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The lamps go on all over Europe: a defence policy document for a modern Britain
The lamps go on all over Europe: a defence policy document for a modern Britain, by Alex Cardigan MP

Speaking at a policy launch, Alex Cardigan unveiled new Democrat policies on a topic which his party had championed. Defence policy for a world after the Berlin Wall. Cardigan had briefed that his core policy platform would propose major amendments to the leaked version of Options for Change, the existing Government paper. Those in attendance were a mix of senior party members & MPs, defence experts, and various retired diplomats including several former Ambassadors. Cardigan had also briefed that he would pledge £4 billion in armed forces spending, the biggest proportional increase since the 1950s.

“Otto von Bismarck sagely observed that most foreign policy decisions, good or bad, are usually only felt in full by the following generation. To me, this comment is one that is the mark of a truly great statesman. It is also one which has guided me in my time in Parliament. As an MP, and now, as a party leader, I have always thought that my duty is not just to today’s Britain, but to tomorrow’s. That is the philosophical basis for the foreign and defence policies which I have put my energy into championing over the past years. It is also why I find myself appalled by the lack of action and answers from the Government over the future of our forces, and of any vision for Britain in the world.”

“The recent Eastwood by-election, and string of by-elections in which the Democrat vote generally increased, I wrote to constituents in all six. In my letter, I stated that I felt Britain was at a real crossroads in foreign policy, and that the questions we are being asked as the wall has fallen quite existential. Put simply, they come down to a question of whether Britain is to accept decline, or whether it is to reform and to renew itself. Decline or renewal. I choose renewal, and today, I want to outline exactly how I envision that. Now is Britain’s chance to embark on a strong, bold, active foreign policy, as a leader in Europe and the world. Modernising our armed forces is essential to that aim.

“Alan Clark’s, the Minister for Procurement, wrote the now notorious Options for Change paper. The Government is yet to propose anything but this. In my view, Mr Clark’s paper is actually a rather good place to start. Despite Mrs Thatcher’s condemnation of it - frankly, due to a lack of political capital and imagination more than any strong view, I imagine - Options for Change acknowledges some stark realities. It is, however, deeply flawed in a number of ways, despite what I do not doubt are noble aims, and I will criticise it quite intensely today. Though I have many criticisms, though I want to start by saying that the paper has been the first acknowledgement of a need for change in tack in our armed forces that I have seen in some time. For one, it puts forward the politically brave view that, for reasons that before the wall fell, are perfectly reasonable, the number of troops we have doing traditional, conventional ground work, is too high. Conversely, the number of highly skilled regiments, and those able to adapt to a more flexible & challenging environment, such as, for example, Iraq, is far too minimal. The Battle of Thermopylae taught us in 480 BC that a small, well trained regiment is more use than a sprawling mass of men. We must heed that lesson and put it into a modern context, something that Britain has been good at historically - the British Expeditionary Forces were feared and respected for a reason. We must modernise and upskill our existing forces, soldier by soldier.”

“On the topic of troop numbers, though, where I disagree with Mr Clark is that we should cut down drastically. It is clear that currently, numbers are at a historic high for peacetime. However, the one-in-five, 20% cuts envisioned are simply at too much cost, and at a loss of too much talent. They are also at enormous cost to British influence abroad - both how we are viewed, and our capacity, would shift radically. I am proposing far smaller cuts to troop numbers than cited by the Government. What I wish to see is serious investment in upskilling our current numbers. The Government has decided, not unreasonably, that spending is no longer the dirty word that it was under Mrs Thatcher. In the army, this should be no different. Excluding Gulf-War related short term purchases, the total armed forces budget went up by £1.3 billion in the Finance Bill. This is not a dreadful start, however, we need to see year-on-year increases of far larger amounts if we want to compete in a modern climate. The package I will be announcing today would be the largest investment in our armed forces since the 1950s. We have an opportunity here to have that rarest of things - an army with a strong force of regulars, north of 130,000 men, which is nonetheless well trained. I want to see a £600 million package ringfenced for upskilling reformed regiments over the next three years, and a guarantee that troop numbers will not drop below 130,000 without proper independent adjudication from experts, not politicians.

