Are the Conservatives Weak on Defence?

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.

Instead of investing in the North, we have HS2 to help you get South quicker.

The government describe HS2 as a commitment to the North and to our regional economy. For those of us living in the North, this is refreshing news. Often, we just assume that Londoners think that everything above Watford is nothing more than a series of abandoned coal mines closed by Thatcher.

Though, the promotional material around HS2 gives me little faith that the project has escaped stereotypical conservative views however. For one, the YouTube video, produced by HS2, featured historic facts of how the railways mobilised the country in the 19th century. It is a classic criticism of conservatives for wanting to return Britain to the Golden, Imperial Age. But there is a more pressing issue than outdated mind-sets, and that is the project lacks serious understanding.

The Department of Transport’s executive summary of HS2, the lack of vision for the Northern economy becomes clear. In an almost comical sense, the summary features four photographs of Northern cities; Liverpool’s Docks, Salford’s Media City, Sunderland’s Software City and Sheffield’s Manufacturing Research Centre. HS2 has no plan to reach any ofthese cities.
The contradictions go even further when you look at the references The Department of Transport used to gather their information. For one, the CBI reference quoted in the summary also features a quote saying:

“… our report made a number of recommendations including a rethink of existing transport policy and a call to focus more on local road and rail projects, not just largenational schemes such as HS2.”

It then went on to reference the National Infrastructure Commission which stated:
“It takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull by train than to travel twice the distance from London to Paris.

“Route decisions on the northern sections of HS2 … should support enhanced high‑ speed connections within the north, including between Leeds ‑Sheffield, Liverpool‑Manchester, and Sheffield-Newcastle.” (HS2 has no plan to go to Sheffield, Liverpool or Newcastle)

Both references show that the issue is a lack of infrastructure between Northern cities and local communities. To get from my home town of Wigan to Cheshire would take me over 2hours and 3 trains. Yet the Department of Transport has stated Cheshire is a key town for the Northwest’s financial, energy and chemical industries. A key town that I cannot commute to directly via any method of public transport.

The ‘what Liverpool can offer you’ referenced by the HS2 summary praised the convenient transport connections between Liverpool and London that already exist. The same report shows the lack of transport links across the North. Liverpool to Sheffield takes the same amount of time by train or car, and Liverpool to Hull takes an hour longer by train than car. These are major cities, if you live in a small town you will have to factor in busses or walking into the city to get the right train.

The plan for the Northwest includes how HS2 will cut down on commuter times, however in every example the traveller is travelling south, either to Birmingham or London. There is no example of how much quicker it will get from west to east, and that’s because HS2 does not plan on commuters going west to east.

The idea is to link London to the north in the hope that industry will flow from the capital up North. But the reality will be that business will expect employees to commute further. There is no connect of industry to the north, but a connection of the Northern workforce to London’s industry, feeding the brain-drain issue that HS2 is attempting to fix.

What is worrying about the project is that it relies on a laisse-faire attitude that business will react. If the government places the rail down, the business will travel north. Therefore, there is no need to invest in northern industry, the industry will grow on its own. It is an echo of Victorian Britain, where rail is sacred and the best help is self-help.

Growing up in the North, people around me often felt abandoned or negated by their government, and it’s a hard feeling to argue with. The project marketed as developing the north opens with: “London is one of the greatest global cities. It will remain so, but we have to ensure that it does not become a victim of its own success.”

I know southerners think it is grim up North, but being able to get down South quicker is not going to cheer us up.

Putin’s purpose in Syria

In December, President Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian military base in Syria and announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from the country. The BBC reported that Putin’s visit was to bring the word of ‘victory’ to the front line. Russian troops could now return to their families, knowing that they had defeated ISIS and defended the Assad regime. But what has Putin really achieved in Syria?

Understanding Russia’s achievements is Syria requires an understanding of the Kremlin’s motivation. Russia has supported the Assad regime since 2011, providing diplomatic support by vetoing UN resolutions. In 2015, Russia increased its support by embarking on a campaign of airstrikes against groups that the Kremlin defined as ‘terrorist’.

The timing of this extended commitment is significant to understanding why Russia has become so involved in the Syrian conflict. In September of that year, world leaders met at the 70th UN General Assembly to discuss global affairs. During the assembly, Putin and Obama met privately to discuss the crisis in Syria.
At the time, the western world strongly called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United State even went as far as to publicly lay the Syrian conflict at the feet of Assad’s regime: ‘Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife’.

Russia’s support for Assad, therefore, became a big bargaining chip, and one which Putin intended to use during the 70th UN General Assembly. Putin was prepared to withdraw support from the Assad Regime, in return for NATO’s support being withdrawn from the Ukrainian conflict. A conflict which interfered much closer with the Russian sphere of interest.

