Getting serious about defence


Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader much of the Liberal Democrat’s rhetoric has been aimed at portraying him as an extremist.  Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron claimed that Labour had “left the field” in a party conference speech.  The implication of this claim is that Labour have left the centre ground to embark on a far leftist fellow-traveller path, seemingly ignoring the electoral success it gained from the dominating the centre ground in the New Labour years.  In this way the Liberal Democrat comeback seemingly relies on a message that it is the new party of the centre ground.  However doing this mean more than just gesture politics, it means not being afraid to tackle issues which are not commonly associated with liberalism, most notably defence.

Liberal Democrat manifestos in recent years have treated defence matters like an afterthought, an embarrassment almost, especially when it comes to questions of hard power.  When it comes to asking questions about our hard power capability our manifesto prefers to move toward the murky soft power where it seems we are more ideologically comfortable.  The 2016 manifesto talked about emphasising “a Single Security Budget, including not just conventional defence spending but the work of our security agencies, cyber defences and soft power interventions”.  This policy in itself provides opportunities and dangers.  While it is important to emphasise that multiple security threats require multiple solutions to tackle them, there can be no substitute for hard power.  Put simply; while it is arguable that the main security threat we face is from terrorism we can’t leave ourselves unprepared for future inter-state conflict.

We have to be frank about what we have achieved so far.  The claim that we spend 2% of GDP on defence is playing liberal with the truth, keeping in mind that much of this percentage is down to creative accounting which allowed Ministry of Defence pensions to be included within that figure.  In terms of hard power our country’s future is looking grim. Our new aircraft carrier lacks planes.  Our expeditionary forces are forced to cannibalise vehicles from other parts of the British Army in order to participate in NATO exercises in the Baltic States.  Far from trying to confront these harsh realities the 2016 Liberal Democrat manifesto simply stated that we should have “the capability to deploy rapidly expeditionary forces”, without actually stating how we should do this.

The Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to challenge Prime Minister Theresa May over her flip-flopping over Putin’s Russia and its ongoing aggression.  During her previous cabinet role she postponed the inquest into Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in order to not upset relations with the Russians.  At the same time while her government has sent out some strong statements about Russian aggression, the UK has been notably absent from important exchanges such as the Minsk talks over Ukraine.  Our party must send a strong message that standing up for the security and self determination of nations is key to liberal principles.

In politics perception is reality.  If our party is seen as too readily sticking to centre left domestic causes, we risk being dismissed as a party for government that can make the hard decisions.  We liberals have shown in the past that a commitment to a strong defence does not necessarily mean an abandonment of domestic responsibilities.  David Lloyd George during his People’s Budget showed that the Guns vs Butter game is winnable, if you shrewdly move the goalposts.  He delivered liberal reforms while ensuring that we outpaced Germany in the pre-World War One arms race.  It is time to be strong and decisive on both domestic policy and defence policy.

* Zachary Barker is a Liberal Democrat member in Bristol West.

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  • @ Zachary “David Lloyd George during his People’s Budget showed that the Guns vs Butter game is winnable, if you shrewdly move the goalposts. He delivered liberal reforms while ensuring that we outpaced Germany in the pre-World War One arms race.”

    I’m afraid that’s not quite the case, Zachary. The hard lifting was done by Asquith, Haldane and Grey – and to an extent McKenna – ….. with LL.G. a reluctant follower who jumped (e.g. on the Agadir crisis) when Asquith either cracked the whip or found a Dreadnought compromise…. He even wobbled in the first few days of the war until he saw which way the wind was blowing.

    All of course conveniently underplayed in his memoirs.

  • Richard Hall 27th Mar '17 - 1:43pm

    There is plenty of scope for the Liberal Democrats to pick holes in the Tories defence strategy, but being a party that wants to be ready for government means having a solid strategy of our own too that recognises the mistakes of interventionism over the past 15 years but doesn’t find ourselves locked in the “loony lefty liberal” narratives, that the right wing press spout at anyone who isn’t gung ho about the armed forces. Geoffrey Payne points out that being strong on defence isn’t a priority for voters, but being seen as weak on defence is certainly a vote loser, so i think we do need a policy on this.

    I’m left leaning myself, but I’m pro-NATO, in favour of sticking to the 2% of GDP (but not the mafia style interpretation of this by Donald Trump), and I’m wary of the hybrid warfare being waged by Putin’s regime. So having a strategy formed by people in the know, who recognise the threats as well as the causes is something the Liberal Democrats should put together.

