Where Are Our Priorities? Tory Defence Cuts Are Dangerous And Unnecessary

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Ministry of Defence ordered to find £1 billion of further cost savings from the defence budget while OFGEM gives £500 million to power companies to make electrical power lines look prettier

Government has no more fundamental duty than the protection of the realm from threats foreign and domestic. But while David Cameron’s Conservative majority government is quick to take action against domestic threats (eagerly spending money and passing laws which undermine our fundamental freedoms and civil liberties in the process), it is worryingly weak when it comes to keeping Britain well equipped to deal with foreign dangers.

In just the latest manifestation of Tory disdain for defence issues, no sooner had the Conservatives secured their surprising general election victory than George Osborne sent an edict to the MoD demanding that they find another £1 billion of cost savings from an already pared back and insufficient budget.

Isabel Hardman, writing in The Spectator, remarks:

Even though the prospect of Britain failing to meet that Nato target is upsetting Washington, and even though it is something that agitates Tory backbenchers, and even though one Labour leadership candidate (Liz Kendall) has said they would stick to 2 per cent, this is unlikely to cause as big a row in Westminster as perhaps it should.

For starters, the Opposition is still officially not endorsing the 2 per cent target. For another thing, one of the best-briefed proponents of the Tories keeping their commitments, Rory Stewart, is no longer chair of the Defence Select Committee and is now a minister. And for another thing, Tory MPs are trying their best currently to behave rather than pick fights. Even if they did, a rebellion organised by a backbencher would number a few dozen at the most and would unlikely to be joined by Labour unless Liz Kendall wins the party leadership. There will be criticism from the sidelines, but few are expecting any sort of real trouble that is troublesome for the government.

Of course, this is only if you measure trouble as being purely confined to the walls of the Palace of Westminster, rather than the sort of trouble the armed forces may be required to deal with but just with even further reduced capabilities, but there we go.

This is no cosmetic affair, or a minor request for additional belt-tightening. Numerous well-connected sources have attested to the fact that each percentage cut to the defence budget results in a greatly magnified reduction in overall defence capability, so cutting another 1% from the already stretched defence budget could reduce Britain’s effective defence capability by 5% or even more. This is simply unacceptable, particularly when we already lack key capabilities such as operational aircraft carriers and maritime surveillance aircraft.

Con Coughlin also takes to the Telegraph to sound his concerns about the Tory plans:

Is it really in the national interest for Mr Osborne to seek further cuts to the defence budget? Surely the Chancellor should be following the example of Germany and France which, in response to the deteriorating global picture, have allocated extra funds for defence: the Germans €8 billion, the French €4 billion. This is precisely what David Cameron asked them to do at last September’s Nato summit, when he called for all member states to maintain defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP.

But the Prime Minister should take a leaf out of his own book, abandon this ill-considered cuts policy and make a similar commitment to our own Armed Forces.

Britain punches its weight in the world not just because we are an economic power, but also because we are a nuclear power, a permanent UN Security Council member and remain one of very few countries to maintain expeditionary defence capabilities – the ability to project significant force overseas. Even when these capabilities are not actively used, we benefit in manifold ways from their mere presence, many of which we don’t even necessarily realise at the time. Pampered anti-nuclear protester may think themselves virtuous when they claim that scrapping Trident would allow more money to be poured into black holes like the NHS, but they ignore the myriad ways that Britain’s defence capabilities quietly ensure their physical safety and economic well-being.

Therefore, any government that decides to press ahead with destructive cuts to the military ought to be damn sure that it has exhausted all other possible areas for making cuts and efficiency savings. David Cameron and George Osborne would doubtless make just such a claim in their defence, but it would be highly disingenuous of them – a political decision was made during the general election campaign to continue showering non-means-tested benefits on wealthy pensioners and unaudited foreign aid payments on rising new powers with their own vanity space programmes. Britain did not have to make these choices but we did, in order to placate the powerful grey vote and look virtuous on the world stage.

