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.

More Reservist Call-Outs

In what I will now call ‘We need to call out the Reserves for this?’ series of posts, I notice Mr Mark Francois, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, has issued another Call-Out Order for the Reserves.

This time it’s a renewal order, under section 56(1B) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, to extend authority to send Reservists to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

We are told that over 100 Reservists have been called out for Cyprus duty in the last 12 months, and that we are to do the same for the next 12 months, this order ending in December 2015.

I’m all in favour of Reservists serving with Regular forces, both on exercises and on operations. Many Reservists want to serve, have flexible jobs that enable them to take six months or so off from their day jobs, and many could do with the money. Many of them are also highly competent.

But although these call-outs will only involve volunteers who are ‘willing’ and ‘have the support of their employer’, it is still bizarre that we do not have the Regulars to meet this ongoing commitment. That is the serviceman’s job, it is why he (and she, of course) has made it his full-time job.

This is the thing about the Reserves 2020 plan. On the one hand it does something worthwhile: attempting to make the Reserves more ‘capable, usable, integrated and relevant’. Who could argue against this? But these are virtuous words that are deliberately hard to dispute. Who in their right minds (apart from Islamists and our own domestic Britain-haters; though one might question the soundness of their state of mind) would deliberately set out to lessen the capability of the Reserves?

On the other hand, the plan does something less worthwhile: actually making the Regulars less capable and usable. A reduction in the Army alone of 20,000 soldiers, comprising 20% of its existing strength is staggering when the figures are considered in any detail. The simple maths does not add up. We are recruiting approximately an extra 12,000 Reserves to replace the 20,000 lost Regulars. It doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, that is, unless we see it for what it really is. Britain is skint and we simply cannot afford to maintain the force levels of former years. This is what the government had to come to terms with when it achieved office in 2010, and reducing the Regulars is one of the ways they are attempting to balance the books (though not doing a great job; Britain still managing an annual deficit of about £100 billion). They could prioritise spending differently, but they choose not to. That is where we are.

And so we will have to push on with trying to integrate the Reserves with the Regulars and using them a lot more than before. In one sense this is a good thing. The Reserves have a lot of capability. But in another sense it’s a bad thing: a recognition that Britain is on the wane. Sad that. But true. And it is still not clear we will be able to recruit the proposed numbers of Reserves.

One reason why I want Scotland to remain in the Union

The thought of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is depressing for a number of reasons, but, as I’ve mentioned earlier, my thoughts dwell on the future of the Armed Forces. They will be diminished, that much is sure. And I don’t think I could bear the British Army losing its kilts and trews. It will be sad to see the bagpipes go, too, but I accept that not everyone feels the same way on this particular point.

It’s not clear we fully appreciate the impact of Scottish separation on the military capabilities of these islands. Alex Salmond talks like a pacifist. He takes great care to couch his arguments in terms of British warmongering and nuclear arrogance. But he plans to take approximately 10% of British military capability for his putative Scottish defence force. And neither is it clear he understands that separate commands operating in close proximity – for that is what we will have – constitutes serious military weakness.

We can argue the flip side of the nuclear issue: that it is a weapon system that cannot be uninvented, and that it would be irresponsible in the extreme for the democratic west to decommission without securing a guarantee of wider global repudiation, especially from unreliable, authoritarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea and Russia. And we can remind ourselves that recent British military deployments have been supported by Scottish politicians (yes the SNP voted against the Iraq war in 2003, but not all Scottish politicians are SNP) as much as their English counterparts. But this would be too much like talking to Salmond’s hand.

We are well used to hearing that the NHS is our most treasured institution; but perhaps there is another that stands even higher. I refer to the Armed Forces, plus those subordinate institutions that comprise the whole: the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force; our ships, our regiments and our squadrons.

It is hard to see how the Armed Forces can be anything other than weakened if Great Britain breaks up. The services will of course continue to exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and in Scotland, as a separate entity), but their diminishment will be even greater than it is now. Some might say ‘Good!’ particularly those who see the services as agents of repression. Sure, there are low points in the history of the Armed Forces, but they are vastly outweighed by the high points. Most Brits, both north and south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, recognise this. To us, the Armed Forces is the institution that stood for freedom against Communism and Nazism in Europe, and against slavery on the High Seas, not to mention quite a few other authoritarian psychopathies of history.

And every time the Armed Forces of these islands fought as one, they fought better – and with greater style. Together we have Arthur Wellesley, mad Irishman, who beat Napoleon, the greatest military commander who ever lived, at his own game; we have mad Lord Lovat’s mad piper, Bill Millin, who played his bagpipes on the beaches of Normandy; and who could forget Douglas Bader, the mad legless English fighter pilot, who enjoyed nothing more than strafing Nazis from his Spitfire; and finally, if this wasn’t enough to subdue the enemy, there was the killer weapon – the Welch regiments and their devastating all-male close harmonies.

