A Liberal Democrat View of UK Defence Policy

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire ImageLord Wallace of Saltaire, joint Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers, House of Lords, outlined his party’s policy of defence in advance of the General Election and subsequent Strategic Defence Review.

Lord Wallace is a Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the House of Lords and was a spokesperson on defence prior to that. Previous appointments include Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Walter Hallstein Senior Research Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, Professor of International Relations at the Central European University in Budapest and Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, where he now has Emeritus status. 

His publications include The Transformation of Western Europe (1990), Regional Integration: The West European Experience (1995), Rethinking European Order (with Robin Niblett, 2001), Non-State Actors in Global Politics (with Daphne Josselin, 2001) and Reassessing the Special Relationship (with Christopher Phillips, International Affairs, 2009). He is currently a member of the Liberal Democrats National Policy Committee and chair of its Working Group on Localism and Decentralisation. He is also chair of the advisory board of the liberal think tank, CentreForum.

Full Text of Speech

I am in one sense very sorry to be giving this talk, in an institute where I have often  in the past heard my former colleague Tim Garden  - Air Marshal Lord Garden - expound a Liberal Democrat approach to defence so expertly and eloquently.  Our party, both in the Lords and the Commons, benefitted enormously from both his expertise and his instincts; and we still miss him a great deal.  I had relied on his advice when I was myself defence spokesman in the Lords; and was very happy when he came to join us as defence spokesman.

Liberal Democrats have long argued for a comprehensive security review, based on the recognition that the UK is now - and for the foreseeable future - secure from any direct external military threat, but that our economic and social integration with our neighbours and with the wider world, requires us to make an appropriate contribution to the maintenance of regional and global order.  How large that contribution should be depends both on what we can afford and on our conception of Britain's identity, role and responsibilities.  There is, at last, a cross-party consensus on such a review immediately after the election; but there remain sharp differences among the parties about the UK's international role and ambitions, as well as a wide gap between public perceptions of Britain's global role and those within the expert security community.  Gordon Brown, absurdly, accused Nick Clegg of being 'anti-American' in the second leaders' debate, for pointing out that Britain no longer has as special a relationship with Washington as it enjoyed two generations ago.  Conservatives attack the Liberal Democrats for supporting European defence integration, and have promised to take the UK out of the European Defence Agency, to pursue bilateral cooperation only with the French.  Liberal Democrats start from a firm commitment to working more closely with our neighbours and allies in pursuit of our core defence and security interests,

The UK's role and responsibilities

So let me start by reminding you about previous strategic defence reviews, the assumptions on which they rested, and the way in which successive Labour and Conservative governments have drifted back to illusions of great power status and what Nick Clegg has called 'default Atlanticism'.  I want to underline that not only in 1997-8, but also in 1966-7, the conclusions that the FCO and MoD reached were closer to the Liberal Democrat approach now than to the nostalgic visions of the two other parties.

12 years ago, as a logical follow-up to the defence review, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac at St.Malo launched ESDP: a Franco-British initiative.  That was at a time when limited cooperation still continued between the Labour Government and the Liberal Democrats; Ming Campbell and I were fully briefed by Robin Cook and George Robertson beforehand, and gave it our full support.  Blair, as we know, backpedalled as soon as the Daily Mail conjured up the fantastical threat of a 'European army', leaving our armed forces and the MoD engaged in forms of cooperation which their government seemed reluctant to admit to the British public.  He then became seduced by the illusions of influence in Washington, diverted from European cooperation to align Britain with the Republican Administration in Washington, and took the UK into war with Iraq - a war which, as you know, Liberal Democrats opposed for very good reasons, which overstretched our forces and our defence budget, and which damagingly delayed post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The ESDP initiative has so far led only to limited results - partly because of German and Italian lack of interest, but partly also because the UK government ceased to provide political leadership, either within the EU or within our domestic debate.  We have had the extraordinary situation in which Solana's foreign policy secretariat was headed by a British diplomat, the European Defence Agency by a British official, and a one point the European military staff  by a British general - while the Labour Government was pretending that we really had very little to do with what was happening in Brussels.  It's now clear that further progress has to be built around renewed leadership from the UK and France, and close partnership between them.  Sadly, it's difficult to see how such a partnership could be built by a Conservative Party whose MPs, old and new, are more familiar with right-wing think tanks in Washington than with moderate conservative parties on the continent, and many of whom share the Europhobia of the intellectual right.