“With tensions bubbling in Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and large swathes of Africa, and no Soviet backing for many of our prior enemies, this is a chance to lead the way on ensuring a democratic transition not just in the east, but across the world.”

“As far as mergers of regiments go, I actually think existing proposals are based in sense, but a poor incarnation of that sense. Nobody wants an army that is uncontrollable and beyond proper management. However, my concerns are twofold. Firstly, the merging together of certain infantry regiments are, given I argue troop reductions are too steep, also too stark. 38 infantry battalions is just not enough. We could not defend the Falklands again properly with 38. We cannot intervene where we are needed with 38. I propose a review which sets our aim at closer to 46, retaining eight further battalions than proposed in the review, with a view to keeping around 10,000 more troops in employment. These eight battalions would receive the lion’s share of the £600 million proposed above - as a key area for improvement would be ensuring that we do not sack soldiers by essentially pulling the short straw, as is the case now. I want us to actually attempt to upskill our regiments and outfit them for modern combat.”

“Part of what I mean by upskilling - as it is no buzzword - is about flexibility. We currently have a military which feels… heavy, perhaps, is the word. We lug ourselves about, from nation to nation, and sit down. That style of force is no longer fit for the modern world. We are seeing that in the Gulf, and we will see that with the inevitable battles that we will face in Africa and Eastern Europe as bubbling tensions simmer over the brink. This means we need serious investment in the procurement of serious air and naval capacity in conjunction with the traditional armed forces. What Options for Change fails to acknowledge - and this is of annoyance to me, as it is on the whole based in reality - is the fact that the days of very very clear division between army, navy, and air, are likely on their way out. Flexibility is the key to future defence policy. It needs to be the core consideration. We are out of the trenches now, and if we are not careful, every war will be more like Vietnam than we’d like. That is why the Government’s essentially on-inflation increase to training spending is a fairly pitiful and short-sighted gesture. Procurement is not the only solution - we need real training now, as war is changing at a quite fundamental level.”

“As far as the Royal Navy goes, the idea that we can cut down 10 Destroyers & Frigates is just silly. It is the only part of the whole report which I read and felt, well, genuinely disappointed by. I have a lot of respect for the military acumen of Mr Clark, and actually, one can say a lot about the Conservative Party, but they have never been short of links to the military. Most of the defence review is based in a reasonable and genuine belief that actually, in a post-wall age, we need reform, and we need a more modern, flexible, military. This proposal strikes me as one which is concerned with finances, not with the national interest. I do not want to dedicate a large part of this policy announcement to the Royal Navy, however. This is not due to a lack of interest - quite the contrary in fact. It is due to the fact that more than our ground forces and air forces, I believe the role played by our Navy will change more fundamentally. We need a very deep rooted review. Options for Change is not that, for the Navy. It pays close attention to our armed forces and RAF. Whilst this attention is due, I simply feel it is light, and airy, and not as diligent. That is why I am calling for an entirely separate review for the Royal Navy, rooted in two principles; modernisation and flexibility. I also want to see one further principle taken into consideration - that this is a review about our role in the world, about a question that will affect generations, not about short-term savings. Decommissioning 10 perfectly good ships is not a good decision, it is short-sighted money saving, and I will not back it by any stretch. We need real reform of this section.”