    The Labour Party is far too enamoured with pacifism to be credible on defence, but the Tories are going in the other direction. I do believe that it is possible to have a humanitarian foreign policy, but one that is backed by an hard edge and awareness of a changing, more dangerous world.

  • A hundred years ago Britain had a large Empire. Britain is no longer the world’s policeman. Involvement in far flung wars comes a cost with little benefit.

  • Zachary Barker 27th Mar '17 - 7:33pm

    Hello everyone. Thank you for the comments. I will try to address each in turn.

    OK, David I may have condensed the history a bit too much, I appreciate you elaborating on what actually went down. But we can agree that we were ahead of the Germans in the Dreadnought race, this has been a matter of record for some time. An account by account log of what happened then wasn’t what I as after, merely a brief elaboration of a point that the guns vs butter argument (used by the left and right for their own purposes) is unconvincing on close analysis.

    Richard, we seem to be of like-minds on the pro-NATO and wary of Putin front. I don’t think our party talks about either of those things enough. As for interventionism I think we need to adopt a middle ground on this. We have to recognise that certain international commitments we have may necessitate power projection. HOWEVER, intervention should be seen as only one option out of many. Certainly if our NATO allies are under attack intervention in their favour would not only be justified under the NATO charter but also the UN one.

    Geoffrey, with respect, a hard power inventory is an insurance policy for the future. We cannot see a country trying to invade us in the short term, but we know how quickly things can change and more importantly how long it takes to get prepared again once taking our defence apparatus apart. I hear disquieting news about how our expeditionary capability is already creaking under the constraints of creative accounting. With regards to the Baltic republics and our commitment too them, we can hardly make a commitment if we take our expeditionary forces for granted.

    Manfarang, when did I ever say that we should have an empire or be the world’s policeman? Please respond to what I HAVE written, not what you WISH I had.

  • @ Manfarang ” A hundred years ago Britain had a large Empire. Britain is no longer the world’s policeman. Involvement in far flung wars comes a cost with little benefit.”

    Errrrrr……. have you forgotten that not long ago ago in order to suck up to an American President, Tony Blair (supported by the Conservative Party) did behave as if ‘Britain had a large Empire. Britain is no longer the world’s policeman. Involvement in far flung wars comes a cost with little benefit.’. It was called Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Frankly, the more I see of this Tory Government, the more living in an independent country of 5 million people without having the nonsensical Trident becomes more and more attractive.

    I’m afraid Teresa’s mindset is still to hanker for an Imperial Britain.

  • Zachary
    As David Raw points out the imperial mentality is hardly dead, neither is the cold war one judging from what you write about NATO. Is it really in Britain’s interest to be part of NATO? Intervention in Libya, Afghanistan, and the Middle East have hardly made the world a better or safer place.

  • Roland C Powell 28th Mar '17 - 5:28am

    Present defence policies are inadequate and the MoD highly dysfunctional. Procurement and planning are both poor. The result of poor decisions has produced a defence that is not. We are dependent on our NATO allies for too much in terms of maintaining capability.
    An essential objective of a realistic defence policy should be to restructure the MoD so that it has fewer civil servants and more service personnel with chiefs of staff in post for longer periods. The procurement system could then be streamlined and become fit for purpose.
    2% of GDP is not sufficient to produce the quantity and flexibility required in the future, here love of country has to be paid for.
    Past mistakes by politicians will make producing the defence system we deserve more difficult but it must be done and LD’s must have the policies ready and be willing to to argue for a credible, funded defence. Make do and mend must end.

  • Dave Simpson 28th Mar '17 - 8:31am

    As a party I think its very important that we have a policy on Defence. Zachary has mentioned several historical situations that took us to war. However to me the issues of today, are firstly the woeful under funding of our forces and secondly, the bloated idea that we need a nuclear deterrent. As has been said by others, we are no longer an empire and neither need or can afford this type of defence that goes back to the cold war days. In spite of being a fully paid up member of NATO. No one has mentioned what happens following brexit ? We will stand alone as a much smaller part of the NATO agreement and our contribution should be seen by other members as just that. A nuclear armament will make us a target if ever there was a nuclear war and does nothing to help in our current situation , with the biggest threat from terrorism. We need to build up our conventional defence forces and Security services and supply them properly, with the equipment they need in harms way in order to play our role in NATO and be able to face the threats of today and tomorrow.

