Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report



53. The new Labour government's Strategic Defence Review was announced in the Queen's Speech on 14 May 1998.[136] In a letter sent to all MPs announcing its commencement,[137] the Secretary of State declared—

    I want our conclusions to take account of the widest range of outside views and opinions ... I will be holding seminars ... with a range of outside experts ... We shall consult other groups (such as the defence industries and Trade Unions) ... I shall be setting up a panel of experts to feed ideas into the process and act as a sounding board ... We are determined that Parliament too plays its part ... the Select Committee ... will have an important role ... I hope [to] ... build the consensus on our defence policy and programme for the longer term which our Armed Forces deserve.[138]

At the press conference held on 28 May to launch the Review, this consensus-building element was again emphasised. The aim was described as being—

    ... to build on the developing consensus on defence and to establish the widest possible shared vision about Britain's security needs and the tasks of its Armed Forces ...'[139]

The Secretary of State went on to suggest that building this consensus was part of the introduction of "a degree of vision and coherence and stability" that would "mark this administration out".[140] While he agreed that much about the foreign policy baseline would be marked by continuity with the policies of the previous administration[141] be also believed that—

    ... what needs to happen is a debate taking place in the country as a whole on some of those fundamentals.[142]

54. A fundamental tenet of the Review, which was to 'distinguish' it from previous reviews,[143] was that it was to be foreign policy led. The first stage was thus to assess—

    ... our national interests, commitments and responsibilities, and [to consider] potential risks and challenges in the decade ahead, and set out the overall role of defence in support of Britain's foreign and security policy ...'[144]

We consider in the next section whether these goals were achieved. However, we note that it was originally implied that the statement of foreign policy objectives underlying the Review would be published in advance of the other conclusions.[145] Mr David Mepham of Saferworld argued that—

    ... the government have made a mistake, in terms of the process of the defence review, in not producing a White Paper on foreign policy objectives, which could then be a matter of discussion ... about what that meant for security policy.[146]

Other witnesses agreed with him.[147] While we acknowledge the Secretary of State's argument that to publish the baseline paper in advance of the other conclusions of the review could create "an artificial distinction between Stage 1 and Stage 2",[148] we none the less regret that the MoD decided against publishing its foreign policy conclusions in advance,[149] which would have enabled wider and better-informed debate.[150] The Secretary of State's speech of 18 September 1997 at the RUSI went some of the way to report on Stage 1, but not, we consider, far enough. We do not consider that it is obvious from the final form of Chapter 2 of the SDR that 'this work could not easily be separated out from the Review's later stages'.[151] Although we believe the Secretary of State when he tells us that—

    The new government did not have some sort of secret plan which it was going to reverse engineer by pretending to have a consultation process.[152]

We believe that the decision not to publish the baseline has unnecessarily allowed such beliefs to flourish. We conclude that the early and separate publication of a White Paper on the government's foreign policy would have improved the transparency of the review process and facilitated wider debate and wider public involvement in the process of defining our defence and security posture.

55. The SDR proper was published in the traditional form of a White Paper. In a departure from tradition, however, there was an accompanying volume of eleven 'Supporting Essays' enlarging on some of the themes of the White Paper itself. The status of these Essays in terms of policy commitments is unclear. We recommend a clarification of the status of the Supporting Essays in relation to the nature of the policy commitments within the SDR as a whole. However, we acknowledge that they represent a useful development in the ambition to open up the process of the Review by filling in more of the policy background to the decisions announced in the White Paper. In addition to the White Paper and the Supporting Essays, a pack of 'Factsheets' was also published. Their status and intended circulation is less clear, although they do include information not found in either of the other two documents.