The history of the British Armed forces is the richest military history in the world, ever (opinions may vary). To break them up would be a supreme act of vandalism. These islands would be left with armed forces of a sort, but they would be severely diminished. Lets keep them together; lets keep the United Kingdom together too.

The British Army might be on the verge of disbandment – not good.

Scotland might be about to leave the United Kingdom. It’s worth saying this one more time, in the hope the enormity of separation might actually sink in.

The consequences will be staggering. 300 years of unrivalled history will be ended, possibly the era of greatest internal peace these islands have ever experienced; the island of Great Britain will be split, just like Timor (well, perhaps not just like Timor); and an artificial national barrier will cut the British people in two, ushering in an era of separate development, divergent history and increasing friction.

None of this is good. There is one consequence of people in Scotland (note: not the Scottish people; see here) voting ‘Yes’ later this month we haven’t much discussed. That is the impact on the British Armed Forces. David Blair, however, writing in the Telegraph, has noticed. He uses the phrase, ‘broken into pieces’.

He’s not much wrong, either. Salmond, despite his pacifist rhetoric, expects to take Scotland’s share of fighters, frigates and battalions. None of this sounds like much, but, when we remember that the British Army has just been cut by 20,000 soldiers (20% regular combat strength), it is worth considering the impact of a further cut to what remains one of the few serious military powers in the Western world.

But combat strength is not just about numbers. British military doctrine considers this part of the physical component of fighting power. There is also the moral component, which might be translated for the non-military mind as morale, spirit, heart, motivation and a sense of pride and duty. And this is where the British Army will be hit hardest. What will happen to the name? We might keep it; Britain is, after all, comprised of England and Wales, Great Britain being England, Wales and Scotland. But it will be something of a sham. Without Scotland, the British Army cannot lay full claim to the name.

But what’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. A name carries history; and the history of the British Army is as important to the morale of the British Army as anything else – indeed, it is from history, from former battles and wars that we draw much of our store of morale. Goose Green, Imjin River, Market Garden, Battle of Britain – these battles and operations inspire the present generation, in all services.

It is true, the Royal Navy will not have its name challenged; it will remain the navy of Nelson. Neither will the Royal Air Force have its name challenged; it will remain the air force of Douglas Bader. Tracing a direct line to former military greats is important; it is tradition, and it is the core ideology of the British regimental system. Break that link and we break that history; the army of the rUK will have to start again. Pity that.

But perhaps the British Army will keep its name. It might do that. But as I’ve said: it will be denuded not only about 10% of its strength, as will the other services, but it will lose much of the power of its history. Reputation is important. It affects the morale of both friends and foes; ‘Win the war before you even begin to fight it!’ said someone quite wise. The absence of the British Army will not make the world a better place – promise.

If the people in Scotland who have a vote (see above) decide to go their own way, then there is probably nothing we can do about it. Democracy is still it. But it will present all sorts of challenges, not least for our military structures. Do we fully comprehend that? I wonder.

Rory Stewart MP elected Chair of the Westminster Defence Select Committee

So, Viscount Haldane has not been appointed the new Chairman of the Defence Select Committee of the Westminster Parliament. This is not a surprise, since he has been dead since 1928. But he would have done a fine job, I’m sure, had the speaker or any other member of parliament chosen to exhume him.

As I mentioned here, Haldane created the British Expeditionary Force, without which Britain and France would have been defeated in 1914; he created the Territorial Force, configuring it for war, which provided invaluable reinforcement to the Regular Army with troops that were at the very least semi-trained; and he galvanised the Liberal government to think about defence at least as much as they thought about social change. He is rightly regarded as a great reforming Secretary of State for War, before the post was merged with that of the First Lord of the Admiralty to create the new Ministry of Defence.

The new Chair – as it seems we must now call Chairmen – of the Defence Select Committee is Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border. That is up north, by the way, if anyone was confusing the border with the Welsh border; Conservatives can be elected beyond the southern constituencies.

He strikes me as a good candidate, not least because he has spent some time in the Army, albeit years ago and on a Short Service Limited Commission with the Black Watch. But there’s nothing wrong with these so-called ‘gap year commissions’. In fact, they are extremely valuable. They are designed not so much to bring people into the Army, but to give them a sniff of military life with a view to taking understanding and good will into the civilian world where it is hoped (expected) they will assume positions of responsibility and influence. It’s about civil-military connection rather than military capability.

He’s also done his walking tour of Afghanistan, worked for the Foreign Office and written a few good books. Not necessarily a guarantee he will do well in the job, but it’s a good start and his words on the limits and complexities of intervention are welcome in a political culture that seems a little too binary for my liking.

But we shall see. He certainly represents the new generation of politician, and I can’t help thinking many of them are a notch above their predecessors.

