The Times reports that the Conservative leadership is planning to review its commitments to defence spending, a prospect which ConHome believes will ‘unnerve’ many of its readers. Although suggestions that shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, has differences with the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, are a legitimate source of concern for Tory supporters, it would be neither unreasonable, nor unwise, for a Conservative treasury to consider cuts to the defence budget. Despite Britain’s entanglement in Afghanistan, perhaps even because of it, substantial savings are possible.
The former shadow home secretary, David Davis, has, for some time, maintained that the UK’s nuclear deterrent should be up for discussion. A Conservative government had been expected to remain committed to replacing Trident, the nuclear submarine system, at a cost of £20 billion. It now appears that other options will be investigated, as part of a Strategic Defence Review, should the Tories form the next government.
There is, I think, a feeling amongst Conservatives that their instinct should be to protect and enhance the armed forces. However, if David Cameron insists that other frontline services can be delivered more efficiently, then why should defence be an exception? And if a Conservative government intends to adopt a more cautious approach to foreign affairs that its predecessor, surely that policy is compatible with carrying a less combat ready military?
British forces are in Afghanistan, and whilst they remain, they must be properly resourced, but there is a strong argument to suggest that the army needs to fight smarter, rather than harder in Helmand and elsewhere. In this month’s ‘Prospect’ Stephen Grey writes persuasively that intelligence and politics are being neglected, with the result that an increasingly inefficient campaign is being fought. His analysis directly contravenes Fox’s insistence that the problem lies with government, rather than the army.
Apart from the voices which advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a strong constituency which believes a smaller, more realistic, campaign is necessary, tailored to the country’s unique circumstances. Rather than ‘mowing the lawn’ or fighting expensive battles to hold, briefly, a particular fort, a smaller presence would concentrate on analysing tribal allegiances and a counter insurgency strategy based on local considerations.
If a Conservative government took power without taking cognisance of the range of options on military spending and Afghanistan, it would be abrogating its duty.