategic Defence and Security Review, which will have to wait for other debates. I will not even be able to rebut in more detail what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate said about Trident, but I am glad that the House did not agree with him. I simply point out that this 2% issue is not going away. We will have another debate on 12 March, and I hope that everyone who has spoken today will come back then to continue the argument.
1 On board HMS Albion at Devonport on 12 January 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that “If we add in the extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan”, defence expenditure had stayed “constant at roughly around 2.5% of GDP” since 1997.
2 In fact, Julian first raised this subject on 26 March 2014, well in advance of the NATO Summit, which was held in Newport on 4–5 September 2014.