56. The first of the Supporting Essays to the SDR describes in some detail the processes of consultation and collaboration built in to the review's development. It was originally intended to take six months and to report early in the New Year of 1998.[153] Perhaps predictably, that target was persistently postponed, with the official estimates of its publication date being couched in ever more vague terms.[154] When questioned about the causes of the extension of the review's timetable, the Secretary of State laid some emphasis on the impact of the wider consultation process.[155] This had involved two public seminars on the foreign policy baseline issues and one seminar on defence assumptions.[156] There were also a number of more informal consultations[157] and debates and questions in the House.[158] Two significant innovations were the appointment of an Advisory Panel of outside experts[159] and the establishment of a 'liaison team' to gather the views of ordinary service men and women.[160] We discuss the outcome of the liaison team exercise in a subsequent section of this Report. We took evidence from four members of the Advisory Panel in the course of our inquiry.[161] Those members of the Panel from whom we took evidence after the publication of the White Paper assured us that they felt the exercise in consultation had been 'real'.[162]

Building a Consensus within the MoD

57. When we asked the Secretary of State if all this consultation had added value to the final outcome of the Review, he assured us that it was there—

Certainly, there has been little of the counter briefing and self-promoting or scaremongering leaking from within the individual Services that has characterised other reviews. Indeed, the leaking of this Review appears to have been highly co-ordinated.[164] We found little dissent from this consensus among the Service chiefs from whom we took evidence.[165] The Reserves appeared less satisfied with the degree of consultation, although the Minister for the Armed Forces told us—

    As far as the Reserves are concerned, there was consultation ... commensurate indeed with their importance to us.[166]

The witnesses from the TAVRAs, on the other hand, appear to believe that they had not been consulted, but presented with a fait accompli.[167]

58. The Chief of Defence Staff was prepared to say that he was more satisfied with the SDR process and its outcome than he had been with the Defence Costs Studies process.[168] Sir Timothy Garden, who has seen many reviews from within the RAF or the MoD, and observed this one from a more detached and disinterested position on the Advisory Panel, believed that the consensus within and between the Services was real, and was an example of the benefit of a better integrated civilian/military structure within the MoD. In his view the process—

    ... did work ... the process this time of having a much broader consultation than was the case for major reviews before, and indeed a bit of participation of outsiders in it as well, helped make it a more rational and logical process ...[169]

59. Even making allowances for the loyalty of serving officers to the 'package'[170] (a word much used by them in evidence) to which they signed up, we find the evidence of genuine consent amongst the Service chiefs to the outcome of the SDR, which we discuss in more detail below, convincing. Even if this represents only a recognition of the truth that 'united we stand but divided we fall', it is still a real achievement. We conclude that, so far as building a consensus between the Services is concerned, the SDR process must be judged a success.

Building a National Consensus

60. On the question of whether the SDR has, or will, achieve a consensus about our defence posture in the nation as a whole, the evidence is necessarily more equivocal and unreliable. The Secretary of State was prepared confidently to assert—

The Secretary of State for International Development put a slightly different spin on the same positive message, saying that—

    If we look at recent history and likely future history, service under UN mandates is going to be a bigger and bigger component of military service ... All the traditional training and skills have to be there but that ... is a new analysis of the military role. I think it is going to be an increasing role and it is almost going—I said this when I met the Secretary of State for Defence—to change who our supporters of military action are. The people who have traditionally supported the UN in humanitarian assistance are going to become bigger fans of the military over time and defend their budgets."[172]

61. However, the Secretary of State also sounded a note of caution about that 'consensus', reminding us that—

    We have got very small Armed Forces compared to what we once had. We have got an unpredictable, unstable world to deal with where the nation by and large during peacetime is not terribly interested in what the defence forces are doing and how they are doing it, but in times of trouble when they are called upon, hold us all very firmly to account.[173]

Lord Vincent made a similar point—

... the Secretary of State for Defence... says that he wishes as part of this SDR process to achieve a wide public consensus ... If he meant ... that we need to find a means of enhancing public awareness of the significance of defence and what it has achieved and why we still need to devote the necessary effort and resources to it, then that I think is a very important task because we are becoming victims of our own success. If alternatively he means that no, I have to reach out there, we are a democratic society and the public at large are somehow going to by some means tell me what sort of defence they are prepared to pay for, then I think we pay our Secretaries of State for Defence to give a lead on those issues and not just to be on the receiving end. We had a marvellous consensus on defence in this country from 1929 to 1939 and never were we so ill prepared for what followed. It must have been the nearest we came to losing all our vital interests.[174]

