Defence spending will fall -- and rightly so

Britain, a warrior nation, will be forced to take a more pragmatic approach

All governments are reluctant to cut defence spending, or rather be seen to do so. With Britain's self-image as a warrior nation and its belief that its armed forces really are "the best in the world", no politician will freely admit to reducing the defence budget.

But it is increasingly clear that the next government will have to make cuts of roughly 10-15 per cent in real terms. Even the Tories, who still see themselves as the party of the armed forces, will have to slash the defence budget if they are to maintain their commitment to ringfence health and international development spending.

The latest report from the Royal United Services Institute shows how these cuts could shrink the armed forces by up to a fifth (see graph). Although we can expect no mainstream Labour or Tory figure to make it, there is a strong case, given the £178bn Budget deficit, for cutting defence spending.

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Data published by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute in 2009 placed the UK fourth in a table of the top ten military spenders in current US dollars. The US led the table, spending $607bn on defence, with China in second place, spending $84.9bn. France came in third place ($65.7bn) and the UK was just behind with $65.3bn. British defence spending as a percentage of GDP is 2.6 per cent.

Many will assume that Britain should fight to maintain its position in the international pecking order, but that ignores an alternative approach. Instead of struggling to project power abroad, we should focus on pursuing fairness at home. This means prioritising spending on education, health and anti-poverty measures.

In the post-recession world, this sceptred isle will be forced to become a more pragmatic and modest nation. The £20bn renewal of Trident, little more than a national virility symbol, must be cancelled. Military intervention abroad, humanitarian or otherwise, will become increasingly unthinkable.

It is a case that Labour should be prepared to make. As James Purnell wrote in his excellent Guardian article this week, by conceding that major spending cuts are needed in some areas, the government will be in a better position to argue that the deficit must not be cut at a rate that threatens economic recovery. Let's hope that Labour's "radical manifesto" reflects this truth.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.