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May 04, 2010

Nick Clegg: Don't mention the wars (except Iraq) - Brendan Simms argues that Mr Clegg's deterrent will simply not deter

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - examines Nick Clegg's defence policy and finds it wanting. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Simms; they are not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Director or Trustees.

In County Donegal, where I spent my childhood summers in the 1970s and 1980s, the ubiquitous horsefly was known as a "clegg", a definition which the Oxford English Dictionary also recognises. You ignored his irritating buzzing on the beach at your peril, because if left unobserved he might settle on your bare arms or legs and give you a nasty sting.

This, of course, is exactly what happened to the Prime Minister, Mr Brown, and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, who did not pay enough attention to the yellow buzzing of the Liberal Democrats until Nick Clegg stung them both on their unprotected flanks at the first televised election debate. In the subsequent media frenzy Mr Clegg achieved poll ratings which showed him to be "nearly as popular as Churchill" [Sunday Times, front page, 18.4.2010].

The people who really need to come to grips with Mr Clegg, however, are not Messieurs Cameron and Brown but all those concerned about Britain's place in the world. The first five pages of the Liberal Democrat foreign policy platform deal with climate change, followed by another page on development aid. Only then do the Liberal Democrats address the issue of "equipping Britain's Armed forces for the 21st century" [Liberal Democrat manifesto 2010, pp. 57-61]. The mission in Afghanistan receives at most lukewarm - "critical" - support. There is no sense of why it is right to fight the Taliban there, or to support democracy - a word which does not feature in the foreign-policy sections of the manifesto - in Afghanistan. It seems that apart from Iraq, where he misses no opportunity to remind us that he opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein, Mr Clegg is reluctant to mention the war (on terror).

The Liberal Democrats do not accept that Britain has a "national interest", a term which is front and centre in the Conservative manifesto [The section on foreign policy is entitled "Promote our national interest": Invitation to join the government of Britain: Conservative manifesto 2010, p. 101], and has informed much of Labour rhetoric as well. But those who would hail all this as a break with a narrow selfish nationalism and celebrate it as a chance for "more Europe", or who like the Tory shadow foreign secretary, William Hague accuse him of wanting a "European super-state", could not be more mistaken.

It is true that Mr Clegg does not rule out joining the Euro at some point in the future, indeed he rightly believes that it is in Britain's "long-term interest". He has, however, explicitly ruled out entry in the foreseeable future and he is so vague about the conditions for actual membership that the commitment is meaningless.

Moreover, the Liberal Democrats specifically reject the idea of a European army, for example, even though such a force, if properly constituted, would represent the best hope of projecting the power of the Union beyond its borders. We are left with a toothless confederation of regions vaguely conceived as a counterweight to the United States. Would that Mr Clegg offers a European "super-state"! His Europe is no danger to anyone.

When Mr Clegg does talk about war and the armed forces, it is largely in the context of proposing cuts in future expenditure. One project he wants to chop is the next stage of the Eurofighter development; given that this will incur penalty clauses in contracts, the savings may be less than hoped for.

More importantly, Mr Clegg is planning to compromise Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, by refusing to go ahead with the one for one replacement of the Trident submarine fleet which Labour announced in 2007. This he condemns as a "cold war relic" irrelevant to the challenges of the new era, and he has secured the backing of distinguished retired soldiers such as Field Marshal Lord Bramall and Major-General Patrick Cordingley. This is surely an issue which will play well electorally: a promise to eliminate "wasteful" spending on supposedly outdated gadgets with the support of key generals, and a commitment to spend more "on people", such as the "frontline" infantrymen and women to whom all the politicians pay such facile lip-service, and facilities for their disgracefully neglected families. To argue against this is like objecting to motherhood and apple pie.

But however popular, the abandonment of Trident would be a disaster, and should not be an excuse for doing the right thing by the armed forces more generally; a great nation should pay for both. Mr Clegg claims that "British security would be better served by alternatives", but does not outline what these are, because there aren't any which will deliver the same effect for less money.

The simple fact is that Britain gave up its "free-fall" bombing capability a decade ago; it will be costly to reconstitute it. Moreover, any aircraft-based delivery-system is dependent on a platform if the target lies beyond the range of British shore bases. This will necessitate the construction of new aircraft carriers, which are expensive and vulnerable to surprise attack.

Putting warheads on cruise missiles won't do the trick either, because these are essentially glorified unmanned aircraft which are more easily shot down than the Trident missiles. Most of the states Britain would want to deter - a term anathema to most Liberal Democrats, of course - would have that capability.

Finally, we need Trident, because the submarines are difficult to detect and provide Britain with a significant "second-strike" capacity which will make any potential aggressor think twice about hoping to wipe us out with a surprise attack. Mr Clegg's deterrent, in short, simply will not deter.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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