Defence spending squeeze

If David Cameron does not want to be made a hypocrite for criticising those NATO countries spending less than 2% of GDP on defence, the Treasury must find more money for the MoD. He may lose the general election in May, of course, which might afford an excuse, but he will need to act if he wins.

Thanks to Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI Research Director, we have a little more data to be going on with. In his briefing paper, ‘Mind the Gap: The MoD’s Emerging Budgetary Challenge’, he projects, having studied the known spending plans of all three major political parties, that defence spending will fall to 1.85% of GDP in 2016/17, equating to £36 billion.

Notwithstanding any reservations we might have with arbitrary targets, this represents as clear an indication as we are likely to get that the Armed Forces are going to come under severe strain in the years ahead unless the government changes its priorities.

If we thought for a moment that the falling percentage might only be a consequence of increasing GDP – not of falling spending – we are mistaken. He predicts real-terms reductions of 10% over four years. This, he admits, is the pessimistic projection, but it is where we are heading if things don’t change.

Whatever your view on the importance of defence spending, this represents a real diminution in defence capability. And this at a time when the world looks as dangerous as ever. We do not need to list the threats: they are self-evident.

Part of the problem is a reluctance to add defence to the list of protected areas of government spending: International Development; Health; Schools, for example. It is a truism, but it is worth saying: the more we protect some areas of spending, the more we have to look at cuts in other areas.

The report says we must add something in the region of £5.9 billion to the defence budget if we are to maintain defence spending at 2% of GDP. It also says this is ‘not plausible’.

That seems like a generous word: ‘Plausible’. If it is taken to mean an increase in the budget is unlikely, an increase would indeed seem ‘not plausible’.

But if ‘plausible’ is used to mean what is reasonable, it is reasonable to expect the government to shift spending to defence from elsewhere. After all, the government already spends more than £700 billion a year. It’s always and everywhere a matter of priorities. If a government wants to find the money, it can: it’s simply a matter of not spending money on something else.

Politics may yet intervene. Pressure from the Commons, the Lords, the Defence Select Committee and, of course, the Opposition sniffing an opportunity, might force the government (of whatever colour) to find the money, even if, as the briefing paper suggests, it would have ‘to be found from increased taxation and/or borrowing’.

But perhaps the government has no intention of spending more on defence. There are, as the strategists give every impression of believing, no votes in defence. Though if the Conservative Party wants to retain its core vote, it might think twice about undermining yet another area of national life it’s core supporters think important. If the Conservative Party is not for strong defence, what is if for?

If the MoD is left with no option than to absorb real spending reductions, what are the options?

Personnel? Well, the personnel budget has already taken a hit. We know 20,000 soldiers are in the process of being cut, leaving the strength of the Regular Army at 82,000. The briefing paper goes further: we have reduced the numbers of service and civilian personnel by 17% and 28% respectively.

There are murmurings that the personnel budget will again be targeted, perhaps reducing the Regular Army by another 20,000. Perhaps this is little more than contingency planning, never to be implemented, but we cannot be sure. Politicians have a way of leaking stories to the media to see how they ‘play’ with the public. If the grumblings are manageable, then crack on—no votes in defence.

But it will be harder this time around to cut troop numbers further. You can squeeze only so much water from a sponge.

That leaves the equipment budget. Can savings be made here? Perhaps. The Defence Equipment Plan 2014 refers to a budget of £163 billion (for both procurement of new and maintenance of old) over the next ten years. While it might be difficult to make savings on some big-ticket items, not least a submarine replacement for Trident, there could be scope to cut in other areas.

Whatever happens, the MoD is in for a torrid time. It will either have to argue for more money, or it will have to find things to cut. Not an enviable task, even though there are no votes in defence.

Still no votes in defence, supposedly

It is being reported in The Times and The Mail newspapers that a number of Tory MPs are not happy with the government’s stance on defence spending. About thirty of them, we are told, are preparing for some sort of Commons revolt next week when NATO spending is debated.

Their anger stems from the growing impression that the Tory hierarchy isn’t that bothered about defence. Defence of the realm is supposed to be a Conservative issue—the first responsibility of government—so you can see why some might be upset by these reports.

It seems increasingly likely that defence spending will fall below 2% of GDP, which is the amount all members of NATO are supposed to allocate to defence. This, of course, does not necessarily mean defence spending will fall in real terms, just that it will fall as a percentage of national wealth—provided the economy grows. Having spent so much time berating other members states, it seems a bit rich for us to fall below the level in the next year or two.

But there are also whispers that defence spending will fall in real terms, too. What they are talking about is a freeze, holding spending to about £36 billion for the next few years. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a real terms reduction in defence spending. This would have a real impact on our defence capabilities.

