As someone who freely admits to holding a ‘One Nation’ position on most issues, my views on top spending priorities should conventionally be confined to the NHS, Education and the Welfare State. Therefore my long held belief that our number one priority should actually be none of those can arouse consternation in certain circles.
I do not in any way profess to be an expert on this subject, nor do I seek to be. However, my long held view is that we are not as a nation paying nearly enough attention to defence spending. The statistics speak for themselves.
We are clinging on to the 2% of GDP NATO target for defence spending, and this is often quoted as if it is some sort of Gold Standard that we have maintained. Thirty years ago we were spending 5% of GDP on defence, and I do not see that the global risks have diminished commensurably in that time. At least the Cold War was in many respects predictable in its unpredictability. The fact that other nations have become naively over-dependent on those who pay their way in NATO is immaterial. We don’t measure our success or failure in other areas of public spending by how much other nations spend, and nor should we on defence. We should be taking pride in striving for one of the best equipped and best motivated Armed Forces in the world. I include the highest standards of care and support for our veterans after active service within that.
The words ‘Defence Review’ over the years have become a byword for cuts. If the expected outcome of every single review is that spending will reduce then the whole exercise becomes meaningless. All sides involved just become complicit in implementing cuts, the only contention is the size. Genuine strategic efficiencies are harder to come by as vested interests ensure that the argument is about ‘who else has to cut their budget rather than me?’. This is not a satisfactory way to continue, and we are fooling ourselves that there are more easy savings to be made. There are other areas of the public sector that haven’t made nearly as many efficiency savings as the MoD over the years. The fetish for ever increasing spending on the NHS without substantial reform or efficiencies being achieved doesn’t compare well with what our expectations have been of the MoD over the last 30 years or so.
It is time we had a national conversation on defence spending and ask ourselves some long hard questions about the future role we want to play in the world and the risks we face. Like it or not, military influence will be crucial if we are seeking to renew a truly independent British foreign policy. For quite some time now the mainstream political parties have been guilty of, at best, glossing over the issues. This is easily done as for the ordinary voter the sums involved in any discussion on the defence budget appear so enormous that the odd billion cut here or there doesn’t have context. Defence spending also gives little short term tangible benefit electorally. We must take our share of responsibility for this, as we haven’t made it a serious election issue for some time.
As many commentators have noted the election of Trump seems to indicate that America will be less willing to intervene globally unless US interests are at stake, and understandably so. There are a whole raft of countries, many our EU ‘partners’, who are not paying their way on defence and who are being over-reliant on the US. At some point the chickens will inevitably come home to roost.
Such ill-preparedness should be of grave concern to those countries involved, and it is time they stepped up to the plate. It is time to take another look at our priorities. As Ronald Reagan said:
“Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives”.
Ian Jones is an independent Financial Adviser based in the New Forest, a former Trade Union representative, and a Regional Co-ordinator for Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
* These are the personal views of Ian Jones, not those of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.