June 4, 2001
In the 1980s defence was a big issue. You see, in their heart of hearts the bulk of the Labour Party did not believe that the Cold War was a reality. Of course this was bunkum (and I should get a few e-mails for this sentence) and the ideologically charged, unstable and armed to the teeth Soviet Union would, if unchecked, have acted pretty much like the West is today. In consequence they advocated the removal of American bases from British territory and unilateral nuclear disarmament. This helped alienate the middle class teachers and social workers who ran the Labour Party from a large part of their working class constituency. It was also responsible, along with Europe and nationalisation, for the peeling away of left wing votes to the more moderate Alliance (now Liberal Democrats) and so splitting the left wing vote and allowing in a minority-supported right wing government. In short defence was one of Labour's most vulnerable areas.
Oh what a change the ending of the cold war makes. Defence is now a low level issue. Much of the controversy that does get aired are about Britain's overseas commitments, sometimes whether we should keep them but mostly about whether or not they are adequately maintained. Meanwhile defence, as opposed to offence, is ignored. We're safe, we're told who could possibly invade us?
Of course, we do have a military power growing in Europe. The European Army, built around a French core, is rapidly growing and although it may be a joke now it won't be forever with German money and East European manpower. The European Union, which this army is pledged to serve, does not recognise that state's have a right to secede from the "permanent" union. It may be no enemy now, but for a potential enemy it fulfill all the criteria.
The British armed forces are no longer geared up for defence. They may be the finest in the world (although I'm sure that this is believed more fervently in Britain than outside it) but this is moot. The armed forces are simply incapable of defending the British isles.
The defence of British coastal waters was always the first priority of the armed forces. Until now. For a start Britain has retired its diesel submarines, before they even went into service. An all nuclear submarine force may be just swell for launching missiles or going down deep in the Atlantic, but for active missions in coastal waters you need diesel. Now we (along with the US) have a nuclear only force. Similarly the British navy always relied on the extensive British fishing fleet for activities such as mine clearing and surveillance. Except that this fishing fleet is no longer so extensive now that the European Common Fisheries policy has chased British fishermen out of British coastal waters. Of course we have more aircraft carriers now, but this is not really an issue in British defence.
The Army is in not much better. The Territorial Army, which has historically been a home guard with reserve functions, is now purely a reserve force. It is impossible for most TA soldiers (or reservists) to get new jobs in the vast swathe of private firms as they are frequently finding themselves called in to war zones to cover for the regular army's personnel shortages. The Territorial Army was reduced by a third to "save money" (these people are not actually paid but never mind). In some areas, such as medical or communications expertise, the Army now relies on the Territorial Army and the reserve to fill its gaps.
The British army has announced that they don't want to buy any more tanks. What are they going to replace them with, well they don't really know but it is going to be new. And plastic. Tanks may not be the prettiest object but they are good for defending a place. Unfortunately they are not easy to fly in to trouble spots, hence the new military "thinking".
And then there's guns. Gun ownership is now treated as a social disease in Britain. One of the first acts of the Blair administration was to further tighten gun ownership laws. Gun crime has risen, of course, but other questions present themselves. What is the most potent deterrence to an invasion? A well armed (and well trained) populace. This has not been helped by the continued crack down on owning and maintaining a gun. Many of us thought that it was impossible for Labour to be more ignorant on the subject than their Conservative predecessors. Looks like we were wrong.
Labour likes to make out that it is the friend of the armed forces. New toys come to the armed forces, they may be over stretched but they are now getting "reach." The defence of the British Isles has been forgotten.
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