A full generation earlier - before most of today's British population were born, when both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were babies - the 1967 'East of Suez' defence review had recommended a similar shift in Britain's self-perception of its international role.  We retreated from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, to focus our defence efforts primarily on the European region.  The United States took over our former role in the Gulf - and became the sole occupant of the new island base of Diego Garcia, originally intended also to support a British naval presence.  The size of the navy was reduced - let me remind you in particular that it was decided to phase out aircraft carriers, since the government had accepted that it could no longer project air and sea power at oceanic distances from the UK.  Let me also remind you that the then-Labour government renewed Britain's application to the European Community, and took the initiative to set up the Eurogroup.  Storms of protest from the right-wing press greeted these moves, sharply attacking an FCO report's suggestion that we should now regard ourselves as 'a major power of the second rank', rather than as a first-rate global power.

What Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are saying about Britain's realistic global role is thus precisely what intelligent and realistic policy advisers have been arguing since I was a student in the United States.  Dean Acheson had spelled out the logic of Britain's untenable position in December 1962, as Harold Macmillan scrambled to rescue the British nuclear deterrent by obtaining missiles from the USA.  The second half of the paragraph, less often quoted than his remark that we had 'lost an empire and not found a role', stated bluntly that the special relationship on which we relied was 'about played out' and that we could no longer stay aloof from Europe. 

Redefining Britain's identity and role

If we are to build a public consensus around a security review, the next government has to explain to the public the transformation of our position in the world in which we live.  Tim Garton Ash has described public discussion of Britain's role and international identity over the past half-century as 'footnotes to Churchill': the image of Britain standing alone, facing a hostile or defeated Europe, with the support and partnership with the United States.  It is an endless replay of the Second World War as we remember it - not entirely accurately.  I note that UKIP and BNP leaflets still carry pictures of Spitfires and the white cliffs of Dover, and that the Daily Mail has chosen the weeks of this election campaign to offer its readers a free DVD series on World War II

That task of public persuasion requires enlightened and determined political leadership, of the sort that first John Major and then Tony Blair promised when they claimed that they would take Britain 'to the heart of Europe', only to back off under media attack, and that Gordon Brown embarked upon but then dropped in his speeches on national identity.  There's much a new government can do to shift public understanding of Britain's military history and recent shared operations.  On Remembrance Sunday, our most prominent ceremony of national memory and identity, we could give for example prominence one year to a Polish intelligence contingent, to remind the public of the contribution their efforts made to code-breaking in the Second World War; or to Dutch or Czech pilots, prominent (but unremembered) in the Battle of Britain; or to the Indian army, the largest contingent in the imperial forces throughout the war, now one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping forces.  And we could invite contingents from those forces that have worked alongside us in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.  The French government invited a large British contingent to parade down the Champs Elysées on the centenary of the Entente Cordiale; the UK government has not yet found a way of responding in a similarly public and symbolic fashion. 

Public gestures such as these would help our citizens to understand that the UK does not stand alone, that our security is intrinsically linked with that of others, that we gain - and have for several generations gained - from the security we share with other states, and that our future security rests on maximising cooperation with others, making the best of our limited resources in partnership with our neighbours and others beyond.  The Labour government has funked this task of leadership; the Conservatives still live in Andrew Roberts's re-imagined world of the English-speaking peoples.

It was possible to retain the illusion that we remained America's premier ally under Reagan, who had acted in so many films about World War II, and under Clinton, who was nostalgic about his student days in Oxford.  The younger President Bush kept a bust of Churchill in his office; but he did not pay anything like as much attention to the British Prime Minister's views as Roosevelt had done.  President Obama has no special bond of affection for the UK; the only mention of Britain in his Dreams from my Father is as the colonial power in Kenya.  Tony Blair tested the 'Special Relationship' to its limits, committing the UK to the invasion of Iraq in the expectation that we would therefore gain influence over US Middle East policy once the war was over; and discovered that our influence was very slim.  The Obama Administration is interested in a military, political and economic partnership with Europe as an entity, and has made it clear that Britain's influence in Washington depends upon its influence within Europe.  That means we have to learn to engage with Washington in a more multilateral, less competitive way; and we have to recognise that British defence spending can no longer be driven by the imperative of maintaining bilateral influence in Washington.

