Henry Hill: Dowden must resist the SNP’s Eurovision power-grab – and force the BBC to up its game

27 May

The SNP’s claims to present a nicer form of nationalism have always been dubious – the movement contains plenty of people whose attitudes are just as ugly as those you’ll find in any other similar cause.

One Nationalist official said the quiet part out loud this week when she tweeted, in response to the UK’s abysmal Eurovision performance, that “we hate the United Kingdom too”.

So far, so standard. But cannier Nationalists had a more dangerous response. Alyn Smith, their foreign affairs spokesman, used the result to argue that Scotland should be allowed to enter the contest separately. Indeed, he said that there were actually no legal barriers to it doing so.

The Government should strenuously resist any such effort. As I explained elsewhere, Britain competes as Britain on the international stage too infrequently as it is. With the happy exception of the Olympics, we lack the national sports teams which provide a common focus for patriotic pride in other countries.

As a result, those occasions where Britain does compete – even in something as intrinsically silly as Eurovision – are disproportionately important.

Recent governments have got this when it comes to the Olympics, where state funding has been ruthlessly directed towards those disciplines and athletes most likely to medal. The result has been extremely impressive performances in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

It’s time to bring that attitude to Eurovision. Simply letting BBC higher-ups choose our entrant has produced terrible results, so it’s time for change. Perhaps Oliver Dowden should even task the Corporation with setting up something akin to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest which could give acts from across the country a chance to compete (and give us a benefit that isn’t dependent on the votes of other countries).

Lewis joins chorus for less stringent EU checks for Northern Ireland

Ministers are “increasingly worried” about the heavy-handed way the European Union is going about enforcing checks on goods crossing the trade border the Prime Minister agreed to put in the Irish Sea, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, has claimed that Sainsbury’s are having difficulty moving foodstuffs to their stores in the Province – even though it has no outlets in the Republic, and there is thus no risk of such products entering the EU.

This comes amidst Government anger at claims by Dublin that it is “dangerously fuelling tensions” in Ulster. Irish commentators have been decrying David Frost’s warnings that the Protocol risks fuelling loyalist violence – apparently choosing to forget the way the threat of republican violence was regularly cited as a reason that a light-touch land border could not be countenanced.

Likewise, UK warnings that the Protocol risks undermining the Belfast Agreement are no more absurd than Irish and EU allegations that a land border would have done so.

All this is in line with what we first reported back in March: that Lord Frost’s appointment signalled that the Government was serious about securing substantive changes to the Protocol, which insiders insist the Government was effectively coerced into backing by the Benn-Burt Act. Ministers have already moved unilaterally once to make sure that food supplies to Ulster are not interrupted, and sources suggest they are quite prepared to do so again.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports that veterans who served in Northern Ireland face “fresh torment” as up to 50 ‘legacy inquests’ will launch within weeks, with more than a fifth of all deaths being investigated involving the military.

Ex-servicemen will be called to give evidence into historical killings, and some fear they may face prosecution – even after republican terrorists who commissioned atrocities such as the Brighton bombing have walked free.

Johnny Mercer, who recently quit the Government after accusing the Northern Ireland Office of ‘dragging its feet’ when it came to protecting British troops, attacked some of the inquests as “beyond parody”, including as they do events where “you had IRA men firing automatic weapons and detonating a device trying to kill RUC officers”.

Catch-up: Douglas Ross on the election results

Yesterday, I chaired our latest Zoon event on ‘Scotland the the Future of the Union’ featuring Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, alongside Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood magazine and Professor Nicola McEwan from the Centre for Constitutional Change.

If you missed it, the full video is now available and you can watch it here.

John Baron: When our troops depart Afghanistan, they leave the dream of ‘liberal intervention’ behind

4 May

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

After 20 years, Joe Biden is drawing the United States’ longest war to a close. All remaining US troops will leave the country by 11th September 2021, along with the 7,000 troops of other nations, including Britain, whose presence in Afghanistan without their American allies is unsustainable.

This brings to a close another misguided intervention. The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria need to be heeded as we come to realise that, while always maintaining our guard against terrorism, the greater danger to our security was always potentially hostile nation states.

