Around and About Westminster: Defence Expenditure: Ideologies and Observations

The annual ceremony of the Chancellor’s Budget prompts some thoughts about the policies towards expenditure on defence now being developed and expressed by the several political parties. I call the Budget a ceremony because it has now become little more than that, certainly this year. We do learn something from it about tax intentions, but little or nothing about expenditure plans. As between the parties, and so far as defence expenditure is concerned, the Liberal Democrats have the easiest hand to play. They have been free to look at what they believe to be necessary without being too constrained by the restrictive hand of a Shadow Treasury team. On top of that those who have worked on their proposals are sensible and experienced in matters of defence and security. The position of the Labour Party and thus of the Government (or is it the other way round?) is also quite straightforward for the time being at least. They can show that they provided what is called ‘a real increase’ last year; the Chancellor pronounced a minor benediction on defence expenditure in the course of his Budget speech and he also said that defence would get a good ‘deal’ in the Public Spending Round to be concluded in July this year (PS 04) to settle the expenditure framework for the following three financial years 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08. This has given Defence Ministers a thoroughly defensible position, notwithstanding continual problems and anxieties about ‘in-year’ issues. Difficulties – and there are several – can therefore be left over for the time being, until after the European Elections, until after PS04, until after the General Election, until there is a new Secretary of State, or even a new Chancellor. To postpone decisions in this way may be criticized as irresponsible, with various emphatic adverbs tacked on, but there is no doubt that to be able to so is politically convenient and, in the short term, expedient. In particular it allows Ministers, and those of their backbench supporters who are appointed to be ‘on message’ to contrast what they have decided to call ‘Tory Defence Cuts’ with what they have also decided to call the ‘generous’ line being taken by HMG.

The Conservative Medium Term Expenditure plans

So far as Conservative policies are concerned it is correct to say that the Medium Term Expenditure (MTE) Plans expounded now by Oliver Letwin, as Shadow Chancellor, for an incoming Conservative Government aspiring to be elected to office in May 2005, does require constraints on several areas of expenditure covered by the Defence Budget. It is also possible to argue that a cap on costs, expressed in cash terms, equates to a cut in expenditure expressed in ‘real terms’ – that is to say with prices adjusted upwards to recognize inflation and a fall in the value of money.

But, the Conservatives say, to argue the matter exclusively in those terms, to attempt to prove some great political truth by fiddling around with figures which, as the outturns show year after year, are within the margin of error that affects all forecasts, is to get the proportions wrong and the whole thing out of perspective.

As Nicholas Soames, the Shadow Defence Secretary, said more than once in the course of the Defence Debate in the Commons on Thursday 24 March:

neither I, nor the shadow Chancellor nor anyone else has talked of a cut in the defence budget…[1]

Since it is certainly true that Nicholas Soames has never talked about a cut in the defence budget (the opposite in fact) and since it is also true that the shadow Chancellor has not done so either it may be worth pausing for a moment to note and reflect on what they are both actually saying about the place of defence expenditure in the Shadow Chancellor’s MTE.

The first point to be made is that in his speech to the Bow Group on 16 February, in which he described and defined the outlines of his MTE, Oliver Letwin specifically excluded from its rules military operational expenditure following from policy decisions by the cabinet. The second point is that the present Government, for reasons unknown, does not set for the Ministry of Defence an Administration Costs limit such as it sets for all other Government Departments, and these limits are Letwin’s main targets and tools. Third the MoD (and the Treasury) absolutely refuse to provide information in cash terms about Defence expenditure and insist in doing so only in a confusing and ambiguous combination of cash, nearcash and resource terms. Cash is what the taxpayer provides and it is reducing the taxpayer burden which is the absolute strategic target of the Conservative MTE plans. What the Shadow Chancellor has in fact done is to provide some clearly defined general rules within which it is the responsibility of the Opposition Defence team to construct and develop specific proposals. These proposals will undoubtedly look, to an extent, at the same weaknesses and shortcomings as those that the MoD, its Agencies and the Armed Forces are already working on, under the stimulus of Sir Peter Gershon and others, notably in the Defence Procurement Agency, (the DPA) the Defence Logistics Organization (DLO) and various component Agencies. But because the Opposition proposals will, in their nature, look to the future they may be expected to include moves that go further, and do so faster, than those of the present Government. It would be reasonable to expect to see the Conservatives re-jigging the structure of top-level budgets and their subsidiary Management Groups, to align capability responsibilities more closely with budgets, and to give additional weight to large scale training exercises and to revive a closer control over defence lands and estates. The procurement programme is also perceived as requiring careful and dispassionate re-assessment, to ensure that capability gaps do not open, that capabilities are provided to time, but are not duplicated, that processes are accelerated (for time is money) and numbers actually required of particular equipments (such as the Eurofighter Typhoon) are matched to the world as it is today rather than as it was when the platform was conceived.

Differing beliefs

In contrasting the ideologies of the two main parties so far as defence expenditure is concerned it is probably fair to say that objectors to defence expenditure in the Labour Party object to it as defence expenditure per se and are thus against it because of its purpose, while objectors to defence expenditure in the Conservative Party do so because it is ‘public expenditure’, something which is their particular ground for per se objection. Wasted (or allegedly wasted) public expenditure has as significant a place in the mythology of things which Conservatives are ‘against’ as militarism has in those which Labour is ‘against’. In politics it can always be the case that a few outspoken and principled ‘antis’ can influence the tides of opinion and comment against the views of a much larger number of more lukewarm ‘pros’.

