Dr Julian Lewis: It is with real pleasure that I note that becoming Father of the House has done nothing to dampen, soften or ameliorate the rigour with which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) pursues his causes. Indeed, I recall that, many years before I entered the House, in the period of 1988 to 1991, when the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Foreign Secretary, I greatly admired the skill with which he manoeuvred to try to extricate the Labour Party from some difficult defence positions in which it had managed to entangle itself. I am sure he will feel some satisfaction at that achievement, even though – sadly from his point of view – he still has to address the Government from the Opposition Benches.
I want to say a few words of appreciation for the electors of New Forest East, who did me the honour of electing me for the fifth time since the seat was created – [Hon. Members: “Hear, Hear”.] I am pleased to get such ringing endorsement from my colleagues. As well as thanking the electors, I would like to pay tribute to the candidates of the four other parties that competed in the election, who, without exception, conducted themselves with good humour and integrity. It was pleasant to take part in a General Election on that basis.
It was notable that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) repeatedly asked “Who would have thought this would have arisen?”, “Who would have thought that would have arisen?”, and “Who would have thought the other would have arisen?” In making those rhetorical observations, the right hon. Gentleman arrived at the heart of the problem that affects defence policy in times of peace. In times of peace, those who try to predict the way in which peaceful times will be disrupted will almost invariably fail. Invariably, when conflict arises, there is little or no warning. That is why, in peacetime, it is always a struggle to persuade the Government of the day that they ought to invest as much in defence as defence-minded Members of Parliament would like.
In my brief remarks, I shall touch on just three topics: decision making in defence, the nature of defence reviews, and the issue of NATO and deterrence. Decision making in defence has suffered in recent times. It is no exaggeration to say that the chiefs of staff have become the chief executives rather than the heads of their services, and that is not good for defence and strategic planning.
In a report published just before the election, which therefore was not given the attention it might otherwise have received, the Defence Committee said that
“the … Chiefs of Staff Committee is too detached from the central policy-making process in the MoD and also, crucially, from the NSC”
– that is, the National Security Council. We recommended
“that the roles of the Chief of Staff should be redefined to give greater weight to their function as strategy advisors. We recommend that the Chiefs of Staff … should become the official military sub-committee of the NSC, in order to tender to it joint military advice”.
That is important, because in recent decades too much responsibility for the tendering of strategic advice has fallen on the shoulders of the Chief of the Defence staff, his vice-chief, and the Chief of Joint Operations. A more effective vehicle is one in which the heads of the armed services sit in committees and tender joint strategic advice to the politicians. I believe that that partly explains why some of the decisions made by those politicians have been rather shallower, and certainly more reactive to events, than they ought to have been.
The second aspect of decision-making difficulty arises from what has happened in the higher reaches of the civil service. There is a parallel with the arrangement whereby someone can become head of the Royal Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force, but end up with no major role in the tendering of strategic advice. People are no longer required to be domain-competent to hold the highest jobs in individual Departments. In other words, someone can rise to very near the top of one Department, and if a vacancy arises for a permanent under-secretary in, for example, the Ministry of Defence, the person’s next promotion can be to that post, although he or she may have absolutely no defence background.
Bob Stewart: Just like Ministers.
Dr Lewis: We, however, rely on the combination that involves lay people who become Ministers being guided by the expertise of the professional civil service. Now, the civil service has adopted a policy of opening up the possibility of more top jobs to its most high-flying people, but if they are not to be the experts, who is?
I shall now say something about my second topic – the nature of Defence Reviews – which may not make me entirely popular with those my own side. I have said it before, and I intend to go on saying it: the 1997-98 Labour Strategic Defence Review went about things in a better fashion than our Review did in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was good enough to acknowledge that ours was Treasury-driven. By gum, yes, it was.
Mike Gapes: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: Of course I will, but only briefly.
Mr Gapes: Is it not a fact that the Labour Government’s Review, which took about a year and a half, had a foreign policy focus at its centre and was not just about bean counting?
Dr Lewis: The answer is yes, and the hon. Gentleman has saved me from uttering the sentence I was going to utter next, but the point about that Review, of course, is that although it was truly strategic, it was not properly funded. Ours went to the other extreme of being properly funded but not truly strategic. We have to try to get a balance between those two methods.
Steve Baker: I would just observe that, having conducted their Review, the Labour Government went on to overstretch our armed forces in conflicts that did not comply with the Review itself, and not only that, but they seem to have put in place at least the precursor military operations to the mess we now have. They seem to have been a thoroughgoing failure.
Dr Lewis: While not disagreeing with my hon. Friend, I am trying to explain to the House the means of conducting the Review. That is the point I am interested in – not the way in which Labour may afterwards have carried out its defence and foreign policies, about which I would have a large measure of agreement with my hon. Friend. The fact is, it is one thing to fail to live up to a good plan, but it is another not to have a good plan in the first place; and if we want to have a good plan, we need to take our time over the Strategic Defence and Security Review, and not rush it, and not simply say, “You’ve got X amount of money; how much defence can you give us for that sum?”
I want to say a quick word about NATO and deterrence. We have heard a lot about the 2% and I do not intend to waste the House’s time by reiterating the arguments we have all heard many times, but I would just make one point on the subject: the 2% is not a target, it is a minimum, and therefore there should be no question of our failing to meet the minimum. The question is how much above that minimum we can safely manage to use as the basis for the future shape and size of our armed forces.
John Glen: But does my right hon. Friend not acknowledge that perhaps the bigger challenge is the fact that 26 members of NATO are nowhere near meeting the 2%, so, regardless of what we do, is it not imperative that we influence those other nations to reach that commitment in the first place?
Dr Lewis: That is a very good point, because even when I said that it is not a target but a minimum I was debating whether to add the sub-clause “but it is of course a target for those countries that have not even met it.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right: if we stop what we have done consistently, which is comfortably to meet, and indeed exceed, that minimum, what sort of a disincentive is it to other states – for whom it is an aspiration yet to be achieved – when they see we are beginning to lose our grip of our own hitherto much more successful allocation of resources to defence?
We should also remind ourselves that every Government say defence is the first duty of Government. If so, it does not make sense to ring-fence other areas of Government and not to protect defence. If we are going to do that, then come clean and say, “Okay, it isn’t the first duty of Government any more” and try to defend taking that position. I do not like this selective ring-fencing of different Departments. A Government ought to have the guts to order their priorities, to set them out, and to stand up in the House of Commons and defend them.
Finally, I just want to say a word about deterrence. I am talking not about nuclear deterrence – unless provoked, the word Trident shall not pass my lips – but about deterrence in the context of the very sad situation whereby Russia, whom we all hoped would continue down the democratic path, has decided to revert, if not to a permanent type, to a type that was all too familiar to us during the Cold War years. We see that not only in its behaviour in Ukraine but in the way in which opponents of the regime are being assassinated. We recently had the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, and now we find that Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, has been suddenly struck down with a very serious and undiagnosed illness and is now fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital. Those are not the features that we wish to see in a modern state that wants to play its part on the world stage; they are more of a reversion to a type of regime which held the world at bay for more than 50 years.
We hoped that we were entering a new era after the events of 1989 and 1991 so, when we are deciding our priorities, let us remember that in the dark years of the Cold War we thought it necessary to spend between 4% and 5% of GDP on defence. I am not calling for that now, but I am certainly calling for us comfortably to exceed the NATO-recommended minimum. I hope that mine will not be the only voice on either side of the House, and I am sure it will not be, saying that we must meet that obligation and carry out our commitment so that the peace that Europe has enjoyed for so long can continue indefinitely.