Papering over the cracks

PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 November 2017

Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon

Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon

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MICHAEL WHITE on another succession of crises as the UK slips yet further in the world power stakes

Watching Gavin Williamson, untested in any ministerial office let alone a military one, taking over at the Ministry of Defence from Sir Michael Fallon reminded me of the spectacle a few weeks ago which saw Britain’s latest aircraft carrier slip out of Rosyth and the Firth of Forth into the open sea.

It would need a heart of stone, at very least of a Momentum activist, not to be stirred by the sight of HMS Queen Elizabeth, 920ft long and weighing 65,000 tons, heading for its home port of Portsmouth.

There it was greeted with flags and cheers as warships have been since Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose (700 tons and 145ft) was launched in 1511 – and sank offshore in 1545.

And yet both carrier and minister filled me with melancholy. For all the bombast about HMS Lizzie being a post-Brexit symbol of Britain’s “confident and positive” role as “a fully engaged global power, working closely with our friends and allies around the world,” the truth is very different – and everyone knows it. Not so deep down, even the jingoistic tabloids know it.

The fact is that Williamson’s inexperience matters much less than it might because the British MoD matters much less than it did until very recently. It is also true that without a proper carrier battle group – strike groups, as the US Navy now calls them – complete with supporting ships, subs and 60-70 aircraft, HMS Queen Elizabeth must be a sitting duck. A bit like Williamson who doesn’t have much air cover either, if “air cover” itself has not yet been outdated by cyber warfare.

The 450-strong US navy has 10 such fearsome carrier battle groups around the world’s ocean, China a token one (so far). The Royal Navy’s total surface fleet comprises 19 combat warships, plus 10 subs, nuclear powered and (four of them) nuclear armed.

Yet as recently as 1982 (when the navy still had 55 serious surface ships) the UK’s armed forces were able to dispatch at short notice a 40,000 task force – fighting soldiers protected by ships and aircraft – to retake the invaded Falkland Islands 8,000 miles away, and do it 400 miles from the enemy coast as the southern winter closed in.

Nowadays we could barely retake Jersey from the kind of tax dodging bankers exposed this week in the Paradise Papers mega-leak, not if they decided to fight back. Hyperbole? Of course. When Britain’s former chief of the defence staff (CDS), General Lord Richards, spoke of “banana republic” status for our armed forces after he retired, he later admitted “I exaggerated for effect”. But not by much, General.

The decline has been precipitate, the dynamic accelerated by economic failure – the consequence of the bankers crash of 2008-09 – and by the military/political failures of foreign interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. All cost lives and treasure out of all proportion to any stable benefit to the locals. Forced to choose between a dictator and chaos, people usually prefer the brute.

Britain has not faced that stark choice for centuries, though it has been another chaotic week for Number 10, what with tax exposes, ministers and MPs accused of sexual misconduct amid another all-too familiar media frenzy. That some of the allegations are clearly true should not detract from the old “innocent until proved guilty” principle.

But austerity resulting from the banks misconduct compounded falling public support for defence in many sections of society. Who needs an aircraft carrier of doubtful utility when hospital wards fill with trolleys and schools bulge at the seams? One third of young people, some of them smug as well as ignorant, see November poppy wearing as militarism. Oh dear, poor Wilfred Owen.

In his memoirs, out this week, Gordon Brown claims that the US misled Tony Blair over Iraqi WMD. But Brown himself was a bit of a Corbynite on defence, keener to promote the soft power influence of international aid – whose budget he naively expanded at the expense of the foreign office – than on harsh military analysis of threats and options.

Is it fair to say he only agreed to those two £3 billion carriers (the Prince of Wales should be formally put into service by Christmas) as a job-creation project, because they have been built by voters in what was his own Rosyth constituency? I always suspected as much. The military men who let themselves be carried away by Blair’s can-do liberal interventionism – see the Chilcot Report – regarded Brown as hostile or indifferent, even to their legitimate interests.

What has this got to do with Brexit or the latest sex-driven assault on the competence and cohesion of Theresa May’s government? Quite a lot, really. During the referendum campaign David Cameron did not say (as reported by the hooligan press) that leaving the EU “would cause World War III to break out” – he explicitly said “I don’t believe that”.

He did ask if voters were “so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt” that we should risk retreating from a major international institution. For that he was mocked too. It’s Nato, not the EU, which keeps Europe’s peace, explained patronising Brexiteers.

