Don Touhig on the Conservatives continued attempts to run down our country’s defence capability
Britain’s armed forces have had a raw deal from this government. Cuts in personnel have had an adverse impact on our ability to defend ourselves; and also upon the morale of those serving in our armed forces.
Many have argued that Britain’s defence industry and our national security are both stronger as a result of EU membership. As much I share that analysis, this is not what I want to dwell on today.
The plain fact is that in 2016 the British Army is smaller in size than the one we put in the field against Napoleon. Our Navy, which had 50 warships at the height of the Cold War, now has just 19 now. The RAF, which once boasted 30 combat squadrons, now has just a handful.
The government planned to replace highly trained regular forces with reserves but recruitment is not meeting targets and the Ministry of Defence’s Major Project Authority has moved the programme for Future Reserves 2020 from amber/red to red.
On top of this, the biggest defence decision in decades—the Trident replacement programme – is in limbo. Many commentators believe that the Prime Minister is delaying a decision, in order to score cheap party political points once Labour’s Defence Review is presented to conference later this year.
This past weekend meanwhile, we have been regaled with press stories claiming that the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, when Defence Secretary, wanted to court martial General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s deputy supreme commander. Why? Because he warned the government “was taking one hell of a risk cutting the regular army and relying on reserves”.
So much for transparency and free speech.
Not to be outdone, Hammond’s successor at Defence, Michael Fallon has proclaimed what I call ‘the Fallon Doctrine’, whereby Parliament will not be told when we embed British forces under the command of a foreign power which could commit them to military action.
We were told in the Queen’s Speech that the government will invest in Britain’s armed forces. Let’s wait and see that this means.
Throughout its period of office, the current government and the previous Tory/LibDem Coalition allowed the Treasury to call the shots on defence. As a result, our defence capability is greatly diminished. Indeed, if General Shirreff is correct, it is inconceivable that we can now deploy a division to go into action in a major conflict as if were doing to back in 2003.
I often think about what would have happened if a Labour government had done the things the Conservatives have done to our armed forces. We would no doubt find every right-wing leaning newspaper, ex-senior military officer and Tory MP screaming from the roof tops about Labour’s betrayal of the defence of Britain. Instead there is a deafening silence.
Funny old world this.
Lord Don Touhig is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 23rd May 2016