Though self-evident, it merits repeating: the coalition is proving useless. Despite needing clarity, it lost control of the tuition fee debate which quickly fell to violence. Despite the Eurozone’s slow-motion implosion, no serious direction on the matter has yet appeared. Indeed, despite both facing a war and a recession, its helmsmen found time to embroil themselves in a pasty scandal.
But, above all, the most shameful of this government’s failings must surely be the treatment of the nation’s armed forces. New Labour’s era of under-funding and over-tasking has been followed by something worse.
…the most galling piece of political amateurism in recent times…
Even now, a poignant symbol of this could be seen from the frigates moored at HMNB Portsmouth: the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. That is, an aircraft carrier without aircraft. Its jets already retired, the ship itself being sold as scrap for a mere £3 million, the former flagship silently yet eloquently represented perhaps the most galling piece of political amateurism in recent times.
Consider, for instance, that the entire Royal Navy surface fleet now stands at nineteen frigates and destroyers – smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falklands. The amalgamations of historic battalions will end brilliant careers – and produce a British Army smaller in 2015 than in 1815. As for the Royal Air Force, the tragic loss of three airmen in July underlined concerns over the ageing Tornado jet fleet. In short, while public sector unions clamour for special treatment, those protecting them endure true austerity with – it seems – absolute professionalism.
…obsession with nuclear weapons does not make for wise policy…
Is such austerity needed? Doubtless. As a Spitting Image sketch of Tony Blair adroitly foresaw, reality cannot be evaded; the excess of the Blair years will catch up. The problem here is not about balancing books, but a lack of strategic vision in government: what are the armed forces for and how should they be used? Astoundingly, one Liberal Democrat Briefing spared merely half an A4 page for the issue. One briefing from April this year goes to greater length – but never actually addresses these questions. Even allowing for the brevity of election manifestoes, a restricted outlook is clear: a CND-style obsession with nuclear weapons does not make for wise policy.
Conservative sources are little better, but for the deceptively curt note that “The Government believes that we need to take action to safeguard our national security at home and abroad.” The only moral purpose for a state’s existence is to protect its citizens’ rights – for which a strong, professional military is needed. The Conservatives at least imply this, yet coalition policy seems wholly divorced from that view. The Libyan intervention, for instance, did nothing to promote British national security; indeed it exacerbated matters in-country. Looking ahead, the notion of standing policy helping Britain to move from “campaigns to contingency” betrays ignorance of the importance of strategic reserves – in regular manpower; ships; planes – vital things that cannot be done without or on the cheap. After all, wars are unpredictable and invariably costly, and a bare-bones defence structure could easily be overtaken by events.
The coalition has achieved some notable things in its time. Michael Gove successfully challenged the de facto state monopoly of education; he ended GCSE grade inflation; a higher income tax threshold softened the state’s burden for thousands. But this cannot mask the fact that a government’s highest purpose has been passed over – and the loyalty of those who carry out that duty taken for granted. With the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 now behind us, we have another reminder of how insecure our world really is. And yet, when Britain needs a Palmerston more than ever, the attitudes of second-rate CND activists and political mediocrities prevail.