The EU’s pretensions to its own foreign policy – and even army – are the real threat to Nato cohesion, they added. Don’t forget, some Brexit trumpeters are rather keen on Vladimir Putin’s assertive nationalism. Whether they are also keen on covert rouble transfers and cyber assistance is now under active inquiry – here and in the US. Meanwhile Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, warns on a visit to Estonia that the world is more dangerous than it has been since the old Cold War ended.

The Brexit defence and security “no change” argument was always self-serving nonsense. The habits of trust and cooperation arise through regular meetings, familiarity and shared values, whether at the UN, EU or Nato. Such intimacy carried the US-UK strategic partnership from Pearl Harbour (“so we have won after all,” Churchill said when the news broke) until the last of the D-Day allies passed from active service in the 80s. It lingers, but Brexit has damaged us in American eyes – witness New York Times bureau chief, Steve Erlanger’s recent salvo against “introverted irrelevance”.

Brexit’s post-modern appeal to reject Europe in favour of “the open sea” (another of Churchill’s misused phrases) rested on imperial nostalgia – minus a detail, the empire – and what may turn out to be a misplaced Anglophone trust in the reliability of the United States in the age of Trump, though (in fairness) Hawaii-born Barack Obama was not emotionally committed to old Europe either. Obama is not a European name.

What price Nato solidarity now if those 100,000-strong Russian-led troop movements near the three Baltic Nato members, and the persistent cyber-attacks against them, turn into something more Ukrainian? Or those “little green men” with no uniform badges – they were actually spetsnaz special forces – turn up in Latvia, as they did in Crimea?

Like his mini-me, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump is a transactional nationalist, devoid of internationalist principles, committed to “America First” and to staying in office. If it suits him to defend Estonia or attack North Korea – even to derail Robert Mueller’s “Russian links” investigation? – he will. If it suits him to play golf that day, he’ll call for his clubs.

Remember that more internationally minded Brexiteers like Boris Johnson denied the obvious “left behinds” link between the Brexit isolationist win and Trump’s. That makes Brexit’s implicit military bet – Liam Fox to the fore – on Washington’s reliability as shaky as its economic bet. When Trump rightly demands his Nato allies spend more on their defence (Obama did the same) the sub-text is “buy more of our expensive US military kit”. Ditto free trade agreements: “Buy our delicious chlorinated chicken and give our voracious health care industry a crack at the NHS.”

Cack-handed and feeble the EU’s attempts to build its own military capacity, one complimentary to Nato’s, may so far be, I’ve never been an enthusiast for it. But it looks less stupid than it did before Trumpismo.

A shame too that the Brexit crowd also tend to be fossil fuel addicts. That makes it harder to stand up to Russia whose oil and gas exports underpin its recent military expansion, as well as fuel laundered rouble spending sprees in London and other EU capitals preferred by the oligarch elite to lawless Moscow.

Tricky, isn’t it? The Tories always present themselves as sounder on defence than Labour, certainly true in the age of Jeremy Corbyn’s crypto-pacifism, half-baked and fellow-travelling. But that small comfort requires us to turn a Nelsonian blind eye to the treacherous Tory invasion of Suez (1956) behind our wartime ally’s back and to Margaret Thatcher’s ill-judged 1981 defence spending cuts – against advice. The planned withdrawal of HMS Endurance – our military trip-wire – led directly to the Argentine junta’s seizure of Las Malvinas.

In 2017 Nelsonian 10/20 vision would require us to ignore deep coalition and Tory cuts in defence spending. Under the over-ambitious 2010-15 austerity strategy of editor Osborne, Gordon Brown’s aid budget was ring-fenced to prove Cameron cared, the NHS too (sort of), but not social care – or defence, despite claims to the contrary.

The Navy (“third world nation,” mutter retired admirals) has lost planned hunter-killer subs to defend our shores, let alone force project in blue waters. It has lost promised frigates and its numbers are falling to below 30,000 from 80,000 in the Falklands era. This despite the recent recruiting attractions exposed by sackings over sex and cocaine on board. HMS Ocean, recently dispatched to the hurricane-stricken West Indies, was put up for sale at the annual defence fair in East London. Snatch Land Rovers were also available to any buyer who missed their poor performance in Iraq.

