What is a Conservative defence policy and how will it be reflected in the SDSR?

What is a Conservative defence policy and how will it be reflected in the SDSR?

What is a Conservative defence policy and how will it be reflected in the SDSR?

Ahead of the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review Endeavour Public Affairs’ Defence and Security expert, Liam Purbrick takes a historic look at Conservative Party defence policy as he sets out what its 2015 incarnation might look like.

Liam is a defence and security expert. Prior to joining EPA he spent nine years in the army as an infantry officer, developing his knowledge of defence and international affairs while taking part in operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After spending his last military posting at the Permanent Joint Headquarters he worked in Whitehall as a civilian focusing on foreign affairs.

We will soon see the publication of a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). It will present the first defence policy of a solely Conservative government seen for 18 years. In the 1920s the Tory MP John Buchan described British Conservatism as a ‘spirit, not an absolute doctrine’: has this spirit historically translated to peculiarly ‘conservative’ defence policies and, if so, what might its 2015 incarnation look like?

The conservative in general and the British Tory in particular have, almost by definition, always had something to fight for; something to conserve: if necessary with resort to force of arms. As Michael Oakshott put it, Conservatism is ‘a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for’. This disposition crystallised in the ancestral dream-time of modern conservatism: that reaction against the violent, Utopian usurping of the French regime ancien in 1789. Yet the instinct to preserve the best of what has gone before has always been tempered, through a creative friction, with the need to manage inevitable social change. As early as 1790 Burke pointed out that conservatism is ‘the science of practice, not of logic’. For much of the nineteenth-century the Tory approach to the defence of the realm was characterised by just such a pragmatism, with, at times the Tory leaders such as the Earl of Derby championing the avoidance of military entanglements on the basis that they would only diminish the wealth of the property-owning stalwarts of his party. This appreciation that ‘security’ is a broad and multifaceted phenomenon, ranging over the realms of social stability, national and personal wealth, and civil order, as well as countering foreign military threats, has been a consistent thread of Conservatism. This theme is very much alive and well today: by far the longest thematic chapter of Nick Herbert MP’s Why Vote Conservative guide to the 2015 election is dedicated to ‘Security’ in its widest sense.

Yet it was not until the 1870s that the Conservatives forged an enduring identity as the ‘national party’ explicitly associated with strong national defence and robust foreign policy. This was precipitated by the now oft-forgotten Great Eastern Crisis. With Russia troops threatening the British sphere of influence within the Ottoman Empire, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli took a strong line with the Tsar, threatening war if the Russians occupied Constantinople. It was generally perceived that Disraeli’s bullying approach had trumped the more cautious overtures of his rival and then foreign secretary Derby, and resulted in a British success of ‘peace with honour’ at the Berlin Congress of 1878 which resolved the immediate crisis. It was relevant that a music-hall star of the era ‘The Great MacDermott’ achieved huge popularity and coined a phrase with the lines, ‘We don’t want a fight, but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too…the Russians shall not have Constantinople!’ Throughout the tumults of the twentieth century a constantly evolving Conservative Party would largely retain an identity as the ‘national’ party and be unafraid to harvest the electoral benefits of a forward military policy.

How much of this tradition has lived on into the era of David Cameron? In sum, maintaining that accepted pillar of Disraeli’s Toryism – wrapped in the Union Jack of strong and bullish defence – becomes a Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle when added to the imperative of maintaining a global role in a period of relative decline and eye-watering defence inflation. Above all, the current administration’s instinct and ideology on defence is cast in the colossal shadow of the Thatcher years. The shattering success in the Falklands campaign and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, both within living political memory, have maintained for today’s Tories two venerable pillars of strategy: first that British (and Tory electoral) interests can be secured by the projection of expeditionary force; and secondarily, that co-operation with the United States remain the means to the top table of global influence. Indeed, it is tempted to sum up Cameron’s philosophy of defence in one word: ‘Atlanticist’. In 2008 he spelled it out ‘Atlanticism is in my DNA and in DNA of the Conservative Party.’ The corollary of this is to emphasize the clear institutional leaning towards NATO, rather than EU, military structures. However, at least in the early years of the administration Cameron’s partially envisioned this key US engagement as a chance to moderate America’s grand unilateralism of the George W Bush years. This aspiration of keeping American partially in check was clear in some key policy documents of Cameron’s opposition years, including in Pauline Neville-Jones’ An Unquiet World in 2007. This Atlanticist, ‘liberal interventionist’ tendency has been modified by its ideological cousin, a neo-conservatism which sees foreign intervention as an ideological as well as humanitarian imperative. This tendency is prominently represented by the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. Several of the Society’s key supporters are drawn from Cameron’s inner circle, including Ed Vaizey, David Willets, and Michael Gove. As early as 2004 Gove summed up this philosophy:

‘Moreover, neoconservatives believe that a nation’s survival and strength depend upon moral foundations. To purge morality from foreign policy is not just to betray the West’s best instincts, it is to undermine the foundations of its continued vigour.’

The Neo-Con, interventionist instincts of the Government, acting across a spectrum of alliances, hint at what sort of defence policy we would see coming from the SDSR, were the world as many in the cabinet would wish it to be. Michael Fallon will, however, be hamstrung by two factors. Firstly, the Government knows it lives or dies on its economic credibility and the Chancellor, with an eye towards his future employment, will ferociously counter any extension of what he will argue was a generous post-election review of the defence budget last June. Secondly, is the subtler and long-term societal aversion to using military force. As the Chief of the Defence Staff remarked earlier this year, ‘government, parliament and society have become more cautious, nervous, anxious about the employment of military force’. The cultural trend is towards relative rather than absolute values, and the digitally connected electorate is war-weary and disillusioned after the morally vexed military campaigns of this century. The Government has enough depth of military understanding and experience to understand very well that money spent on hardware is wasted when the account of public moral support is in arrears.

We anticipate an SDSR perceived as cautiously generous by the defence establishment. The Chancellor will stick by his promise to resource the £160 billion capital expenditure programme, increasing one per cent annually. While the overall annual budget will likely stick slavishly to the two per cent of GDP NATO spending target confirmed earlier this year, hawkish Tory backbenchers will possible be placated with messaging that, in real terms, this will actually be a significant increase into the next parliament. If there was single ‘bonus’ for the MoD to be pulled out of the hat at SDSR we suggest it could be a ‘middle-way’ in numbers of F-35 fighters to be procured, considerably above the absolute minimum of 48 airframes sometimes discussed, and allowing the option of simultaneously deployment both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers in extremis. Further modest uplifts in navy man-power could also be authorised.

We also understand that it is very likely that ‘the prosperity of the nation’ is to be included among Defence’s official functions. Although likely controversial among both pacifists and military purists alike, arguable it is in that old Tory tradition of ‘security’ – not least financial stability – being considered in the round. Specifically, be prepared to see the construction of major equipment based in the UK, including, for starters, the new Scout armoured vehicle programme. Similarly, the Government will reinvigorate its considerable commitment to defence exports, with the possibility that BAE’s planned Type 26 frigate becomes the first British major warship to be exported in a generation.

Anyone who has worked around Whitehall since 2010 will be aware of David Cameron’s instinct to ‘do more’ when it comes to an interventionist foreign policy, stymied by realpolitik and ‘that sordid question of coin’. Although the Government will remain distracted by the Europe debate, and still wedded to deficit elimination, the next SDSR should mark the start of a period of stability for the defence establishment, cautiously in the tradition of conservative defence policy. Yet after the controversies of the last 15 years of foreign intervention, few will be found singing ‘by jingo’ in the corridors of Westminster.

Published: Friday 20 November 2015

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