The recent rumours of Philip Hammond’s leadership ambitions have brought renewed (and perhaps unfamiliar) attention to the Secretary of State for Defence and his accomplishments since his appointment in October 2011. Yet Hammond’s tenure is a difficult one to judge, not least because of the fact that to him more than any other minister an enduring political truth applies:
Ministers are not omnipotent.
The final Minister of Defence and first Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, not only played a major role in the most significant post-war reorganisation of Britain’s defence apparatus, but also contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear policy of the United Kingdom and NATO as a wider whole. Yet while Thorneycroft was an intelligent and ambitious man, his tenure in charge of British defence policy was shaped largely by forces outside of his control. Unforgiving economic necessity brought forth the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms, seismic developments in the global political landscape drove the hasty advancement of British nuclear policy and acute political embarrassment forced through the establishment of the UK Polaris programme.
The myth of the Minister as the master of a department’s destiny obscures the more nuanced truth. Events, expediency, context and any number of other unseen forces conspire to steal direction away from Ministerial agency. As was the case with the dramatic tenure of Peter Thorneycroft, so it is with the perhaps equally historical if less vivid stewardship of Philip Hammond.
Hammond was perhaps created for the role he currently performs; a fiscal golem to carry out the unforgiving cuts that political necessity has forced upon the Ministry of Defence. A competent, prudent administrator, it is fair to say that before Liam Fox’s fall from grace Hammond had been characterised by quiet efficiency. Andrew Grimson recently opined, with regards to the rumours of Hammond’s leadership ambitions, that it would be far easier to see Hammond as an able Chancellor than a Prime Minister. Certainly Hammond has not captured the hearts of the people, being apparently easily confused with Julian Assange in the eyes of the general public.
But what can be expected? Hammond’s job has been to downsize the MOD significantly, and the scale and grim nature of the task drains both popular-political capital and attention from other endeavours. Moreover Hammond, despite recent and much misunderstood protest, is guided (or dragged along) by the weighty hand of the Chancellor, and perhaps more importantly the internal dynamics of the Coalition. All the significant facets of recent military reform have been shaped almost wholly by fiscal requirement. Surely no one can seriously contend that Future Force 2020, under which not-yet-fully-existent TA soldiers will perform critical front-line duties to make up for a dearth of full-time professionals, does anything but critically undermine British capability to save a few billion in the short term?
If Hammond is necessarily more a Chief Financial Officer than a visionary Minister, he performs admirably in that function. His planned reforms to the defence procurement system are long-overdue and bold, while the cuts already undertaken have been managed well and applied intelligently. The foundations laid by Liam Fox can be regarded as critical to the overall process of bringing martial law to Britain’s belligerent defence ledgers, but it was Hammond who in 2012 presided over the first balanced MOD budget in a decade.
The context of Hammond’s career as Secretary of State for Defence has been the Government’s policy of drastic reductions in state spending, and the accompanying reality has been the ring-fencing of large sections of the overall budget, as well as the spirited defence of Welfare by the Liberal Democrats. Controversial cuts to Defence have been the result, and financial pressures have, in the eyes of the Coalition, trumped military requirements. In such a situation expediency requires a loyal, competent, financially astute and trustworthy manager to preside over a difficult department. All the better that such a man, with an awkward and potentially volatile brief, be rather grey.
In other Governments and in other decades, he might have been unsuitable. When Philip Hammond was first appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, Aaron Ellis criticised the decision in these pages and suggested a number of alternative candidates, many of whom would have represented excellent choices if the role had been that of a conventional Secretary of State rather than that which Hammond has fulfilled.
Hammond, more than the distracting and sometimes awkward Thorneycroft, was truly built to meet the needs of his government and of the realities that have confronted him. Hammond has so far played a very straight role from a position of much less power and influence than is often assumed. Serious rebellion against the further MOD cuts was never a realistic prospect, and Hammond took on the task specifically in order to enforce them. Whether the policies that he has so ably carried out are in themselves in the interests of the United Kingdom is a wholly different matter.
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