“On the review’s proposals for the Air Force, the cuts proposed are sensible. It is not in Britain nor Germany’s strategic interest to continue funding RAF Wildenrath nor Gutersloh - the wall has fallen, after all. However, simply proposing cuts is not good enough. Over the pond, the Americans have nearly 50 fighter wings. We, on the other hand, are proposing effectively selling off perfectly good Tornados. At a time of economic downturn, with a military need to invest in planes, it is the perfect time for air force procurement, with preference to British built modern fighters like the Tornado. It beggars belief that the Government look at the RAF as a way to save money. On questions as existential as our role in the world, for one of the most powerful and advanced nations on the planet, small short-term savings should not be the question. Indeed, I think the good, skilled jobs created have a far greater and more positive economic influence than Civil Service penny-pinching. We have some 93,000 serving in the RAF at the moment. I understand the need for some reductions in numbers in the army, but in the RAF, it is our time to take the lead and firmly become Europe’s main player in the skies once more. I want to see 7,000 more recruited, to bring us up to over 100,000 servicemen and women. This would be at a cost of over £400 million, a remarkable return for investment. Investing now is the sort of far-sighted policy that we need. We will be reliant on the skies more than we have been since Britain fought Nazi Germany. I am proposing a ring-fenced procurement budget for the RAF over the next Parliamentary term of a full £2.8 billion, and a guarantee of preferential sourcing for British planes and parts.”

“The philosophical and ideological basis of these changes are because I, genuinely, believe Britain has a duty to the world. I am an unashamed, unapologetic internationalist. We cannot abdicate our responsibilities and expect no repercussions. The concept of being the world’s policeman is often used as an argument to provoke guffaws, in some circles. I find that attitude to be totally against the interests of the international community. We are a strong, open, democratic nation, and must have a military to match. We must do our duty abroad. We must protect humanity, just as we have always strove to do. We must fight fascists, autocrats, and dictators where we can, and build a more democratic planet. We must, because it is our duty, and because now - as the Soviet Union crumbles and the Iron Curtain is lifted - we have a historic opportunity to do so. And I want my party, the Democrats, to be at the front of the agenda on creating a defence and foreign policy rooted in humanity, and in democratic intervention. Patriotism is about a love for one’s own people, and a belief that one’s own values should be spread. I believe in the spread of democracy, and having a large, well-funded, modern military - reforms to which I have proposed today - is essential to that. Where people in the world are oppressed, we should be on their side. Britain should be on their side. And Britain should not be scared of putting her troops on the ground to do so.”

“To bring my remarks here to a close, I would like to cite another great historical figure. Viscount Grey of Fallonden was a Liberal Foreign Secretary in the early 1900s, and served at the start of the Great War. The comment he is best remembered for is a piece of long termist, genuinely sage statesmanship. He remarked that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. He was right, however, he would not live to see quite how right he was. Grey died in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. He did not see the Iron Curtain fall over Eastern Europe, or the Berlin Wall put up, or any other one of the great conflicts of the post-war era. What Grey was most right about, though, is the end of his remark - “in our lifetime”. The lamps were not lit in his lifetime. However, they now appear to be flickering. “

“I myself was born in 1945, the year Britain, united with our European and American friends, defeated Hitler. It is now the duty of my generation, and the generation of our Parliamentarians and leaders, to be just as sage and far-sighted. Though the future may be just as foggy as ever, we have more friends than ever before. The Soviets have fallen, just as the Nazis did, as their hateful, oppressive, autocratic regimes collapse under their own weight, and the pressure of democracies like our own. As the lamps go on all over Europe, we must seize the day and make Britain lead the effort to build a better world for all.

Note: the total sum of investments proposed in this speech is £4 billion, which would be the largest proportional increase in defence spending since the 1950s.
Alex Cardigan MP
Deputy Prime Minister (1992-present)
Leader of the Liberal Democrats (1990-present) | MP for Montgomery (1983-present)
Former BBC Broadcaster | Liberal Party | XP: 20 | Issue Champion | Safe Pair of Hands
This is a comprehensive and detailed policy speech from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, tackling an issue that his party hasn't focused on as much in the past. It is clear he knows the brief here and defence establishment figures are quietly impressed.

The proposals also gain attention given the possibility that they could be implemented as part of the next government, in the eventuality that there is a hung Parliament where Cardigan holds the balance of power.

1XP and Issue Champion trait to Cardigan.
Redgrave | A-Team

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