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by GK Strategy 9th April, 2015
3 min read

Trident Row Only Serves to Highlight Lack of Real Debate

Defence is an area of policy that is unlikely to be debated in detail over the election campaign.  While the UK spends over £36 billion through the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the fourth largest departmental budget, there’s scarcely been any mention of defence to date – and even today’s synthetic row over Trident is just a proxy for Punch and Judy politics.

This lack of real debate could be worrying for the defence sector and its investors and there’s very little indication what any of the parties would do in the forthcoming spending review for the MoD, or how this will interact with the pending Strategic Defence and Security Review.  The MoD is ‘unprotected’ as a government department, so it can expect cuts if the next government looks to continue spending restraint as the current administration has.

This lack of clarity is accompanied by a lack of discussion about foreign policy in general.  This is worrying for several reasons.  As globalisation continues apace, with further integration in so many areas of the economy and a shift in economic power to the likes of China and India, the UK will increasingly need a convincing grand strategy to make its way in the world.  We’re also experiencing an unusually high level of instability, with the Arab Spring, the rise of IS, Russian incursions into Ukraine a few of the epicentres of disruption.  Because of our interconnectedness, this feeds into the economy and society in the UK and elsewhere.  Policy challenges from organised crime to potential public health emergencies to mass immigration all stem from this confluence of instability and interconnectedness.  The danger is that the UK’s current crop of potential Prime Ministers barely grasp these challenges, and have little notion how to tackle them.

Ed Miliband, for example, is well known for ‘not doing’ foreign policy.  Miliband’s tactical approach to the vote on military action in Syria in 2013 showed his willingness to politicise even the most sensitive issues. His prospective foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, faces a struggle to keep his own Parliamentary seat, increasing the uncertainty over how a hypothetical Labour government would act on the world stage. Alexander also runs the Labour election campaign, further evidence of the lack of priority afforded to foreign policy by Miliband.

For David Cameron, he has had the benefit of comparison to Miliband, but he’s been increasingly swayed by his own backbenchers on foreign policy, particularly on Europe.  So much so that if he retains office in May, he can expect to use up a great deal of his time and just about all of his international political capital on fighting a rather destructive battle on how not to reform the EU.

None of this bodes well for the national interest after the general election.  At best, the country risks losing ground and influence on issues such as the EU-US trade deal or on political developments at the periphery of Europe where France and Germany are already increasingly assertive and successful in playing a role in crises such as Libya and Ukraine.  A larger risk comes from the UK losing influence on broader economic trends, no longer being in control of regulations that affect everything from financial services to renewable energy.  It’s no use pretending that the UK can simply exempt itself from the rules of a globalised economy and retreat into glorious isolation.

Whereas the UK could be leading, for example, the integration of capital markets in the EU, or the fight against people trafficking or indeed more broadly the social and economic development of much of the non-Western World, it could face a period of having little to no influence over such policies, while China and others take the lead in developing and shaping the frameworks of international development. Unlike Tony Blair’s surprising intervention into the election campaign this week, you’ll struggle to hear the party leaders talk convincingly about their visions of the world or the UK’s place in it.

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