Are the Conservatives the Sole Custodians of UK Defence?

The Conservatives have historically touted themselves as the party to be trusted with the UK’s defence and foreign policy, arguments which were duly repeated during the current electoral campaign. However, in practice, their record may diverge from such claims.

The Conservative Party jealously guards its reputation as the ‘party of defence’. And, in return, polling consistently shows that it is still the most trusted party on defence matters. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI conducted on 12-15 April 2015 showed that the Conservative Party had a considerable lead of 11% on the Labour Party as the best party with the best policies on defence. Speaking at RUSI during this electoral campaign, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon sought to shore up the party’s reputation by promising a so-called ‘triple lock’ on defence: pledging an annual 1 per cent real terms increase in defence equipment spending throughout the next Parliament, no further reduction in regular force numbers and a full commitment to four new Trident submarines.

What he failed to mention, however, is that this ‘triple-lock’ pledge was required in the first place because the Conservatives’ commitment to defence has been called into question. The party has ended this Parliament having failed to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence, as suggested by the NATO-wide spending target; this stands in stark contrast to this Government’s enshrinement in law to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid.

Whilst there is no doubt that the NATO target would be expensive to meet in an age of austerity, the Government has been criticised from all sides of the House of Commons for prioritising aid spending over defence: the critics included Gisela Stuart from the Labour benches and Col Rory Stewart from the Conservative benches. Furthermore, for the head of the US Army, General Raymond Odierno, to raise concerns that the UK may no longer be relied upon to take part in joint UK-US military operations in future is quite astonishing.

The most significant event in this Parliament was the vote to intervene in Syria. It was unprecedented for a Conservative Prime Minister to lose a vote on a matter of national security, having lost the support of the Opposition and also many of his own backbenchers. Whilst the Iraq War clearly diminished the appetite for intervention by nervous MPs looking for re-election, it was also a failure on the Prime Minister’s part to prepare a convincing case for action. In losing this vote, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA was also damaged, another Conservative taboo that can no longer be taken for granted.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Conservative Party has always believed the United Kingdom is a global power, and has ruled on the assumption that the country’s military capabilities should reflect that aspiration. However, the historic record has never been that simple. Going back to the days of Castlereagh and Canning during the earlier part of the Nineteenth century, the Conservative Party was frequently torn between the opposing poles of interventionism and isolationism. The Cameron government has fallen somewhere between these two poles, with a notable gap between actions and rhetoric: the Prime Minister has spoken as if Britain is still a major power with global aspirations, although in practical terms, David Cameron’s Government acted as a middle-ranking power with a largely mercantilist-inspired foreign policy.

Record in the Last Government

There are still some Conservatives who believe that Britain should use its hard and soft power to shape the world on moral grounds. For this wing of the party, best represented by the hawkish Chief Whip Michael Gove, there is secretive mourning for the days of Margaret Thatcher and even Tony Blair. They were deeply angered by the Syria parliamentary vote, although they also recognise that the public’s tolerance of interventionism has dimmed.

On the other end of the party, there is a proudly militaristic but isolationist view that the UK should spend far more on its military, but only for the defence of the Realm. Rebellious right-wing figures such as John Baron best represent this view. Whilst it may seem in tune with the public sentiment, this introverted approach is off-putting for the public, who are not truly reconciled to an indifferent foreign policy.

The Party’s ambivalence towards defence issues has been exacerbated by the patchy relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister. Whilst the MoD has received praise for having dealt with the so-called ‘black hole’ in its budget, there is no sense that the MoD has exercised much control over defence policy during the outgoing Parliament. In the first year of the 2010 Parliament, the MoD was publicly criticised by the Prime Minister for having a ‘problem’ with leaks. This set the tone for the rest of the legislature, during which not one of the three Defence Secretaries were perceived to enjoy the ear of the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, the familiar refrain that the Conservatives had been blocked from spending more on defence by their Coalition partners is challenged by the fact that the Liberal Democrats forfeited their only junior defence minister position during this Parliament, indicating that they had ceded defence as an issue to the Conservatives. The simpler, if more uncomfortable, truth is that neither the Prime Minister nor his party have viewed defence as a front-line issue.

Raw political calculations cut to the heart of why the Conservative Party no longer sees defence as a critical electoral issue. Why did the Conservatives enshrine the international aid spending target in law, despite severe criticism from historically-supportive newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph? This pledge was central to the ‘modernisation’ agenda championed by David Cameron and the 2010 Conservative Parliamentary intake; it was intended to ‘detoxify’ the party.

Why didn’t the Conservatives commit to the 2% NATO spending target? Because defence is no longer perceived as either politically-important or a critical vote-differentiator. The formative years of most of the 2010 Parliamentary intake of MPs – who amounted to about half of the total Members –  came after the end of the Cold War; for this generation, spending on defence is viewed not as an existential matter, but as a choice and, sometimes, even as a luxury.

Taken together, the lack of an internal consensus on Britain’s place in the world, the shifting public mood and broader generational changes have led the Conservative Party to shy away from refreshing its historic association with the image of the ‘party of defence’. And even if the party were to surprise itself and confound the pollsters by winning another mandate for power on 7 May, it may still take until the next decade for its defence priorities to change.

The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Nathan Mathiot

Executive Assistant, International Business and Development

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