But back to business …

Two more or less full-scale defence debates, two Enquiries and Reports from the Commons Defence Committee, (and some other Reports), some notices of forthcoming business and some personnel changes all merit mention. The defence debates and the Committee enquiries all came from their different directions to more or less the same subject matter – what should we do for the best in order to provide for defence – and there are some instructive comparisons to be drawn from diligent examination of the texts. The Lords debated defence, with a particular reference to terrorism on Wednesday 23 March. The debate, which was quite a short one, was introduced by Lord King of Bridgwater (formerly Defence Secretary Tom King) from the Conservative backbenches, it included contributions from Lord Craig of Radley on the Euro Fighter, Lord Guthrie, Lord Boyce and Lord Bramall. The Commons debate was a more general one on a Government motion, opened by the Secretary of State, with a full and vigorous response by Nicholas Soames, drawing very effectively on both the Lords proceedings and the evidence given by the Chiefs of Staff to the Defence Committee the previous day. This latter was the Committee’s opening session to its enquiry on the Defence White Paper. The other Defence Committee enquiry of immediate relevance was its three volume masterwork on the Iraq campaign,[2] launched, as RUSI Members will be aware, at RUSI on 16 March via a seminar led by the Rt Hon Bruce George MP (Chairman of the Committee) Peter Viggers MP, the senior Conservative member of the Committee, Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the Committee’s advisers on the enquiry and Francis Tusa, the independent commentator. The Report is a measured one, and the most definitive so far of the several Reports on the campaign and the subsequent tasks undertaken by the UK’s Armed Forces in Iraq. Perhaps the most succinct comment on its subject matter came in fact from the CDS, rather than from the Committee, in reply to a shrewdly focused question from Rachel Squire:

‘The question revolves around some pretty fundamental things: what are armed forces, what is their role in today’s difficult world? They will be deployed in pursuit of a set of political objectives, whatever those objectives may be. The Iraq war was really only a precursor to the end stage of those political objectives, a stable Iraq etc. … The post-conflict peace in Iraq, as it has been in Afghanistan and Kosovo, is the day that follows the night. It is remorseless, it is going to happen, you do not have a choice, and to complete the job you have to get into peaceable operations.’[3]

This evidence session on the 24 March, with the CDS and the three single service chiefs all at the witness table at the same time, was a unique one, and most unlikely to be repeated. The Chairman wound up by saying that it had not been entirely satisfactory – although the Chiefs had answered the Committee’s questions ‘more thoroughly than we had expected’ the format had resulted in ‘too many people, too many questions’. The arrangement had been ‘a compromise between what the Committee wanted and what the MoD wanted, and, frankly, that compromise has not been as successful as we would have liked’.[4]

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a somewhat diffuse report on an important subject The Management of Defence Research and Technology.[5] Although addressed to Parliament, as are all NAO Reports, so far as RUSI members are concerned Bill Kincaid (Editor, RUSI Defence Systems) and I have agreed that this is much more one for him than for me, so I join with other readers in looking forward to his appraisal of it. This Report will undoubtedly be one of the building blocks in a wider enquiry in a novel form which the NAO has launched into Tracking the Progress of Major Defence Projects. This has been set up with its own web-site ( which includes the results of the initial analysis already undertaken for the NAO by PA Consulting Services. This is all intended to build up to a full report by the NAO to be published later this year. Again this should be pregnant with observations that respond to the questions being asked in Parliament about what is the right way to set about procuring the rapidly evolving high tech equipment that our Armed Forces need. Also on the agenda are Orders to amend the Naval Discipline Act to meet European Court objections to judge-advocates being part of the chain of command and for the annual ‘continuation’ of the three Armed Forces Acts. The AF Pensions and Compensation Bill having passed through Committee is in a state of pause while the Government’s business managers try to find a suitable slot in the timetable to bring it back to the Commons for Report and then on to the Lords. I have to say that those in the Armed Forces concerned with this Bill would be justly entitled to feel irritated by the frequently delayed and thoroughly confused progress that the Government as a whole is making with this measure.

The sense of community amongst those from all sides of both Houses who work on defence and security issues found expression in the tributes to the late Lord Vivian who spoke and worked in the best interests of the Armed Forces throughout his thirteen years in the House of Lords, a period which followed directly on from a career of thirty six years of successively senior command and staff appointments in the Army. Nick Vivian was an example of the professional soldier at his best, someone who possessed all the military virtues of courage, leadership, insight and decision and who brought them to his work, right to the end.

Humphry Crum Ewing Associate Fellow, RUSI


[1] House of Commons Hansard 25 March 2004, c.1095

[2] Lessons of Iraq Third Report of the House of Commons Defence Committee 2003-04 HC 57 I (Report) II (Oral Evidence) and III (Oral and Written Evidence)

[3] House of Commons Defence Committee, Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence 24 March 2004 Answer to Q68. Emphasis added.

[4] House of Commons Defence Committee, Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence 24 March 2004 QQ 77-78

[5] HC 360 of 2003-04  

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