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General Election 2019: How Important Will Defence Be?

We asked defence analyst and Distinguished RUSI Fellow Professor Michael Clarke about the role defence is likely to have in the election.

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It is less than a month until the 2019 General Election takes place in the UK on Thursday 12 December.

But how much of a part will defence play in each political party’s campaign plans? We spoke to defence analyst and Distinguished RUSI Fellow Professor Michael Clarke to get his thoughts.

How important is defence in this General Election?

The issue is that you can lose the election on a defence issue but you cannot win it.

Elections are won on domestic issues - the economy or some other moral issue, usually, whereas defence is one of those issues where you can slip up.

[The political parties] will have a day on it, say what they’ve got to say when the manifestos are out, and then they want to move on.

Can defence be 'divisive'?

Yes. Defence is divisive because it often brings out different attitudes towards the nation and nationality.

So it will come down to images about defence rather than the facts and figures.

The contract for new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to assist carrier battlegroups has been put on hold. There’s a possibility, that on reconsideration after the election, they could end up in British yards.
The contract for new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to assist carrier battlegroups has been put on hold. Could this be reconsidered post-election?

What’s happening in the Ministry of Defence right now?

Like the rest of Whitehall, the Ministry of Defence cannot say anything – but it’s not that they’re not busy.

They are still busy with other things; busy thinking about an incoming Government (whatever party that is) - then there’s a number of contacts of course. 

In general, as far as procurement goes, it doesn’t make a lot of difference to the production process - but it can make a lot of difference to different contracts if they’re still in the works and a new Government says we don’t want to do this or we don’t want to do that.

Could bringing contracts back into Britain be a vote winner – especially with Brexiteers?

All parties say we have a defence industrial strategy, a strong shipbuilding strategy – none of that’s true.

In reality, the government is reluctant to have a definite defence industrial strategy that places work with British shipyards and British manufacturers because sometimes is may not be the best deal, or it’s not always possible if they’re working in a joint project.

Governments always talk a good game on this but actually the realities of any production process are that they’re international.

Type 31 frigate
A contract for five Type 31 frigates was signed just before the 2019 election (Picture: Babcock).

Have political parties got it right? Should they be placing defence higher up in their list of election priorities?

Personally, I wish defence was more important because it’s really a matter of strategic orientation.

We should put to the people of the country how much to spend on our defence because the world out there is getting a lot less safe.

We live in an increasingly unstable neighbourhood in Europe and the point is that politicians always assume the public won’t want to pay more for defence, but the fact is, they never ask them.