By James Mills
This week we have seen the Tories bring defence to the battlements of the political debate with General Dannatt joining the Conservatives’ front bench and Cameron using it as the theme with which to open his speech to the Tory Conference.
Liam Fox MP, the Shadow Defence Spokesman, has been busy as well, calling Gordon Brown a “coward” and undermining Army morale by misrepresenting equipment figures. Then at conference Fox was chirping on again about there being more civil servants in the MoD than servicemen in the forces and how a Tory government will ride to the rescue of the armed forces. It reminded me much of this episode of Yes Minister – skip to 1:10 and you will see what I mean.
Yet the authority with which they try to convey this message is not just drawn from those MPs among their ranks who have spent some time in the armed forces, but they also borrow from a long held myth – extrapolated by the Tories in the 1980s – that defence matters are the sole territory of the Conservative party.
So let’s be clear: we as a party have a good record on defence.
Successive Conservative governments have cut defence spending. Margaret Thatcher famously fell out with her Defence Secretary Francis Pym over her insistence on slashing defence spending. However, with the invasion of the Falklands she was promptly forced to make a drastic U-turn.
John Major’s government made cuts to the British Army of 3% a year between 1992-1997 according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies and cut overall defence spending by 20%.
Furthermore, anyone who has anger for the supply of British personnel in the recent Iraq War, only has to look back to the first Gulf War where British forces were so poorly supplied they were first labelled “the borrowers” by our allies.
Contrast this with the current situation; the UK is currently the second highest spender in the world on defence, and Labour has increased the pay levels in the armed forces to an all time high. Plus, the Defence budget has experienced its longest period of sustained real growth for over thirty years. In the run up to the last election the Conservatives only pledged an increase of £2.5 billion, based on “efficiency savings” within the MoD, compared to the fully costed and Labour-met pledge of a £3.5 billion budget increase. Even now the Tories’ proposed spending plans have no mention of matching Labour’s defence spending commitments and Cameron has now not even committed himself to ring-fencing defence.
But we share some of the blame for why defence is used as an easy stick with which to beat us. Because we as a Party have allowed this myth that the Tories are some kind of representative of the armed forces with their best interests at heart, to exist with our inertia and timidity over defence issues.
Our inability, as a party, to appear comfortable in our skin when talking about the armed services is seen time and time again. For some reason, on these issues us Labourites become mute – maybe due to a lack of knowledge on defence or our tradition of pacifism. But now it feels endemic within our party’s rank and file, just look at the conference this year and there were hardly any fringe events on dealing with defence!
I don’t know if this is the case at CLPs up and down the country, but either way our attitude towards defence is something I find quite perplexing – especially when one considers that the armed forces have a special place in the hearts of most British people.
Take last March, for example, when the government announced that British servicemen would be prioritised on the NHS, in housing and within the benefits system. This should have been a policy that Labour activists proudly promoted from doorstep to doorstep. However, the proverbial silence over this new policy was acutely deafening amongst the Labour rank and file. The fact that our government rightly acknowledge the commitment and sacrifices our armed forces perform on behalf of everyone in this country is highly commendable.
In general, we as a party have a rather impressive record on the armed forces that we are too shy to talk about, retreating from the area as though it is almost an un-Labour topic to discuss. But we allow the Conservatives to advance and be viewed as a mythical “armed forces party”, even though our record trumps theirs under closer examination.
So next time you’re down the pub or on the doorstep and you hear “how Labour betrayed the armed services”, remind those naysayers of a few inconvenient truths. Because if we don’t speak out proudly about our record, no one else will – and the fiction of right wing hacks will become viewed as the facts.