But if it’s really just a question of finding a spare billion pounds in order to prevent further harmful cuts to our armed forces, it is particularly galling that the government is spending £500m – half the total amount needed to prevent those additional defence cuts – in a big giveaway to electricity companies, encouraging them to make rural power lines more aesthetically pleasing.

From the National Grid’s website, outlining the scheme:

Currently in Great Britain, there is a provision of £500 million for UK electricity transmission owners to improve the look of existing electricity infrastructure in nationally protected landscapes. We call this the Visual Impact Provision (VIP). The money can only be spent on existing lines through areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and National Parks in England and Wales and National Parks and National Scenic Areas in Scotland. For National Grid, as the transmission owner in England and Wales, this covers 571km of overhead line which is around seven per cent of the network.

The project is being led by National Grid and we are being advised by some of the UK’s leading landscape experts. We are working in close collaboration with national stakeholders representing the wider interests of the landscape and environment.

At a time of supposed austerity, OFGEM – the energy regulator – is making available a £500 million “allocation” for successful bids to make power lines less ugly. This isn’t good government, and it’s certainly not responsible stewardship of the public finances. In fact, it has all the appearance of a scheme deliberately designed to funnel taxpayer money to various favoured landscaping and construction companies – all to fix a problem which could hardly rank lower in the list of pressing issues facing Britain.

Where are our priorities? By even the most generous measure, earmarking half a billion pounds to prettify rural power lines is a huge extravagance, a nice-to-have rather than an essential expenditure. Even if Britain’s defence budget hadn’t already been pared back below the bare minimum, there are numerous other government departments jostling for £500 million of funding – in order to avoid the political fallout from unpopular cuts, if for no other reason.

Even those on the political left should be outraged at misplaced spending priorities such as this. During the election campaign we were constantly being told that this or that vital new tax increase would fund x number of new doctors, nurses or policemen, and that by voting Conservative we would be putting these public services in jeopardy. £500 million could easily defray the impact of the hated “bedroom tax”, or fund any number of other socialist initiatives, without the need to raise taxes and cement the Left’s reputation as enemies of wealth creation.

Defending national security, keeping law and order, protecting property rights and ensuring individual freedom – these are the core responsibilities of the nation state, the absolute minimum level of service which any government must provide its citizens. Failing to deliver any one of these is unacceptable, particularly when the excuse for falling short is the desire to fritter away taxpayer resources on superfluous landscaping projects.

This is not to suggest that the conservation and protection of Britain’s natural resources are unimportant – far from it. But there is nothing conservative about undermining our national defence, or burying our heads in the sand and imagining that we live in a post-military age where we can run down our conventional armed forces without risk, raiding the defence budget at will in order to throw the money at our insatiable public services or unreformed, inefficient welfare system.

The Conservative government led by David Cameron suffers from awfully misplaced priorities sometimes, particularly when it comes to promoting individual freedom or maintaining our defensive capabilities. David Cameron should be particularly ashamed that even the Labour Party is beginning to wake up to the irreparable harm currently being done to the armed forces, and is considering making the commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence in accordance with NATO requirements.

Cynics often suggest that there are no efficiency savings left to be made in government budgets, and that political promises to eliminate wasteful spending are vague and impossible to achieve. This is clearly nonsense – the British government and its various departments and QUANGOs are still finding endlessly inventive ways to fritter away taxpayer money, even during this age of supposed austerity. And the fact that draconian cuts are being made to absolutely core government functions while money is lavished on window dressing like OFGEM’s VIP scheme shows an alarming lack of either political judgement, budgetary control or both.

The Conservative Party now governs alone, with a slim but welcome majority in Parliament. But this also means that they no longer have Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to blame for any instances of fiscal incontinence or big government creep, so like it or not, the state in which the Tories leave Britain by 2020 will significantly impact the public’s perception of conservatism as a whole.

All conservatives – whether they voted Tory in 2015 or not – have a duty to speak out against ludicrously misjudged spending priorities such as taking money from the armed forces and wasting it on non-critical vanity projects. David Cameron’s government must be saved from its own worst instincts.


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