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Defensive or just Plain Offensive?
Stuart Macdonald

"A generous but fair pay rise would be a great morale booster, and lucrative defence contracts to British factories would be a certain vote-winner, yet Labour resists. As a consequence, the Army advertising slogan 'Be the Best' echoes rather hollowly."

It is now three weeks since the Queen formally dissolved parliament and polling day is fast approaching at the pace of a scalded scud missile. It has been a bruising contest to date, concerning a number of issues such as taxation and the treatment of asylum seekers. However, there is evidence of a few punches being pulled, especially by the incumbent Labour party, when it comes to the question of defence policy.

Picture the following scenario. The year is 2010 and the United States has just completed the construction of its National Missile Defence Shield (NMD). The UK and a number of other European nations have permitted the deployment of crucial radar sites and other equipment in their territory. There is outrage in Moscow and Beijing, at the fact that America has attempted to turn itself into a giant fortress, through NMD. The new system is seen not so much as defensive, but offensive, especially by the Chinese. They decide to take matters into their own hands with the implementation of their own programme…and so on and so forth.

This may all seem a tad far fetched, yet it serves to illustrate the point that sound defence and foreign policies are key to any pretensions towards global peace and prosperity. There is an old saying that there is nothing as good for a country (and a government) as a war. The film Wag the Dog (Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro) parodied this point to excellent effect, yet it is almost certain that were George W Bush's NMD programme to proceed, it would lead to a proliferation of weapons and the paving of the path to the ultimate war.

It is therefore rather concerning that Labour is unsure of how to proceed as regards the question of NMD. It has effectively dodged the issue by claiming that it will consider NMD once the Americans ask permission to build UK-based positions. Loosely translated, this means that Labour will consent to the idea, in the hope that America will support the EU plan for a European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are at least more up front as regards NMD. The LibDems denounce it as a contravention of existing missile agreements, whilst the Tories (taking the Conservative lead from across the pond) are wholeheartedly behind the project and even advocate its extension to encompass the whole of Nato.

It is obvious that the issue of defence is an emotive one, especially around election time; yet what about those people who really matter - the service personnel? Politicians such as John Prescott can stake their claim for re-election on a macho ticket, but when the political kid-gloves are taken off, the blows which count are invariably struck by the armed forces. Whether this is through the enforcement of sanctions, (as in the case of Iraq) or through actual military engagement (such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo), the importance of the roles which are played by the navy, airforce and army should never be under-estimated.

Given the political potency of the armed forces, it seems bizarre that Labour is playing a game whereby it is burning both ends of a dangerous fuse. Since the completion of its Strategic Defence Review (SDR) in 1998, the government has increased the demands placed upon the under-utilised armed forces, whilst simultaneously failing to invest sums large enough to pay for this increase in activities. According to some polls, morale is at an all-time low and equipment is old and rapidly becoming obsolete. Labour has attempted to place the blame on the eighteen-year rule of the Tories and yet four years since Tony Blair took office, Labour has still to improve the situation.

A generous but fair pay rise would be a great morale booster, and lucrative defence contracts to British factories would be a certain vote-winner, yet Labour resists. It cannot be the case that the Treasury is struggling for funds - the predictions are that Gordon Brown's budget surplus will run to several billion pounds this year. High profile gaffes such as army communication breakdowns in Kosovo and misinformation on the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) tipped shells demanded immediate and positive action, yet a definite government policy has yet to emerge. As a consequence, the Army advertising slogan 'Be the Best' echoes rather hollowly.

The SDR was completed in 1998 and as a result the government says that it has already managed to 'save' £500m from an apparent £3.5bn cost over-run which the Tories left behind. Labour intends to invest an extra £1.5bn above inflation for the next four years, although it also says that it is able to save £2bn over the ten years until 2008. It has conducted a recruitment drive across the three services, but has also drastically cut back on numbers in the Territorial Army.

Of the other two major parties, the LibDems appear to have at least considered the likely future role of the armed forces. They advocate the international pooling of resources, so as to allow the quickest and most effective response to any potential situation, regardless of its scope or location. To this end, they see the British armed forces playing a leading role in the co-ordination and command of domestic and also foreign resources. According to the LibDems, the European contribution to this global police force would be most effective through the proposed ERRF.

The Tories are against the creation of the ERRF, as it would (along with all things European) undermine our nation's sovereignty. Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow defence secretary, would prefer to entrust all defence responsibilities (and hence spending commitments) to the American dominated Nato.
graphic courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The area of defence is one of the few in which there is a discernible difference between the Tories and Labour. However, even taking appearances into consideration, these differences are surely superficial, with both parties wanting to spend less in an area where we increasingly rely upon the paranoia of the Americans to provide weapons and manpower for Nato. Ultimately, NMD will be built if the Americans want it - after all, we are powerless to stop them.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

links: -

Liberal Democrats
Plaid Cymru

National Missile Defence
bbc online

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