And on top of this, the dreaded phrase “There are no votes in defence” is raising its head again. Allegedly from Philip Hammond the Foreign Secretary no less. I have no idea whether he said this (his people say not), but if he did it would not have been a radical observation. Perhaps it’s because the benefits of defence spending are too intangible—much better to vote for benefits, subsidies and spending on things people will draw on every day, such as health or education.

It would also seem that these Tories have a right to be suspicious. The Coalition government has already slashed the size of the Army by 20,000 soldiers. This is 20% of total strength. By anyone’s measure, even when offset by the proposed uplift of 10,000 reserves (which is still a concept that needs to be proven), this is a significant reduction in our military strength.

Coming at a time when the threat from Russia to its neighbours, particularly the Ukraine and potentially the Baltic states, seems to be on the rise; and at a time when the threat from Islamism shows no sign of abating and every sign of increasing: it seems entirely logical that MPs with an interest in national defence should make their point.

It’s just that I’m sure the government would prefer them to make their point in private, and then shut up about it.

Do we actually understand our parliamentary system?

There’s a general election on its way. You might have noticed, but if you haven’t: it’s on Thursday 7 May 2015 at a polling station near you, during which the 650 constituencies of the United Kingdom will elect one person each to represent them in the House of Commons.

It is worth noting that we in Britain elect a single member of parliament to represent us—we do not elect a party, neither do we elect a Prime Minister. We elect a person; and these persons subsequently group themselves together, at which point the largest of these groups forms a government.

OK, so the party affiliations of each candidate are well-known before votes are cast, but the principle stands: people often vote for someone they like even though they might not be too keen on their party. This is our system, and it has worked extremely well for quite a few centuries.

Yet some people – advocates of proportional representation in particular – don’t seem to get this. They propose that if a political party wins, say, ten percent of votes, it should be allocated ten percent of seats. First Past The Post, they say, prevents this, which is supposedly undemocratic.

There’s a logic to their argument, of course there is. It’s the logic of PR. It is also a logic that begins from a misunderstanding about our system. That is a problem. Our system is not primarily a party system. It is a system of individual, personal representation, whereby those individual MPs are accountable to their constituents—not to their party.

Of course MPs are accountable to their parties, you might say. What are the whips for if not to ensure MPs answer to their party? Sure, but their first loyalty is to their constituents. MPs are elected by their constituents, not by their parties.

I raise the point because James Kirkup has been wondering how many seats UKIP will win. He concludes that it is unfair for them to get only one percent of seats in the Commons if they have won ten percent of votes. Not only is it unfair, but it will also feed one of the resentments he believes fuels support for UKIP in the first place. Namely:

‘Ukip is at least in part an expression of anger at the system, the cosy Westminster establishment that Kippers believe colludes to ignore and frustrate their wishes and the wishes of the electorate as a whole.’

He fears that if UKIP voters notice the discrepancy, they will only become more frustrated with the system:

‘Because an electoral system that could well leave a party with 2.5 million voters holding just 2 seats in the legislature is a poison that could kill faith in representative democracy.’

He has a point. People do say that our political system is a conspiracy against the people. But if that is the case, it might be a good idea if the people had our ‘system’ explained to them. That way, they might not get so angry.

It is false to assume that an MP voted into parliament on, say, thirty percent of the vote cannot represent the seventy percent of constituents who did not vote for him or her. Representation is not an absolute. There will be times when even the thirty percent feel their opinions are not being adequately represented by the person they elected. (For example: Conservative MPs agreeing to defence cuts against the wishes of many of their voters).

But that’s the nature of politics. That’s what happens when you elect one person to represent thousands of people. They all have their own pesky point of view. That’s the problem with people: their individuality. It’s what certain celebrities playing at politics don’t realise. There is no way to represent everyone’s view absolutely in parliament. Those who think there is simply misunderstand how representative democracy works.

I am not referring to James Kirkup here. But his thought about FPTP is interesting:

‘First-past-the-post really is a conspiracy between the Conservatives and Labour against smaller rivals and against the electorate.’

FPTP certainly encourages a two-party system, even though sectarian loyalties in some parts of the country seem to refute this principle. It is indeed one of the arguments cited in favour of FPTP: that it enables strong government and an easy way to change government.

But the charge that FPTP is ‘a conspiracy… against the electorate’ is the exact same charge levelled at PR. Which one is it? It’s probably both, up to a point. But that brings us back to the original point: people not understanding our system.

