Alastair Campbell: Britain - The new Belgium?
PUBLISHED: 10:42 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:43 12 October 2017
Even before it has happened, Brexit is reducing Britain's power in Europe and so our standing in the world.
Diplomats and civil servants know it. Business leaders know it. Our Prime Minister knows it, and probably looks so strained and ill because having – unlike her clownish Foreign Secretary – gone into the detail she knows Brexit cannot be done without lasting damage to the country.
Said clownish Foreign Secretary knows it too, but playing the only Great Game he cares about – getting to Number 10 – he tries to pretend otherwise. There is, however, another, even more alarming, though much less high profile threat to Britain’s role in the world, and our security, and that is defence cuts.
The two things are linked. Even the Leave zealots and their slavish media are dropping the spin-tastic, 1984-style boasts of “Booming Brexit Britain”. They no longer pretend Brexit will be good for the UK, simply that the people voted for it, so it has to happen, whatever the cost.
The Government is refusing to publish the papers which have analysed that cost, because those papers are so damning of the whole project, but even on their conservative estimates, according to a Financial Times report on the Office of Budget Responsibility, they admit Brexit will cost our economy £15bn a year.
Instead of the promised £350 million a week windfall for the NHS, pre-Brexit warm-up for post-Brexit economic decline is already making us poorer, and hitting public services hard. Since the referendum, our currency has lost a fifth of its value. Britain has gone from the world’s fastest-growing G7 economy to the slowest. This will hit every family and all of our public services, but defence is particularly vulnerable, especially with a Government now driven by Brexit bluster not hard analysis, and an opposition that does not have defence among its anti-austerity priorities.
The weak pound is not some technical detail. It is an indication of what the world thinks is happening to our economy. We notice it not just in more expensive holidays, but as import costs rise, in the inflation which leads to higher prices across the piece. When inflation rises are announced, we tend to focus on food, fuel, clothes, white goods. But imagine you’re working in defence procurement. We buy billions of dollars worth of high-tech kit, much of it from America, where our Boris-battered pounds are stretching a lot less far. Leavers love to wrap themselves in the Union flag and claim Brexit is about restoring lost British power, so we can stand up for ourselves. Yet as a result of Brexit, we are failing to fulfil orders for jets, helicopters and other military hardware we need.
Because of the Churchill World War legend and the Thatcher use of Cold War defence as a strategic political weapon, the Tories have historically been more trusted on defence. That allowed them to get away with cuts which, had they come from Labour, would have had the Tories, the right-wing media and the massed ranks of armchair generals up in arms and never out of the television studios. So defence was always a bit of a soft target for the Cameron-Osborne austerity strategy, certainly easier than schools and hospitals.
But we have reached a genuine tipping point. Further reductions in Britain’s military strength will only accelerate our national decline into insignificance and powerlessness, and drastically limit our ability to deal with current and future threats.
Of all the different branches of government I have worked with, the military are consistently among the most impressive. Hugely important in the Northern Ireland peace process. Brilliant in non-military crises such as the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001. A year earlier, in Sierra Leone, it is no exaggeration to say a series of high-risk special forces operations helped save a country. During the Kosovo war of 1998/9 – when I was seconded to oversee communications at NATO – I saw exactly why the rest of the world sees our forces as being among the best, the esteem in which they are held, the impact that has on our strength and effectiveness. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the political controversies have been greater, but the UK military contribution was no less important and professional.
And who was it you saw leading the UK response to the recent hurricane in the Caribbean? Or landing on Westminster Bridge to deal with a terrorist attack? Our forces are in massive demand, yet operating under ever greater pressures.
In 2007, Tony Blair made one of his valedictory speeches as Prime Minister on board the Royal Navy assault ship HMS Albion. He set out the case for Britain to remain a serious military power, and called for defence spending to rise. Those of you who got a copy of From Blair to Brown with a recent New European subscription offer might imagine his worry then was not the Tories, but his designated successor, Gordon Brown.