Biden is the fourth US President to oversee the war in Afghanistan, and as Vice-President was noted for his attempts to dissuade Barack Obama from his troop surge at the beginning of his first term. It appears he has not deviated from his views that an ongoing military presence is unlikely to achieve a winning position any time soon.

My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my resistance to overseas military deployments, largely driven by my concerns that we, in Britain and in the West more generally, have a tendency to rush into situations without fully understanding the situation on the ground, what we wish to achieve or how we intend to do it – and therefore do not resource operations correctly and have no clear exit strategy. These interventions also served as a distraction from greater dangers elsewhere.

Afghanistan is unfortunately a strong example of this. I did not oppose the initial intervention after the terrorist outrages on 11th September 2001 – it made good sense to rid the country of the relatively small number of international terrorists who had made the country their base. The initial light deployment of special forces, backed by friendly Afghans and 21st-century technology, was successful. Those in al-Qaeda who stood and fought were quickly destroyed, and many of the survivors quickly crossed the borders.

However, once this had been achieved, rather than winding up the mission the British Government and its allies greatly expanded the scope of the deployment to include wholesale reform of Afghanistan and Afghan society in pursuit of goals such as human rights, western-style democracy, and the rule of law.

This drift into nation-building, which I strongly opposed, required the defeat of the Taliban who, though brutal in their dealings with the Afghan people, had never been our enemy – it was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, who attacked on 11th September.

The international troop deployment was never sufficient to hold the whole country, nor seal its porous borders – an essential part of fighting any insurgency.

Meanwhile, the international community, led by the United States, undermined any diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban with unrealistic and impossible preconditions. Insisting on the Taliban laying down their arms and accepting the new Afghan constitution before even agreeing to any talks, as the US did for many years, meant that no substantive progress was possible. It was Donald Trump who finally began the process of negotiations that have led us to this point.

In now announcing that the US will pull out of Afghanistan by September, come what may, Biden has provided little incentive for the Taliban to keep to any agreement with the Americans – some strategic patience on their behalf perhaps confirming the glib assertion that ‘the West may have the clocks, but we have the time’.

Though the President and other international allies have pledged to support the Afghan Government, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to resist the predations of the Taliban without the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, the present deployment of some 10,000 NATO troops, including 2,500 American and about 750 British soldiers, largely on training duties in support of Afghan Government forces, is seemingly holding the line with very small international casualties in recent years, even as their Afghan allies are losing a significant number of men.

It is clear that British commanders are unnerved by the announcement of the American withdrawal, which suggests a concerning lack of communication between allies, amid concerns that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan might mirror the hasty US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which left the Iraqi Government exposed when Daesh attacked a few years later.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that the military deployment in Afghanistan is coming to a close and that the laudable but misguided ideology of ‘liberal interventionism’ has largely faded into obscurity. This has taken some time – as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron once correctly observed that it is impossible to drop a fully-formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet, but this did not prevent him as Prime Minister from attempting military interventions in Libya, Syria and Iraq, largely without success.

However, Theresa May’s 2017 assertion in Philadelphia that ‘the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our image are over’ suggests this experience has finally been definitively heeded, a fact underlined by her careful and limited involvement in the international air strikes against the Assad Government later that year.

There will always be a role for British forces to play a role on the international stage, but the idea of wholesale ‘regime change’ for altruistic reasons, as we attempted in Afghanistan for too long, has had its day. Time now to focus on greater dangers.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Alex Deane: Britain must offer sanctuary to those who supported our soldiers in Afghanistan

27 Apr

Alex Deane is a partner at a City consultancy and a former Conservative Party aide.

With the news that Joe Biden will withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September this year, and the subsequent and inevitable decision by their allies that, without American air and other support, they would withdraw their troops too, the prospect of the Afghan government losing ground to the Taleban – and perhaps losing control to them completely – looms large in that country’s near future.

Twenty years is a long time to fight. One can understand all too well the frustration felt, on a bipartisan basis at the most senior level, with the fact that more progress has not been made, and the desire to end a conflict. Indeed, barring a very small amount of ongoing technical support, Britain withdrew our forces in 2014.

