A disappointing debate

The debate was supposed to be about defence spending.

On the day when the Defence Select Committee said spending could be as low as 1.8% of GDP, we should have had a productive discussion.

The scene was set. Westminster Hall, 09:30. Plenty of MPs in attendance, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan who put the motion forward. The Ministry of Defence had a minister in attendance: Mark Lancaster. A packed public gallery. 90 minutes to discuss why the government should invest more in defence.

And yet it was not to be.

Trevelyan opened with a passionate speech, but she lacked direction. This may have simply been because she knew that all the MPs in the room were in favour of what she was advocating, but it nonetheless was a disheartening start.

Whilst she raised some useful issues, like more junior personnel being unable to speak to politicians about their concerns, she lacked distinct points. There wasn’t a single logical chain of argument.

Challenged about the state of industry in the UK, she said that Brexit would boost the economy and in turn the defence industry. This didn’t go down well around the room, with no one coming to her aid…

The points from around the room continued in the same ineffective and meaningless vain. One MP stood up and stressed the importance of implementing the Armed Forces Covenant. He chose however not to say anything even vaguely related to defence spending…

Another MP took the opportunity to moan about how the UK will “never understand” how the F-35 works, because the United States “own the intellectual property.”

23 minutes in, Trevelyan stood up again and began: “So, we’re here to talk about defence spending.”

‘Hurrah. Weak start, but maybe the debate will get going now!’ I thought.

How naively optimistic of me. She proceeded to say we must implement the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (because no one has ever said that before…..). She concluded by describing the Armed Forces as “our nation’s just in case.”

Julian Lewis used his speech to canvas for Boris. Only the final 45 seconds or so had much to do with defence. Mark Francois was loud and angry as usual. Once you get past the noise he’s not really saying anything.

Politics took hold briefly. There was party bickering about who is better at managing defence. The Labour line being the Conservatives are spending less. The retort being “You cannot defend your country when you’re broke.” Mark Lancaster asked Labour members in the room for a single occasion when Jeremy Corbyn had advocated for an increase in defence spending. There were no takers.

It took over an hour for anyone to identify a dynamic threat that the United Kingdom faces and use it to justify an increase in spending.

Robert Courts was the unexpected stand out performer, not that he had much competition. His speech was punchy, concise, and convincing. He blamed issues in defence not on the MoD, but on the Treasury. His final example brought audible and widespread agreement: “It’s very difficult to expect people to serve when they can’t have a warm shower.”

Mark Lancaster described it as a “highly destructive” debate. That hardly scratches the surface. These issues aren’t going to go away by ignoring them. You can’t magic away threats by pretending they aren’t there.

The government must be honest with itself. The Ministry of Defence has a budget black hole. Indeed the Public Accounts Committee believes it could be as high as £14.8 billion. It’s therefore very simple: either Defence needs to make what they call ‘efficiency savings’, or cuts to normal people, or it needs more money.

Even ignoring the budget shortfall, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether the Armed Forces are adequately equipped to respond to evolving threats. Many take to Twitter at the moment to outline their ‘fantasy fleets’. Whilst entertaining, there’s an interesting point here. The mere premise of having a ‘fantasy fleet’ implies one not seeing the current complement of equipment, be it tanks, jets, or ships, as sufficient. This appears to be a fairly widely held belief.

Then there’s the small matter of personnel. Under SDSR 2015, each service was given targets for 2020. The table on the right reflects the state of this. None of the services are currently on target.

Bizarrely, the government repeatedly insists that the British Army has 82,000 personnel. It’s own document says 75,070.

The point I’m attempting to make here is that the problems in defence are many. The budget shortfall won’t just go away. The debate regarding capability continues. And personnel targets are far below where they’re meant to be by 2020. I, perhaps more than some others, prefer to focus on the positive stuff. When a problem comes to the surface or the MoD is criticised, I tend to hold back, or even just stay off Twitter for that day.

But what frustrated me today was some element of naivety from the MPs present. There were cheap shots at each other. People playing party politics. The occasional inside joke and ensuing laughter. But not one individual convinced me that they were conscious of these issues and how they need to be reacted to.

Maybe I’m being overly critical. But defence matters. Inconvenient truths are nonetheless truths, and ignoring problems in defence will have consequences down the line. It’s simply not enough to have debates like the one today if they’re not taken seriously.

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