Traditionally, defence and conservatism tend to go hand in hand in our minds. Particularly in the debate between conservatism versus socialism, defence is a topic which sits comfortably within the conservative camp. Throughout the years, the Conservative Party have used defence as a political weapon to attack the Labour Party. This has proved especially the case in recent years with the Conservatives pushing the idea that Corbyn is so weak on defence that electing him would prompt an immediate invasion of Britain.
It is easy to be critical of Corbyn’s Labour and their views on defence, after all Corbyn’s views on Trident and the IRA have presented an opportunity for their critics to hammer the party. And yet, the defence debate is beginning to slip away from the Conservatives. With a traditional support base and a weak opposition, the real question is ‘how are the Conservatives letting slip of something Labour seemingly cannot contest?’
The answer is simple, austerity. During the age of austerity no budget is spared, not even that of traditional Conservative supporters. The military has been critical of the Conservatives attitude towards defence budget. Former British Generals have criticised Philip Hammond, a former defence secretary, of hollowing out the armed forces.
British General Sir Nicholas Carter has called into question the capabilities of Britain’s military in deal with Russian threats. General Carter criticised the government’s spending cuts in the defence budget, suggesting that the cuts have put the UK at risk of coping with Russian aggression.
General Carter’s concerns follow several incidents involving Russian military encountering the British military in the past few months. Amongst several encounters through 2017, in January the RAF intercepted two Russian Blackjack bombers and in December the Royal Navy tracked new Russian ships into the North Sea.
This is not to say that we will be waking up to Russian tanks rolling over the Pennines anytime soon. But what does concern the military is that Britain’s defence budget is falling behind state actors who are the largest threats to Britain’s security. Russia’s military exploits in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria have put a huge amount of pressure on Russian-NATO relations. Particularly with Ukraine, which has become a diplomatic tug of war between two spheres of influence.
Without investment in the military, Britain could lose touch with the Russians who surpassed Britain as the 3rd largest military spender in 2014. Since then, the gap between the two military budgets has only grown. In 2016, the World Bank estimated Russia’s military spending to be around 5.4% of GDP, whilst the UK spent around 1.8%. The UK government insist that it is meeting NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment, however, much of that budget is allocated to military pensions.
The Conservatives use austerity as an excuse to reduce military funding. Russia, under various economic sanctions have similar financial pressures, yet manage to contribute a percentage of GDP that is more than double that allocated in Britain. In comparison, Russia has invested in the new Armata T-14 tank, which has called into question NATO’s anti-tank systems. Norway, a fellow NATO member, is now looking at updating its anti-tank systems in response.
In the context of these international events, Britain appears to be standing still whist our allies and threats move around us. The real damage this can do is not only to Britain’s security, but also to the Conservative’s image.
Labour have already looked to make gains on the defence debate by committing to invest in housing and mental health support for military personnel. Additionally, Labour have also been quick to point out that Labour governments historically spend more on defence than the Conservatives. However this is saying little, Labour tend to spend more than the Conservatives on almost every front.
The Conservatives attitude on defence spending gives the impression that this Conservative government has overlooked the issue, and been overconfident in its own image as the party of security. Defence is a debate that the Conservatives should have in the bag, and one that they have been confident enough to use as a weapon to attack Corbyn. For it now to be used as a criticism of the Conservatives, only demonstrates the level of ignorance this Conservative government has given to its traditional strongholds.