Thursday, March 31, 2005

Defence of the realm

In Blackpool yesterday, Michael Howard made a speech on defence, talking to a theme that the Conservatives will invest in Britain's armed forces .

The Telegraph website "take" was somewhat different, with the paper choosing to headline: Defence cuts "stab in the back", picking up on the "attack" part of Howard’s speech. In fact, though, the speech was a lot more measured, with Howard making two criticisms of Blair's "stewardship" of Britain's defences.

Firstly, he said, Blair had "elevated European defence integration at the expense of our long-standing commitment to the Atlantic Alliance", and secondly, our Armed Forces had been asked "to do more without being given the resources to do the job."

Nevertheless, the Telegraph did pick up this European dimension, noting Howard's criticism of Blair's "obsession" with Europe, which he said was damaging Britain's defence capability. And also noted were his comments on the "EU proposals to lift the arms embargo on China", which Howard resolutely criticised as "a prime example of the way Europe was working against British interests".

What was particularly interesting, though, was Howard’s statement that a Conservative defence policy would be "guided by our overwhelming obligation to protect Britain's national interest", including our obligation to discharge to the full our global responsibilities.

For once, there is a definite sign of "clear blue water" here, for Howard went on to say:

I strongly support greater co-operation between European countries on defence. But it should take place within the framework of NATO. I have grave reservations about Europe's plans to undertake a new defence initiative which involves duplicating the planning and command structures of NATO.

NATO should remain the cornerstone of our defence. And the European Union should not seek to create a defence structure as an alternative to NATO or as a counterweight to the United States.

The European Constitution requires member states to "actively and unreservedly support the Union's common foreign and security policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity".

It will mean that once the European Union has decided its line, a British government could not change it without getting the unanimous support of every other member of the EU. Our ability to defend our interests in the world and support our friends would be seriously compromised.

If Mr Blair gets his way with the European Constitution Britain will lose one of the central attributes of being an independent nation state.
This is very much fighting talk, and sets the Conservatives clearly at variance with NuLab.

Inevitably, though, there is an element of populism, with Howard pledging to spend £2.7 billion to save the traditional regiments from the Labour cuts, if the Conservatives are elected.

Here, there are problems which need further discussion and it would helpful to see a debate here, which is probably unlikely in the current charged atmosphere.

We would expect a traditionalist Conservative Party to support the regiments but, into the projected force structures, and the development of the medium-weight all-arms FRES units, traditional infantry formations do not fit.

However, the problem is more fundamental. Howard rightly declares that defence policy is predicated on protecting the national interest but, in the rush towards further European integration, it is not always clear precisely what our national interests are, and where they differ from European interests.

It would be too much to ask that Howard actually spelled it out but the practical difficulties that stem from not so doing are manifest. Essentially, until you define short, medium- and long-term objectives, it is very difficult, if not impossible to define with any clarity the armed forces structures you will need.

That process is being undertaken in the US, where revolutionary changes are being proposed to the armed forces. But no such discussion is taking place here at a political level and thus, commitments to existing structures, such as the traditional regiments, are perhaps premature and unwise.

However, at least we have the leader of the opposition talking about "national interest" and the continued commitment to Nato. That is something to be grateful for.

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