We do not have PR. We have FPTP. And the main advantages of FPTP are that it enables strong government; it offers a straightforward way to change government; and, perhaps most important of all, even though I put it last, it allows us to cling to the notion that we are represented by an individual and not by a party machine.

There may be weaknesses to the system as it stands today, but there are weaknesses in all systems (as James Kirkup acknowledges). We miss the point if we simply look at the maths and deduce that our system is junk because a small party gets a higher proportion of votes than seats.

Our system is not about voting for parties. It is about voting for people. If we don’t like voting for people, and want to vote for parties instead, leaving the selection of MPs even more in the hands of parties than it is now, then fine. But let’s be clear about what we will be doing. And let’s be clear that there will be consequences, some of which we won’t like.

Jihadi John is named

It seems that the crassly dubbed Jihadi John – supposedly named after John Lennon on account of his British accent, which if I were one of John Lennon’s relatives would annoy me somewhat – has been outed as Mohammed Emwazi by The Washington Post. That’s what various sources think, anyway – though they could be wrong.

But if they are right, who is he? Apart from the mental deficient in those vile murder videos of Islamic State, that is?

We are told that he is a ‘Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.’ That college being The University of Westminster. Perhaps not a complete mental deficient then, though I don’t know how exacting Westminster is on its application forms.

We can debate the ‘Briton’ part – I, for one, do not hold British nationality so cheaply; but the suggestion that he is ‘well-to-do’ and ‘a graduate with a degree’ puts paid to the dubious claim that it is poverty and discrimination that makes these people do such things, doesn’t it?

If only we could rid Western culture of Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, so the argument goes, decent people like Mohammed would not be forced – Forced! I tell you! – to go about beheading people.

But it’s all nonsense. These people are not driven to Jihadism by poverty. They are called to it by their understanding of Islam and their belief that Islam and the state ought to be one and the same; and anyone getting in the way of that is fair game for abduction, rape, enslavement and murder.

Oh, I see: we are then told he is ‘Kuwaiti-born’. So not British, then. Except in the deranged minds of those who think nationality is like a t-shirt one picks up in a flea market: get bored if it, then exchange it for something else.

It is odd, though, that the report goes on to say that counterterrorism officials prevented him in 2010 from returning to Kuwait, the country of his birth in which he had the offer of a job and plans to settle. He was already on their radar; he was not picked up on a whim; so why not let him go home, and then pass on their evidence to the Kuwaiti embassy for appropriate action?

Yeah, OK, don’t bother to answer that – I know why.

Does it matter if defence spending falls below two percent of GDP?

Much is being made at the moment of NATO’s “2-20” goal: that members ought to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, with about 20% of that figure going on equipment – the argument being that if NATO underspends on defence then a) the deterrent effect is undermined, and b) NATO countries will find themselves outgunned if it does actually come to war.

I say ‘at the moment’ but the issue was raised last year at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. Barack Obama and David Cameron, in a joint article in The Times, criticised members who were not meeting the 2% target and thus not carrying their weight – their weight defined not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their national wealth, which seems a fair way of going about things.

Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, made a similar point: ‘US taxpayers won’t go on picking up the cheque if we choose to prioritise social welfare spending when the threats are on our doorstep.’

But this has been the case for decades, has it not? It’s not something EU members like to admit; they prefer the conceit that the cause of post-WW2 peace is largely down to the existence of the EU and its former institutions rather than other factors: War weariness; German pacifism; nuclear deterrence; NATO-Warsaw Pact balance; and above all US military and diplomatic power.

Only the USA (4.4%), UK (2.4%), Greece (2.3%) and Estonia (2%) met the target that year – the USA understandably well ahead of the others. We know why Britain is one of the four, but the inclusion of the last two is interesting for different reasons: Greece is skint and so one might excuse them for not hitting the target unlike, say, Germany (1.3%), which is loaded; and Estonia shares a border with Russia and has living within its borders a 25% Russian population and so perhaps might feel a vested interest in spending more on defence.

All other member states fell someway short, Iceland managing a seemingly unfeasible figure of 0% of GDP. But maybe this is a rounding error; it’s difficult to believe they don’t have at least one coastal patrol vessel. Though whatever the particulars of this example, it seems that the majority of NATO countries are not pulling their weight.

So it would be embarrassing, would it not, if the UK fell below the spending target of 2% of GDP. It certainly would, especially after all that finger pointing. Yet this is what is being reported: that George Osborne has told the Prime Minister that on current projections spending will dip below the threshold sometime by 2017.

Personally, I’m not a fan of arbitrary spending targets: if a department is instructed to spend a certain amount of money simply in order to hit a target, the chances are that a good proportion of that money will end up being spent on things we neither need nor want.

