The Tories’ divisions over defence give Labour a chance to outflank them

Corbyn should commit to spending three per cent of GDP on defence and to rebuilding the armed forces for British and European security, not for wars of intervention.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, has ordered Britain to spend more on defence or risk the end of the “special relationship”. By complete coincidence, his letter has leaked to the Sun just as Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is manouvering to oust Theresa May, and five days before the showdown at Chequers over Brexit.

Williamson has demanded an extra £20bn for his department. May, in return, has asked him to “justify Britain’s status as a Tier One military power”. What’s the real story? Ten years into austerity, the Tory government is beginning to grasp a truth known to every teenager who has played Sid Meier’s Civilisation. You have to choose between guns and butter. The more productive your economy, the more of both guns and butter you can have. But if your economy is rubbish you can’t be Tier One at anything.

The truth is, Brexit risks damaging not just Britain’s economy, not just its geopolitical standing in the one continent vital to its security, but its very ability to defend itself. That’s where 24 months of indecision and self-deception have got the Tories. Labour’s shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith has pledged to increase defence spending, and to maintain the UK’s status as a Tier One power. But Labour needs to go further and outline a new, ambitious defence concept for the 21st century.

There is no clear definition of what “Tier One” means. Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute, says Britain is, if anything, in Tier Three, below the US, Russia and China. A global military power index produced by Credit Suisse, based on spending, manpower and equipment numbers, put Britain ninth, below Italy, South Korea and France.

However, the UK does have a claim to Tier One status in the following respects: it is legally a nuclear power; it has an intercontinental nuclear deterrent; it is one of the permanent five members (P5) of the UN Security Council and can veto any decision there; it has fought in every war of intervention initiated by the US since 1989; it has a world class and strategically positioned intelligence facility at GCHQ; it receives “Tier One” access to technologies such as the F35 Lightning (i.e. not a cut-down version stipulated by another country); and some of its military units are world class.

Since 2010, austerity has lopped £10bn off UK defence spending in real terms. Military spending totals £37bn per year, at 2.1 percent of GDP. According to Michael Clarke, visiting professor of defence studies at King’s College London, even if Britain boosted defence spending to three per cent of GDP, around a third of the extra money would be soaked up by existing gaps and shortfalls.

Labour, meanwhile, lacks its own strategic defence philosophy. There has always been a pacifist wing within the party; there’s always been a powerful pro-defence industry lobby too, especially via the unions. What there has seldom been is a clear, independent geopolitical vision.

Since Jeremy Corbyn took over, I’ve been urging Labour to conduct its own shadow defence and security review: Emily Thornberry started one, but it got shelved - just as the government’s own strategic defence review has been stalled. Corbyn needs urgently to restart the process, calling in outside experts and opening up a transparent process of debate – engaging the whole shadow cabinet, not just Griffith’s team.

Here are the principles from which Labour has to begin.

Britain should remain, geopolitically, in Tier One: inside NATO, on the P5, with a credible nuclear deterrent, an ownership stake of US-led (or Europe-led) equipment projects, and membership of the Five Eyes agreement. 

Given the proliferating and changing threats to its security, and as the price for geopolitical power, Britain should spend three per cent of its GDP on defence. We should exploit the multiplier effect of public spending by spending as much of the defence budget as possible on UK-made and designed equipment; and for national security reasons we should, where necessary, protect industries like steel and shipbuilding from market forces using state aid and public ownership.

But we should give up the conceit of “global reach”, inserted into British defence policy under the 2010-15 coalition government. Under this policy Britain has built a naval base in Bahrain, committed itself to police the seas off China and to selling arms, and training, to some of the most despicable regimes in the world. Instead, UK defence policy has to focus on current and future threats. The two most obvious current threats are jihadi terrorism and hybrid warfare practised against the West by Russia.

To combat al-Qaeda, Isis and their next incarnation, you need a world class intelligence and security service and armed police units on 24-hour standby. These facilities, as last year’s terror attacks show, both exist and work – though they can’t achieve 100 per cent certainty.

To counter hybrid warfare you need, first: a strong nuclear deterrent. The nuclear deterrent – I am under no illusions that it is independent – sets limits to what Russia can do to Britain and keeps the UK on the P5. That’s why Labour is right to support the replacement of the submarines that carry Trident, whatever the political costs in Scotland.

Then you need a strong conventional deterrent in Europe and the Baltic Sea. Britain has committed to this: it leads a brigade in Estonia, contributes to another in Poland and both the navy and the air force take part in NATO military formations policing the air and sea borders with Russia.

Britain’s strategic contribution to NATO defence, however, is the potential to deploy two aircraft carriers and supporting ships into the old north Atlantic “gaps” between Greenland, Iceland and the UK, in case of all-out conflict. 

It is this that Mattis was alluding to when he warned Williamson that Britain risks sliding out of favour – because at its current size, it’s not clear how the Royal Navy could do that. To properly police the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the North Atlantic we need a bigger navy. There are just 19 surface combatant ships in the Royal Navy – the numbers were cut as the price for saving the new aircraft carriers under the Cameron government. The navy’s main anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, was allowed to become obsolete without a replacement, again due to defence cuts.

Alan West, the former first sea lord, estimates that we need at least 30 big surface combatants. The final shape and numbers should be the subject of a cross-party defence review and debate. Labour should commit to a major expansion of the Royal Navy - with the proviso, as Corbyn explained at Govan in May, that all new naval shipbuilding is carried out in British yards. That, plus remedying the delays and shortfalls on other equipment programmes, is where the extra money should be spent.

Vladimir Putin wants to break up the EU, break up NATO and turn Europe into a “multipolar” region, in which America, Russia and at the fringes China play power games. Brexit, in this context, was a self-inflicted wound, designed and executed by the Conservative Party. By playing mind games with the EU, Theresa May has made things worse: the EU are now freezing Britain out of the Galileo satellite project, the European arrest warrant and other aspects of security co-operation.

But among the Tory and Ukip voting mass base that still believes in the conceit that we will “go it alone”, there is an equally dangerous illusion: that Britain can defend itself without Europe; that its alliance with the US gives it a rock solid position in the world. Mattis's intervention shows just how fragile this situation is.

The current Conservative position is a gift to Putin. The Tories have slashed defence spending, spread the remaining resources too thinly in search of “global reach” and endangered our existing security and defence co-operation with Europe via Brexit.

Labour should commit to spending three per cent of GDP on defence, paid for out of the same mixture of business tax, progressive income tax, and taxes on assets as the rest of its increased spending plans. It should commit to enhanced defence and security co-operation with the EU, even, despite Brexit, engaging with all the multilateral structures emerging as the EU strengthens its own co-operation.

It should reprioritise the UK’s armed forces towards their primary mission in NATO – deterring conventional warfare in Europe. Rebuilding the armed forces for the defence of Britain and Europe, not for the wars of intervention east of Suez favoured by Blair and Cameron, would also strengthen their connections and support within wider society. And it would demonstrate Britain’s ability to make its own decisions, not simply take orders from Donald Trump’s defence chief.

While the dying May administration leaks and bickers, Labour has the chance to stand up for the national interest on defence. If Corbyn's election strategists are looking for issues that will break open the hitherto solid 38-40 per cent support for the Tories, this is one of them.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.