Defence procurement – a corporatist con trick?

Douglas Carswell introduces his regular monthly column for Left Foot Forward on defence procurement, tackling both the symptoms of a dysfunctional system and its causes.

Douglas Carswell MP (Conservative, Clacton) is one of the UK’s leading parliamentarians. His conviction that producer interests should not distort government policy and spending is extended to the realm of defence procurement, where he has earned a reputation for being a thorough and methodical scrutineer of Ministry of Defence spending.

Indeed, Left Foot Forward, along with ConservativeHome, endorsed Mr Carswell to chair the defence select committee during the elections for the post in June last year.

Here, he introduces his regular monthly column for Left Foot Forward on defence procurement, tackling both the symptoms of a dysfunctional system and its causes.

Imagine a world in which a small clique of big corporate contractors was able to secure the lion’s share of Britain’s defence equipment spend. Suppose these privileged suppliers not only benefited from rules that excluded rival bidders, but had themselves helped draft those rules to make it so.

You don’t need to imagine such a world. This is, more or less, the basis on which defence procurement has been done in Britain under successive governments for years.

It helps explain much of the Ministry of Defence’s grotesque waste. It helps account for the fact that today we are spending almost £17 million refitting helicopters, when we could buy some entirely new – and better ones – for less. More fundamentally, it helps explain why decades after the collapse of the Soviet threat, we continue to spend vast sums of money on weapons systems designed to hold off the Red Army.

For all the talk of cuts, Britain is still the fourth highest spending military power; yet do we really have the fourth largest and best equipped armed forces in the world?

Imagine if it was up to you to justify such a system of defence protectionism? To fend off accusations that you were spending public money in the interests of corporations, rather than the country, what arguments might you marshall?

To a left of centre audience, perhaps you would emphasise the importance of all the jobs that would come from protected defence spend – without bothering to question if the primary purpose of the defence budget is to create jobs or equip our armed forces; to appeal to the right, you might emphasise the need to maintain our “sovereignty” of supply – conveniently ignoring the fact that few complex bits of kit can ever be made without some form of trade.

To everyone else, you might focus on the export earning potential – perhaps never really making it clear that the bulk of defence export earnings seem to come from service contracts, not hardware sold. These are precisely the sort of arguments I have heard from the lips of political lobbyists working for the defence industry in SW1.

Centre left critics of defence spending have been particularly vulnerable to the charge that they are “soft” on defence. Yet there is nothing patriotic about a protectionist system of defence that leaves our armed forces under equipped – and the taxpayer short changed.

So what should be done? First, we need to replace the protectionist Defence Industrial Strategy with a system that allows our armed forces to purchase the best kit available. So called “off-the-shelf” purchasing should become the default norm – unless there are specific considerations to justify otherwise.

Second, the coalition needs to take robust action to shut the revolving door between big business interests and the Ministry of Defence. The boundaries between the interests of the buyer and the seller need to be clearly set out.

Vested corporate interests are friends of neither left nor right.

• Mr Carswell’s blog can be found at www.TalkCarswell.com.

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