Andrew Allison: Defence spending is just as important as overseas aid

THIS has been a very dull and boring election campaign. Although all the parties have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it, the polls stubbornly refuse to move in any direction, unless you happen to be the SNP.

Not only are we subjected to the usual ritual of politicians bribing us with our own money, when you consider that the Government is still running a sizeable deficit and that the total government debt currently stands at more than £1.5 trillion, they seem intent on bribing us with our children’s and grandchildren’s money too. Either that, or the Treasury sofa must be a veritable treasure chest of previously unknown riches.

In The Yorkshire Post of April 29, columnist Sir Bernard Ingham – Margaret Thatcher’s former Press secretary – lamented that the forgotten issues in this election campaign, which happen to be fundamental to the nation’s existence, are food and energy. He is, of course, correct. However, I would add a third: Defence.

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The primary raison d’être of any government is to keep its citizens safe. Bernard Ingham states that if we can’t feed or power the UK, we are on our way out fast. However, if we can’t defend the UK, and the UK’s interests, we leave ourselves vulnerable to attacks that could mean we are on our way out faster.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember Options for Change. It was a report on the restructuring of British Armed Forces, published in 1990. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, we were supposed to reap the so-called peace dividend. No sooner had the ink dried on the report, Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. No sooner had that been dealt with, a series of conflicts in what is now the former Yugoslavia commenced. The list goes on and on. Every time we try to reduce defence spending, it comes back to bite us.

In the last five years, total military personnel numbers have been reduced from almost 200,000, to barely 160,000. The size of the regular British Army has fallen from 102,000 five years ago, to 82,000 today.

If Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (which is entirely possible), we are not in a position to send a task force as we did in 1982. We should be debating defence issues, but instead, in the words of Philip Johnston, the Daily Telegraph Assistant Editor, “to raise the subject with senior people in No 10 is to invite derision; it is even off-limits to our elected decision-makers. Defence matters are rarely discussed in Cabinet any more and are principally the concern of the National Security Council in a break with our age-old constitutional arrangements”.

Philip Johnston is correct. If you have the inclination, or indeed the energy, to get to the bottom of the Conservative Party’s manifesto, there you will find its commitments (or lack of them) on defence. The Conservatives, just like Labour and the Liberal Democrats, refuse to commit to what is a supposed condition of Nato membership that we spend at least two per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on defence.

None of the main parties regard defence spending as a priority. Only Ukip has made this commitment. The Greens would have us leave Nato and abolish the army altogether, and in common with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the SNP wants us to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent. If Ed Miliband walks through the front door of 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister in a few days time, he will probably have to rely on the support of the SNP – no matter what he says before the election. Nicola Sturgeon is going to demand that Trident is removed from Scotland. Will he capitulate? Who knows, but in my experience, when the carrot of power is dangling in front of a potential prime minister, principles tend not to be the number one priority.

We never know exactly what threats are on the horizon. Russia is the largest country in the world, and at the end of the Cold War, we had high expectations that it would become a flourishing democracy. Instead, the Russian Bear is flexing its muscles. Putin is intent on taunting the West, making various threats to enhance his position.

The threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has prompted the French Government to increase defence spending by almost €4bn from next year.

All our politicians are committed to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid. Despite much of this money ending up in the wrong hands, it seems that all leaders of the main political parties think this commitment makes them look good.

If we can make such a commitment on international aid, then surely we can commit to spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence?

Andrew Allison, from Hull, is head of campaigns at The Freedom Association.