‘Don’t worry, Minister, we’ve hit the target,’ is not a comment I want to hear coming out of any senior civil servant’s mouth. Unless, that is, he’s reporting on some sort of recent military engagement. In that case, hitting the target is entirely appropriate.

But if ministers make a big thing about a target, then they really ought to meet it – otherwise they’d be better off not having it; hostage to fortune etc. We can see how the arbitrary 0.7% target for overseas aid has become a political football. If you question it, you are guilty of wilfully killing babies; and if you are for it, you are guilty of high-handedly redistributing money from the poor in Britain to the rich and corrupt in various foreign countries.

The arbitrary target, therefore, can skew the business of government – despite best efforts, I’m sure. For the example of overseas aid, political action becomes less about the rightness and practicality of a particular scheme to help less fortunate countries, and more about the political imperative to meet the target come what may. Success should be defined by its outcomes on the ground, not by reaching the arbitrary target.

How useful are these goals anyway? Why spend 2% of GDP on defence? Why not 1% – or indeed 4% like the USA?

Perhaps the numbers themselves are irrelevant. Military people talk about defence capabilities – naval fleets, air force squadrons, army battalions and formations. What will be – and should be – exercising the minds of defence strategists is not so much the target, but the outcome of the spending each NATO member allocates to defence and how each component part might be brought together as a whole.

NATO itself has recognised that fiscal constraints perhaps necessitate a new approach – or at least a modified one. Smart Defence, for example, encourages member states to cooperate: not just in the development and acquisition of capability, but also in its operation – in cyber defence, missile defence and joint intelligence for example.

But whatever this capability looks like and however it is distributed between member states – it costs money. In these cash-strapped times (last year’s UK budget deficit was £100 billion) it is understandable that governments will be tempted to let defence spending slide: especially because politicos tend to see few votes in defence.

Even so – resurgent tensions with Russia and surging instability in various Islamic countries suggest that defence, though perhaps an unpopular way to spend money, remains essential. Or not, as our politicians will decide?

We are making language a battleground

Another forced apology. Cathy Newman, newsreader at Channel 4, has done what increasing numbers of people are doing – grovelling and apologising because of something they have written on Twitter, the micro-blogging site everyone’s talking about. But at least she still has her job, for now, which is more than some people can boast.

What seems to have happened is this: The Muslim Council of Britain organised something called #VisitMyMosque after becoming distressed that the British people might be getting the wrong idea of their religion because increasing numbers of its adherents are murdering people in the name of that religion.

The idea was to show, by inviting non-Muslims into local mosques around the country, how they and the religion of Islam were not fomenting unrest and hostility towards long-held British principles such as freedom to speak one’s mind without being shot. Indeed, freedom to speak one’s mind full stop.

The corollary was to confront the supposed epidemic of Islamophobia sweeping the country. If the mosques could just show how peaceful and contented Muslims were with Britain, just as she is, then non-Muslims would be less inclined to assume that all Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths just because some Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths.

It’s easy to be cynical, but this is probably a good idea, even though one might argue it is based on a false premise. There is a growing sense of separateness between the Muslim population of Britain and the rest, so anything that connects the two or breaks down the walls of separation is probably a good idea.

So what could Cathy Newman, a woman who seems to lean leftwards and support the general thrust of feminism, have done to require an apology? It can’t have been her leftish sentiment, which is at one with Muslim sentiment and grievance, so it must have been her feminist outlook. After all, we know the Muslims don’t like women much, so women flaunting their independence from and their equality with men is not going to go down too well, is it?

Well, who knows about that? And who knows why Cathy Newman chose to go along to the local mosque in Streatham? Her reasons are her own, but perhaps, as a journalist, she simply wanted to see what this MCAB initiative was all about; or perhaps she thought the #VisitMyMosque campaign to reduce Islamophobia was just the sort of thing to appeal to her progressive instincts. As I say, her reasons are her own.

So she went to the mosque; and then she left the mosque almost immediately, commenting on her #VisitMyMosque experience in terms that seemed disparaging, saying that, despite covering her head and taking off her shoes and not carrying the flag of Saint George in an offensive attitude and not crying death to the non-infidel, she had been ushered back onto the street.

Soon afterwards, and perhaps unwisely when the benefits of hindsight are factored in, she took to Twitter, that conduit of measured debate. She said she had been ‘ushered’ out of the building by a ‘man’ despite being ‘respectfully dressed’.

This was construed as her saying she was treated badly by a Muslim man because she was a woman and why oh why won’t these Muslim men learn how to treat women with respect – thus conforming to the ‘Islamophobic’ narrative these #VisitMyMosque visits were designed to confront.