Nevertheless, to commit to withdrawal without preconditions and as an absolute (all out) rather than something less than that (leaving some troops behind as advisers; providing some form of anti-terrorism support; etc.) seems to render the potential collapse of democratic government, however imperfect, rather more likely.

A question arises from such a probability, much as it did for the Americans after the Vietnam War. What happens to those who were on your side? Who fought with you, worked for you?

To say that the prospects for “collaborating” Afghans under the Taleban are bleak seems an understatement so great as to be unworthy of the term. Whatever else was right or wrong about American involvement in Vietnam’s war, they acted with generosity, decency and honour when in 1975 they took in a great many who fled when the regime in the South fell.

I believe that such an obligation exists today towards for those who fought in Afghanistan in the long post-9/11 conflict – and that it applies to us in Britain as well as to others.

We should therefore prepare ourselves to take a significant number of Afghans fleeing their country in the aftermath of the withdrawal of allied forces in autumn this year. This should be in addition to any general quota for asylum seekers and refugees we intend to accept through UN programmes or other routes here.

The time must come, and it may come soon, when their lives become an awful lot worse. It may be because vengeance by others around them is visited upon them as the rule of law slides further in Afghanistan, or it may be because their country – in just two or three years, perhaps – falls to the Taleban or something like it, in its entirety.

Those who sided with us will face persecution, and, in many cases, death. So we should give them a new home.

I do not know how many will come, not least because the answer to the question of how many other countries in the changing coalition of forces that have served in Afghanistan will also act as we will and take a proportion of those concerned is unknown. But it will be many people. We should be ready for that.

There will doubtless be some predictable opposition:

“Not our problem” – If you feel this way, after what I’ve set out above, then I concede that I am unlikely to be able to convince you. But I suggest that it plainly is. Perhaps not to the same proportion or degree as others, principally the Americans, but we clearly have some responsibility.

“We’re busy” – Our economy has taken a significant coronavirus dip. But so has everyone else’s, and it is forecast to bounce back strongly – perhaps more strongly than anyone else’s.

As to being “busy” with those escaping unpleasant regimes to places with which they have strong links more specifically, I acknowledge that this call comes at the same time that the United Kingdom (rightly) gives new hope and a new home to those fleeing the Communists in Hong Kong. But discharging historic obligations is not a mutually exclusive pursuit. We are more than capable of honouring more than one tie at once.

“Who will come?” – The suspicion will exist that, hiding amongst those who take part in any exodus, will be those intending to do us harm, trained perhaps to pass themselves off as those who were our friends and not our enemies. As Mao said, the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.

But there is an answer to this. Almost all can be vouched for by serving or retired military personnel, intelligence officers and administrators. Indeed, there might be an element of preference amongst those escaping to live amongst those with whom they worked – Britain might be thought to appeal more to those who fought alongside the British, America for those alongside the Americans, and so on.

“What if it’s fine in Afghanistan after all?” – That is possible, but not very probable. Aid alone is unlikely to achieve what aid and a sustained military presence could not, and aid is likely to be forthcoming in smaller amounts when troops are absent.

What constitutes “fine” is a live question, too. Many will choose, for many reasons, not to leave their country, no matter how bad it gets. It is their home. But some will wish to get out as things worsen. For many, by the time the danger is really clear it will be too late to save those who’ve been on our side and are now at risk from those we’ve opposed for so long.

“What will it cost?” – I don’t know. But whilst those who rallied to freedom’s call in Afghanistan were ordinary people hoping for a better country, they were also extraordinary. They were brave and they committed themselves to democracy and to us in the most visible ways. So I say that they will make the best possible migrants, bringing that spirit and bravery with them as they come.

I also suggest that this is a moral obligation that doesn’t come in pounds and pence. In any event, the cost is likely to constitute a fraction of the blood and treasure already spent upon the country for good reasons, and would have been all but guaranteed to have been spent if we had stayed the course with the Americans and the rest.

They fought with us. They stood by us and believed our promises about a better future and a better way of life. It’s time for us to stand by them.

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine…

18 Apr

There is only so much news that the cycle can really stay across at once. So with pandemic and the constitutional clashes in Scotland and Northern Ireland – not to mention the nation saying farewell to the Duke of Edinburgh – it perhaps isn’t surprising that foreign affairs are flying under the radar.