But it is indeed a Tory government which has degraded Britain’s armed forces to the point where we risk no longer being a serious power. Brexit because of a referendum he lost. Defence cuts that would have Churchill and Thatcher spinning as fast and as hard in their graves as the Tories spun their cuts as being caused by Labour over-spending – some legacy, Mr Cameron. The combination is lethal.
A decade on, fresh from an expensive refit, the ship on which Tony Blair made that speech has joined the list of potential victims for the next round of cuts; weeks after we learnt that helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, currently on hurricane aid duty in the Caribbean, is on the verge of being sold to Brazil. Perfectly good, recently-upgraded ships being flogged off cheap. Economic and security madness. All driven by austerity of the past and Brexit of the future that will make austerity feel like the good ol’ days.
It is not just the Navy being hit. The British Army would no longer fill Wembley Stadium. The number of RAF planes has more than halved since the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Visiting a military base recently, I heard a serving military commander say that “apart from GCHQ and the SAS/SBS, we’re all struggling”. As for some of the things his colleagues said about the politicians making ever greater demands on them while cutting support... family newspaper and all that.
Yet the debate on this has barely been heard. Parliamentarians can discuss the intricacies of housing policy or the NHS, but few could tell the difference between a frigate and a destroyer. The media had little to say when Cameron’s government cut the wings off factory-fresh planes, decimated the army and left us an island with no aircraft carriers or maritime surveillance planes. And defence is not exactly natural territory on which Jeremy Corbyn or Vince Cable tend to park their metaphorical tanks.
Funding problems for our military did not begin with the 2010 Coalition government, but the scale and recklessness of the Cameron/May defence cuts are insidious and dangerous.
Current military operations have the same slightly poignant pattern, as ships, aircraft and units do a final hurrah. Tornado bombers in action daily against ISIS today are set to be scrapped next year. Many of the ships Cameron sent to Libya were shortly afterwards sent for sale or scrap.
It was fine for Theresa May to welcome the Navy’s new aircraft carrier to Portsmouth, and she was right to call these new ships strategic national assets. But not if they come at the cost of creating holes
Pity the Caribbean next year, when we have no such ship to send. Pity the Falkland islanders, who must view what is happening with mounting alarm. And pity all of us when the threats are multiplying, whether from Russia on NATO’s borders, ISIS anywhere in the world, North Korea willy-waving with Trump. Cutting defence at a time like this is close to madness.
As for the May/Johnson/Michael Fallon spin about “our rising defence budget”, to recall Dad’s Army, who do they think they are kidding? Certainly not those implementing the cuts. On a train to Glasgow last week, I bumped into Alan West, former head of our Navy who became a defence minister in the Lords under Gordon Brown. As we headed north, Lord West got a call from Newsnight asking if he was available for comment on Ministry of Defence proposals which would mean the Navy would lose its ability to assault enemy held beaches, as two specialist landing ships – HMS Albion and Bulwark – would be taken out of service.
Among other cuts envisaged, I later learned from the BBC’s Mark Urban’s report, are a reduction of 1,000 to the strength of the Royal Marines and the early retirement of two mine-hunting vessels and one survey vessel. Also, the Royal Air Force could slow down orders of its new F35 fighter, and the Army could lose dozens of helicopters.
As West and I moaned to each other: “Can you imagine the outcry if this was us doing this?” “Oh my Lord,” said the former First Sea Lord. “Imagine.”
The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Urban said, was intended to act as a blueprint for five years. The proposed cuts are part of a raft of “adjustments” as the Ministry of Defence “struggles to balance its books.” “However,” he said, “the depreciation of sterling has made big buys of foreign equipment more expensive and the armed forces have crammed the programme with too many projects, creating a hole in the budget.”
Anyone notice the “depreciation of sterling” in there? Aka Brexit. Oh, and just to confirm that irony is dead, the government has named 2017 “the Year of the Royal Navy”. Strong and stable. Global Britain. A Country That Works For Everyone. Take Back Control. Make the Lion Roar. They can do the slogans well enough. Just a shame that policy goes in the opposite direction. We may be leaving Brussels. But when it comes to defence, thanks to Brexit we’re becoming Belgium.