UK General Election: How parties compare on defence
With the ‘surprise’ announcement of a general election to take place on June 8th, Britain finds itself facing a number of critical decisions at home and abroad that will greatly impact defence.
Brexit – the official driver behind calling this election, given the Prime Minister’s belief that the result could give the government enough leverage to push through its divorce plans and ‘stabilise’ the nation – will inevitably see a rewrite of how the country operates its armed forces and intelligence capabilities with European nations at a time when the terror threat continues to rear its head across the continent.
Meanwhile, conflicts and contingencies arising in Syria, Eastern Europe and South-East Asia – spurred recently by hawkish postures from the world’s major powers – puts the prospect of overseas combat operations very much back on the table.
All of this is taking place during an extensive famine period for the UK Armed Forces, who have been inflicted with major reductions since the infamous SDSR of 2010. The most notable casualty of these cuts has been in manpower, but a number of programmes scrapped as a result have left capability gaps peppering the foundations of Britain’s military power.
Here, we look at the existing defence policies across the major political parties, including the voting records of its leaders in the House of Commons.
The budget today
In 2017, core defence spending, including foreign aid, is budgeted at £45.6 billion.
Last year, the Conservative government oversaw an increase in defence spending (by 0.5% above inflation every year until 2021). This hike saw the core defence budget increase by £800m from the 2015/16 baseline of £34.3bn to £35.1bn.
In addition, the MOD was provided £2.1bn from the Joint Security Fund, promising to push the defence budget by nearly £5bn to £39.7bn in 2020/21.
Although the recent budget increase is of course welcome to those in defence, most are not optimistic about a significant regrowth of manpower and capability within the Armed Forces. Having presided over the most severe cuts to defence spending in the past decade, the Conservatives will be eyed with suspicion by both military leaders and the country’s defence industry.
That said, no other leading party is as likely to raise spending in this area and, with the wheels already turning on a ‘streamlined’ Armed Forces, it will be difficult for any government to stop the slide in the near-term. It is notable that policing manpower – now very much on the ‘front line’ against terrorism in many respects – has also been blighted by similar cuts, leaving many officers and civilians embittered.
Enacting overseas combat operations, however, may force a majority call-to-action to readdress the situation and potentially funnel funds from other areas, such as foreign aid or public services.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (alongside Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson) has stated strong support for NATO and its partnership with the US, which he sees as more vital now than ever as the country departs the EU. More investment and cooperation is likely to take place on major US-UK defence programmes, including the F-35 and multilateral cyber defence. Trident is therefore very likely to remain in place for the foreseeable. Odds will also be slashed on the likelihood of bilateral defence trade deals and discounts on US defence equipment.
Before taking on the leadership role, Theresa May almost always voted for the use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas, including support of air strikes against Daesh in Syria in 2015. In 2013, she voted to agree on a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, including possible military action.
Although a supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, she also voted consistently for an investigation into the war. In what could be seen by some as a moment of contradiction, she voted against strengthening the Military Covenant in 2011 in spite of having previously stated her belief that the armed forces had been left underfunded by government failings.
As PM, May has said the UK government is willing to work with Russia towards a political solution to resolve the situation in Syria but emphasised that Assad would not be part of those talks. Reports also claim that she has sought to discourage President Trump from unilateral action on North Korea, favouring progress through talks with the UN Security Council.
A Labour position on defence is difficult to calibrate given the current level of disagreement within the party. That said, it is unlikely to seek immediate rises to defence spending while other services and sectors are decrying current austerity measures.
Officially speaking, Labour is expected to commit to being a responsive NATO ally and meeting the 2% of GDP benchmark, which is unlikely to change as the election campaign proceeds. Jeremy Corbyn may however simply be unwilling to rock this particular boat until the party takes power, at which point, all bets are off. He is understood to be at odds with party policy on a number of defence issues. For example, Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith has said she would be prepared to authorise the use of nuclear weapons.
Arguably, Labour’s expenditure interests are likely to be domestically-focused in the near-term, with interest levelled towards national infrastructure and welfare rather than global conflict. But even with this in mind, national security will still remain a key issue, Brexit is still likely to take place, and new defence trade deals beyond the EU market will still need to be secured to keep the economy in motion.
The party has supported the idea of cutting senior military positions in favour of junior ranks.