  • Antony Watts 28th Mar '17 - 8:46am

    I have to confess, I leave this sort of thing to other people. I simply cannot bring myself to think about making guns and bombs. I am a pacifist I guess.

    So, all you other people let me know what you decide.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Mar '17 - 10:58am

    The problem with the Liberal Democrats’ position on defence is that since Lord Garden’s untimely death in 2007, we have not had any senior politician with experience in the armed forces speaking up about what is needed to meet our commitments. The Tories typically have a number of ex-serving officers amongst their MPs and Labour have Lord West, but the one capable person on our benches, Paddy Ashdown, seems to say nothing about defence. This is understandable in that as an ex-leader, he chooses not to say anything that could embarass Tim, but it does mean that there is a black hole on defence in our Party.

  • Ronald Murray 28th Mar '17 - 11:03am

    I am a Lib Dem member but don’t have my login details here on my computer. I was brought up a quaker and pacifist but later in life joined the army int corps. However I agree that we must have a strong policy on defence all of it including a viable Civil Defence Corps for all emergencies flooding, natural disasters as well as war. We are the only EU country with effectively nothing. The government did issue resilience equipment to fire brigades such as High Volume Pumping Units, Decontamination Units and DIM units. However ownership hos now been passed to fire authorities by central government, will they be replaced who knows. Since 1968 when Labour disbanded the Civil Defence Corps and Auxiliary Fire Service selling off most of the new equipment at bargain prices saving only one million pounds. British politicians have tried write Civil Defence out of the history books, without a pool of trained volunteers we are lost. I think I can speak with authority being a corporate member of the Institution of Civil Protection and Emergency Management for over thirty years. Finally we must have the forces to defend our country and places like the Falkland Islands. Nuclear weapons are generally a waste of money getting rid would allow us to equip our armed forces properly and institute a new civil defence organisation. I am a member of Dunfermline Lib Dems but this is my own opinion and should not be attributed to the party.

  • @ Ronald Murray : “Finally we must have the forces to defend our country and places like the Falkland Islands”.

    Interesting comment there, Ronald. The Falklands is defended at a cost of over £ 70 million a year and rising ? That works out at £ 35,000 per head. I’ll let you do the sums to work out the full total if this was applied to the UK. Thaty doesnm’t include the capital cost of the Typhoons down there.

    Could any British politician pull out of that ? Doubtful if any would have the nerve – but certainly another Imperial hangover.

  • Manfarang “A hundred years ago Britain had a large Empire. Britain is no longer the world’s policeman.”

    Were we ever the “world’s” policeman? with a far-flung empire, I agree some may have perceived it to be like that.

    However, we have been Europe’s guardian supported by the USA, as evidenced by our engagement in WWI and WWII and the obligations we took on with respect to the security of Europe subsequently to WWII.

    Given the potential scale of the impact of Brexit on Europe and given how relatively trivial the incidents that have set off wars in Europe, I suggest we certainly need to remain in Nato and engaged with Europe. As to what that means with respect to the defence forces we should and need to be maintaining, I would hope the experts can provide guidance.

  • @ Roland ” Given the potential scale of the impact of Brexit on Europe and given how relatively trivial the incidents that have set off wars in Europe”.

    I can’t believe that you said …… a) that the invasion of Poland and the Nazi state apparatus of 1939 was relatively trivia,

    and b) that the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914 was relatively trivial ?

  • @David – The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, is generally regarded by historians as the incident that caused WWI. Also it is generally regarded by historians that the seeds for WWII were sown in the aftermath of WWI, namely the Treaty of Versailles.

  • The problem is that as a nation we cling to the belief that we are a “world power” and as such we attempt to maintain a military that is capable of force projection around the world. We attempt this, but we fail to do it properly because we can’t afford it. The QE class aircraft carriers (and their ruinously expensive F35 stealth jets when we eventually get them), Astute class submarines with their cruise missiles, C-17 and A400M transport aircraft etc. are all about conducting missions far from home.

    Yet when the first aircraft carrier deploys for the first time it will be to the far east as part of a US battle group, carrying US Marine Corps aircraft because we won’t have enough of our own.

    If our military was tasked only to defend the UK mainland and overseas territories, it would look very different, and for the same money would be far more effective. We wouldn’t need aircraft carriers. We could have much cheaper diesel-electric attack subs instead of expensive nuclear powered ones. This would free up the funds to have a decent sized defensive surface fleet for the Navy, maritime patrol aircraft to monitor and protect our coastline and surrounding waters, and a modern reliable fleet of vehicles for the army.

