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09 December 2019

"Move on, there's nothing to see here": Defence in the manifestos

Benedict Wilkinson

BENEDICT WILKINSON: Despite the very real challenges for UK defence going forward, the parties' manifestos offering looks meagre

Army uniform

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series  here.  

The primary duty of government is the protection and security of its citizens – or, so the maxim goes. But anyone quickly looking at the manifestos might be forgiven for thinking that UK parties do not see defence as a key issue at all. In every major manifesto, defence is left to the final pages, and even then it gets limited attention.

In part, this is because defence is not really an election issue. The Ipsos MORI Issues Index from September 2019 shows that only about one per cent of the population see defence as the most important issue facing Britain today. But in part, it is because leaders still recognise the old adage that defence issues won’t win you an election, but they might lose you one seems to hold.

Taken as a whole, defence promises in the manifestos are striking in almost no regard. They are effectively extensions of the core principles of each party. For the Conservatives, whose manifesto is unadventurous to say the least following the principle that radical manifestos are desperate but futile attempts to win votes, defence promises are unremarkable. Effectively, the commitment is to carry on with the status quo. In addition to a series of promises for Armed Forces personnel such as a new Office for Veterans’ Affairs, and a Veterans’ Railcard (both of which have already happened), there are promises to meet the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence, to maintain Trident, and to invest more in cybersecurity.  A glimmer of interest might be gleaned from the promise to establish the UK’s first Space Command – not least because it will please President Trump who has recently re-established USSPACECOM.

Taken as a whole, defence promises in the manifestos are striking in almost no regard. They are effectively extensions of the core principles of each party.

Benedict Wilkinson

The Labour manifesto is equally unadventurous. It also re-affirms commitment to the NATO two per cent target, as well as pledging to support veterans both mentally and physically. It focuses a little more on the defence industry – a key supplier of jobs – and promises to publish a Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper, including a National Shipbuilding Strategy. There is no clarity about how these will differ from the relatively recent 2017 Defence Industrial Strategy and the Shipbuilding Strategy that are already in existence.

For some, the commitment to renew Trident will, bearing in mind Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons, come as a bit of a surprise. Even in spite of the attempt to offset this with a commitment to lead multilateral efforts towards nuclear disarmament, there remains an uncomfortable tension between the leader’s personal views on Trident and Labour’s stated position.

This is made even more stark by comparison to the Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru manifestos, which all commit to scrapping Trident and repurposing the estimated £205 billion on more pressing domestic issues. The SNP and Greens also commit to suspending arms exports to Saudi Arabia (and the Green Party, to ending arms exports in their entirety).

The Liberal Democrat manifesto echoes both the Labour and Conservative ones. It, too, promises to meet the NATO target, the maintenance of a minimum nuclear deterrent as well as support for veterans and investment in cyber. There is also a promise to invest £3 billion in defence, drawn from the savings of avoiding Brexit, as well as a promise to suspend arms exports to countries with poor human rights records.

The Brexit Party’s manifesto only has a meagre two bullet points on defence, the first promising to meet the NATO target and the second which states “we will withdraw from the European Defence Union. This will mean we leave the EU defence procurement directive ensuring the UK has the right to stipulate defence contracts stay at home”. As the European Defence Union is not, per se an actual union (but really a collection of policies related to integrated defence), and there is already a Directive (Article 346 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) which allows defence acquisition to take place on a national level only, the second of these bullets leaves plenty to be desired.

The coverage of defence across all the manifestos makes for a rather unexciting set of promises. Rather like the proverbial policeman moving the curious crowd away from a crime scene, these manifestos seem collectively to say “there’s nothing to see here”. With the exception of differences over Trident, and over arms exports there is very little deviation across the parties.

The problem is that actually there is something to see – there are very real challenges for UK Defence going forward. As things stand, we do not really know what kind of country the UK aspires to be on the international stage (other than the rather meaningless “Global Britain” slogan). There are chronic funding problems: the NAO estimated a funding gap of anywhere between £7 billion and £15 billion just over a year ago and there are no signs of this gap closing. There are also serious recruitment problems: the size of Britain’s army was, as of October this year, 73,470 full-time and fully-trained troops, down from 76,880 in October 2018.

And, of course, there are radical changes in the wider strategic environment. The rise of China poses real questions about how the UK should and could respond in economic, diplomatic and military terms. The changing, and more capricious relationship with the US is also fundamentally shifting the environment. Although still embryonic, the EU is developing its own defence capacity; meanwhile NATO is becoming less popular and less of a certainty. In the medium term, new forms of warfare – hybrid, cyber, space, deep sea, autonomous – are emerging on the horizon.

For now, the manifestos seem to have done their job and moved the crowd on. There has been almost no discussion of defence in the run up to this election and, with the multitude of domestic issues on the agenda, that might well be appropriate. But whoever wins the election will have to conduct a Defence and Security Review, probably in the first few months of its tenure. That promises to be a bigger spectacle – and the crowd might be more reluctant to be moved on.

Dr Benedict Wilkinson is Associate Director at the Policy Institute, King's College London. 


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