But events in Eastern Europe are a reminder that the Prime Minister could end up facing yet another crisis.

Ukraine is pressing its allies in Western Europe to honour their earlier commitments to admit it to NATO – and potentially threatening to re-acquire nuclear weapons, which it surrendered in exchange for Western security guarantees, if it doesn’t. Meanwhile Russia is mobilising troops on its border with the country in an effort to deter any such outcome.

The balance of opinion at present seems to be that Vladimir Putin is not planning a full-blown invasion. But then few thought he would be so bold as to annex the Crimea either. And even if he doesn’t, the pro-Russian separatists entrenched in Donetsk and Luhansk aren’t going anywhere.

But even if the crisis doesn’t devolve into a hot war, it still puts a spotlight on the Government’s strategic priorities, especially in light of the defence review and the planned ‘pivot to Asia’.

Realistically, any British involvement in an Asian theatre is likely to consist of sending a bit of support to an effort spearheaded by the United States and their regional partners, such as Australia and Japan. It may be welcome, but it seems unlikely to be decisive.

Meanwhile the UK has to service more obvious defence commitments closer to home. Even if Ukraine is not admitted to NATO, we are committed to the defence of existing allies such as the Baltic states. Yet our on-the-ground commitment in Estonia is so pitiable it has been nicknamed ‘Operation Tethered Goat’. Nor, as Garvan Walshe noted this week, are other European countries doing anything to pick up the slack.

Boris Johnson’s vision of a small, high-tech Armed Forces seems to suggest that they are not intended to operate independently, but as part of a broader, inevitably American-led coalition. Given that logic, one wonders if Washington wouldn’t prefer a British defence posture geared towards the European theatre, where capable allies are in shorter supply.

Jeremy Quin: The Government’s defence investment ensures a modern, persistent and effective approach to future threats

31 Mar

Jeremy Quin is the MP for Horsham and Minister for Defence Procurement.

It has been an important two weeks for the UK’s foreign, defence and security policy. The Prime Minister set out through the Integrated Review the most significant reappraisal of UK foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, including a commitment to sustaining our strategic advantage through science and technology.

Last week’s Defence in a Competitive Age backs this up, signalling the biggest shift in defence policy in a generation. The Government’s vital investment in defence, amounting to an extra £24 billion over four years from today’s levels, ensures we will equip our Armed Forces to be modern, persistent and effective in deterring the threats of the future.

The following day through DSIS (the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy) we announced further reforms to ensure that this investment supports not just the Armed Forces, to which we owe so much, but invests in those who support them. The £85 billion we are investing in defence equipment and support over the next four years will drive not only the success of our Armed Forces but opportunity, capability and prosperity throughout the UK. 

Our defence sector is already world-renowned. Directly and indirectly it employs more than 200,000 across the UK. It is the world’s second largest global exporter of defence goods and services, helping support our allies and partners overseas. It generates valuable skills and technology, and is one of the many binding forces of our successful Union. Frigates are made in Scotland, satellites in Belfast, our next generation Ajax armoured vehicles in Wales and fighter aircraft in the north of England.

But we must do more to unlock the vast potential of this sector and drive the research, the skills and investment that will enhance prosperity, keep us secure and help us thrive as a science superpower.

To do so we have ended the policy of “global competition by default’ to better deliver our strategic goals. Of course competition has an important role to play, as will international collaboration. There will also be occasions when, to meet critical needs, purchases will be made from our friends and allies.

However we will be adopting a nuanced and sophisticated approach to procurement with a focus on on-shore capabilities and asking key questions. What more can we secure from this investment? How will this contribute to our science superpower status, level up the whole UK and deliver on skills, capability and export success? We will continue to welcome companies based overseas who are prepared to invest in maintaining the industrial capability we need onshore.

In the future you can expect greater integration between government, industry and academia. Our approach to combat air shows what this can achieve. A £2 billion investment, leveraging further industrial contributions, driving world-leading research and capabilities – and creating 2,500 apprenticeships – will deliver the future of combat air

We are investing £6.6 billion into R&D to support next-generation capabilities, from space satellites and automation to artificial intelligence and novel weapons. A clear signal to our industrial partners.

