Wanted: a party leader willing to talk about defence

In this election campaign, no one wants to mention the bear in the room

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

In the 1984 US presidential election, Ronald Reagan came up with an effective way of embarrassing his rival Walter Mondale over defence. ‘There’s a bear in the woods,’ ran his television advert, showing a grizzly bear wandering through a forest. ‘For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it all.’ During the British general election campaign, the Russian bear isn’t making any attempt to hide — it is standing on its hind legs and pawing at the trees with its claws. Although everyone can see the bear, none of the political parties want to focus on it.

You wouldn’t know from this election campaign, but Europe is in crisis. On its eastern border, the threat from Russia is as great as at any point since the end of the Cold War. Crimea has been annexed and large parts of eastern Ukraine are under control of Russian-backed forces. Russian aircraft have even been taunting the RAF in the English Channel. The Baltic states are increasingly fearful that they will be next to suffer from Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russian dominance on its doorstep.

On Europe’s southern border, Islamic State continues to cause death and destruction — the recent decapitations in Libya were filmed along the shore to make the point that the jihadis have reached the Mediterranean. More worrying, perhaps, is the number of Europeans fighting for it. Last weekend, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, warned that the number of Europeans who will have taken up arms with Isis may treble to 10,000 by the end of this year. As these radicalised youths return home, the terrorist threat in Europe will rise exponentially.

But neither of these subjects features with any prominence in the election campaign. Isis and the Russian threat are deeply inconvenient truths that don’t fit into the party leaders’ scripts. The Tories’ six-point long-term economic plan doesn’t have room for foreign entanglements. Labour wants to talk about the National Health Service, not international security.

There are a variety of reasons for this. The first is the consequences of austerity: when money is tight at home, foreign policy seems like a luxury. The second is a general war-weariness. The Afghan campaign dragged on for far longer than the public wanted or policy-makers imagined and it is hard to declare victory when the Taleban is poised to seize control of parts of the country once more.

There is a sense that the political risks of a foreign intervention outweigh the advantages. David Cameron has yet to recover the authority he lost in the Syria vote two years ago, when he bet on the opposition backing the government on an issue of national security, but that consensus has broken down. The problem is compounded by the insurgent parties — Ukip in England, the SNP in Scotland — which tend to oppose wars. It might be different if Britain could boast of a series of successful interventions. Instead, we have a large part of Iraq being run by a terrorist organisation and Libya descending into civil war.

Philip Hammond has hardly set the heather alight as Foreign Secretary. He has been oddly invisible during these crises. Cabinet colleagues have been puzzled by this and ask if he has recovered from getting too far forward on his skis when advocating limits to EU immigration last autumn. Hammond’s parliamentary supporters offer another explanation for his low profile — that he is hard at work preparing for a rapid renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership after the election.

But the Prime Minister has not been saying much about the outside world either. Such debates raise awkward questions, including whether he will honour the Nato commitment to spending a minimum of 2 per cent of national economic output on defence. If Britain won’t do this, despite having led the charge to pressure other European members to increase their military budgets at the last Nato summit, it will further weaken the alliance. It is hard to argue against maintaining a basic minimum of defence spending when Russian fighter jets are forcing civilian flights into and out of Dublin airport to be diverted. The military has also ceased maritime surveillance, a task that has become imperative in the light of Russia’s bellicose attitude. Britain stopped patrolling its coastline on the basis that Moscow was a partner for peace.

It’s harder to argue that now. The senior ranks of the Tory party fear there will be no commitment to 2 per cent before polling day. Those close to George Osborne point out that, given the growth in the economy, honouring the basic Nato commitment would mean major increases in defence spending from 2018. The Chancellor is not prepared to make such a commitment. There is also a worry, given that the government is only halfway through its austerity programme, that protecting some departments will force the axe to fall harder on others. The Tories will have many unpleasant spending decisions to make after the election and don’t want to be drawn into discussing them beforehand.

But if Britain does join most European countries in reneging on its Nato commitment, a huge strain would be placed on the special relationship with the United States. This will unnerve those Tories who believe that a strong defence policy is the bedrock of Conservatism. Tory unrest is being contained by pre-election discipline but once that is lifted, those opposed to spending 0.7 per cent on international aid while failing to hit 2 per cent on defence will swell rapidly. As one Cameron ally warns, it could become a proxy issue for wider dissatisfaction with the government.

For these reasons, a growing number of Tories think that Cameron will end up committing to 2 per cent after the election; there are reports that the government is working on accounting wheezes to massage defence spending up. Honouring Britain’s Nato obligation would please both his parliamentary party and the United States. A cynic might observe that Cameron is unlikely to still be Prime Minister when the cost of this kicks in. More broadly, it makes little sense for Britain to be committed to spending money on international aid but unable to guarantee defence spending. In this increasingly uncertain world, security must come first.


The era of stable governments is over

lpJoin us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Spectator.co.uk/election Our shiny new campaign website.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • John Carins

    Ask Farage and UKIP, they will talk about defence. It’s about time you journos asked the incumbent politicians to explain the defence “black hole”. I’d wager that they cannot explain it despite using it as one reason to suggest why defence spending is adversely affected.

    • Bert

      Personally I’d be taking a hatchet to the £12billion we give in foreign aid each and every year. It’s not as if we can afford it in the first place but such sums should be spent on defending our country first and foremost

      If something has to give, then foreign aid should go first.

