DEFENCE SPENDING – 12 March 2015
Dr Julian Lewis: Not for the first time, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (John Baron) has done the House and the country a service by bringing to the Chamber a matter that the Coalition Government might perhaps have preferred he had let lie. I believe it is his intention, if we do not get the assurances we want from both Front Benches, to give the House the opportunity to put its opinion on the record by dividing. If the Whips did not know that, they had better get busy.
One of the advantages of speaking last from the Back Benches in such a debate is that I do not have to repeat all the points made by everybody else. This has been particularly worthwhile today because I could not have made a stronger strategic case than the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee (Rory Stewart) made in his excellent speech, and I could not have made a stronger economic case than was forcefully made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I pay tribute to him for his outstanding service to this country, both in high office and, more recently, as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I have had the pleasure of serving on throughout this Parliament.
Any suggestion that the budget spent on the intelligence agencies should be redefined as defence to edge us closer to the 2% minimum would be not only outrageous, but dishonest, because we would no longer be comparing like with like. Let us compare like with like. It came as a surprise to the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), who made a thoughtful speech, when I pointed out to him that at the height of the second Cold War, in the 1980s, this country was spending more than 5% of GDP on defence. I know the economy has got bigger, but defence has got more expensive, so that excuse will not do.
Let me put on the record that between 1982 and 1986, the amount spent on defence varied from 5.1% of GDP to 5.3%. From 1986 to 1990, as a result of perestroika, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and other measures, the figure gradually declined from a maximum of 4.8% to 4%. When we took the Peace Dividend, following the break-up of the Soviet Union – in other words, in the first five years of the 1990s – the figures were 3.6%, 3.6%, 3.5%, 3.3% and 3.1%.
When Labour came into office in 1997, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained, as Tony Blair said and as I have quoted here before, roughly constant at 2.5% for a decade, although that hid the fact that the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, which should have been met from the Treasury Reserve, were being included in the overall calculation. Even as late as the Coalition coming in, in 2009-10, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained the same in 2010-11. It went down to 2.4% in 2011-12 and since 2012 it has been 2.2% and 2.1%. Frankly, I regard it as a disgrace that defence spending has declined even to that level, and I will be far from satisfied if – without redefining things – we spend only 2% of GDP on defence in the future.
I have to ask myself why, at a time when we have not only the threat from international terrorism to deal with, but a re-emerging threat from a newly aggressive and revanchist Russia, politicians are calling into question even the basic NATO minimum of 2%. The only answer I get has nothing to do with Grand Strategy and everything to do with low politics. This is the politics of the pollsters who are trying to tell my Prime Minister that there are no votes in defence.
My mind goes back to a conversation I had in Conservative Central Office with the then General Director of Campaigning of the Conservative Party in about 1985. When I said that we needed to focus on Labour’s defence policy at the next General Election, he said:
“Well, just because nuclear weapons and defence policy was a big issue in 1983, it does not mean that it will be a big issue in 1987.”
My response was:
“Of course it will not be a big issue unless we make it a big issue.”
Of course, if we poll people at the moment and ask them how high defence is in their sense of priorities, we will not get much of a reaction. Believe me, however, things would be different if we went into the election campaign fighting hard to explain to people the dangers that threaten us and the terrible signal it would send to Vladimir Putin if we, having exhorted everybody else in NATO to meet the 2% minimum, then fell below it ourselves for the very first time – which would be appalling.
I do not know who is more to blame. I do not know whether it is the American strategist who is advising my Prime Minister or whether it is the British Chancellor who is advising him, but I like to think that my Prime Minister has more sense than to fall for it. Let me put it in “low” political terms: if the Prime Minister is worried about the UK Independence Party taking a chunk of the Conservative vote, he should bear it in mind that even UKIP has made the gesture – it is only a gesture on its part – that it would support the 2% minimum. If the Prime Minister is worried about losing votes to UKIP, he had better match its pledge.
We have had a pledge from UKIP. We have had a pledge – a very important pledge – from the Democratic Unionist Party today. We need a pledge from the official Opposition, and we need a pledge from the Government. Otherwise, in the words of an excellent editorial that appeared in The Times yesterday, we shall be practising nothing short of “A False Economy”, along with a dangerous delusion about the action that we need to take when doing our duty for this country.
The Motion: “That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment” was carried by 37 votes to 3. Julian and Bob Stewart were the Tellers for the Ayes.