DEFENCE BUDGET – 13 January 2020
Dr Julian Lewis: It was genuinely a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) express himself in such fluent and consensual terms. The fact that he says his party is willing to agree with Government Members does not come as a surprise to me, because I know from my experience on the last two iterations of the Defence Committee, where I had the pleasure of serving alongside two Members of the SNP, that that is exactly true. That is how it was that, on a cross-party basis, all three parties represented on the Committee were able to agree at quite an early stage that defence expenditure is too low, and that something in the order of 3% of GDP is a more realistic target if Britain is to hold her head up in the world with safety.
Before I develop that theme, however, I want to pick up one point from the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and that is his reference to the BBC, in which he concentrated on the World Service. In about 2011, when the then Sir Ming Campbell and I were both members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I remember that we learned with alarm of the coalition Government’s plan to stop the ring-fenced funding not only of the BBC World Service but of the vital BBC Monitoring Service based at Caversham Park. We expressed the view at the time that the result of putting that funding on the shoulders of the BBC in return for allowing the BBC to have its usual requested rise in the licence fee would come back to bite us – and so it did, because both those budgets were badly squeezed, and I think I am right in saying that in the end the Government felt it necessary to restore separate funding for the BBC World Service, but sadly not for the BBC Monitoring Service.
John Whittingdale: The position is that the BBC continues to fund the World Service, but it now receives an additional grant from the Foreign Office that has allowed it to expand its services. I very much hope that the Foreign Office will continue – and perhaps increase – that funding.
Dr Lewis: Yes, but the trouble is that no such grant was made to the BBC Monitoring Service, which is our principal source of what is called open-source intelligence – or, as the BBC prefers to say, open-source information. The Defence Committee produced a hard-hitting report entitled “Open Source Stupidity”, because that was entirely our opinion of the effect of that cutback by the coalition Government. It led directly to the closure of Caversham Park, and although BBC Monitoring continues to do very good work, it is a shame and a disgrace that it is not specially separately funded, as it used to be.
Coming back to the main topic, this is, as we know, a debate on Britain’s future place in the world. However magnified, however static or even however reduced our future place in the world may be, we have to be able to keep our country safe. As I never tire of explaining to the House, the basis of any sensible defence policy depends on three concepts: deterrence, containment, and a realisation of the unpredictability of future conflicts. The examples I always give – I fear that people will start joining in in a chorus if I do it again, but I do so nevertheless – are the Yom Kippur war in 1973 that took hyper-sensitive Israel by surprise, the Falklands war in 1982 that took us by surprise, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that took everybody by surprise, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that took the world’s then only superpower by surprise.
What do I conclude from the fact that most wars in the 20th century – I could give many more older examples – are usually not predicted significantly in advance? I conclude that if we are going to have an adequate defence policy, we have to be able to defend flexibly against a whole spectrum of future potential threats because we do not know which of those threats is going to materialise.
Alec Shelbrooke: My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and excellent points. I want to draw him back to his comments about spending at least 3%. I do not believe that it is about 3%; it is about having the capability we need. The key word he has used is “flexibility”, and that does not have a percentage price on it; it has an equipment and capability price.
Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, I have found through long experience that although it is a rather crude shorthand, this business of percentages is the one straightforward, simple and clear way of showing to the country what has been happening in relative terms, compared with other high spending Departments, to defence expenditure.
Stewart Malcolm McDonald: May I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to oversimplify what is actually complex, and rightly so? Should not the debate be led by capability over the simplicity of saying that we meet a certain target? We do an assessment of where the threat picture is at, we determine what capability is required to meet that threat assessment, and we spend the money accordingly. Targets, while simple and easy to understand, do not paint the whole picture.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He came in as if on cue, because I was just about to paint what I regard as the spectrum of threats that are necessary to give us the flexibility that we need to have if we are going to prepare an adequate defence policy.
John Redwood: Does my right hon. Friend agree as well that in order to have flexibility, it is very important that we have the key military technologies under our own control, and the industrial capability of flexing up and greatly increasing our output of weaponry should disaster hit and we need to respond?