The meeting between Obama and Putin orchestrated to be a trade-off; Syria for Ukraine. This never happened however. Following the meeting, both leaders came out publicly blaming eachother for escalating the crisis in Syria.
Despite the Kremlin’s gamble not paying off, Russia has still been able to gain from the Syrian conflict. The conflict is testimony to the re-establishment of Russia’s global status. Putin has taken a step towards the ‘superpower’ title previously held by the Soviet Union.

Russian has demonstrated its ability to rival the US by rejuvenating its relations with Iran. Just months before the 2015 air-strikes, Iran brokered a nuclear deal with the US, limiting Russian influence in Tehran. The US has admitted to being unable to break the relationship between Russia and Iran. The Syrian conflict has been an opportunity for the two nations to work closely on military operations. Indeed the cooperation in Syria has become a symbol of the Russian-Iranian relationship.

Putin has been diplomatically victorious in maintaining his alliance with Iran, despite U.S. intervention. This alone is an example of how far Russia has come in terms of global power status. Additionally, Moscow has reshaped the frontlines of the Syrian conflict. With Russian support, Assad now holds major areas such as Palmyra, Raqqa and Aleppo. The conflict is evidence that Russia is now capable of effectively performing military operations outside of its own borders.

The effective impact of the Russian military has boosted Russia’s arms industry. Syria is a showcase for Russian military technology, and has been defined as a ‘perfect commercial for Russian arms producers’. Going forwards, Russia will be able to expand its arms deals with new parties.

Ultimately, Syria is still a nation torn by war and terror. But the actual conflict has always been secondary to Putin’s goals. What initially began as a bargaining chip has turned into one of Putin’s highest paying investments in recent years. Russia has proven its might in both diplomatic and military terms. As the BBC reported, Putin has been able to ‘force world leaders to deal with Russia’. In this sense, Russian troops can now return home knowing they have been victorious, even with the war going on in their absence.

The Method in the Madness: Understanding North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition

The success of North Korea’s recent missile launch, has raised alarms around the world.
Pyongyang claims it is now capable of successfully hitting anywhere in mainland America, bringing the US into the sphere of North Korea’s military reach for the first time. This missile test is just the latest addition to the increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But what is the aim of North Korea’s nuclear program?
North Korea’s nuclear program has been met with widespread international criticism, even from, surprisingly, North Korea’s only ally, China. Yet, the criticism is only met by further determination from Pyongyang to achieve its nuclear targets.

In August, US President Donald Trump said North Korea’s attitude towards America would be met with “fire and fury”.
The United Nations has acted to attempt to defuse the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, visited North Korea following the missile tests, and met with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. In a joint statement, they said: “the current situation is the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue in the world today.”

North Korea is playing a high-stake game against growing opposition. The question is, why Pyongyang is so committed to its weapons programs in the face of rising opposition? It may seem that North Korea is on a path of war, or that the nuclear program is aimed at destruction. However, it is important to understand what North Korea is trying to achieve with its weapons programs. Overall, Pyongyang has one main aim, survival.

It should not be forgotten that North and South Korea have been locked in a 65-year stalemate following the ceasefire of the Korean war in 1953. North Korea proudly boasts its military might as a sign of the regimes power, and clings to it as the protector of the regime.

North Korea currently has the fourth largest standing army, with approximately 1.1 million personnel. However, experts say that North Korea’s military equipment, and technology is outdated, reducing the effectiveness of North Korea’s conventional military. However, both Pyongyang and Seoul realise the mutual destructive reality conflict would bring.

The goal of the Kim dynasty is to solidify their regime. The hostility towards the international community comes from a lack of trust, based on historic events. North Korea believes that both the Giddafi regime in Libya and the Saddam regime in Iraq collapsed because of their abandonment of their nuclear programs.

Libya sticks an alarming comparison to North Korea for Pyongyang, as Libya exchanged its nuclear program to ease sanctions and improve relations with the West, only to find the West not only supported but provided arm for Libyan rebels, who ultimately overthrew the government. North Korea does not trust the West to honour any agreement of improved relations, and therefore only has its nuclear program to counter the deceitful enemy it perceives the West to be.

The United Nations has called to keep channels open with North Korea to ease the tensions on the Peninsula. North Korean state news announced that Korean officials and the UN have agreed to “communication through visits at different level on a regular basis in the future”.

Although communication is progress, it is unlikely that North Korea will be swayed away from its nuclear program.
North Korea’s nuclear program ambition comes from the regimes determination for survival. The nuclear program is the only bargaining chip Pyongyang can believe in, there is simply no trust in western promises, security or economic support.

The North Korean government will continue to develop its weapon technologies, undeterred by any condemnation. Whether this development will lead to conflict remains to be seen, but we can be sure the consequences will be historic.