Julian Lewis believes the Ministry of Defence is currently on the losing side of departmental budgetary battles. The Defence Select Committee chair tells Sebastian Whale why he's fighting to get spending increased
By Sebastian Whale
The House Magazine – 17 March 2017
Julian Lewis seems momentarily taken aback. Sat in the Commons cafeteria, enjoying French onion soup and sipping on a Ribena to aid his struggling voice after an afternoon of speaking commitments, the Defence Select Committee chair is suffering a rare, albeit brief, loss of words. I’ve just asked whether he sees it as his job to convince the Tory leadership to spend more on defence, in the same way the late Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman transformed his own party’s policy on nuclear weapons to backing multilateralism.
“I’d love to think that I was as skilful as Gerald in being able to gradually move the party in that direction,”
he says after some contemplation.
“I still think Gerald’s job was harder than mine, because he had to move a party that had a deep-rooted attachment to renouncing nuclear weapons, whereas my party has a deep-rooted attachment to strong defences.
“What I’ve got to do, though, is try to make it credible to them that we should go back to a percentage of GDP that is comparable to what we used to spend on defence.”
My question is not asked randomly. While many MPs used a Commons session to highlight Kaufman’s fierce debating style, questionable dress sense and wicked sense of humour, Lewis spoke of his efforts to overturn Labour’s defence policy. Without pause for recollection, Lewis marks 10 July 1991 as the day the then shadow foreign secretary wrote an article in the Guardian declaring Labour’s support for multilateralism. This helped transport the then opposition from the political wilderness to an electoral force. It was, of course, Kaufman who branded Labour’s 1983 manifesto the “longest suicide note in history”, not in part due to its defence policy platform.
It’s no secret that Lewis has spent decades exhorting the benefits of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He spent the first half of the 1980s leading the anti-CND campaigns waged by the coalition for peace through security. Indeed you’d struggle to find an issue posed in foreign policy to which Lewis would not seek a multilateral solution. Take the EU for example. Lewis, a Brexiteer, believes Theresa May would be best served by walking away from talks empty-handed, to show Brussels that she means business. Like the deployment of missiles by allies in the 1980s to key points around Europe during the cold war, he claims this posturing will eventually bear fruit.
“We showed the Soviet Union we meant what we said. And when they saw that they could not get what they wanted by means of confrontation, they changed tack and we ended up with an excellent outcome,”
he explains, arguing a better Brexit agreement would arise later down the line.
His commitment to maintaining the UK’s deterrent also forms the basis for his long-standing antipathy to the coalition government. During our hour-long conversation, he decries the “dereliction of duty”, “unforgivable” and “totally irresponsible” decision to push back the vote on renewal and put it further in doubt with the prospect of another hung parliament, to which the Liberal Democrats – opponents of renewal – were perceived at one time to be key players. He says the vote did not happen in 2010-15
“as a result of the most outrageous and disreputable political horse-trading between the Cameron government, or at least the Cameron leadership, and the Liberal Democrats”.
Though he characteristically has a few choice words for David Cameron’s foreign policy, Lewis is keen not to rake over old coals. Turning to the Defence Committee’s work, Lewis points me to its 2016 Shifting the Goalposts report, which studied spending priorities by successive governments from the 1950s onwards.
By the 1980s, the UK was spending 5% of its GDP on education, defence and health. Now, the UK spends 2% on defence (though the committee cited some “creative accounting” in meeting that figure), two and a half times less than on education. Some 7% is spent on health. This comes, Lewis contends, despite Britain facing a similar outlook both at home and abroad. He argues the figure must rise towards the 3% mark.
“I would say that we are approaching the sort of threat level that we had in the 1980s,”
“I’m not saying we’re back there yet, but we are facing serious problems that could, if mishandled, spiral out of control. It’s not hard to see how that could happen if there were miscalculations either by the EU with its pretensions to its own foreign and defence policy, or by the Russians thinking that they could take liberties with the Baltic states, for example, even though they’re now members of Nato and subject to the Article 5 guarantee.”
Lewis’s passion for defence oozes out of his every fibre. Wearing a grey suit with a US/UK flag pin sitting proudly on its lapel, we whittle away the time easily navigating key matters on his brief. His skilled articulation is aided by years spent running a public speaking course for Tory activists and would-be MPs – some of whom have gone on to become Cabinet ministers – alongside his old mate, John Bercow (whom he graciously concedes is the better orator and insists he has no ambitions to succeed as Speaker).
