Why Corbyn’s Sword Won’t Rattle the Military – Yet


14 September 2015. London.

The word on the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is that he wants out of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) wants no part of foreign wars and wants to bin the Trident renewal programme.

So a bad election for Britain’s chiefs of the military staffs? Not really.

Firstly, you don’t have to be Left Wing Labour to question the idea of more Afghanistan-type interventions.

Secondly, you do not have to join CND to be thinking twice about Trident renewal.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Labour is not in government. There is no scheduled General Election until May 2020.  So all the headlines suggesting that Corbyn is about to turn over the Chiefs of Staff is way off mark.

But during this year and 2016 there are sign-post Parliamentary debates and decisions on the UK’s military policy.

In November of this year the Chancellor will announce his autumn spending round.  Shortly after that will be due the 2015 defence review with its strategic annexe of foreign policy and where the military may be asked to guarantee support of the policy.  It will be a rewrite of what the military is for and what form it will have to take to defend the security of the UK.

As a sign of that report’s complexity, the House of Commons all-Party Defence Committee (HCDC) under the chairmanship of Conservative MP Julian Lewis has a list of some 20 threats and risks to UK security that it wants the government’s views on.

The breadth of the Defence Review and the HCDC inquiry illustrate perfectly that the Chiefs of Staff, the Treasury, the government and the Shadow Front Bench have to get their heads around more complex ambitions than labels like Ban the Bomb and Trident Out.

Moreover, whatever the stated belief of Mr Corbyn on nuclear weapon policy there is the important feature of the authority of Labour Policy.  A change of leadership does not necessarily mean change of policy.  Any Parliamentary leader is obliged to speak for accepted and published Party policy until such times as he can convince others that it should be changed. Mr Corbyn is not a character who toes precedent but as things stand he is obliged to accept the Labour policy of support for Trident modernisation and therefore presumably the acceptance of Britain having a so-called nuclear deterrent.

Mr Corbyn does not accept nuclear deterrence theology and so we can expect him to attempt to change Labour policy, but that will take time.  Most Labour MPs support the policy and when it comes to a Parliamentary vote (as it will) Mr Corbyn would need to rely on Scottish National votes to get a No to Trident vote against the Tories.  On voting numbers alone that will not succeed and with such determination to relaunch Labour in Scotland, few of Mr Corbyn’s MPs will want to be seen in league with the SNP.

When it comes to the Defence Review, the Corbyn leadership will be on easier ground to criticise defence policy. For example, the principle of a 2% of GDP as a NATO benchmark on defence spending  does not stand much examination. The figure of 2% is held up as the key to defence spending.  It is not. The guideline to defence spending is this: government decides its foreign policy ambition and the military decides what it must have to support that policy.  The Defence ministry, industry and the Treasury costs it. If it is 2% so be the coincidence – nothing more.

The valid percentage of GDP is the cost, not a set NATO figure. Corbyn’s people will argue that way when the Review followed by the Defence Budget are published. But whatever the argument and expression of defence economics Corbynism will have no influence on the outcome of November’s review. The Chiefs of Staff will fear the Chancellor, whatever the political hue of defence funding.

We then come to NATO.  Mr Corbyn does not think much of the Alliance.  But then most military have doubts other than some sort of coalition of the willing is necessary. NATO is as far as it ever can be a self-reforming limb of European and part transatlantic foreign and defence policy. Ironically, the weaknesses of the organization are two-fold: the structure of its military wing under the commander of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACUER) and its political restrictions.  That weakness of NATO decision making and commitment has been question by the events in Ukraine and the bravado of President Putin.

NATO still happens to be a good military alliance if one were needed and the much presented European model is no better. A Corbyn gesture does not have to be withdrawal.  He or anyone else can satisfy scepticism by simply not signing up for some NATO operations.  Mr Corbyn’s sense of realism would also suggest that it is time to re-ask What Is NATO for in 2020? The supporters of such a debate would include the British military.

Furthermore, getting a convincing answer to the what’s it for question will allow a better understanding of national policy responsibilities and most of all, the transatlantic alliance function.

So a summary of the likely relationships between the British military and the defence policy makers working for Mr Corbyn would include that there is unlikely to be any influence on the defence debate between now and the next General Election. Public gasps of breath and headlines warning of damnation will run and run.

There could be two codicils: not this year’s but a not too distant defence review could indeed radically change the shape of British defence. The 1981 defence review carried out by the then Defence Secretary John Nott would have radically changed what the military especially the Royal Navy could and could not achieve. If Nott had been implemented immediately the 1982 Falklands War might not have have gone the way it did.

Would a simple White Paper change radically the British military? Could do easily.

A near-future defence review could be a good case for a radical change in policy by concentrating for example on home security including air defence, mine counter measures and territorial control of the British Isles instead of having a strategic long distance commitment. No armoured division, no long range air force no naval force projection using a carrier task force and no strategic deterrence.  It would not be hard to write. That is the one that would rattle more than there sabres of the Chiefs of Staff.

The second codicil is more of a reminder. The military is there to protect British policy, not to invent it.

Corbynism is not bothering the military at the moment because it is political Shadow boxing.

But there will be a few who remember the June 1981 Defence White Paper and shudder to think if Corbyn proved every one wrong and the face of British politics were to change in 2020 – and the face of the British military the following year.

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