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General Election 2019: Manifestos Fail To Manifest Much On Defence

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By Professor Michael Clarke, Distinguished Fellow, RUSI

Forces News election analyst

It is an article of faith in British general elections that defence issues can lose you an election but never win one for you.

So even where a party may think it has a good record on defence, it is not likely to set it front and centre of its offering to voters.

The only election where defence seemed to make a difference was in 1983 where the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher, coming off the back of the Falklands victory the previous year, was able to cast Labour’s policy to abolish the nuclear deterrent as simply foolish, if not downright unpatriotic.

It was a hit from which Labour never recovered, and the prospect of a repeat on the British deterrent question sends shudders through all Labour leaderships to this day.


The 2019 Conservative election manifesto is a conservative document in every way; traditionally conservative in its values, and conservative, too, in the detail it chooses to provide and in any spending commitments it is prepared to make.

It is a manifesto, launched during the news downtime slot on a wet Sunday afternoon, which is trying to lie low in a campaign that Conservative strategists think they are winning anyway.

Better not to offer too many hostages to fortune.

Really radical manifestos, they argue, are final throws for flailing challengers.

As expected, the manifesto is based loudly and often on "getting Brexit done" and then moving on.

That moving on includes policies to "strengthen Britain in the world".

The security of our nation comes first, it declares – as usual, in the final chapter, six pages from the end – but it goes on to make an ambitious pitch to be internationally proactive across international institutions, diplomacy, in major sports promotions, in reinvigorating Britain’s soft power assets and in standing up strongly for British values around the world.

Boris Johnson launches Conservative Manifesto in Shropshire Credit POOL 24.11.19.jpg
Boris Johnson launched the Conservative Party's manifesto on Sunday.

The manifesto includes a very brief section on defence, as such.

It does not promise another defence review next year, though one is widely expected in the Ministry of Defence.

It confirms the 2% defence spending pledge and adds a commitment to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation during the next five years.

It reaffirms the commitment to the Trident nuclear deterrent and repeats an earlier commitment to set up a "space command".

The manifesto includes some specific commitments on veterans affairs and says that it will "further incorporate" the Armed Forces Covenant into law.

Its other defence pledges are largely restated commitments to programmes already underway.  

But "getting Brexit done" is the gateway to all else in this manifesto.

National prosperity will depend on new trade deals and the manifesto commits any incoming Conservative government to having 80% of all British trade within the next three years, covered by new trade deals with the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, in addition to a deal with the EU.

That is a hugely ambitious target – "wildly optimistic" according to trade experts quoted in the Financial Times.

But wild optimism is a personal characteristic of this Prime Minister.

If Boris Johnson is elected and succeeds in this ambition, defence will be based on some robust public expenditure in the next few years.

If not, it may struggle to meet even the ‘steady as you go’ approach tucked away at the end of this manifesto.

It is all about Brexit.


The Labour manifesto, by contrast, relegates Brexit – "the final say" – to its usual 'afterthoughts' section on defence and security; "a new internationalism" as it expresses it.

And as set out here, it tops off the radical programme in the rest of the manifesto that would reshape capitalism in Britain for the 2020s.

The document is replete with references to the importance of environmental issues and climate change – the ‘green industrial revolution’ that it puts upfront in its priorities.

Certainly, this current concept of Labour’s "new internationalism" is consistent with these bold and broader aspirations.

It picks out President Trump, by name, in criticising the Conservatives’ international approach, that it defines as "reckless", and it promises a series of enquiries into past foreign policy iniquities; a War Powers Act, and a re-set of British policy towards Saudi Arabia, Israel, immediate recognition of a Palestinian state, and an immediate end to Export Finance support for fossil fuel projects in developing counties.

On defence policy itself, the manifesto promises another immediate and full Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

But it nevertheless locks in commitments to renew the Trident nuclear force, to continue to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, and to maintain commitments to NATO, the United Nations, and to our European partners.

Where it differs from Conservative policy is mainly in a determination to include climate change and environmentalism in defence policy planning, to put more emphasis on welfare policy for the Armed Forces and veterans, and to promise that new defence equipment will be built in Britain.

It also commits to a £100 million increase in funding for UN peace-keeping operations.

So far, so unsurprising. But there are deeper questions here.

	Jeremy Corbyn before Labour manifesto launch holding manifesto 211119 CREDIT PA.jpg
The Labour manifesto promises another immediate and full Strategic Defence and Security Review (Picture: PA).

Jeremy Corbyn is not the only member of Labour’s top echelon who have expressed deep scepticism many times over the amount of defence spending itself, the nuclear deterrent, NATO, and the use of the armed forces in virtually all of the 12 significant operations they have conducted since the end of the Cold War.

Lots of defence continuity is tucked away in these final 12, sparse, pages of the 105-page manifesto. But swathes of much more radical thinking are evident in the known or published views of Labour’s current leaders – some elected, some not.

In short, there is only a limited overlap between what the manifesto says about defence and what we know Labour’s current leaders privately believe.

This is not unique and happens in all parties.

But in this case the disconnect appears to be more dramatic and exists almost across the board in defence matters.

It will be of great interest to see which way Labour’s SDSR really leans if the party wins a working majority in the election.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats election manifesto is unusual in that it goes for broke on its appeal to "stop Brexit".

That is its title – the word "manifesto" does not appear on its front pages – it is simply called 'Liberal Democrats: Stop Brexit', and then 'Stop Brexit: The Liberal Democrats Vision for Britain in Europe' for their European elections document.

Everything it says about social policy, welfare, housing, democracy, and yes, defence and security, is viewed through that lens.

"Britain is far better able to exercise global influence by working together with its EU partners," it says, and "deeper cooperation is vital if European powers are to retain significant military capabilities", requiring "more strategic thinking and coordination from European NATO and EU member states".

Those statements, along with a couple of others on international aid, crime and borders, are more or less it for defence and security matters in this offering – all of which can be read on pages 18 and 19 of the document.

Jo Swinson making a speech during CBI conference 181119 CREDIT PA.jpg
The Liberal Democrats' manifesto revolves mostly around the idea of stopping Brexit and revoking Article 50 (Picture: PA).

There is nothing on defence spending, Trident, the armed forces, defence equipment, or strategic policy choices.

In one sense, there is, albeit an electorally high-risk, logic to this approach.

The Lib Dems are betting the house on the idea that they are the only unequivocally anti-Brexit party, and for them everything else can follow if Article 50 is revoked.

So, for the Lib Dems, all that Britain wants to be in the 2020s, domestically and internationally, can, and should, be achieved as a proactive member of the European Union.

And this is entirely consistent with the views expressed by Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, throughout the campaign.

Election night will give us some idea of whether this bold logic has had real traction with the voters.

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