Hubris won’t help our armed forces

by Jim Murphy

We know what to expect from Liam Fox’s speech tomorrow. He will claim that the defence budget is in balance thanks to his single-handed efforts and polish his credentials as darling of the party’s right. The service personnel who have lost their jobs in recent days and weeks, however, will not be celebrating with him.  It is worth us carefully considering this government’s record in defence since taking office.

The SDSR is, of course, the centrepiece. Adversely criticised on all sides in its development – the chairman of the defence select committee said it was conducted at “extraordinary speed”, while Fox himself said it was “less and less defensible as a proper SDSR and more like a ‘super CSR” – its limitations were most exposed by events.

Liam Fox will claim that successfully-executed operations in Libya exonerate the government. Labour backed the international action against Gaddafi, were right to do so and continue to support our forces in what remains a vital military and political mission.  The operations, however, were reliant on equipment which had been planned to be cut.  Furthermore, while the SDSR does not “envisage” the UK being in two “enduring” (longer than six months) conflicts and plans the shape and size of our forces accordingly, Libya crossed the six month threshold last month. We are now operating above the level of commitment the review officially planned for and so Libya exposes rather than justifies its impacts which limit Britain’s ability to respond militarily in a fast-changing global security landscape.

Let’s remember that immediately after the SDSR the government, from the prime minister down, proclaimed that defence was “on a stable footing”.  Just months later, however, projections proved unachievable, were recast and further cuts on top of those in the SDSR were announced which will lead to the smallest British army in more than a century and the closure of a number of RAF bases.

We cannot rely on Liam Fox’s declarations of success. Consider that the SDSR’s sums are predicated on £4.3bn non-frontline savings. Labour will support efficiency savings, but Parliamentary questions have revealed that Ministers cannot justify these figures.  We are deeply concerned that these are overly ambitious, could fall short and therefore could lead to further salami slicing of the frontline. Consider that a recent NAO report revealed a £71m black hole in the defence budget and that the overall costs of the carrier programme are unknown. Consider also that the entire justification for the deep cuts made by the government is a £38bn blackhole – but this has never been explained and even the defence select committee has said it cannot be verified.  The SDSR is called an Age of Uncertainty, but this could just as well describe the MoD budget.

If we cannot trust the figures, what gauge should we use to measure success?  How about the five year trend of morale increasing amongst our forces being reversed? Or two thirds of those leaving the Navy doing so voluntarily? The triple whammy of redundancies, permanent pension cuts and slashed allowances has left our forces downhearted and disillusioned – a sentiment that delegates in Manchester should remember if tempted by triumphalism.  This has been made worse by the prime minister publicly undermining our service chiefs, saying “you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking”, and the defence secretary being publicly undermined, notably when the head of the navy said that deploying a carrier in Libya would have made the operation more reactive and cheaper and when the chief of defence staff corrected Fox’s assertion that Gaddafi was himself a target of the Libya operation.

We know what the attack on Labour will be, and I want to take it head on. Labour left office with our forces better equipped and our service personnel better cared for. Improved housing and healthcare, a modernised equipment programme and doubled compensation payments are all hallmarks of our record in government. And we have been clear that savings need to be made in this parliament. We support cutting Challenger 2 tanks, cutting heavy artillery, withdrawing Tristars, non-frontline savings from the sale of assets and the defence estate, efficiencies in the Trident programme, reforming MoD structures to streamline the department and examining the regional footprint and structure of the army.  We have been boldly upfront too on the need for reform to tackle the systemic issues surrounding defence procurement. We know we lost momentum on reform when in government and we know we need to deal with the consequences of our actions, but the decisions taken by this government are their own. A blame game is at best a diversionary tactic and at worst a lie to those who have lost their jobs.

When Liam Fox says that you cannot have national security without fiscal security he is right. But the reverse is equally true: you cannot have fiscal security without national security. Will a nation be more economically secure if its defences are unable to meet the challenges posed by chemical or cyber attack, piracy, failed and failing states, extremism, organised crime or natural hazards? Of course not. The biggest test of the speech will be whether the defence secretary can convey a purpose and vision for our armed forces today beyond them being an arm of the chancellor’s austerity measures.

The fiscal hawk may be able to take some glory from having famous guests at his birthday party, but he should take little from his record as defence secretary.

Jim Murphy is Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow defence secretary.

5 Responses to “Hubris won’t help our armed forces”

  1. swatantra says:

    Still no mention of scrapping Polaris and the nuclear arsenal. And no mention of working more closely with our European colleagues in a Joint Defence Force and basically not overcommiting ourselves and living within our means. And combining the 3 Services more.

  2. rob the cripple says:

    This is a little bit of story telling, Labour might be able to say the building were in a mess when we came in, but you did little to sort it out until the press brought it up.

    I can rember our lads training and having to shout bang bang your dead because you refused to buy blanks, and we all rember the mess of our troops in Iraq.

    We all remember the helicopter fiasco which saw Labour having to go out and buy new ones. we also remeber the fiasco of the Apache helicopters bought for Muliti millions left to rot because you did not have the correct computer systems.

    We rember Labour and Brown telling us the TA would have less training and run down.

    Bit rich

    But you are right you will have to live with the mess you made.

    What is it like to have a short memory

  3. Chris says:

    what an utterly venal. self-serving and dishonest analysis.

    It is not good enough to just say “We know we lost momentum on reform when in government and we know we need to deal with the consequences of our actions”. Labour had 13 years to address procurement and institute reform, and so the implication that the current government is solely to blame for the human costs of the decisions forced on it by Labour’s inaction is vile.

    As for Labour’s ‘record’ – there would be something pretty wrong if, after 13 years, Labour had left our armed forces less well-equipped than in 1997. So, a facile boast.

    The point is that the MOD maxed out the country’s credit card to the extent that there was no money left. In a debate about defence spending, the phrase ‘scorched earth policy’ has extra resonance.

    As in education, health, welfare and other areas of spending, Labour spent, spent, spent, borrowed, taxed, borrowed, spent, taxed, borrowed and spent – all without any sort of meaningful reform.

    This is just another example of a Labour non-apology.

    Mr. Murphy – the human cost of defence cuts is down to you and your fellow travellers. I really don’t understand how you can live with yourself, let alone come up with such a disgusting and transparent attempt at blame-shifting. You bastard!

  4. swatantra says:

    Scrap Trident. Call for unilateral disarmament now.

  5. swatantra says:

    I don’t know who this bloke Hubris is, but … we need more than a SDSR to get us ut of the mess we are in in overseas conflicts. Scale down, downsize the whole lot.
    4th biggest Defence spender as Fox has reminded us. Why?

Leave a Reply