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General Election 2017: Pledges Softly Made in the Foreign Affairs and Defence Sections of the Manifestos

Michael Clarke
Commentary, 22 May 2017
Armed Forces, Defence Spending, Equipment and Acquisitions, UK Defence
This is the ‘Brexit Election’ – called because of it, and fought over the right to conduct it. Nevertheless, so far, and now in the manifestos, Brexit is present everywhere but hardly discussed. It is the spectre at the feast of domestic initiatives.

The Brexit spectre will cast its shadow over Britain’s foreign policy and its relationship with the rest of the world, its defence, security and policing in the decades to come. But no one would guess from what has been presented by the major parties so far.

The Conservative Party dare not re-run any Brexit arguments – hard or soft – and wants a blank cheque for Prime Minister Theresa May. The Labour Party wants a soft Brexit with some wiggle room to give ‘a meaningful role to Parliament’.

Both would prefer to run traditional election campaigns and talk past each other – the Conservatives concentrating on personal leadership around a new ‘one nation’ Toryism; Labour setting out a baroque programme for several future governments to re-socialise British society in both old and new ways.

Only the Liberal Democrats have taken on Brexit itself as the central issue – arguing in some detail about the direction of a soft Brexit and then committing to a second referendum on the deal with the EU. It is a bold approach that seeks to attract a proportion of the 48% remainers in the 2016 referendum.

If it fails, the Lib Dems may again crash and burn, but no one will be able to say they did not try to take on the central issue.

Mere Afterthoughts

In reality, the foreign affairs and defence sections in the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos read like relative afterthoughts. There are all the usual name checks for touchstone issues – more diplomatic weight for conflict prevention and peace initiatives; the authority of the UN; ambitious international development and world health objectives; determination to maintain robust defence policy and care for Armed Forces personnel; and so on.

The Labour manifesto name checks no fewer than ten separate conflicts, plus mention of generic tensions throughout East Asia. Both manifestos feel the need to highlight the Syria and Israeli/Palestinian crises.

None of these name checks hints at a departure from existing policy and in all cases solutions are purely anodyne.

They are both explicit, however, in singling out Saudi Arabia for criticism over its war in Yemen, and the Lib Dems are not frightened to highlight an ‘increasingly aggressive’ Russia.

More interesting is what the manifestos do not say on difficult policy questions. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has had to commit to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent, though in the context of a new push to observe the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So too have the Lib Dems, though with a commitment to run the force with three submarines instead of four and to end the presumption of ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’.

Neither leadership can afford to be labelled ‘unilateralist’ so, in effect, they support Trident renewal through gritted teeth.

In contrast to Prime Minister May’s avowedly presidential manifesto, Corbyn has also had to take on board recognition of NATO’s place in British thinking – the alliance is mentioned twice, albeit somewhat grudgingly, in passing.

The strong pro-Palestinian sentiments have disappeared since the leaked draft of the Labour manifesto; the importance of defence industries is recognised, although in the context of stronger export controls.

There is no echo of Corbyn’s statements that force should be used only with the explicit authority of the UN – superficially attractive but virtually impossible in practice.

For a manifesto that looks so deeply into the future, the Labour document is curiously insular, with barely a significant mention of the partnerships and alliances that will be even more important to Brexit Britain. The Lib Dems, at least, acknowledge the fundamental importance of other players in the game.

Keeping Commitments

All three parties commit themselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid. The Conservatives, however, have hinted heavily that they will change how the latter figure is defined and they confirm that the already allocated 0.5% increase above inflation in defence spending will run ‘every year of the new parliament’.

Beyond that, there is hardly a sniff of a spending commitment from any of the parties.

All of which gives the Conservatives a fairly clear run to offer a more thematic manifesto – the ‘five giant challenges’ – where it can press for the unity of the UK in terms of building a ‘global Britain’ in the post-Brexit world.

Although the prime minister is not a natural fan of globalisation, her manifesto makes a good stab at setting whatever Brexit turns out to be – and either she will not say or she genuinely does not know – in the context of Britain as an influential world power in the digital age.

However, many of the weaknesses of this aspiration are going unchallenged. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon pulled a fast one last week on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC One when he committed to ‘build the army up to 82,000 by the year 2020’, as opposed to his promise in the 2015 election that the army would not fall below 82,000 (it is presently below 78,500).

Numbers Game

But here are the new goalposts in the manifesto as a commitment to ‘maintain the overall size of the armed forces’. Is this the newly reduced figure, or the figure of two years ago? And does ‘overall’ mean that gains in one Service can be offset by losses in another?

The manifesto names the contracts to build eight new Type 26 frigates (and five offshore patrol vessels). However, no figure is offered to confirm the five other ‘General Purpose Frigates’ the Navy was promised when the original thirteen Type 26 plan was re-worked to save money.

No numbers are offered for all the other equipment types the manifesto boasts are being procured – Ajax armoured vehicles, new Apache helicopters, drones, the Lightning II aircraft, the new maritime patrol aircraft or new ordnance and missile systems.

The Service Chiefs might be disturbed to see that only one major equipment programme – the Type 26 – has been given the certainty of a contracted number.

And they might scratch their heads over statements that ‘we can further increase the size of our fleet’ by the 2030s or that ‘we will expand our reach around the world’ – notwithstanding the new aircraft carriers coming into service from 2020.

The vaulting ambition with which, in the document, ‘Theresa May’s Conservatives’ aim to project a ‘global Britain’ are difficult to square with the military resources available for that side of the global projection equation.

UK Credibility on the Line

After the anticipated 2019 Brexit, the UK’s credibility as an influential world power will be more squarely on the line than at any time since 1940. Of course, leadership, domestic consensus and a strong economy are prerequisites for the sort of global influence over the international rules that Britain will, more than ever, need.

But the parties want to treat Brexit as just another, albeit very knotty, political problem. Perhaps it will be. Nevertheless, the suspicion grows that Britain’s future after 2019 will be so different from its past that this pedestrian election campaign will come to seem like trying to play draughts amid a game of chess. 

Banner image: It is not clear how many Apache AH1D attack helicopters will be procured for the Army. Courtesy of the Ministry of Defence.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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