      • John Carins

        Exactly right. I think that UKIP would take £9Bn from the foreign aid budget and redirect some of this into defence.

    • Murgatroyd

      UKIP defence policy is back of a fag packet garbage. Populist nonsense with no coherent strategy. They say what they think sounds good without thinking anything through.

      • John Carins

        Your description of an incoherent defence policy is what we currently have. UKIP has not been responsible for this situation. What is your evidence that UKIP’s policy is “back of fag packet” I suggest that you try and be more balanced. Perhaps you could tell me what the “black hole” is? You sound very knowledgeable.

  • Flintshire Ian

    As far as I am concerned, Putin can have the Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland. Maybe even Hungary, Romania and East Germany? Things weren’t too bad here in the old order and probably wouldn’t be again. I can’t see the Greeks joining in to defend Germany any time soon?

  • WTF

    Apart from Farage, the other Leaders are chicken and have sold out to appeasing Islam and pointless rhetoric against Putin ! Putin may be some sort of threat but the real threat is Islam which will take over within 10 years if we don’t stop it now.

  • Carter Lee

    As an American I would suggest that Britain insure that it has a strong presence in cyber, air power, naval power and special operations forces.

    A smaller high quality conventional ground force would be acceptable in that it is less likely to be over committed and abused in more fecklessly led American military adventures.

    British ground combat forces should not be used as mercenaries to shore up more American policy mistakes.

    • jimt5367

      As an American I agree with Carter.

      • Chamber Pot

        I agree too. I no longer understand American foreign policy it seems intent on messing up in the Middle East and, from the Taliban, to Al Qaeda, to ISIS, to Boko Haram all of these bandits grew legs as a result of ill advised interference. Maybe we have got our hands now on oil wells in Iraq but is that really worth the deaths of millions and the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims. All of this mayhem is not worth the life of one British squaddie, or American grunt, let alone the innocent civilian victims that have suffered the consequences of jihadi violence on the streets of London and Boston. Do we really want to pick a fight with Putin and drive him into the arms of China or more likely end up with his successor being worse than Ivan the Terrible ? I would rather get to grips with our home grown enemies, instead we nourish a viper in our bosom.

  • Terence Hale

    “Wanted: a party leader willing to talk about defence”. The problem is leaders have talk about defence without thinking. Britains defence is based on an strategic attack weapon, the trident submarine who’s vulnerability has been demonstrated by the mobility of Russian bombers. With policy of throwing stones from a glass house we may have a form of political heimer’s.

  • WTF

    And according to that rag the DailyMail today there was fury when Farage said “A ‘fifth column’ of some Muslims ‘hate us and want to kill us’, says Farage as he claims there has never before been a migrant group that wants to ‘change who we are and what we are’

    Needless to say the fury was more to do with the left wing jihadist appeasers having outrage over the truth being spoken in such a manner as 99% of the bloggers agreed with Farage.

  • WTF

    And the wailing and gnashing of teeth still rolls on over those three Muslim girls going off to Syria elsewhere in the MSM.

    If its not the girls fault then “Insha’Allah”, its Gods will, not the police, not MI5, not social services, not even the parents of these girls and most certainly not the majority in the country. Perhaps their parents should ask their local cleric for help as this is a religious matter not a civil or criminal one !

  • Arthur Rusdell-Wilson

    We are often told that the International Development budget is an exercise of “soft power” and is important for our security. Mr. Osborne’s way forward seems clear to me. He should ring-fence the total of the Defence and International Development budgets in real terms, and vire funds between the two budget heads as their relative importance to our national security changed from time to time.

  • David Prentice

    David Cameron, Conservative. What exactly is he conserving? How does covering the UK in windfarms, railroading gay marriage through Parliament and increasing foreign aid from an already fatuous £8.5billion when the Coalition took office to a staggering £12billion today reflect Conservative values? Honouring the 0.7 percent foreign aid pledge just to get your head patted by the taxpayer cash-addicted BBC? It’s easy to spend other people’s money though, eh, Dave? One thing I will say about Miliband – he’s very bad at pretending to be what he isn’t.

  • pnkearns

    Most of the European posters on articles like this insist they don’t need NATO, they don’t need the U.S. and military budgets can be slashed.

    It’s time the U.S. pulls out of NATO, keeps a newly formed military alliance with the nations that will stand up as equal partners, and let the rest of Europe have the freedom from the imperialistic U.S. they desire.

  • Truck67

    Sod defence, bravado and we are a superpower gash.
    Give us some decent public services.

    • The_greyhound

      Plenty of money is spent on public services. It’s not the government’s fault if the freeloading spongers who monopolise the public sector just take the money and return negligible value for it.

      But in any event defence of the realm is always the Government’s first responsibility, so sod the public services..

  • Chamber Pot

    Rot ! Absolute scaremongering. A NATO/EU/US Axis is picking a fight with Putin to justify it’s existence and to cement an increasingly illiberal international (read Western) New World Order. The EU is much more of a present danger to our democracies because its huge budget is unaudited and it is using all of the substantial lolly we send it to subvert our political systems along with other nefarious activities such as subsidising crooked Italian MEP’s and the Ndrangheta in Calabria with regional grants – and buying 20 million quid’s worth of good good publicity from the BBC ? Meanwhile we have an Islamist threat internally whose dimensions the public really does worry about.