The Labour leader, who now finds himself in the unenviable position of having to rally national support for an openly divided party, has held a largely anti-engagement stance, having voted consistently against deployment of combat forces overseas, including proposed actions against Daesh. He was against the no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, suggesting he would likely pursue a similar stance on intervention proposals related to Syria, North Korea and other global crises. Corbyn has even voted against his party’s own anti-terrorism laws during the Blair and Brown years, including the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006.
He has voted against the renewal of Trident but, as Labour leader, showed confusing signs of wavering on his personal anti-Trident pledge in lieu of keeping in step with party policy. It is in this arena that he could, should he upset the odds to secure the PM role, look to rebalance the defence books.
Scrapping Trident would of course offer a cash flow to other areas of the Forces, but at what cost? Unilateral disarmament during a time of global anxiety over missile defence would leave the country without a nuclear deterrent, assuming a viable alternative is not swiftly setup (at significant cost and effort). At home, unions would likely be displeased at the prospect of massive job losses related to the cancellation. Such a decision would be viewed as a major coup for the likes of Russia and China, and no doubt leave relations with the US on thin ice. However, whether Corbyn could muster the support from his own MPs on the matter – or on any major matter – remains a great unknown.
A new SDSR would likely be issued upon the Lib Dems taking power. The party has previously campaigned on both a pro-EU and pro-NATO policy when it comes to the pooling and sharing of defence resources. The party has tried to play a middle ground more recently on Trident rather than pin themselves to a firm stick-or-twist standing, seeing value in it remaining until a ‘scaled back’ alternative can be emplaced in the coming decades, and only coming online when the threat of attack presents itself rather than being on constant patrol.
Farron has almost always voted for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas and military action against Islamic State, including support of UK airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. He most recently voted against replacing like-for-like on the four Trident boats. However, in 2015, he stated that in the “current, uncertain international climate...we need to be absolutely sure that neither our security nor that of our neighbours is compromised” by a decision over nuclear weapons.
Ukip has previously attempted to brand itself as the ‘party of defence’, with promises to increase defence spending and to meet NATO’s 2% requirement. In the last election, Ukip has said that it would cancel the Trident replacement in favour of a cheaper "advanced stealth cruise-type missile" that can be delivered by land, sea or air.
Having just lost its only MP (Douglas Carswell, MP of Clacton, announced on April 20 that he would not run for re-election) and with the Brexit vote already secured, UKIP find itself teetering on the edge of obsolescence. Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, has struggled to find enough candidates to contest even half of the nation’s wards in the upcoming county council unitary authority polls. Former leader Nigel Farage, who spent some of the past year on Donald Trump’s campaign trail, was rumoured to be considering a comeback for June's election, but has since backtracked on the idea.
As one of its key campaign pledges, the Greens would prioritise an immediate end to Trident. Based on its belief that the UK is under no threat of invasion, it would also seek to reduce the size of the military considerably and retask any remaining personnel as customs agents and into maritime policing roles, aside to undertaking selective UN peacekeeping roles. Military sales and purchases would face stringent controls and the local defence industry would shrink considerably.
The Green Party says it would convert many military facilities into “renewable energy” facilities and social venues, such as turning many military training areas into “nature reserves”. NATO membership would be withdrawn. Becoming a member of a terrorist organisation would become legal.
The Greens' only MP, co-leader Caroline Lucas, has voted consistently against British combat operations on all occasions, including establishing any military action against Daesh in Syria.
It is no secret that the SNP is seeking Scottish independence and has seized on Brexit as a chance to demand a new referendum, in spite of 2014’s result showing the Scottish public largely in favour of remaining in Britain. Contrastingly, it has decried the breakup with Brussels.
An independent Scotland would have major ramifications for security in both Scotland and the rest of the British Isles, given that the size of the Armed Forces would be reduced and that ensuing economic slumps are heavily predicted. One of the biggest questions will fall on Trident, with the SNP eager to push the boats out of their current home on the Clyde and Britain likely to be forced to comply – even though analysts have determined that there are no other suitable locations for basing.
A study by RUSI ahead of the referendum found there to be no viable case for the SNP's plan to establish a Scottish Security and Intelligence Agency.
The Deputy Leader is the SNP’s leader in the House of Commons, and was the party's spokesman for defence from 2001-2015. He has generally voted against the use of British military forces on overseas combat operations and has been consistently against military action against Islamic State. He voted against British airstrikes in Iraq (2014) and in Syria (2015), but was in favour of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya (2011).