We must focus on reforming the EU and rebuilding our defence capabilities, explains Gerald Howarth
As we embark on this exciting opportunity to shape the future of our country, there is merit in reflecting on the past to help guide our passage. Some have argued that there are a number of parallels between 2015 and 1992. In both general elections we defied the pundits and secured a narrow victory – 21 seats in 1992 and 12 in 2015. We faced an opposition lacking in credibility. The economy had taken a downturn and Europe was a key issue. However, beyond those similarities there are some fundamental differences.
First, far from having an uncertain agenda, this Conservative Government, constrained by five years of coalition with the Liberals, has a clear and challenging programme to eliminate the budget deficit, make substantial cuts to inward migration, overhaul the entire benefits system, negotiate a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, or, which failing, support UK withdrawal from the EU, press on with the renewal of our nuclear deterrent, remove the UK from the absurdities of the European Convention on Human Rights and resolve the unacceptable constitutional anomaly under which Scotland’s nationalist MPs can vote on English matters whilst being unable to vote on those same issues in Scotland where they are devolved. This programme is more than enough to preoccupy a five-year Parliament.
Second, whilst Europe appeared as issues in both elections, the circumstances today are wholly different. The Conservative Party under William Hague campaigned vigorously to keep the pound, we opposed the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties, and David Cameron has rejected the central tenet of the EU, of ‘ever closer union’, and has had the courage to veto an EU treaty change, as well as maintaining his commitment to offer the British people the final say in a referendum. The centre of gravity has shifted substantially in the Eurosceptic direction. There remain differences of view but the fact that the people will be the ultimate arbiters and that the debate is being conducted in a civilised fashion marks a major change from the atmosphere prevailing between 1992 and 1997. Ensuring that the referendum is fairly conducted without the government resorting to the use of its machinery to influence the outcome will, of course, be critical.
However, there is one key lesson from 1992 which the Party cannot afford to ignore. In both elections, the Conservatives were not returned by acclamation. Rather, the electorate took fright of the opposition (compounded in 2015 by the spectre of the SNP calling the shots in a Labour government) and gave the Conservative Party the benefit of the doubt. By 1997, our majority had been whittled away by defections and the grim reaper, the Maastricht debate had taken a toll, Labour had a sparkling new leader, the City had been soothed by the prawn cocktail offensive and, despite the heroic efforts of Ken Clarke to restore the economy to good order, we bequeathed a sound financial platform for Labour to destroy.
Thus, we are firmly ‘on probation’. We should reflect soberly on the fact that four million people voted for UKIP and those large majorities which many of us are now enjoying could evaporate. We must spend the next years focussed on delivering the agenda we set out. That means being bold, whether on further welfare reform in the hands of the admirable Iain Duncan Smith, or on our renegotiation with the EU where the migrant crisis has added a new imperative to ensure we recover complete control of our borders.
Simply changing migrants’ benefits entitlement will not suffice; unless we restore to our United Kingdom Parliament the right to reject EU legislation not only will the whole exercise have been a waste of time, but we shall have sealed the long-term fate of our country, doomed to be carried on the tide of ‘ever closer union’ to the avowed destination of so many of Europe’s political elite, the United States of Europe.
To those who say such an approach is unrealistic and would require treaty change, the answer is that treaty change is inevitable if the members of the absurd Eurocurrency are to resolve the persistent crisis arising from their failure to accept that a single currency requires a single monetary policy administered by a single, i.e. supranational, monetary institution. Goodbye the nation states of France, Germany, Italy, et al.
If Harold Macmillan regarded ‘events’ as the major challenge of governments we can be assured that this Parliament will present a rich seam of foreign policy headaches. The international scene has changed out of recognition since we undertook the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010. We have witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa, Syria is in meltdown, Russia has invaded another sovereign state, North Korea continues to ramp up the violent rhetoric against its southern neighbour, China is engaged in a relentless campaign to construct runways and port facilities on a range of uninhabited atolls in the South China Sea whose ownership is disputed, and the jury is out on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, ISIL and its medieval barbarity have sprung from nowhere to spread its evil ideology like a plague across the Middle East. The need for the new review to engage in a serious strategic assessment is paramount.
We have in David Cameron a Prime Minister who quite rightly wants the United Kingdom to exert influence in this increasingly volatile world. He believes strongly that overseas aid can significantly enhance that influence, a view I do not share. However well-directed our international aid programme may be, there is no evidence that by spending 0.7% of our GNP (over 60% of which is not spent direct by DfID but channelled through international agencies such as the World Bank) the UK can restore competence to incompetent or oppressive regimes around the world and stem the flow of those fleeing from oppression. Indeed, the news this summer has been dominated by a massive increase in migration pressures across Europe. I am not opposed to overseas aid, but now is the time to re-order our priorities by diverting some of the increase in aid to defence because in my view defence wields infinitely more influence than aid.
The Government rightly points to major investments such as the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the future Type 26 frigates, new battlefield taxis, the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter etc, much of which was initially ordered by the last Labour government. However, the prolonged failure to commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, as required by our NATO membership, caused major alarm with our closest and most important ally, the United States, and contrasted starkly with the enthusiasm with which the leadership of our Party embraced the 0.7% aid target which it has equally enthusiastically enshrined in law.
Furthermore, the Government’s attempt early in the summer to assert that the UK is spending at the NATO minimum was somewhat tarnished by the acknowledgement that spending hitherto ascribed to other departments will all of a sudden be categorised as defence spending. Meanwhile, we are reducing Army numbers to 82,000, barely enough to match the crowd which will attend England’s opening Rugby World Cup match at Twickenham, and Navy and RAF numbers have also been cut by 5,000 each. We now have 19 frigates and destroyers compared to 49 in 1990, and the RAF has 7 front line combat squadrons compared to 33 in 1990. In addition, the military estate is being sold off, limiting our capacity to ramp up our capability should the need arise.
We cannot argue that the economic challenges prevent us from increasing our defence spending because we have found an extra £5 billion per annum for overseas aid, so let us respond to the new world order as a Tory government properly should, remembering that without adequate hard power there is no soft power to be deployed. So, we have won a famous victory against the odds, we have a programme of measures to address the challenges we face, although, as I argue, we need to re-prioritise defence, so we have the foundations to build for victory in 2020. However, we must be clear that the public gave us the benefit of the doubt this year and we have to work hard to justify the confidence they placed in us. How we implement the policy changes, how we conduct ourselves, particularly over Europe, will have as much influence on the outcome of the next election as the policies themselves.
Sir Gerald Howarth is Member of Parliament for Aldershot and Chairman of Conservative Way Forward.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 08/03/2016.