Perhaps this is a particularly interesting time to take the Chair. James Arbuthnot’s tenure was concerned with operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the possibility of the same in Syria. Syria is still a live issue, but it seems this recent bout of interventions is over for a while.

What he will – and must – concern himself with is how the British Army – and the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – reconfigure themselves after the latest round of cuts. Army 2020 is fast approaching. He must make sure the politicians have not made a horrendous mistake in cutting regular troop numbers, and he must make sure plans to rely more on the Reserves – formerly Haldane’s Territorial Force, later the Territorial Army – are workable.

A new chairman for the Defence Select Committee

James Arbuthnot has been an MP since 1987, and has chaired the Defence Select Committee since 2005. It has kept him busy. His time scrutinising defence matters has coincided with the British government prosecuting several wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and embarking on two bouts of serious defence restructuring. In 2006 we adopted the Future Army Structure, and now we have Army 2020.

But this is all about to end for him. He has decided not to contest his North East Hampshire seat at the next election and, by way of anticipation, is relinquishing control of the committee to give him time to think properly about what he will do next. He is currently sixty-one years old, so there’s a bit of powder left in the old flintlock yet.

The Select Committee system is not that old, beginning in 1979, but it has a crucial role to play in parliamentary affairs. While MPs and Peers are, of course, expected to hold governments and ministers to account in their respective main chambers, there is only so much time available for questions and debates. It is the committees that provide the extra time. Not only are further questions raised, but they are done so at greater depth than might otherwise be achieved.

The question of ‘Who gets to chair the committee?’ is therefore important. Get a complacent, lazy buffoon and important things are missed; get an observant, energetic mastermind and problems are identified and remedied. There’s a spectrum there somewhere, and I make no comment on where Mr Arbuthnot sits, but it is important the right person succeeds him. Getting the right person might not be quite so important in other areas of government activity, but it is certainly important – nay, crucial – when considering life and death matters of defence.

Douglas Carswell MP asks this question, and concludes that only ‘free-thinkers and rebels’ need apply. He mentions a few characters that might fit the bill: ‘Julian Brazier, author of some good ideas about reservists, the uber-sound Julian Lewis, James Gray and Bob Stuart, the widely respected Keith Simpson, the excellent Crispin Blunt, Tobias Ellwood and Rory Stewart.’

Mr Carswell has a reputation for wanting Parliament to flex its muscles a little more brutishly when it comes to tackling government ministers – who he seems to think are too often occupied in a conspiracy of either incompetence or malice. So it is understandable that he is pondering what is little more than a procedural matter.

He wants someone who has defied the party line on at least one occasion; who can work with people from a different political party; who is alive to the pressure he or she will be put under by a defence industry looking for preferential treatment; and who has a good idea of what defence policy is for. Someone who satisfies all four of these criteria is, presumably, perfect.

I have no idea which individual best satisfies Mr Carswell’s criteria, or if indeed Mr Carswell’s is the criteria being used to choose Mr Arbuthnot’s successor, but the question makes me think of Viscount Haldane. He is the man recognised for transforming the British Army just over one hundred years ago, and creating something strong enough to help France stop Germany overrunning the country.

What did he do? Not enough, some might say, considering how the Great War progressed. But had his reforms not gone through at the time, it is generally accepted that things would have been a whole lot worse – swift German victory over France, German concentration on the Eastern Front, victory over the Russians, a European continent dominated by the Kaiser and his aggressive chums.

To prevent that lot he restructured the Regular Army and created a force of five cavalry brigades and six infantry divisions, all with the necessary engineers, artillery and supply services attached. He then created the Territorial Force, bringing together the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteer forces operating at that time as three separate entities with no real wartime purpose. The Territorial Army that we have come to know exists because of his foresight and determination to create an army fit for its primary purpose – namely to fight a war. His first order question was always this: ‘What is your purpose in war?’

We might benefit from his return to the War Office (now rather less impressively called the Ministry of Defence), but he would do equally well chairing the Defence Select Committee. He was a successful barrister, who reached the pinnacle of his profession when he sat on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor; he was quite prepared to defy his own party, disagreeing with the Liberal Party line over imperial strategy and the importance of a strong navy; and he understood what defence was for.

Haldane deduced that British interests were best served by a strong navy to protect Britain and its imperial interests; by an efficient and mobile army capable of foreign service, that could be expanded by a well trained, motivated Territorial Force with links in all parts of the country. Some might disagree – some thought Britain needed a large conscript army capable of fighting the Germans; and, we never know, had we had one we might have defeated Germany much sooner. But agree or disagree, he was capable, perhaps more than anyone at the time, of thinking strategically and having a strong view of what defence policy was for and how to create an army to implement it.

Viscount Haldane, therefore, is my choice. It’s just a pity he’s not around anymore.