Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond has made headlines by suggesting the MOD and the armed forces should be spared any more significant cuts in the future spending review, instead suggesting the cuts should come from the social welfare budget instead.
The problem is… I partially agree with him; the defence budget is already the bare minimum required to meet the UK’s international commitments. It has not only received its share of austerity cuts under the Coalition but was underfunded under Blair and Brown leading to a budget “black hole” which also had to be dealt with. Worse the international picture is increasingly uncertain; the US has announced a refocusing or pivot to the Pacific, the threat of Islamic terrorism in Africa, and the global financial crisis has brought instability to the International system while leading to cuts to defence budgets.
However, squeezing more significant cuts from the welfare budget, particularly as pensions and elderly benefits are politically off limits, would appear impossible without causing extreme hardship to the most vulnerable in our society. However, there are alternative options which can, and I believe should, be considered before the welfare budget.
1) More Defence Co-operation
The UK and France are increasingly co-ordinating and co-operating on defence issues, as the recent C-17 flights and British Army Mali training mission testify. More can be done in this regard across Europe, and NATO. There is a tradition of pooling resources and specialising capabilities.
2) MOD budget savings
Before eyeing the welfare budget, the MOD should look to spend its own budget more efficiently. Even with the improvements to defence budgeting and procurement under the Coalition, savings can still be made, as shown by recent NAO and Commons Public Accounts committee reports.
3) Joint Funding
The right wing think tank Civitas and David Cameron recently suggested setting aside some of the budget of the DfID for military equipment or operations which could be used for disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and peace-keeping. In certain circumstances, I believe joint funding could be possible. For example, maybe the replacement for RFA Argus, the joint casualty treatment ship, could be funded by the MOD and DfID? Both the US and China have used their hospital ships for Medical Diplomacy cruises and disaster relief.
4) Reduce our International responsibilities.
It is often said that the UK is no longer a super power, the Empire is gone and it should cut its cloth to its purse. I completely agree. However, the demise of the UK can be greatly exaggerated. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, among the top ten global economies, and a leading member of the EU and NATO. Despite what many Tories and UKIP believe, we cannot hide away from the world on our little island, particularly as we are a major trading nation. None the less, we need a national debate about what global responsibilities we can and should be prepared to accept.
As I have already mentioned on this site, the decision to place the cost of renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent (technically, the submarines carrying it) in the main defence budget has placed unnecessary pressure on the budget. My suggestion of a multirole submarine may not save as much money as scrapping Trident altogether but should save some money and add capabilities to the UK’s armed forces.
The list of options above is not exhaustive but does give an idea of possible solutions to adequately funding the defence budget without further hardship to the least well off, while possibly providing a basis for a credible and defining Liberal policy for the spending review.
* Gareth Jones is a post-graduate in International Relations from Swansea university and was an active member of the Swansea and Gower Liberal Democrats for nine years before recently moving to Maidenhead