So - to coin a phrase - there is no alternative.  There is no alternative to closer cooperation with our European partners and neighbours, and to making the best of that partnership.  There is indeed some common ground between the three parties on this: with the sharp difference, however, that Labour is ambivalent, the Conservatives reluctant, while Liberal Democrats want to make the best of it.  Liberal Democrats agree with Recommendation 21 of last year's IPPR report, chaired by Lords Robertson and Ashdown - a non-partisan group which also included Professor Michael Clarke - that the UK government should support, fully engage in and possibly lead moves to create permanent structured defence cooperation among a pioneer group of EU countries.

In recent months I've heard politicians from Bob Ainsworth to Malcolm Rifkind talk about Britain's particular commitment to global trade, and our particular dependence on global sea lanes to maintain the sinews of British global commerce.  That's part of the nostalgic myth of our imperial past.  We share an interest in secure sea lanes with other major economies, and we should work with them to keep them open.  Germany, after all, is a larger exporter than the UK - as of course is China.  It's not evident that it should continue to be a disproportionate UK responsibility to protect Chinese goods on Korean ships, crewed by Filipinos, as they pass through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.  Naval forces off Somalia provide a snapshot of the global shift in economic power and interest, and therefore of military responsibility; there are now Indian and Chinese ships as well as American, French, German, Spanish, and others beside the British.  Those who assume that global order can only be maintained by the 'Western' industrial democracies are behind the curve.  It's in our interest to engage the rising powers, beyond NATO, in global security - and it's in their interest to respond.  We should be seeking to work more closely with the Indians and their effective armed forces; and we should be telling the Chinese, who have already begun to contribute to UN peacekeeping forces, that they have to share responsibility for stability and good governance in Africa and across the Middle East. This raises some large questions for the coming debate on the revision of NATO's Strategic Concept, to which I'd be happy to return in our discussion later.

Priorities and choices

Liberal Democrat assumptions about Britain's defence priorities follow from this understanding of our role.  Our primary security interests lie across the European continent, and beyond that around the Mediterranean, across the Middle East and Africa.  Britain's security environment has been transformed for the better by the enlargement of the EU and NATO; there is now no direct threat to the UK.  One of the many failures of our Labour government has been its reluctance to tell the British public that a substantial part of the contribution we have been making to the EU budget in recent years - alongside such other net contributors as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France - has been an investment in the economic and political stabilization of the former socialist countries of eastern Europe.  That productive investment demonstrates how non-military spending can strengthen our security.

Cross-party agreement that this must be a security review, covering a wider canvas than defence alone, reflects this understanding that budgetary priorities need to stretch across several Whitehall Departments.  It makes little sense to maintain the defence budget if the FCO budget is cut by 20-30% - as it has been over the past 2-3 years; diplomatic efforts to prevent future conflicts, and to resolve long-standing confrontations, may prove far more cost-effective than waiting for conflict to break out.  In circumstances where 'war among the people' ( to use Rupert Smith's phrase) is more likely than war between states, the sort of civilian-military Stabilization and Reconstruction Force - on which again there now seems to be an emerging cross-party consensus - deserves investment alongside purely military means.  Paddy Ashdown worked hard to integrate civilian and military contributions to the rebuilding of Bosnia, and has rightly warned against the inadequate integration of different contributions in Afghanistan.  It's right that the government has massively increased expenditure on the security services in recent years, and that it has created a cross-departmental Conflict Prevention Pool.  The difficult question is how far we should continue to invest against the risk of future state-to-state war, and how far it should be Britain's responsibility to invest in comparison with other potentially-threatened states.

Since there are almost no conceivable future threats to the UK alone, the distribution of risk and responsibility is one that we should not be ashamed of raising with our partners.  The Conservatives have raised the question of more equitable cost-sharing within NATO; we would wish to raise that question within the EU as well.  There are, of course, real problems of sovereignty and the chain of command once states begin to move from financial contributions to shared roles or specialization.  But that does not rule out further moves towards specialization in such fields as logistics and reconnaissance.  The British Government's refusal to join in the AWACs programme has wasted large sums on Nimrod, over many years.    There's more to be done in integrated weapons systems, shared support and training establishments- which come up very quickly, we all know, against entrenched and particularist national traditions.  British armed forces have habits as entrenched as others, which we must be willing to adapt.

Liberal Democrats insist that the planned replacement of Trident must be included in the coming review, and that we should exclude the option of a like-for-like 4-submarine replacement.  This has attracted significant support from senior military figures and security experts, while provoking horror among defenders of Britain's traditional global role.  Malcolm Rifkind suggested that we were edging Britain towards 'unilateral disarmament', using the old cold war rhetoric that I remember from my student days in the 1960s.  What we are saying, and what Nick Clegg invited Ming Campbell to investigate further, is little more than is contained in Recommendation 17 of the IPPR study: that the future of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent should be considered as an integral part of the recommended Strategic Review of Security. 

