In Parliament yesterday, Black Country MP and former Defence Minister John Spellar warned of the consequences of the planned reduction to Britain’s armed forces.
Spellar accused the Government of “taking the forces for granted and running down their facilities.”
He reminded the Government of the consequences of withdrawing HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic – which led to Argentina invading the Falkland Islands – thinking that Britain would not defend them.
He added that while it was important to allow our Armed Forces to adapt and increase operational capability and capacity in areas such as cyber – this should not be done at the expense of conventional forces.
JOHN SPELLAR: First, may we record that on this day 70 years ago the great trade union leader, Labour Foreign Secretary and patriot Ernest Bevin died? Along with Prime Minister Clement Attlee, he created NATO, the Marshall plan and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent—all, of course, opposed at the time by the ultra-left, in and out of the Labour party. That is why it was so welcome today that the speech introducing the motion was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), getting back to those Labour values, not ultra-left communist and Trotskyist delusions but real Labour values—supporting the defence of our country, demanding proper wages, conditions and equipment for our brave men and women in our armed forces, and supporting our own defence industry.
It is a shame that the Secretary of State is not here today, because frankly, his response to some of the criticisms recently has been rather petulant, and I was hoping we were going to get a reset back to a more reasoned debate. We do, of course, understand why he is not here—because of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia, in full soviet mode, is massing armour on the borders of Ukraine, having previously undertaken similar exercises on the frontiers with the Baltic states, and a massive re-equipment and militarisation of Kaliningrad. We also have to recognise, in some of those esoteric arguments that take place about quality versus quantity—we had some of that from the Minister—that mass has a quality of its own, and therefore we undermine that at our peril.
Yet in the face of this, the Government are running down our defences, both in armour and by cutting the number of troops, and also in other platforms, as was rightly identified by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). At the same time, we have to recognise that previous Conservative Governments have had form in this respect. In the interwar period, the 10-year rule of anticipating no conflict in 10 years, driven by the Treasury, ran down our defences. That not only reduced our equipment and the number of troops, but sent a message that we lacked resolve, so we were lacking resources and resolve. Under Options for Change, we had a massive rundown of our forces. Soldiers were actually made redundant—an appalling problem, which took a long while to redress.
The removal of HMS Endurance from the Falklands—the withdrawal of resources—sent a very clear signal to the Argentine junta that we lacked resolve, and we know the consequences of that. We had the withdrawal from Germany. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I pointed out to Ministers at the time that they would not save any money, and now they are having to go back there. They are taking the forces for granted and running down their facilities.
We all recognise the need to review the increasing requirements for operating in the grey zone and for tackling challenges in cyber-space, but in the earlier stages of the review it was posited that changes had to be cash-neutral, so that dealing with those problems had to be at the expense of conventional military capability and of upgrading. That was a mistake and it should be redressed now.