My Lords, I congratulate the members of the European Union External Affairs Sub-Committee for their most interesting and informative report, which is now the subject of this short debate. Notwithstanding its publication a year ago, as has already been mentioned, the strategic context of our impending departure from the European Union remains as valid today as it was on the date of publication.
Last year or this year, our future security and defence relationship with our European friends, partners and allies remains a most significant topic, and our departure from the European Union should in no way be seen as a lessening of our commitment to the security of all the peoples of Europe, nor of the role that we as Europeans can play in overall world security. That said, the report highlights that historically the United Kingdom has played only a modest part in EU common security policy missions and operations, contributing only 2.3% in manpower terms, but believes that we have played a more significant role in the formulation of strategic guidance at the planning stage of many of these missions and operations. Our national concern, well expressed in chapter 4 of the report, is that as only a “third country”, as it is termed, our influence will be diminished. This may indeed be right in the narrow context of EU membership, but I believe that, in the overall context of security and defence, this view is too narrow.
More broadly, within the EU or outside it, the facts remain that the United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a significant player within the G7 and G20 and the leading European military member of NATO, which, after all, is our highest-priority defence and co-ordinating alliance—an alliance that not only secured the peace in Europe during the Cold War but has played a significant part in securing peace and prosperity in a number of parts of the world in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War. The role of the United Kingdom in NATO and in coalitions of the willing under United States leadership must not be overlooked or played down. That role stands proud as a major contribution, especially when compared with the modest UK contributions to EU missions and operations.
But this contribution stands proud only as a result of the quality, experience and determination of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces. I stress “quality”, because sadly quantity has been diminished in the successive rounds of cuts to the defence budget since the end of the Cold War. The 2% of GDP now spent on defence—the smallest amount in modern history—has bought us the smallest Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force in modern history. I suggest that it is the diminution of our capability, rather than our exit from the European Union, that diminishes our influence in international defence fora.
This therefore is the challenge that we face in the context of overall security and defence policy. If the United Kingdom wishes to continue to play the significant role in international security and defence that we have in the past—and I sense no great appetite for strategic shrinkage—the fighting power of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces must be restored. This fighting power underpins both soft and hard power and is made up of a balance of physical, moral and conceptual components. It is not acceptable to offer ideas and strategic guidance to missions and operations unless we are prepared to make significant force contributions manned by well-trained and motivated individuals.
With this in mind, I am pleased to note two most welcome public statements in recent days—one from the Foreign Secretary, who wishes to double defence expenditure to 4% of GDP, and the other from the new Defence Secretary, who wishes to bring forward legislation to stop the undermining of service and veteran morale and motivation by controlling retrospective inquiries years after operations have ended.
On the former point, 4% of GDP spent on defence would merely return us to the spend of the 1990s—the decade when commentators thought that war as we had known it was over and Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history”. How wrong they were, but how different things might have been had we maintained a higher level of defence spending for the benefit of not only our own security but that of Europe and the world more widely. Whether Mr Hunt, should he become Prime Minister, can find an extra £35 billion for defence I do not know but strongly doubt. Nevertheless, his highlighting of the insecurity of the world today and our ideal response to it is to be welcomed.
On the latter point, people are at the heart of our Armed Forces, and the debilitating inquiries that have been going on for years after operations have ended drive a dagger through that heart, potentially fatally damaging our fighting power. While I welcome the Defence Secretary’s announcement today, the initiative must be extended to include the hundreds of thousands of service men and women who took part in the 38 years of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. I believe that many in your Lordships’ House, in the other place and among the general public are very much of this view.
I am conscious that I have strayed away from the narrow confines of EU missions and operations, but my final comment is to repeat something that I and others have said in this House—that an increase in our defence budget would send a strong signal not only to those who wish us harm but, more importantly, to our friends and allies in Europe that, although we may be leaving the European Union, we are not walking away from our collective responsibilities to the security of Europe and will not do so in future. Seventy-five years on from leading the largest military operation in history to secure the peace of Europe, beginning on