Squeezing defence carries little political risk

Defence restructuring (otherwise known as defence cutting) is one of the more pain-free political activities out there today.  Service personnel are generally a well disciplined lot, and when asked or told to do something they do it.  After all, when compared with their willingness to risk their lives, risking a mere job doesn’t seem so important.

This can-do, will-do attitude is something of a double edged sword.  On the one hand it is an essential characteristic of a professional, capable, democratically accountable force, but on the other it can lead them into doing things they might not agree with.  Sometimes I wonder if both they and the country might not be better served by defying politicians a little more – or at least questioning their decisions more robustly.

General Sir Richard Dannatt tried this when Chief of the General Staff in 2006.  He commented, in less than wholehearted fashion, on our continuing involvement in Iraq, the military covenant and the moral and spiritual vacuum opening up in Britain.  But he did so with great delicacy.  No bullishness, no populism, just points made with consideration and subtlety.

Yet even this restrained engagement induced criticism from those who seemed to think a service chief had no right to comment on things that were in fact very much his business.  Some of this disapproval certainly came from within the military (though much exaggerated by commentators), but most came from outside.  They were quick to cry terror at the impending military coup, revealing only their suppressed suspicion of the military class or their misunderstanding of the true restraint shown by military personnel.  I may have exaggerated that last point, but Dannatt really was shocked by the uproarious response from some quarters.

To be fair, the government has an unenviable task.  The budget is in a right mess.  The first problem is the immense pressure to reduce spending across the board (except those preserved areas of health and international development), and the second is the existing deficit in the defence budget.  The Economist speaks of a £38 billion hole that needs to be filled.  It seems that financial commitments have been made without knowing where the money is going to come from.

There are, of course, arguments for delaying fiscal consolidation until the economy is growing strongly again.  Punk- or selective-Keynesians argue that any squeeze on public spending at a time of recession is self-defeating, and in normal circumstances they might have a bit of a point.  But these are not normal circumstances and they ignore two crucial points: an increase in the demand for borrowing puts upwards pressure on the cost of borrowing, and, considering our debts, we should probably keep an eye on that; and the Keynesian approach requires budget surpluses to be run on the up-side.  I do not think Keynes ever planned for governments to run permanent deficits.  And the government is therefore caught between the rock and hard place of keeping the markets happy and not throttling the economy into permanent recession.

The old orthodoxy of balancing budgets has been much criticised since the 1940s, and still is today, but growth induced by government spending (if real growth is ever induced by this alone) is not going to generate the revenues to eliminate the budget deficit.  Sometimes a hit just has to be taken.

But the point stands.  There is far less political risk in squeezing defence than almost any other area of public spending.  And before long we will be back discussing the NHS, education, welfare and Lords reform apparently, and servicemen and women will go back to serving the national interest in their own selfless, unassuming way.


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