CREDIT where credit is due. The predicted announcement by Boris Johnson that the UK will launch its largest investment in defence since the Cold War, with a call to end an “era of retreat”, and create a new space command, cyber force and AI agency at least sounds like something positive from the Government.
Boris Johnson said he had: “taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first. The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies.”
The Prime Minister added: “To achieve this, we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board. This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our armed forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life.”
Let’s be clear, the £16.5bn over four years is not enough to fill a funding gap, but should keep the UK as the fourth largest defence spender on earth after the US, China and Russia. If the cash boost leads to new jobs in post-Brexit Britain, so much the better.
There is of course still much to be done to secure defence related jobs – in particular MoD civil servants remain committed to farming out contracts to foreign shipyards when only our exit from the EU allows us to change our laws so that all naval contracts can remain at home. Currently, until our EU-based laws are repealed many surface ships of the navy – including auxiliary support vessels – must be open to tender from foreign yards. If we are to revive our once proud shipbuilding industry, especially in Scotland and the North of England, then the Government must be free to place orders with British yards.
It is no surprise that there’s a deafening silence about this issue in Scotland – for to raise it is to acknowledge that it has been membership of the EU that all along has prevented the revival of shipbuilding through the placing of naval contracts. Such work – which will employ tens of thousands – is an obvious example of the Brexit bonus that nationalists in particular don’t want to admit is possible. The Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats need to get over their remainer sulk and start demanding that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace moves a Bill to change the laws governing tendering for naval contracts.
Bidding should still be competitive between British yards, but as a matter of strategic security we need to be able to build our own ships and thus also be able to refit them. Providing a regular supply of work from the Royal Navy provides the opportunity for yards to also then take on commercial work, giving more security to the workforce and related industries.
The funding announcement comes without any sweeping review of foreign, defence and security policy. However, the funding does represent a 10 per cent increase and is on top of the manifesto commitment. Its impact should not be diluted by committing to any defence entanglements with the European Union. Our forces must be free to act in defending Britain’s interests and those only. Our strategic and tactical defence relationships with our allies should be through NATO. Anything that comes out of the Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration will be closely scrutinised and decoded to ensure we are neither overextended nor tied up in knots.
There will no doubt be claims that such funds should not be committed given the economic crisis, a crisis in no small part of the Government’s own making through its response to the Covid pandemic.
UK defence spending also needs to be increased because the US is understandably increasingly less willing to unilaterally carry the Western alliance. The likely election of Joe Biden will be unlikely to change that.
For post-Brexit Britain there is a crucial need to forge a new global role. The EU – as has been seen many times, including recently in the Eastern Mediterranean – cannot cohere and fill America’s shoes. In that context, it is the CANZUK countries which need to take a bigger role in leading the West, building on the Five Eyes intelligence and security network.
This all being said, one needs to consider what it is one is defending. Defence spending to defend our values is all well and good, but we need to agree on what those values are and to have the type of internal cohesion to defend them once threatened.
At the moment, these are just promises. In the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Second World War, it would not be surprising if compromises were later made. That said, while many would say Britain cannot afford to do this. I would argue that Britain cannot afford not to do this. Who else will we subcontract our defence to?
The world is a fragile place and Covid-19 has made the situation many times worse, creating even more febrile conditions globally. This is not a time for myopia or cowardice, but a time for courage and strength. The Government has made mistakes and even more funding is needed to bring the British Armed Forces back up to scratch. But this announcement is at least a start.
Artists impression of the Type 26 Frigate of which eight will be built at BAE Systems’ Govan and Scotstoun yards on the River Clyde. The steel was cut for the first of the class, HMS Glasgow, on 20 July 2017 by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon.