Hello Grayness, My Old Friend…

Louis Reynolds

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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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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To these young people, there really is no such thing as society

Nik Darlington 11.12am

Londoners have passed a night of relative peace and quiet, as opportunistic rioting and looting spread to other English cities.

As shock fades, the recriminations begin. Conservative MPs accuse the previous Labour government of fostering welfare dependency, failing to improve education and forcing fiscal austerity upon the nation. Labour MPs allege that coalition government spending cuts have created a context of weaker policing, youth unemployment and destroyed opportunities.

Both sides are wrong to blame each other without admitting to their own part. The deficit reduction objectives of Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians are correct but indubitably they are creating difficult and perilous readjustments. This should be acknowledged. Labour politicians should face up to the fact of the economic mire they bequeathed, and the fact that youth unemployment stood at 2.5 million when they left office. Furthermore, a youth in Manchester interviewed on this morning’s Today programme said, “I’ll keep doing it until I get caught - the prisons are full so what are they going to do, give me an Asbo?” The Labour government filled our prisons to record numbers and introduced the utterly ineffectual Asbo.

As Robert Halfon writes this morning on ConservativeHome, “the causes go deep.” Deeper than the last government, and the government before that, and so on. Every government makes mistakes.

Blaming these riots on policies announced in the past 12 months is ignorant and intellectually lazy. Last night, the deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, said the Government was not on the side of young people and alluded to tuition fees, the EMA and youth unemployment as causes for the discontent (see Newsnight clip below).

Showing the brazen obstinacy that has become her hallmark, Ms Harman ignored the fact that a re-elected Labour Government, which first introduced tuition fees (breaking a manifesto pledge) and commissioned the Browne Report, would have had to increase tuition fees. She ignored the fact that her government had plans to reform the inefficient EMA. New Statesmen blogger Dan Hodges tweets that if Labour continues to focus on it, the party will be out of power for a generation.

But most significantly, Ms Harman made the curious assumption that the young people rioting and looting in the streets of London and other cities have anything more than the remotest of ambitions for staying on at school or going to university.

Herein lies the root cause of the recent violence. It is found in the anger of an economic and social underclass in Britain’s cities; a collective rage borne out of disillusionment and exclusion. No single party, no single politician, no single government can be blamed for this miserable phenomenon. To ignore this demonstrates a collective dereliction of responsibility not dissimilar to that shown by the perpetrators of the past few days.

These are communities bereft of identity, responsibility and hope. A politician once said that there is no such thing as society; another more recently said that there is such a thing, it just isn’t the same thing as the state. But what the indiscriminate vandalism and cruelty demonstrates is that society is irrelevant to you, if you don’t even know of any such thing as community.

 

Osborne must consider all tools to mend the garden

 Alexander Pannett 12.08pm 

The news that the UK economy has only grown by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2011 has brought the now familiar criticisms and protestations that the fiscal tightening by the government is too severe for the current economic climate and should be eased.  It is too early to say whether or not these criticisms are well founded but the unprecedented rise in oil prices, economic problems in China and the deepening Eurozone debt crisis have undermined an export-led strategy that aims to return the UK to economic health. George Osborne must stay flexible and consider all options in order to avoid economic stagnation. 

Let’s be clear, this is not about devising a Plan B to deal with the deficit.  Reducing the deficit as quickly as possible should remain the government’s major priority.   This can only meaningfully be brought about by fiscal tightening.  A Keynesian approach to stimulating a recovery is currently unaffordable.  Slowing the government cuts to a less painful level, as Ed Balls advocates, will undermine long term economic growth as future generations are laboured with the interest payments of today’s profligacy.  This is unfair and a reckless prolonging of economic weakness in the face of an increasingly competitive and unstable world.  As a certain fictional character once put it, “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly”.

Whilst fiscal tightening is currently the right course of action, Osborne is wrong to declare that it is the only option to achieve long term economic growth.  Economics is an uncertain discipline at the best of times, often resembling little better than voodoo predictions predicated by meaningless graphs.  In the face of such negative epistemology, flexibility is one of the few tools a government has in economic management.  By tying the government’s reputation and credibility to one course of action, Osborne has abandoned initiative for the elusive attribute of conviction.  This is a myopic mis-reading of history. 

If the Euro fails, China collapses or further Middle Eastern revolutions cause oil to soar to over $200 a barrel then there will be little of a world economy to export to.  In which case domestic demand will have to be stimulated to achieve economic growth and this will evidently entail a relaxation of fiscal cuts.  Such events, whilst unlikely, can never be ruled out. 

The Chancellor should talk less about “Plans” and more about “Objectives”: the main objective being to return the UK to economic health as quickly as possible, using all means available, as best fits the prevailing economic climate.  It is better to change the direction of a struggling ship than hope for better weather.

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Clegg defends Social Mobility Strategy in Parliament

Alexander Pannett 10.03am

Yesterday I reported that the Coalition had launched its Social Mobility Strategy.  Here is an extract from Nick Clegg doing a good job of defending the strategy against Harriet Harman in the House of Commons:

"Under Labour, in the last 13 years public spending more than doubled in cash terms from £300 billion in 1997-98 to over £600 billion in 2010, yet social mobility did not increase at all. When are she and her colleagues going to ask themselves some fundamental questions about why, despite all that extra public spending-they had money to spend; they have deprived us of that luxury-social mobility did not increase at all? We are trying to tackle this difficult dilemma: increased public spending does not, in and of itself, increase opportunity and social mobility. That is the serious question with which I hoped she would engage.

Secondly, there is nothing just, and it will not help social mobility at all, in saddling our children and grandchildren with this generation’s debts.  I am worked up by the idea that the Labour party thinks that it is honest and right by the children and grandchildren of Great Britain to say that, according to the Labour deficit reduction plan, £14 billion-worth of cuts should be unveiled tomorrow-yet it has not had the decency to tell people where those cuts would fall. The right hon. and learned Lady’s leader recently went to Hyde park and emulated Martin Luther King. I never heard Martin Luther King say, “I have a dream; we need cuts, but a little less and more slowly than the other lot want.” We have got to engage in this seriously. This is a long-term project which requires a long-term approach.

On the education maintenance allowance, let me repeat the clarification I gave earlier: we are replacing the untargeted EMA with a targeted bursary fund.  A former Labour Home Secretary himself conceded that EMA was always going to change as the compulsory education age rose to 17. We have put in place an annual bursary of £180 million for 12,000 of the most vulnerable young people, which is equivalent to about £38 a week. More money will go to 12,000 students, including young people who are in care or who have left care, those living independently, those whose parents have died, those with disabilities and teenage parents. That is our commitment to targeting help at those who most need it.

For the first time since fees were introduced by the Labour Government, no one at university, including the thousands of part-time students, will have to pay any fees whatsoever. As a result of the Labour system, thousands and thousands of part-time students from low-income backgrounds have to pay an upfront fee. We are getting rid of that. Secondly, we are changing when people will need to repay for the benefits of having gone to university. If we want to be fair, we should remember yet again that it is estimated that the earning power of those who have gone to university will increase on average by about £100,000. It is therefore not unreasonable to ask people to make some contribution to that, but we are different in saying that that repayment should be made only when they are earning much more money than under the old system: £21,000 rather than £15,000. In practice, that means that while, yes, how much universities can charge will go up, in most respects-this is what Opposition Members refuse to acknowledge-the repayments for graduates will go down, such that every single graduate in the future will pay out less from their bank account every month than they do under the Labour system. That is fair, it is sustainable, and it will work.”

 

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