Professor Michael Clarke, giving evidence to the Committee, thought that there was a consensus on strong defence but suspected that it was—

    ... likely to become more volatile in the future and ... if our forces are not seen to address security problems in and around Europe then they may lose a certain amount of domestic support. Equally, if they engage in operations which appear peripheral to our direct security interest it may be difficult to maintain consensus for them. So in general I suspect that the MoD and the Government as a whole will have to work harder to maintain a consensus which 20 years ago was really very solid because of the generational factor, that most people were linked with the forces through National Service or the Reserves or the TA.[175]

62. Sir Patrick Hine commented in an aside to the Committee that—

    ... if you had had pictures on your televisions at home of the Battle of the Somme, for instance, in 1916 like we would have today, both the Germans and the allies would have brought that war to a halt in a month or less.[176]

This illustrates a broad point made by many contributors to the debate around the SDR that there is a diminishing sense that anything is worth fighting a war for: the money spent on defence does not seem to be money spent on an urgent and vital necessity. It is seen as discretionary. As the generation that fought in the last war of mass mobilisation rapidly shrinks, and as the generation that saw National Service is very nearly retired, the experience of war and military service is no longer common to the population as a whole. As Lord Vincent said to us—

    ... nobody in this country ... with very few exceptions ... has ever had to do what my parents must surely have done twice in the first half of this century, and that is wonder if there was ever going to be a tomorrow.[177]

While Lord Vincent is right that, since 1945, the bulk of the civilian population has not had to experience present personal danger on a daily basis, the generations that lived through the Cold War had to contemplate the ever-present threat, however distant, of nuclear annihilation.[178] Despite this, Sir Michael Alexander, when asked whether the SDR strategy was sustainable over 15 to 20 years, commented that he saw—

    ... a very profound problem that arises from this Review and indeed from previous reviews. That is the lack of a natural constituency in this country for defence. There is no real debate in this country about why we have a defence policy, what it should be, and why we have a defence capability.[179]

Although Sir Michael noted that there was 'a certain amount of debate in this building' (the Houses of Parliament), according to Professor Hew Strachan—

    In the 1997 election, only 1.9 per cent of all Conservative candidates claimed a military background, and no parliamentary candidates from the Labour Party claimed a military background. Now that is not to say that one or two of them didn't have a military background—as we know Tam Dalyell was a distinguished trooper in the Royal Scots Greys, and Tony Benn was of course in the RAF during his national service. But the point is that none of them saw fit to claim that link. And furthermore, nobody in the present Cabinet has direct service experience. It is almost certainly, and I'd be interested to be challenged, the first British government of which that has been true.[180]

Using a colourful comparison, Sir Michael Alexander expressed the view that—

    It is going to be extremely difficult to sustain public support for defence expenditure in a world where the Red Army has gone home ... There is a real risk that we will end up with ... the defence establishment being like the Royal Opera House, enormously effective with a worldwide reputation, tremendously professional but [with] no public support ...[181]

63. The causes of this potential lack of support for the Armed Forces should not be seen to lie exclusively on one side of the equation. Retired, and indeed serving officers (and other service men and women) tend to talk a good deal of the distinctive 'ethos' of the military life. Lord Vincent put this general view fairly pithily—

    ... we have got a society that thinks constantly about its rights, we are getting a growing gap between armed forces who take on a quite different commitment. Their priority is to go where they are told, when they are told and do the business that has to be done when they get there, without choice, and they accept that and those are the sorts of people that we have got. If we get an increasing gap between public perceptions which become increasingly less immediately informed because we have gone through a period when there has not been a perception of any immediate threat to the vital security interests of this country and the way we treat our armed forces in terms of the demands we make of them in this same environment, I think there could be a serious loss of confidence.[182]

But perhaps the key element of the 'military ethos', and the characteristic which really sets service men (and some women) apart from the rest of society, is that members of our Armed Forces are licensed by society to kill, if necessary, on its behalf, and to risk being killed or maimed on its behalf themselves.[183]