All three services feel hard done by – they always do – but the army accepted a 7.8% cut in 2010 on the promise it would do better after the budget deficit had been eliminated in 2015. Like IS this has proved harder than anticipated. Army strength has drifted below 100,000, first to 94,000, then – another agreed cut – to 82,000. Currently it’s 78,000 and the planned boost to the reservists has failed.

In the search for £30bn worth of “savings” from over-budget projects in the coming decade, cuts of 1,000 men from the 7,000 strong Royal Marines are on the cards, along with abandonment of amphibious capability – “unlikely to be needed again” in the fateful phrase of military planners (who are often wrong).

Don’t go away, I haven’t finished. A senior soldier with who I recently had a drink says that the army is reaching a tipping point where its cohesion and morale – as an attractive career prospect for adventurous young men not drawn to Momentum – is at risk. Military failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where US forces had to pick up the pieces, pile on top of the political unpopularity of such expeditions at home where few voters now have military experience or much sympathy beyond wearing that poppy in November.

Last but far from least for poor HMS Lizzie, she was launched in the knowledge that Liam Fox’s 2010-11 strategic defence and security review (SDSR) meant that she would sail without aircraft on board on several years, the F-35 Lightning fighters which it was finally agree we would buy from Lockheed Martin in the US. Changing military challenges – from Russia, China, even North Korea and at a push amorphous terrorist threats – mean constant costly upgrades which Britain, as a “tier one” partner must share.

The MoD agreed to buy 138 F-35s at $1.65 to the pound. But the post-Brexit slump in sterling adds to that bill, as it does to all import costs. Do not expect the Trump administration to offer a three for two deal because Williamson is a nice man and keeps a tarantula on his office desk.

The squeeze on procurement budget for new weapons systems – itself notoriously prone to error and cost overruns – will continue (another SDSR in 2015 guaranteed that) but Britain will have fewer post-Brexit friends to help ease the pain. It is not what the “Make Britain Great Again” lobby had in mind.

In tight times BAE, Britain’s biggest defence manufacturer, still one of the world’s biggest, announced a 6% cut – 2,000 jobs lost on top of 20,000 lost under Ian King - in its UK work force last month. If Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia means more than just neutralising rivals to succeed the ailing king (81) it could add to BAE’s financial woes – unless the young Prince’s enemies get him first.

Who knows, perhaps Sir Michael Fallon rang his old dining pal, Julia Hartley-Brewer, and said: ”Jools, honey, do me a favour and think up some scandal that will allow me to resign before this job becomes impossible.”

It would make sense of KneeGate which has acquired the familiar mixture of motives. There is a genuine scandal about young women abused by men with more power and seeking to “take back control”. Where have I heard that phrase before? But visible too are strands of opportunism and score-settling (not you, Andrea) which all does further harm to the public realm.

Ditto, the torrent of disputed claims emerging from the 13 million bits of accounting papers leaked from “Paradise” (there’s marketing for you!), shady tax havens, mostly British. Let’s see how the dust settles on both. The key lesson from the paedophile uproar is: persistence, but also caution. One definition of a successful society is one that manages to collect its taxes – but also upholds the law.

It so happened that Sir Michael’s fall – triggered by more complaints from other women – came as he sat in the debate on the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. A cross-party measure, it seeks to address the manpower crisis by making a career in the military more attractive and flexible for modern families – and modern women who are set to become 15% of uniformed personnel.

When Labour MPs protested that convention requires a minister to stay on and hear a few speeches after his own (“best armed forces in the world”), the Deputy Speaker noted that Sir Mike “went out at such speed he didn’t even say goodnight”. We now know why. Finally in cabinet after nearly 30 years an MP, he slid back down the greasy pole of politics in a matter of minutes.

In truth the bill he had been presenting is more concerned with bread and butter pay and conditions, housing and domestic stability than with grand geo-politics. Labour’s post-Clive Lewis spokesman, Llanelli’s MP since 2005, is Nia Griffiths. An Oxford-educated ex-teacher, aged 60, she is obviously clever, speaks five languages. But her CV gives no indication that she is any better qualified that Williamson to do the serious task in hand, if serious is what Team Corbyn thinks it is.

