Britain in the World

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East 5:26 pm, 13th January 2020

I do, and in this there is an important rebuttal of a point often made by those who think we can afford to cut out certain capabilities because we are members of an alliance and we can rely on other allies to supply capabilities that we ourselves do not have. That leaves out of account what happens if, heaven forbid, we are involved in a major conflict and one of our allies is knocked out and no longer able to supply us with the missing capabilities. So while we cannot do everything, we have to be able to do as many things as are possible within a reasonable financial envelope. My point about the percentages is that they give us a rough idea of what is reasonable at any given time in a country’s circumstances.

The spectrum of threats ranges from, at the most extreme end, nuclear obliteration, through conventional defeat and subjugation, to what is generally regarded in the terminology as 21st-century threats—terrorism, subversion, infiltration, disinformation, cyber and space. In the short time remaining, I want to focus on the point about which I had an exchange with the Foreign Secretary during his speech, and that is the question of the defence review.

My concern goes back to 2017, when, as I referred to in my intervention, we had something called the national security capability review. That was meant to look at defence and security altogether, but it was also meant to be fiscally neutral, which meant that if we decided that we wanted to spend more on dealing with so-called 21st-century threats—I am pleased to see Stewart Malcolm McDonald nodding in recollection of and, I hope, agreement with my analysis—such as subversion or disinformation or especially cyber, we had to start cutting core conventional capabilities.

I draw the House’s attention, not for the first time, to a very revealing article in The Guardian, no less, on 26 June 2018, in which it was reported that there had been an “increasingly bitter stand-off” between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence. It read:

“The row has its origins in July last year, when the Cabinet Office announced the national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, would conduct a review of the threats facing the UK and the capabilities needed to meet them. His brief was to look at the UK security needs in the round, taking in the intelligence agencies as well as the MoD. He was also to evaluate the risks posed by terrorists and cyber-attacks as well as from conventional forces.”

That sounds rather similar to what we heard today. The article continues:

“By the autumn, it was clear the intelligence agencies had come out on top and the MoD was looking at being forced to make cuts, with options ranging from reducing the size of the army from 77,000 to 70,000, cutting 1,000 Royal Marines and decommissioning two specialist amphibious-landing ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.

There was a consensus among mandarins involved in the negotiations the UK was less likely to need two specialist amphibious landing ships than the ability to defend against a cyber-attack on its infrastructure or financial networks.

But there was a backlash from an informal coalition led by Williamson,”— my right hon. Friend Gavin Williamson

“appointed in November, and the chairman of the defence select committee… as well as a score or more Conservative MPs (and Labour ones with defence jobs in their constituencies)...

One of the arguments from Tory backbenchers was the military were disproportionately represented”— they mean under-represented—

“in negotiations dominated by politicians with no military background and by the intelligence agencies.

The counter-arguments were little aired in the media: that the UK should abandon its adherence to tradition and instead build a modern force, a pared-down one, with lower spending levels closer to comparable Europeans neighbours. Compared with the UK’s 2.1% of GDP spent on defence, France spends 1.79%, Germany 1.2%... Italy 1.1% and Spain 0.9%.”

The cat was out of the bag—the establishment and the Treasury wanted us to reduce our spending on what is conventionally understood as defence in favour of new capabilities. I entirely agree that we need to spend more on new capabilities, but why does that mean that we have to spend less on conventional capabilities when, as I set out at the beginning, we have no idea what the nature of a future conflict will be? As the threats are augmented and the dangers multiply, we should be spending more, not less.

I return to that rough yardstick of the percentage terms. The Defence Committee spent a lot of time trying to work out what really had happened to defence, because, as we know, the criteria were changed for calculating our GDP percentage expenditure on defence. We were able to establish objectively that

“calculated on a historically consistent basis”,

in the last four years for which figures are available, although officially we spent 2.2%, 2.1%, 2.1% and 2.1%, in reality—on the basis on which it used to be calculated —we spent 1.9%, 1.8%, 1.8% and, again, 1.8%.

I conclude by saying that it used to be the case that in the 1980s we spent roughly the same on defence, on education and on health. We now spend two and a half times on education and four times on health what we spend on defence. No one is asking to go back to the levels of expenditure, comparatively speaking, of the 1980s, but even in the mid-1990s we felt ourselves able to invest 3% of GDP on keeping ourselves safe, not the 4% to 5% that we spent in the 1980s. That is a worthwhile target, an acceptable target and a target to which the Government need to aspire.