A critique of Liberal Democrat Defence policy, Part 1

The following is a critique of the defence policy outlined in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto published for the 2019 General Election and presumably still extant at time of writing (June 2020).  Manifesto commitments are reproduced verbatim followed by my commentary.

Page 91: A Secure Defence in the 21st Century

The Armed Forces play a vital role in the defence of the nation: government should have a deep sense of duty to properly support service personnel and veterans. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown a commitment to this: the Conservative government in particular has spread chronic low morale, misspent money on vanity projects and failed to recruit and retain people with the skills needed for 21st century warfare. Liberal Democrats are the only party who understand the new challenges faced by the Armed Forces and who are committed to properly supporting them.

Comment. This is bland, anodyne and says nothing of any consequence on what the party thinks the armed forces are for and what they ought to do.  It talks vaguely about “new challenges” and the need to support the forces without saying what either of those might be. Do we actually know?

We will:

  • Commit to the principle of collective self-defence as laid out in the North Atlantic Treaty and spending two per cent of GDP on defence in line with NATO recommendations: as the economy grows after we have stopped Brexit, this will mean an extra £3 billion over the parliament.

Comment.  In 2017 the UK spent 2.1% of GDP on defence, so this signifies a reduction on past spending. Most commentators agree that for the UK to continue to maintain a full spectrum military capability spending needs to be at least 2.5% of GDP and preferably rise to 3%.  The party should raise its commitment to 2.5% as a minimum.

  • Strengthen our armed services and address critical skills shortages by recruiting STEM graduates to be armed forces engineers, providing ‘golden handshakes’ of up to £10,000. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]

Comment.  The opening phrase “strengthen our armed services” is hopelessly vague.  Strengthen them how? In what areas? To what purpose? The commitment to STEM graduates is fine but why the emphasis on engineers? Why not doctors and medics, for example?  What is really needed, given the parlous state of recruitment and retention across the armed services, is a commitment to provide better conditions of service – pay, housing, working environment, family support, pensions, care after service, veterans’ support to mention but some.

  • Promote an international treaty on the principles and limits of the use of technology in modern warfare.

Comment. What does this mean? There are lots of international treaties like this. What aspect are we talking about here?

  • Recognise the expansion of warfare into the cybersphere, by investing in our security and intelligence services and acting to counter cyberattacks. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]

Comment.  Fair enough, but how much investment?  Would this be new money in addition to the existing defence budget or a reallocation of funds?


* Stuart Crawford is a freelance journalist of several years (and many publications) standing and a party member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I entirely agree that we should start with what defence Is for. In fact for every aspect of spending we should start with what we are trying to do.
    It looks to me as if there is in reality an attempt to avoid a difficult discussion.
    Thank you, Stuart, for highlighting this issue. Especially at this time when we need to recognise the contribution the forces made in our present crisis.

  • Not sure that I agree with much in this post but it is very refreshing to see the usual well meant but somewhat vague utterances taken apart.

    Do we really need three top heavy arms of the “defence” forces rather than merging the whole lot in one much more versatile force that when not seeing off foreign invasions can be used for the general good, as per their help in the coronavirus mess?

    Something quite radical rather than more of the same needed.

    BTW 2 percent of a much reduced GDP due to the virus and Brexit means lots of cuts, unless my mathematics has missed something. But no doubt the new arrangement for foreign aid money will mean any time the armed forces leave the country some of that dosh can be used…

  • I imagine that we need more STEM graduates because defence in the future will be about high tech deterrence and surveillance. Why not medics ? Because that suggest boots on the ground and wounded servicemen. Lord forfend !

  • Lets face it the Lib Dems have always been strong on things like education, rights for certain minority groups, reforming the electoral system etc. However, when it comes down to defence or law and order the public see you as weak. Most of the voters want to see a strong military and police officers that don’t run away. If you could sort out your problems in these areas (if you want to) you may see the people who supported you in the Kennedy days return. However, you need to understand that in situations like we have seen on the TV recently it’s not always possible to be liberal!

  • William Wallace 26th Jun '20 - 12:29pm

    We’re stuck with defence equipment that doesn’t match likely demands: 2 large carriers with short-range aircraft, too few frigates and supply ships to support carrier groups, heavy spending on deterrent submarines, etc.. We now have a close defence relationship with France, which the government prefers not to talk about. We cannot afford a full range of defence capacities, but Tories pretend that we can nevertheless be sovereign and independent. So forthcoming security review will force hard choices, and we should be radical. But manifestos are not places to publish new ideas!

  • We first have to decide if we just want to be able to defend the British Isles plus a handful of overseas dependencies, or if we want to be a “world player” with expeditionary capability. At the moment we are trying to be the latter with the budget of the former, so we end up with 2 large carriers without enough aircraft, and a shortage of frigates and destroyers to patrol our waters. Or a fleet of long range transport aircraft, but no maritime patrol aircraft despite being an island nation.

  • I suspect that the emphasis on STEM graduates (vs medics, for example) is a reflection on the difficulties of recruitment and retention rather than their relative importance.

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