Sir Menzies Campbell: Skimping on defence could prove costly

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IT is right to say that defence does not win votes, but poor defence can certainly lose them if the public form the view that we are not fulfilling our primary objective – their protection.

Let us consider the following: “The Ministry of Defence is being led by the nose by the Treasury towards reductions in Britain’s Armed Forces which have no rational basis”.

You will not recognise that quotation, and neither did I until the BBC drew to my attention that in my capacity as defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in August 1991 I had said just that.

I do not introduce that to offer some support for the view that I am wise; I do so to point out that nothing seems to have changed. My proposition was put rather more pithily by Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, who said that after four years as Minister of State for the Armed Forces he formed the clear view that the enemy was not the Russians, but the Treasury.

Some things have changed, though. When I first came into the House of Commons and took an interest in these matters, we had five days of the parliamentary year to consider defence. We had a two-day debate on the annual White Paper at the beginning of October, and then each of the services had a single day of discussion devoted to them. When the three service days were amalgamated we were confidently assured that it would not result in fewer opportunities to hold the Government to account – people can form their own view about the value of that assurance.

I have been through it all: “Options for Change”, Front Line First and Labour’s so-called “defence review” of 1998. That came closest of all to being a proper defence review, except for one thing: Labour refused to publish its foreign policy baseline attributes or intentions.

A defence review is not a hugely impossible concept to understand. What one needs to do is set out one’s foreign policy objectives; decide what military resources are necessary to fulfil those objectives; and then allocate the financial resources necessary to provide the military capability. We have not had a defence review that fulfils those three principles in all the time I have been in the House of Commons (since 1987).

If two per cent of GDP is to be spent on defence, it must be spent wisely. We do not have to go far in Europe to see that several of our allies spend money, perhaps getting up towards two per cent – there are not enough of those countries – which could much more readily be spent otherwise.

For example, it could be spent on a greater amount of inter-operability, force specialisation and such things. There is no point European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker talking about a European defence policy when European states have not yet properly fulfilled their responsibilities to Nato, of which almost all of them are members.

The situation is worse than I have described, in a way. Not only is the two per cent a public commitment, but it was restated at Celtic Manor during the Nato summit last autumn and in the final communiqué from that summit.

Of course, it is also one that the British government have been at pains to emphasise to other allies. How are we going to explain away the fact that in recent months, even years, we have been complaining about the level of defence expenditure of other allies yet we are about to breach the very standard we signed up to and advocated only a few months ago?

It is a bit worse than that, too, because we know that the possibility that we should fall below two per cent has caused great anxiety, particularly in the United States, which is our closely military ally. Senior official after senior official has made exactly that point.

Let me finish by saying this: if we do not have sufficient defence – and two per cent may not be enough – we will diminish our capability, we will reduce our influence and we will limit the options of government. We cannot afford any of those.

• Sir Menzies Campbell is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats who spoke in a Commons debate on defence spending. This is an edited version.