For a man who reportedly does not like to communicate by email, he is a dab hand with his iPad, which he uses to refer me to select committee reports and personal speeches uploaded on his website, including his December 2015 address stating why he was voting against airstrikes in Syria. No Luddite, he.
Throughout our talk, Lewis continually harks back to Nato and its essential role in underpinning European security. Writing for The House ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Lewis said that the US president could, in fact, be the saviour of Nato, rather than the catalyst for its demise. His argument? That Trump’s posturing would prompt European countries to cough up cash for the 2% minimum expenditure. Only five of the 27 member countries currently meet the target – the UK, the US, Greece, Poland and Estonia. Two months into Trump’s presidency, Lewis maintains the same view.
He is, though, deeply concerned by talk of an EU army, a concept he brands a “fantasy” that would “undermine” Nato. For Lewis, a situation in which the US distances itself from Nato and a European Union defence unit is launched, leaving Britain isolated, is too much to contemplate.
“God help us. It would be such a dire prospect,”
he says. But this is not an eventuality he foresees.
Central to his argument is that the two world wars would not have occurred should Germany have understood that America would have entered the conflict from day one. Should the EU go it alone, Lewis fears a repetition if an aggressor, such as Russia, takes liberties they otherwise would not take.
“We need to be spending something like 3% of GDP and our European Nato allies must spend considerably more than they’re doing. I am reasonably hopeful that the Trump administration will force them to realise this, because if they were to be reckless enough to think that they could go it alone and somehow create a defence identity without the United States being a part of it, then all they would be doing would be lining up the continent for a repeat of what happened twice in the first half of the 20th century,”
But Lewis is concerned that if the alliance continues with “an open door policy” there is a danger that Article 5 of the Nato treaty – the principle that an attack on one member is an attack against all – could become “incredible”. However he says he understands why Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were admitted to Nato back in 2004, and insists the alliance is doing “all the right things” in holding exercises in the Baltic states to stave off Russian aggression.
“What we’re doing is sending them an open and unmistakable signal that the Baltic states now come under the protection of Article 5 and they cannot, must not and dare not make the fatal assumption of thinking they could pick one of them off and we wouldn’t react,”
“Because if we didn’t react, then we would at a stroke take ourselves back to the scenario of 1914, and especially 1939, when it would be possible for an aggressor to think ‘right, I got away with this one, so I’m going to try the next one and the next one and the next one’. The result of that would be exactly the same, sooner or later they would overreach themselves, they’d take one step too far and they’d find themselves involved in a global conflict which they themselves did not wish to precipitate.”
Lewis backs a blend of soft and hard power with Russia relations, arguing the country “needs to be treated with respect as well as with firmness”. He welcomes foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to Moscow later this month, and says on some issues, including the fight against Islamist extremism in Syria and elsewhere, Britain should work with the Kremlin. However, he says there is a “reluctance to recognise this” in the Foreign Office.
Lewis argues that officials addressing the threat posed by so-called Islamic State are being “conditioned by the legacy” of the Cold War.
“We are allowing ourselves to be drawn too closely towards one side in the 1,000-year-old confrontation between Sunni and Shia Islam. I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that Russia is perceived as being broadly on the side of Iran in particular and the Shias more generally. And so we are finding ourselves aligned with some of the very countries that have, to put it mildly, an ambiguous attitude towards the totalitarian doctrine which is threatening us,”
he says, singling out Saudi Arabia for particular questioning.
Lewis entered the Commons as MP for New Forest East at the 1997 general election. He served as shadow defence minister under Cameron from 2005 to 2010, before taking up his role on the backbenches, pressing the government on defence matters during the coalition. He was elected chair of the Defence Committee in 2015.
Nearly two years ago, before the vote on Trident and the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, Lewis said he was baffled by the government’s approach. Six months into May’s tenure, is he still perplexed?
“I’m not baffled, but I’m slightly frustrated. I think that the government is beginning to think more clearly about defence. I am concerned that the government is still too partisan and not sufficiently objective in terms of where we stand in relation to the civil war between different branches of fundamentalist Islam.
“But I’m frustrated that we show no sign as yet of raising defence to the relative position in the nation’s scale of priorities that it deserves and needs to occupy.”