14 Feb 2014. Five year fixed-term electoral periods between General Elections make a good deal of sense. The political party elected (or as was the case following the 2010 election, the political parties elected) is fully deserving of a five year term to do its work unless it is brought down in the process. Like or dislike the Coalition process of Government that we have been living through since 2010 the bottom line is that it has worked better than many had feared. Tory backbenchers may loathe the process, but having failed to win a sufficient number of parliamentary seats in 2010 one could argue they are effectively carrying the can for their own failings.
However just because a five-year fixed-term period for Government can work, logic does not suggest that a five-year fixed-term period between defence and security reviews is equally apposite; especially if, following a General Election, the 5th floor at MOD Main Building finds itself with a new bunch of Ministers that have absolutely no experience of Defence and Security issues.
Defence of the nation is arguably the most crucial role placed in the hands of any government. The now infamous 2010 SDSR was published just seven months after the present administration took office, slashing defence spending and seriously cutting the UK’s military capability in a witch hunt motivated by affordability rather than strategic requirements. The contemporary opinion of defence analysts is that the same slash-and-burn approach is being considered for SDSR 2015, which will be published within a few months of the new government taking office. I see no sense in this at all and I would like to see the Coalition Government put forward a revised timetable for completion of the next SDSR to enable the next government the time to fully analyse a complex and important task. Why can the review not take place in 2016, what is the rush!
The process and in part, the actual timing of SDSR 2010 had, perfectly reasonably, been set in train by the previous Labour administration. Whilst there had been some inevitable delays in its publication (caused by a round of final haggling between Ministers and the three Service chiefs) I believe that we can look back over the devastation left in the wake of SDSR 2010 and suggest that not enough time was given to consultation, analysis and strategic thought.
The logic behind calling for a 2016 SDSR is that a new Government, of necessity, brings new and inexperienced people. This can of course be very positive but each new Minister involved needs time to find their feet, to get to grips with the various issues, people and policy that they are directly responsible for. A Government that gets defence wrong will soon find itself in serious trouble – you get one chance in defence, and only one. Get it wrong and the very life of the nation is put at stake. Implications of making the wrong decisions in defence policy cannot be underestimated and as sure as night follows day, mitakes in defence will lead to blunders in the security and foreign policy arenas too.
My quest here is not to frighten and alarm but to offer a viable alternative to the pre-existing political-defence paradigm. Even if stability was the order of the day at the next General Election and another Tory-Lib Dem government was reinstated, the 5th floor would still have to contend with the usual revolving door of ministers which opens following any election. Unfortunately politics does not lend itself to the stability which long-term defence planning requires.
Should Labour win an outright majority, or find themselves in a coalition, the 5th floor would not only find themselves responsible for briefing a completely new set of inexperienced Ministers and managing a defence budget of £46.6bn but within six months it would also need to have formulated the UK’s defence and securit priorities, resource allocation and threat analysis for the next five years! Surely this hardly makes any sense and is beyond most reasoning. Hence my call for a one year delay in SDSR 2015 and my suggestion that regular reviews are scheduled for the second year of any administration; in order to give ministers, civil servants and military personnel time to get to grips with any government’s most important brief.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785