She was duly found guilty of the newish and pressing crime of Islamophobia, with all the judicial efficiency only Twitter can offer. After all, justice delayed is justice denied. The obligatory apology soon followed.

Twitter fulminations tend towards the irrational, but in this instance it seems Cathy Newman really did have something to apologise for. The Huffington Post has since acquired CCTV footage of her arrival and departure, and it gives the distinct impression that the things she suggested happened in her tweets did not in fact happen. She arrived, took off her shoes, spoke to someone, put her shoes back on and then left with no sign of any sort of ushering taking place.

So, of course, it is right that she apologised. But for what? The relevant tweets are now deleted, but those captured by the Guardian newspaper suggest she was simply commenting on what happened.

First she tweeted, ‘Well I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door…’ Then she tweeted, ‘I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back onto the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque mf’ And finally she tweeted, ‘But it made no difference.’

By your words will you be convicted. I have it in mind that someone famous said something like that, but I could be mistaken; might just be my words, but they seem apt. Those are the things she said on Twitter (assuming she didn’t delete other comments). But in a letter of complaint later released by the mosque she was accused of ‘suggesting she was forcibly ejected from our mosque for being a woman’.

Now, the word ‘usher’ is certainly on the same spectrum as ‘forcibly ejected’, but it is not quite the same thing: not by a long way. In fact, to be ushered somewhere is decidedly not to be subjected to force of any kind. Yet she was denounced for saying she was ‘forcibly ejected’ from the mosque. It doesn’t appear that she said this at all (again, unless there are other incriminating tweets).

And this is the problem, isn’t it? We are making language a battleground, quite literally in some instances. Just to remind ourselves: people have recently been murdered in Denmark because they attended a debate on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression and in France because they drew satirical cartoons. And there is a connection to Islam, isn’t there, no matter that the majority of Muslims would not murder people for what they say or draw?

But if murder and extreme violence is anathema to the majority of Muslims in the West, not quite the same thing can be said about Muslim attitudes to free speech, the use of language and satirical images. Earlier this month in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders thousands of British Muslims demonstrated in Whitehall and presented a petition signed by over 100,000 people to No 10 Downing Street that says, among other things, ‘I denounce the actions of all these people who are connected with the production of the cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him’.

Under the guise of a ‘Global Civility’ movement, a sizeable number of Muslims are campaigning to somehow end the rights of people in free countries to draw cartoons. The Muslim Action Forum has even devised a ‘legal strategy’ to ‘prevent the continuous insulting and derogatory publications depicting and abusing the personality of our Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him.’

They intend to mount a ‘series of legal challenges in the English Court system to establish that such depictions of our Holy Prophet peace be upon Him is the worst kind of ‘Hate Crime’ that can be perpetrated on the 3 million Muslims in the UK and 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide.’

Legal challenges?

This is a clear statement of intent, which should chill the blood of the civilised – even those who have no wish to draw any kind of ‘derogatory’ cartoon. This Forum even says it has plans for a Private Members Bill to bring this into effect.

It’s all linked, isn’t it – cartoons, language and the discussion of Islam?

Cathy Newman, however, finds herself caught in the melee. On the one hand her language was, as she said, ‘poorly chosen’. But her poorly chosen words were not the words for which she was condemned. Her words were distorted and inflated by those who wish to use the incident (such that it is an incident) to further their own authoritarian interests.

As such, her apology was perhaps overdone. She said, via Twitter naturally, that she offered here ‘sincere apologies for tweets she sent in haste’, and accepted her ‘tweets were inappropriate’ and that she had ‘caused a great deal of offence’.

Do some of those words sound familiar? ‘Inappropriate’; ‘offence’; ‘tweets sent in haste’. This is the pusillanimous language of political correctness. Those cartoons, we are told, cause offence. They are inappropriate. They are hate crimes that must be punished with the full force of the law.

So it seems we are at in impasse. On the one hand we have the principle of free speech and free expression, and on the other we have a desire for something they are calling ‘Global Civility’ which isn’t really about global civility at all but rather the introduction of a set of special legal protections for one religion in particular. It is difficult to see how these two positions can be reconciled.

Of course most people want to live in a world without insult or offence, but that world is not a real world. If someone wants to, they will always find offence in what someone else says or does. It’s the way of things. Muslims, above all, should know that the world is an imperfect place. Many of the countries in which they form a majority of the population demonstrate that simple, obvious fact every day.

If we try to legislate offence out of humanity, we will soon find that we are legislating something else out of humanity as well – and that something is freedom. He is offended by cartoons; she is offended by sexist language; we are offended by everything. There is no logical end to it. If we don’t watch out, this will consume us.