General Election 2017: What Did We Learn from RUSI's Defence Debate?

Main Image Credit British Army Royal Military Academy Sandhurst trains on 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany as part of Exercise Dynamic Victory. Courtesy of Gertrud Zach/Wikimedia.

RUSI convened a debate between political parties on the subject of defence ahead of the UK General Election, scheduled for 8 June 2017. The main topics proved to be the requirement for a full defence review after the election, and whether the current force level was affordable.

Does Britain need a successor to its nuclear deterrent? That was one of the main issues raised last week in RUSI’s pre-election debate on defence.

And while the ruling Conservatives’ and main opposition Labour's lines sounded tired, the representatives from the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Green Party offered some clear, rational and well-argued points.

However, the proliferation of missile technology along with unpredictable leaders in other states were not addressed.

The opening statements from each party representative outlined their case. For the Conservatives, Harriett Baldwin – the current Minster for Procurement – reiterated the investment that her party had committed to make in defence, highlighting statements about being above the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP.

However, the key to her pitch was the familiar narrative of whether Theresa May would be a better prime minister than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. There was little detail, and nothing that was not in the manifesto.

Perhaps the most surprising gesture from the Conservatives was that the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, did not show up to share the platform in this debate; he deemed campaigning in the eastern London constituency of Ilford at that time more important.

His shadow, Labour’s Nia Griffith, worked hard to break with the Corbyn image for an audience largely unconvinced by the peacenik reputation of their leader. Griffith’s points were well-made, highlighting the historic norms of Armed Forces’ spending under Labour, when they tend to do well, and arguing that people were the key to success, not equipment. However, as with the Tories, there was little in her opening statement that was not in Labour’s electoral manifesto.

The next two opening statements were most revealing. First, Rebecca Johnson of the Green party – a political movement not known for its deep thinking about defence, nor its love of the Armed Forces – showed a clear depth of knowledge about the military.

She charted a Green Party idea of what the forces would be for, arguing that the value of a national military should be found in the provision of homeland security, resilience, capacity building overseas and a greater role in UN-led international peacekeeping.

It was a mature and considered position, albeit not one that would be popular with serving members of the military.

The SNP’s Brendan O’Hara fired a ‘rocket’ at the Tories and Labour for their defence positions. O’Hara was better in the question and answer session, and argued his position well and highlighted the reversal in Tory policy positions both before and after the 2015 elections, particularly with regard to shipbuilding volume on the Clyde.

The SNP is developing a convincing narrative for British defence from a Scottish perspective: a regionally powerful partner with a clear focus on the North – although whether this was the North Atlantic, the Baltic, High North, Norwegian Sea or Arctic was not made entirely clear – with Trident sacrificed in order to pay for an increase in size and scale of conventional force design.

This might be an unorthodox position with which the British defence establishment can engage, but engage it must; the reasoning was sound, even if the numbers were not entirely convincing.

Finally, Lord Wallace of Saltaire entered the fray for the Liberal Democrats. An experienced political operator with a background in foreign policy, European defence and security, there was a noticeable maturity to his opening statement.

Like the other speakers – with the exception of Baldwin – he called for a new Defence Review after the election. His most interesting point however was a statement he made in response to questions, when he spoke of an ‘end to the era of armed interventions’. This was a somewhat strange, romanticised statement given his experience.

However, he was harder-hitting when it came to personnel issues facing the Ministry of Defence. While he said that recruiting and retaining sufficient manpower for the Armed Forces was not being achieved, his attempts to hold Labour and Tory feet to the fire were unsuccessful.

In the Q&A, all speakers performed like politicians and declined to answer any question that was posed, responding instead on a topic of their own choosing.

The audience was left with the distinct impression that none of the parties knew more about defence than those who attended the event. The Tory line of defence continues to be mainly financial, while Labour points to past successes in government (cleverly avoiding mention of Tony Blair).

A significant number of questions from the audience focused on the apparent disparity between resources and funded plans (specifically the equipment plan). Yet there were no satisfactory answers from either Baldwin or Griffith as to how this might be resolved.

Perhaps most interestingly, the debate signalled the arrival of the SNP and Greens as political entities with a clear, thought-out view on security and a maturing position on broader defence questions.

Indeed, O’Hara and Johnson were the only speakers able to articulate what they wanted the Armed Forces to do over the next five years – something sorely missing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Labour representatives sleep walked into the debate, trotted out rehearsed lines and played at answering questions. Their audience’s response was clear: do better.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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