Dr Lewis: I do, and in this there is an important rebuttal of a point often made by those who think we can afford to cut out certain capabilities because we are members of an alliance and we can rely on other allies to supply capabilities that we ourselves do not have. That leaves out of account what happens if, heaven forbid, we are involved in a major conflict and one of our allies is knocked out and no longer able to supply us with the missing capabilities. So while we cannot do everything, we have to be able to do as many things as are possible within a reasonable financial envelope. My point about the percentages is that they give us a rough idea of what is reasonable at any given time in a country’s circumstances.
The spectrum of threats ranges from, at the most extreme end, nuclear obliteration, through conventional defeat and subjugation, to what is generally regarded in the terminology as 21st-century threats – terrorism, subversion, infiltration, disinformation, cyber and space. In the short time remaining, I want to focus on the point about which I had an exchange with the Foreign Secretary during his speech, and that is the question of the defence review.
My concern goes back to 2017, when, as I referred to in my intervention, we had something called the national security capability review. That was meant to look at defence and security altogether, but it was also meant to be fiscally neutral, which meant that if we decided that we wanted to spend more on dealing with so-called 21st-century threats – I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) nodding in recollection of and, I hope, agreement with my analysis – such as subversion or disinformation or especially cyber, we had to start cutting core conventional capabilities.
I draw the House’s attention, not for the first time, to a very revealing article in The Guardian, no less, on 26 June 2018, in which it was reported that there had been an “increasingly bitter stand-off” between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence. It read:
“The row has its origins in July last year, when the Cabinet Office announced the national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, would conduct a review of the threats facing the UK and the capabilities needed to meet them. His brief was to look at the UK security needs in the round, taking in the intelligence agencies as well as the MoD. He was also to evaluate the risks posed by terrorists and cyber-attacks as well as from conventional forces.”
That sounds rather similar to what we heard today. The article continues:
“By the autumn, it was clear the intelligence agencies had come out on top and the MoD was looking at being forced to make cuts, with options ranging from reducing the size of the army from 77,000 to 70,000, cutting 1,000 Royal Marines and decommissioning two specialist amphibious-landing ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.
There was a consensus among mandarins involved in the negotiations the UK was less likely to need two specialist amphibious landing ships than the ability to defend against a cyber-attack on its infrastructure or financial networks.
But there was a backlash from an informal coalition led by Williamson,” –
my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson)
“appointed in November, and the chairman of the defence select committee… as well as a score or more Conservative MPs (and Labour ones with defence jobs in their constituencies)...
One of the arguments from Tory backbenchers was the military were disproportionately represented” –
they mean under-represented –
“in negotiations dominated by politicians with no military background and by the intelligence agencies.
The counter-arguments were little aired in the media: that the UK should abandon its adherence to tradition and instead build a modern force, a pared-down one, with lower spending levels closer to comparable Europeans neighbours. Compared with the UK’s 2.1% of GDP spent on defence, France spends 1.79%, Germany 1.2%... Italy 1.1% and Spain 0.9%.”
The cat was out of the bag – the establishment and the Treasury wanted us to reduce our spending on what is conventionally understood as defence in favour of new capabilities. I entirely agree that we need to spend more on new capabilities, but why does that mean that we have to spend less on conventional capabilities when, as I set out at the beginning, we have no idea what the nature of a future conflict will be? As the threats are augmented and the dangers multiply, we should be spending more, not less.
I return to that rough yardstick of the percentage terms. The Defence Committee spent a lot of time trying to work out what really had happened to defence, because, as we know, the criteria were changed for calculating our GDP percentage expenditure on defence. We were able to establish objectively that
“calculated on a historically consistent basis”,
in the last four years for which figures are available, although officially we spent 2.2%, 2.1%, 2.1% and 2.1%, in reality – on the basis on which it used to be calculated – we spent 1.9%, 1.8%, 1.8% and, again, 1.8%.
I conclude by saying that it used to be the case that in the 1980s we spent roughly the same on defence, on education and on health. We now spend two and a half times on education and four times on health what we spend on defence. No one is asking to go back to the levels of expenditure, comparatively speaking, of the 1980s, but even in the mid-1990s we felt ourselves able to invest 3% of GDP on keeping ourselves safe, not the 4% to 5% that we spent in the 1980s. That is a worthwhile target, an acceptable target and a target to which the Government need to aspire.