Griffiths was one of those shadow cabinet members who resigned in June 2016, only to come back four months later in Corbyn’s victory amnesty, replacing Lewis, a fellow CND member who had, at least, served in the Territorial Army. Lewis finally resigned from the team in February this year rather than support the Article 50 Brexit bill, as instructed by his closet-Brexit leader.

Dizzily confusing, isn’t it? The explanation may be that under the tectonic pressures of globalisation – and de-globalisation protests like Brexit – great social and political upheaval is under way. Tossed by such a storm established political parties are just flotsam. That is the view of clever professor Niall “Flip Flop” Ferguson – who dramatically switched side after viciously abusing both Brexit and Trump.

Social media and smart phones have transformed the public arena in ways that radio, television and hard-wired phones did not, Ferguson argued in his Sunday Times column last weekend. It is not just the scale of the Facebook and Google duopoly or the fact that their 24/7 content is mostly user-generated and of varying quality. It is that the Facebook algorithms pushing customised adverts your way also filter the news you get so that it’s news you want more of, a form of confirmation bias dubbed the “filter bubble”.

The Kremlin, Arron Brexit Banks and Trump Tower were quicker than the Cameroons and Camp Clinton to weaponise algorithms for politics. Game over.

But it may also help account for hand-to-mouth character of current British politics, struggling to catch up in a more open media market than exist in France or Germany. Confirmation bias may also contribute to the dominance of misplaced, evidence-light certainties on both the Corbynite left and Brexit right of the spectrum.

Thus the hunt for advertising crumbs from Facebook’s table drives online gossip columns like Guido Fawkes’s “exposes” of low-level ministerial incompetence and bum-pinching prurience. It all combines to make our EU colleagues despair more for us than the consequences Brexit for themselves. Whatever happened to dependable British pragmatism and reserve?

Brussels may be complacent too, as the Spanish catastrophe enters its “Catalan prison martyr” phase (did Verdi write the music?) without any attempt at mediation from the EU’s big players. But it will not have gone unnoticed in Berlin or Paris that anti-Brexit, pro-May ministers – Sir Michael and Damian Green – have been damaged by the fallout from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood rampage. I know, Dover’s Brexit MP, Charlie Elphicke, is also in the frame. But a replacement renta-quote is easy to find.

Also noted and filed is that two Brexit loudmouths, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, both dropped clangers in the bubbling cauldron of the Middle East this week. Way above her pay grade but very Team Trump/Kushner, Patel tried private back-channel negotiations in Israel during her holidays. As for Johnson, his familiar sloppiness may have compromised, Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, the British-Iranian teacher jailed in Tehran for alleged “spying.” They really don’t do detail, these populists, do you, Nigel? Just when it’s usually wise to shut up, Fox stepped in to attempt a rescue of both allies. Emboldened by his talks on “enhancing global free trade” with Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross (he may have Paradise Paper problems too), the international trade secretary risked a tour of radio and television studios.

Blithely optimistic, but distinctly vague about those 40 trade arrangements to be signed “seconds after Brexit,” Fox must sound unconvincing to anxious business audiences, certainly no match for the sardonic and forensic Ivan Rogers, whose gloomy evidence to MPs I commended here last week. No wonder our man in Brussels lost patience with them all and resigned – though he should not have done and nor should Cameron or Osborne, says me. Bad form.

After weeks of frantic Brexit negotiation and manoeuvres, other distractions have provided a respite for David Davis’s Brexit team (not Mark Garnier obviously, he’s the “sex toys” minister). Let’s hope they have spent some of the time redacting sensitive parts of the 58 sectoral impact assessments of how leaving the EU will affect the UK economy. That would make good their belated promise – made under pressure – to share some facts with those voters not wedded to their Sun filter bubble.

As I type the assessments have not begun surfacing yet and MPs, as well as Speaker Bercow, are starting to get restless and tabling urgent questions. They are unlikely to make comforting reading in his quiet warnings of tough times ahead without an orderly Brexit transition, the Governor of the Bank of England is refusing to be cowed by “enemy of the people” jibes from those who insist the economy is doing nicely.

It isn’t. The National Institute Economic Review says “no deal” would add anything between £8 and £19 a week to poorer families weekly shopping bill. Richer areas will suffer less, says another analysis. No surprise there. Two weeks of this before Philip Hammond’s make-or-break budget and his options shrink by the day. Will May last until Christmas, even the Keep Calm Tendency now wonders.

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