We will be more focussed on exports. For the first time in a generation we are working with our close friends in Australia and Canada on highly sophisticated UK warships. Our multipurpose Type 31 frigate has been designed with export in mind. We are determined to spark a renaissance in British shipbuilding, underpinned by UK orders but focussed on the huge export potential in maritime. Similar export opportunities across the waterfront of defence.

Lastly, DSIS will make procurement more agile, pulling through technology fast to the frontline. By driving improvements inside MOD and reforming our approach to suppliers, we will shift the dial. We are introducing “social value” to our procurements and will be doing more to help our imaginative SMEs – the lifeblood of defence – to continue their record of securing more of our defence spend.

So DSIS will make a huge difference to our country. It will ensure our people continue to have the right kit. It will contribute to the advanced skills and capabilities our nation requires as a science superpower. And it will fire up the engines of prosperity in every corner of our United Kingdom.

The Armed Forces always deliver for our country. DSIS will ensure that our investment not only secures our peace and security; its benefits will also be felt in our industrial heartlands, building greater prosperity in every part of the Union.

Nicolas Clark: The Government’s defence plans are based on a stark choice – ‘go large’ or ‘go smart’

26 Mar

Nicolas Clark works in the defence sector and is the co-founder of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. 

As many start to decipher the Defence Command Paper (‘Defence in a Competitive Age’) it will likely leave them conflicted: with our proud military history do we not need numbers to be considered serious, and to support our allies? Are our elite forces really enough to achieve what we need?

At the heart of the matter is this question: why does our military exist?

For the modern day the primary answer must be to keep both our society and interests, as well as those of our allies, safe Safe from whom? Those who would do us harm of course.

But who are ‘they’, what are they looking to do to us, and how can we best prepare ourselves to address their threats?

Firstly, we have to accept a reality, unpopular for many; Britannia does not rule the waves. Yes, we are good at what we do, better than most, and we are an important ally, but gone are the days where we are likely to take on a peer enemy head to head, alone. It is not impossible that we could do this, but it is more probable that we would enter a conflict alongside any number of our allies.

Secondly, the nature of conflict has changed. A decade ago, talk of cyber hackers, hyper-sonic missiles, directed energy weapons, micro-drones and loyal wingmen (unmanned fighters linked to a manned fighter) were things of science fiction. To put this in context, about a decade ago the army still wore that green camouflage (DPM), Osama bin-Laden and Muammar Gaddafi had been killed, and David Cameron had become Prime Minister in the Coalition Government.

Today the science fiction is becoming science reality and the focus is on hybrid threats (propaganda, deception and sabotage) and actions being carried out within the ‘grey zone’ that exists between war and peace.

Finally, we have to accept the financial situation. We don’t’ have the financial means to maintain a large force, or the collective will to prioritise the military over education, welfare or healthcare. Continuing to spend two per cent of GDP on defence in line with NATO requirements is just about acceptable to many, but does not carry a public majority. As the British Empire grew, its finances could support a large military, and soldiers whether from home or abroad were cheap. I need not elaborate on how this has changed but we must recognise that it is now in Asia that the growth in military stature is taking place.

Faced with this, should we really be going down to an army smaller in size than that of the 1700s? Well size does matter, but it matters if you want to hold large areas of ground. If you accept that we do not want to do this in the future by conventional means, or alone, then you should also be able to recognise that if you cannot ‘go large’, you should ‘go smart’. I would argue that ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ is a smart solution.

The threat of terrorism still exists of course, particularly where it is sponsored by foreign states; think not just Iran but also Russian activities in Salisbury and North Korean assassinations. Whilst we and our allies became embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan our adversaries were watching. They noted our mistakes, our conventional military solutions, and they planned.

Not necessarily in new ways – often they went back to basics; Russia to techniques of disinformation and propaganda associated with the World and Cold Wars, and China to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s 1999 text ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. To see these strategies in practice one only need look at Russian activity in Eastern Ukraine and Chinese influence in Australia. It is not a coincidence that the Nordic and Baltic countries remained focused, throughout the ‘War on Terror’ years, on the threat that sits on their doorstep, Russia.