64. The sense of a gap between the military and civil society is probably not new, but it carries dangers, and whether the gap is perceived or real it may be growing. The difficulties faced by all the Services in recruiting and retaining personnel, even in times of relatively high unemployment, highlight the problems confronted. The search for a national consensus on defence policy is certainly an important objective of the SDR process. The evidence of those of the 400 plus submissions to the MoD on the SDR from unofficial sources suggests that our witnesses may be right in their perception that this is an increasingly challenging target. It is not altogether surprising that, among submissions from 'the general public', there appeared to be something of a preponderance of dissenting views—that is in the nature of such self selecting consultations. However, the lack of a large and visible constituency of ready champions of the armed services outside the circle of those with a direct interest in the matter should give some pause for thought. The question of whether the SDR process has significantly raised the profile of the defence debate inside and outside Parliament is one criterion by which its success will be measured over the coming months and years. We believe that the battle for hearts and minds is one that the MoD will have to fight in the years to come. However, to have won even a qualified welcome from the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers)[184] indicates that the SDR may have gone some way to building a broader consensus on defence, at least around the proposition that 'the criterion by which our Armed Forces should be judged is not their competence at waging war but their ability to defuse and prevent it';[185] a conclusion from which perhaps this Committee and the Secretary of State would not greatly dissent. The SDR is, after all, predicated on the assumption that 'All of Britain's military capabilities have a role to play in preventing war'.[186]

65. Practical measures for enlivening the national debate on defence are hard to come by. We have some comments to make on the role of the Reserves and Cadets in a later section in this connection. Sir Michael Alexander, for one, felt that a more permanent forum along the lines of the Advisory Panel "might conceivably have a role to play in meeting and sustaining such a debate".[187] As the Secretary of State remarked—

    The defence of this country is much too important to be kept in the hands of a handful of people at the top of the Ministry of Defence.[188]

He expressed a cautious open-mindedness about the possibility of some more permanent successor body to the Advisory Panel, though with reservations about its 'accountability', and invited this Committee to comment.[189] We do so below at paragraph 71.

136  HC Deb, 14 May 1998, c 43 Back

137  HC Deb, 19 June, c264w Back

138  Ev p 251 Back

139  Essay 1, para 1 Back

140  Q 115 Back

141  Q 131 Back

142  Q 135 Back

143  Essay 1, para 35 Back

144  Essay 1, para 8 Back

145  Essay 1, para 10 Back

146  QQ 1187-8 Back

147  Q 1188 Back

148  Q 128 Back

149  QQ 109-111 and HC Deb, 28 July 1997, c75w Back

150  Q 1187 Back

151  Essay 1, para 10 Back

152  Q 1556 Back

153  QQ 102-3 and HC Deb, 16 July 1997, c236w Back

154  HC Deb, 12 November 1997, c581w, 27 November 1997, c499-500w Back

155  Q 1554 Back

156  Essay 1, para 9, see also Ev pp 252-260 Back

157  Essay 1, para 23 Back

158  Essay 1, para 24 Back

159  Ev p 260 Back

160  Essay 1, para 28 Back

161  QQ 396-425, QQ 2612-2694 Back

162  Q 2612 Back

163  Q 1554 Back

164  Q 1577 Back

165  Q 1835, Q 2266, Q 2133 Back

166  Q 2702 Back

167  Q 2492 Back

168  Q 1777 Back

169  Q 2659 Back

170  Q 1613 Back

171  Q 1625 Back

172  Q 651 Back

173  Q 1613 Back

174  Q 401 Back

175  Q 193 Back

176  Q 316 Back

177  Q 399 Back

178  See eg Protect and Survive, HMSO, May 1980 Back

179  Q 2623 Back

180  Strachan, RUSI Journal, June 1998, p 4 Back

181  Q 2673; see also First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 1997-98, The Royal Opera House, HC 199 Back

182  Q 400 Back

183  Cm 3999, para 119 Back

184  Ev p 524 Back

185  Ev p 525 Back

186  Essay 5, para 2 Back

187  Q 2623 Back

188  Q 1578 Back

189  Q 1596 Back

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Prepared 10 September 1998