Conspicuous in its absence: Defence and Britain's world role in the election campaign

19 Feb 2015


‘Who will speak for defence in an election year’ was the question posed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Andrew Roberts and Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham in an article for The Spectator last week. Their answer: none of the three main political parties at Westminster.


Indeed, it is easy to see why they came to this sombre conclusion. One only has to scour the pages of the three main parties’ websites to realise that the combined issue of defence/foreign policy and with this, Britain’s place in the world, has largely been buried beneath the well-oiled rhetoric that is now a staple diet of any election campaign.


The Labour Party – judging by their website – appear to have forgotten entirely to include defence/foreign policy as an issue worthy of discussion. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats do, at least, have something to say on foreign policy. Yet, all they offer is hollow statements such as: "only by being a strong player in Europe can we be a strong player on the world stage".


Likewise, the Conservative Party website seems to focus its remarks on the EU, reminding the electorate that it is the only party who can offer the British public an in/out referendum. Clearly, anyone seeking a full exposition of the main parties’ positions on defence and on the current grave threats to international security, will find a visit to their official websites a fruitless endeavour indeed.


Yet, can anyone blame the main parties for neglecting to speak about defence and foreign policy more broadly? After all, the Conservatives enjoy a commanding lead over Labour on economic management. As a result, the Tory campaign to date has rigidly focussed on the strategy of contrasting Conservative economic competence v Labour economic chaos. To boot, the Tories’ American election strategist, Jim Messina, has impressed on the party the fact that "any day the Tories do not spend talking about the economy […] is a day wasted".


Just as the Tories have focussed their attention on the economy, the Labour Party are likely to continue to campaign on the NHS – claiming that it is on the threshold of destruction under the Conservatives. Again, this focus on the NHS is hardly surprising, given that Labour have traditionally and indeed continue to enjoy strong leads on this issue among voters.


However, one would suggest that it is not entirely rational for the political establishment at Westminster to leave the related issues of defence/foreign policy in the box marked ‘too difficult to talk about’. For, as the latest issues index of 2015 from Ipsos MORI indicated, 14% of the British public surveyed believed that the twin issue of defence/foreign policy was the most important issue facing the country today.


Tellingly, there is also evidence of a public appetite for Britain to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy agenda, instead of the current lapse into isolationism, which has descended over the main Westminster parties in recent months. For example, in this year’s ‘Internationalism or Isolationism’ YouGov survey for think tank Chatham House, 63% of the public said that Britain should aspire to be a ‘great power’ rather than accept that it is in decline.


Given such public sentiment, it is incumbent upon the political establishment during this marathon of an election campaign, to expound a great deal more energy on outlining their respective visions of Britain’s place in the world. Will there, for instance, emerge a political consensus on the issue of maintaining Britain’s NATO commitment of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence – a commitment President Obama urged the Prime Minster to keep during their recent bilateral talks in Washington. Failure to keep to this level of expenditure will doubtless diminish Britain’s value as a strategic partner in the eyes of the Americans.


If not for anything else, the British political establishment in this election campaign, should not be permitted to be silent on defence and the wider issue of Britain’s standing in the world, especially during a time of grave geopolitical instability.


There is, however, one figure of notoriety who will answer the military establishment’s call to speak up for defence in an election year, in the unlikely form of London Mayor Boris Johnson. Whilst visiting the US last week, he challenged the PM to keep defence spending at 2% of GDP.


How much this is a source of comfort to those in the military establishment is open to debate though, as one reliable feature of the UK's political landscape is Boris's ability to make life just that little bit more uncomfortable for Mr Cameron.

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