Consequently, the technologies and approaches of Sweden and Norway are particularly designed to counter Russian aggression and why they are now particularly strategic allies for the UK. We do need to learn from these examples, and fast.

Without descending into War Studies; Sun Tzu talked about choosing the right strategy for the right conditions but not fighting unless you had to, and, if you had to, fighting smart. Indeed, he said that the superior way of winning a war was by not fighting, i.e. defeating your opponent before it came to battle. Finally, of relevance, is how you should fight the fight that fits the weapons you have, and consequently make the weapons that fit the fight you intend to have.

So, a smaller, highly-trained and capable force, that can deliver a surgical physical strike, that is integrated with cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities, is a logical direction to take. When married with a maritime force, long-range accurate strike capabilities, and advanced aviation and space asset, the expeditionary effect of your force becomes incredibly potent, arguably multiplied to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

What does this all mean? Well in scenarios where you quickly wanted to support your Norwegian or Australian allies you could get there quickly from air or sea and deploy your air (Paras), land (Rangers) or sea (Commandos), with a variety of physical and invisible technologies, that would deliver the swift Bruce Lee ‘chop’ that helps to stop an aggressor in its tracks. The slow, but powerful, Mike Tyson alternative (the British Army of old) might well turn up to the fight too late and have found its gloves stolen on route.

Upsetting the apple cart at this juncture is probably the right thing to be doing. Cap badges and traditions have formed part of a proud military heritage but we need to rethink the core purpose of our military for the future. It is right to play to our historic strengths but not to be weighed down by them, and to look instead to how we can repurpose for our future challenges.

Investing in technology is key, and has a symbiotic benefit between economy and capability. Supporting allies overseas through engagement projects influence, and working with our partners builds stronger allegiances that we know others seek to weaken.

Of course, we can’t enter a cold war with those that threaten our way of life, but with whom we also trade, on a whim. However, we can prepare to deal with them effectively if it is required of us, and we can insulate ourselves from their malign intentions. What remains to be seen is whether the Ministry of Defence, in the implementation of this paper, can overcome the hurdle of the historic “general ineptitude” with which it was branded by the Defence Select Committee and see this laudable ambition through to fruition.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Davies wonders whether the Prime Minister is a Conservative

24 Mar

Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) raised a question which troubles many Tory backbenchers:

“To paraphrase the late, great, much-missed Eric Forth, Mr Speaker, I believe in individual freedoms and individual responsibility, I believe that individuals make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities than the state makes for them, I loathe the nanny state, and I believe in cutting taxes. Prime Minister, am I still a Conservative?”

In other words, Prime Minister, are you still a Conservative?

This is dangerous territory for Johnson. One day, when he is down on his luck, those Tory backbenchers will hold his fate in their hands, and not a few of them will say it all went wrong because he abandoned the true Tory faith as proclaimed by Forth and Davies.

Johnson took refuge in brevity: “Yes, Mr Speaker,” he declared with emphasis, provoking an appreciative laugh from the House, and left it at that.

Sir Keir Starmer had earlier attempted, like Davies, to indicate that the Prime Minister is not a true Conservative.

He reminded us that Johnson had promised not to cut the size of the armed forces, yet was now doing exactly that.

The Prime Minister retorted that the Army would still be 100,000 strong “if you include the reserves”, and made a crack at Jeremy Corbyn.

“Mr Speaker, he’s fighting the last war,” Sir Keir retorted, and pointed out that the regular army is to be cut from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025, with cuts in planes, tanks and ships too.

Might Sir Keir be fighting the last war? None of us will know for certain until the next war comes and we discover whether we have the means to fight it.

The Prime Minister said it was “frankly satirical” to be lectured by Labour about the size of the Army, and mocked his opponent’s “new spirit of jingo”.

Sir Keir retorted that the Prime Minister lacked the “courage” to admit what was happening, or to put the cuts to a vote in the House.

So is the main charge against the PM that he is untrustworthy, that he is cowardly, or simply that he is not a Conservative?

The Leader of the Opposition has not yet decided where to place the Schwerpunkt, as Clausewitz would have termed it, of his attack on Johnson.

After all, the trouble with pointing out that the Prime Minister is not a Conservative is that this might increase his already quite noticeable popularity with Labour voters.