Last week saw a large batch of voluntary and forced redundancy notices (unemployment slips) for members of the UK armed forces. The cuts – which will eventually see 22,000 personnel leave their respective services – will help accommodate an 8% drop in defense funding and a long-term saving plan to claw back a £36 billion spending gap.
Sadly, despite legitimate arguments about the dangers of cutting personnel in wartime, the opposition party (Labour) has instead chosen to tap into the emotive issue of redundancies for political gain. This does both themselves and the armed forces a disservice at this difficult time.
Leading the charge was Labour Shadow (opposition) Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, who attacked the plans for doing “too much, too quickly.” He proceeded to tell any reporter listening that “[while] the deficit is temporary, the cuts at this stage are permanent … this has got very long-term consequences for our country."
Other than stating the obvious to score easy armed forces lobby points – cuts are always painful and have “long term consequences” – this stance seems to have little basis in policy. After all, the Labour party, which presided over the accumulation of today’s defense spending deficit during a decade of expensive deployments, should be as aware as any of the state of Britain’s finances. Calls to delay today’s cuts will do nothing to improve this fiscal situation.
Similarly, while the parliamentary committee charged with monitoring the program expressed concerns about the pace of this defense review, that same bipartisan committee also acknowledged the “necessity and urgency” of the review.
It is thus difficult to attribute any motivation to the Shadow Secretary’s views, other than wanting his words to be alluringly pasted alongside recently unemployed soldiers in today’s papers. This is political brinkmanship at its cheapest.
It is also a tragedy, because there are genuine and thoughtful debates to be had about the UK’s current redundancies, and the opposition is failing to represent them.
For a start, the spectre of redundancy is a dangerous de-motivational force in a military so heavily deployed around the world. British force casualties in Afghanistan (380 killed, 5,000+ committed as casualty) mark the conflict as the bloodiest in contemporary British military history. A high level of morale is required under such conditions, and morale is likely to wane under the threat of unemployment.
Equally, there have been some reports that senior British military officers – including SAS special-forces commanders – have quit the service in the past months on a voluntary basis. This raises the spectre of a “brain drain” of the fighting – and thinking – expertise that compromises the institutional core of the British military.
Now these arguments do not necessarily invalidate the current course of action. The budget situation is dire, and all politics aside, every department must take its share of the austerity load. However, the task of political opposition is to carefully scrutinize government policy and flag potential errors.
A blanket criticism of military cuts – designed to appeal to popular sentiment about unemployed soldiers – simply doesn’t match up to this responsibility. It is instead cheap, unintellectual, and unlikely to succeed.
Labour has thus done the armed forces – and themselves – a disservice.
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