    We need to decide if we still want to be a “big player” on the world stage and then find much more money to do the job properly, or accept we are not and re-purpose the military into a purely defensive posture.

  • If our military was tasked only to defend the UK mainland and overseas territories … We wouldn’t need aircraft carriers.

    I suggest you reread your history, focusing particularly on HMS Glorious and the Falklands Conflict…

  • @Roland

    1. WW1 You’re correct insofar as Imperial Germany used the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to trigger off a series of events in pursuit of their ambition for a Wilhelmine Reich (Mittel Europa), but the causus belli for Great Britain was the invasion of Belgium (and to lesser extent France with whom we had a Naval Treaty). I suggest you have a look at Fritz Fischer’s works (regarded as the most accurate on German intentions by modern First World War historians such as Professor Gary Sheffield…… you could read the Brocks edited ‘Letters to Venetia Stanley’ to get Asquith’s view on the matter.

    2. WW2 Yes, there were seeds of resentment in the Versailles Treaty (Keynes took that view in the 1920’s), but more compelling, the great crash of 1929 created the conditions which enabled Hitler to come to power in 1933.

  • @ Roland I hope you’re not suggesting HMS Glorious was involved in the Falklands conflict.

    She was a First War battle cruiser converted into an aircraft carrier and sunk by German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off Norway in June, 1940. She was sent to Norway by Churchill (some say to ‘rescue’ the Norwegian Royal family). Over 1,200 casualties resulted from Churchill’s folly – but the Falklands conflict ? Forty two years later.

  • I’m serious about defence. I go along with Zachary’s comment that it tends to be treated as an embarrassment on the small L liberal left.

    In being serious about defence, we should shun gesture politics. That means not going on about things being “loony left” or indeed “Blimpish right” and taking a hard look at practicalities. For example, we’ve just re-committed to Trident, something about as useful as elephants in Normandy.

  • @David – re: the seeds of WWI & II – I should have been more precise in my original posting, that I was alluding to the event that is regarded as setting the snowball of war in motion. Otherwise, I do not disagree with your history thumbnail.

    Re: HMS Glorious – No I wasn’t confusing when and where, just that both events involved aircraft carriers. In the case of Glorious, due to having Hurricanes unadapted for naval usage parked on it’s deck, it was unable to fly any aircraft. Opinion is that if the Glorious had been able to fly aircraft, it would have received an early warning on the presence of the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Hence it is an incident that directly shows the benefits of having an aircraft carrier, contradicting Zackary’s claim.

    Whilst the Vulcan’s were able to fly from Ascension Island, the Harriers etc. used aircraft carriers. So another example where aircraft carriers helped to protect a “UK … overseas territory”, so also contradicting zachary’s claim.

    Also, we can point to the humanitarian engagements in recent years, where aircraft carriers have been used to enable both the delivery of aid, accommodation for aid workers, and high specification ‘field’ hospitals. But this brings us back to what is the Military for, and what should we use it for when it isn’t fully engaged in conflict resolution.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Mar '17 - 11:06pm

    David Raw

    There is inconsistency above . You think it ok to contemplate another referendum on Scottish independence asking the same question that nearly sixty per cent rejected only two years ago.

    You call it imperial that the Falklands are defended , when ninety nine , yes that is the figure, per cent of the islands inhabitants voted to , like the Scottish electorate, maintain their link with the UK.

    Nothing imperial about defending territory which the people who determined their own status , want defended, and need defended.

    Of course if the friends of the lefties who like determination for other small nations, but not the ones that decide to stay with Britain, you know, the Corbyn types and colleagues, recognised the noises off from the bullying Argentina were nothing but threatening and totally unnecessary, the cost of that defence would decrease, even as the security of the Falklands increased .

    Self determination by no people on earth has ever been more obvious than the Falkland islands endorsement of continued acceptance of the relationship with mainland Britain.

  • Zachary Barker 30th Mar '17 - 6:41pm

    “Is it really in Britain’s interest to be part of NATO?”

    Yes, no question. It is undoubtedly in our best interests to remain in an alliance that declares an attack on one state (including ourselves) an attack on all. While Eastern Europe is threatened it would be disgraceful for this country to leave them to the mercy of their more powerful neighbour yet again.

    I think it is in our interest to remain a world power. Especially with the US coming under an outspokenly isolationist president, liberal values and international law rests on a very weak foundation. If remaining a world power means we can help craft the world order, I think it is a price worth paying for.

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