Rifkind suggested in his RUSI talk that we should if necessary delay other procurement programmes in order to maintain the pace of Trident replacement.  We are arguing, on the contrary, that we should stretch the life of the current submarine-based system, to leave more budgetary room for other procurement programmes, while working through the forthcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to move towards a further reduction of nuclear weapons - to which we should appropriately contribute - and considering what other options for a continuation of minimum nuclear deterrence may be open to us.  What we should NOT do is to discuss the issue of nuclear deterrence as if its further reduction or eventual elimination would shrink the UK from the status of a world power to another Switzerland.  Defence and security policy should not be about status and national pride, but about the appropriate British contribution to meeting future threats.

I'm not going to speculate about other big-ticket programmes, beyond reiterating that we see no argument for purchasing tranche 3B of the Typhoon/Eurofighter, and agreeing with others that the argument for a substantial tank force is far less persuasive than for more effective air mobility.  But I do want to say something about the military covenant and forces welfare, and about reserves, home security, and civilian resilience.  Canvassing in North Yorkshire over the past two weeks, in Richmond, Ripon, and other places with strong military connections, I've come across strong views from retired servicemen and women on forces' welfare and support provided for post-conflict veterans.  Adjustment to civilian life after conflict is often difficult, for reservists as well as for long-term service personnel; the number who end up alcohol-dependent, or on the streets, or in our over-crowded prisons, is shameful.  Liberal Democrats want to see a higher priority in future defence spending for service pay and housing, for the support of the new generation of severely wounded that is returning from combat, and for demobilised veterans.  The sacrifice and commitment witnessed daily in Afghanistan remind us that while debate may focus on the affordability of this or that big project, our servicemen and women remain our most precious military asset.

There are strong reasons for wanting to reconsider whether a larger role for reserve forces would contribute to Britain's security.  Reserves have served well alongside professionals in military operations over the past 15 years, even though the size and funding for reserve forces has continued to be squeezed.  All parties declare that they want to encourage larger numbers of our citizens to play an active part in local and national life; volunteer forces provide one obvious opportunity to do so.  I've been struck by the good reputation of Nordic peacekeeping forces, substantially composed of volunteers extending their basic training by a year to serve abroad; in future peacekeeping and nation-building operations, it would be helpful to be able to draw on such people here.  The over-centralization of British government has meant that local initiative, and local resilience in the event of disasters, is much weaker here than in other democratic states.  Liberal Democrat plans to return power and autonomy to local authorities would thus bring security gains, as well as greater democratic engagement.

How much should we spend?

The starting point for any honest approach to defence policy must be that we cannot afford our current defence ambitions, and must face some very hard choices about priorities.  This is another East of Suez moment: we have to recognise that unrealistic future commitments and unavoidable budgetary cuts now force a step change. 

Bernard Gray in the opening sentences of his report to the Secretary of State last year spelt out the position bluntly: The Ministry of Defence... has a substantially overheated equipment programme, with too many types of equipment being ordered for too large a range of tasks at too high a specification.  This programme is unaffordable on any likely projection of future budgets.   No-one in any of the three parties has been willing to ring-fence the defence budget against cuts; there is no public support for deep cuts in education, transport investment, or other programmes in order to protect spending on defence.  We have to do less, better; we cannot continue to attempt to maintain all commitments, in an under-funded fashion.

Liberal Democrats, with the other parties, value the quality of our armed forces, and wish to provide them with the equipment they need for the tasks they are asked to fulfil.  We see those tasks as more likely to be involved in non-state conflicts, in the prevention of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction, than in future state-to-state war.  They will often be working alongside local forces - as they are already in Afghanistan - or training local forces up to western standards.  They will be dealing with the impact of state collapse and climate change as well as with threats from radical ideological movements.  For that they will need the best equipment for the tasks they face. 

Alongside this, we must continue to insure against future unknowns, in cooperation with friendly states which would also be threatened.  But we cannot insure against all risks, and we will not serve Britain's best long-term interests if we continue to procure the highest-specification weapons systems against the least likely or desirable future conflicts, justified by the argument that our equipment must remain up to the highest American standards - as Bernard Gray has rightly argued.  There are some very hard choices ahead; and the new government, whatever its political complexion, will have to engage the wider public, as well as the defence community, in resolving which priorities to choose.



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