The coalition may well be set to disappoint those who hoped that a change in government would bring both clarity and commitment to Britain’s defence needs.
The publication of yesterday’s coalition agreement offers limited insight into the area of policy in which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are most at odds: defence – a topic over which Nick Clegg and David Cameron repeatedly clashed during the TV debates.
The agreement (page 7) deals with this incongruity at the strategic level by avoiding anything more than lip service to the importance of the cause with only two references to the conflict each in terms as broad as they are vague:
“We are agreed that the first duty of government is to safeguard our national security and support our troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere – and we will fulfil that duty.”
And (page 20):
“We will take forward our shared resolve to safeguard the UK’s national security and support our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
There is no affirmation of General McChrystal’s civilian population protection-oriented counter insurgency strategy or indeed reference to a broader review or statement of strategic intent to be given at a later date.
More encouragingly, in the third and final reference to Britain’s war, the document commits the government to doubling the operational allowance for troops in Afghanistan.
On Trident the coalition agreement says (page 15):
“We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.”
The commitment to scrutinise Trident renewal to “ensure value for money” and the absence of language on continuous at-sea patrols could well be an early indication of a willingness to reduce the number of new Trident-bearing submarines from four to three. The wording also omits the word “independent” which, given defence secretary Liam Fox’s warm words of praise for Anglo-French defence efforts in opposition could also see moves towards a join at-sea Anglo-French nuclear deterrent in the long term.
On the Liberal Democrats’ intention to “continue to make the case for alternatives”, it will be interesting to see the extent to which government collective responsibility on the Trident renewal issue is maintained particularly if deputy prime minister Nick Clegg intends to advocate his pre-election position of replacing Trident with Astute.
The agreement avoids any reference to tough procurement decisions on the Joint Strike Fighter, supercarriers or Future Rapid Effects Sysetm in favour of a bland status quo-supporting commitment (page 15) to “support defence jobs through exports that are used for legitimate purposes”, and an intention to “reduce Ministry of Defence running costs by at least 25%”.
Restoring the Covenant
The coalition’s practical forward offers on personnel matters are genuinely praiseworthy. On the means by which the fundamental covenant of trust between Britain’s armed forces and the people they are sworn to protect may be restored the coalition agreement has encouraging, practical policies that seem to draw as much from Labour’s Forces Charter as from the pre-election plans of the governing parties. This return to a less partisan approach to service personnel matters will be welcomed by politicians and soldiers alike. Highlights include (page 15):
• “Ensuring that Service personnel’s rest and recuperation leave can be maximised”
• “Exploring the potential for including Service children as part of our proposals for a pupil premium”
• “Providing extra support for veteran mental health needs”
• “Reviewing the rules governing the awarding of medals” – of particular importance in the wake of the Labour governemnt’s poor handling of the Arctic convoy medals controversy.
On the negative side, the agreement only goes so far as to offer consideration of whether there is scope to “refurbish Armed Forces’ accommodation from efficiencies within the Ministry of Defence” (page 15) – despite the grave and urgent need for significant investment in this basic matter.
In conclusion, given the warm-words-only approach to Afghan strategy, the avoidance of specificity on Trident and the failure to at least lay down a marker for radical reform of defence procurement, the coalition may well be set to disappoint those who hoped that a change in government would bring both clarity and commitment to Britain’s defence needs.
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