Britain's incredible shrinking army

The military will be reduced to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars.

For so long "the party of the armed forces", the Conservatives are to reduce the military to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars (see graph). The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, announced in the Commons today that 17 units will be axed as the number of soldiers is reduced by a fifth from 102,000 to 82,000. For many Tory activists, not least when the overseas aid budget has received a 35 per cent real-terms increase, this is unconscionable (defence spending will be reduced by 7.5 per cent). ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie, who I profiled for the New Statesman earlier this year, tweeted this morning: "Biggest tax burden since WWII. Smallest army since Victorian times. This isn't Conservatism."

Labour and its shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, scent a political opportunity. In his response to Hammond's statement, Murphy declared:

These decisions flow from a Defence Review which put savings before strategy.

Now our Forces face a perfect storm. We are seeing the largest number of Service-leavers in a generation at a time of deep recession.

Today, jobs and military capability have been lost and tradition and history have been sacrificed.

This isn’t just a smaller Army, it’s also a less powerful army in a less influential nation. And today our Armed Forces and their families deserve better.

Murphy believes that the Tories' latest assault on a traditional British institution offers Labour a chance to burnish its credentials as a patriotic, "one nation" party. In response, we can expect the coalition to remind Labour of the reason for those "savings": the £158bn deficit it inherited from the last government. Given that Murphy has previously warned Labour that it must be "credible" on public spending, rather than "populist", he may find it harder than most to rebut this argument.

Army numbers will be reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why Labour's rise could threaten Nicola Sturgeon's independence dream

As the First Minister shelves plans for a second vote, does she join the list of politicians who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

The nights are getting longer, and so are generations. The independence referendum sequel will happen after, not before the Brexit process is complete, Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday.

It means that Scottish Remainers will not have the opportunity to seamlessly move from being part of a United Kingdom in the European Union to an independent Scotland in the European Union. Because of the ongoing drama surrounding Theresa May, we've lost sight of what a bad night the SNP had on 8 June. Not just because they lost 21 of the 56 seats they were defending, including that of their leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, and their former leader, Alex Salmond. They also have no truly safe seats left – having gone from the average SNP MP sitting on a majority of more than 10,000 to an average of just 2,521.

As Sturgeon conceded in her statement, there is an element of referendum fatigue in Scotland, which contributed to the loss. Does she now join the list of politicians – Tim Farron being one, and Owen Smith the other – who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

I'm not so sure. Of all the shocks on election night, what happened to the SNP was in many ways the least surprising and most long-advertised. We knew from the 2016 Holyrood elections – before the SNP had committed to a referendum by March 2019 – that No voters were getting better at voting tactically to defeat the SNP, which was helping all the Unionist parties outperform their vote share. We saw that in the local elections earlier this year, too. We knew, too, that the biggest beneficiaries of that shift were the Scottish Conservatives.

So in many ways, what happened at the election was part of a bigger trend that Sturgeon was betting on a wave of anger at the Brexit vote. If we get a bad Brexit deal, or worse, no deal at all, then it may turn out that Sturgeon's problem was simply that this election came a little too early.

The bigger problem for the Yes side isn't what happened to the SNP's MPs – they can undo that with a strong showing at the Holyrood elections in 2021 or at Westminster in 2022. The big problem is what happened to the Labour Party across the United Kingdom.

One of Better Together's big advantages in 2014 is that, regardless of whether you voted for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party, if you believed the polls, you had a pretty reasonable expectation that your type of politics would be represented in the government of Britain sometime soon.

For the last two years, the polls, local elections and by-elections have all suggested that the only people in Scotland who could have that expectation were Conservatives. Bluntly: the day after the local elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats looked to be decades from power, and the best way to get a centre-left government looked to be a Yes vote. The day after the general election, both parties could hope to be in government within six months.

As Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, observed in a smart column for the Herald after the election, one of the reasons why the SNP lost votes was that Corbyn's manifesto took some of the optimistic vote that they gobbled up in 2014 and 2015.

And while Brexit may yet sour enough to make Nicola Sturgeon's second referendum more appealing on that ground, the transformation in Labour's position over the course of the election campaign is a much bigger problem for the SNP.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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