Liam Fox says defence cuts are necessary

Defence Secretary plays a straight bat in television interview.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister published today in the Independent on Sunday, 50 senior military figures, politicians and academics call for the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to be reopened, arguing that financial considerations have trumped military ones:

The Strategic Defence and Security Review seems to have been driven by financial rather than military considerations. Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have highlighted the unpredictability of global security – there was no mention of North Africa in the SDSR at all. The security landscape has radically changed and some of the assumptions on which the review was based should be reconsidered.

The irony of HMS Cumberland, which faces being decommissioned, playing a key role in evacuations from Benghazi is not lost on those who take an interest in the future of the Royal Navy. The announcement of redundancies in the RAF on the same day as speculation about enforcing a no-fly zone was also regrettable.

Britain's ability to play a role in the event of military action in Libya has been called into question in recent days. In light of the new potential threats posed by unrest in North Africa, we urge David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, to reopen the SDSR and ensure the forces are properly structured and adequately funded to meet the nation's requirements.

Asked by the BBC's Andrew Marr this morning for his reaction to the letter, the Defence Secretary stolidly defended the SDSR, blaming in now time-honoured fashion the need to make cuts on the fiscal "black hole" left behind by Labour. Fox said he felt "very sad" that thousands of servicemen were being given their P45s, but insisted that "you cannot be secure if you're broke" – which rather bears out the analysis made in that open letter.

Marr also asked Fox about reports that a unit from the SAS had been seized by opposition forces in Libya's second city, Benghazi. Fox admitted that a British "diplomatic team" was in Benghazi trying to make contact with the opposition, but said it would be "inappropriate" to say anything more.

As for British policy on Libya, Fox made two significant remarks. First, he complained that the disparate, incohate nature of the opposition to Muammar al-Gaddafi made it "a difficult situation to understand", though he insisted that the government wanted "to be able to work with [opposition groups]"; as for plans for a no-fly zone over Libya, Fox said they remained a "possibility", and that contingency plans were being laid with Britain's partners in Nato.

There were no plans, however, for British land forces to be used if the situation in Libya deteriorated.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times