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Without being credibly costed, the Integrated Review risks reducing Britain’s foreign policy to ‘virtue signalling and symbolism’

Without being credibly costed, the Integrated Review risks reducing Britain’s foreign policy to ‘virtue signalling and symbolism’

Once credibly costed, the Integrated Review must focus its foreign and security policy on activities and capabilities that deliver real benefits for national prosperity and security, writes Kevan Jones MP. | PA Images

4 min read

I fear the absence of a credible Defence and Equipment Plan could risk the Integrated Review immediately unravelling.

During the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, the government announced plans to conduct an Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. Heralded as “the most radical reassessment of [the UK’s] place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, the Review promises to “cover all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development.”

Whilst we have suffered continuous delay on the then newly termed ‘Integrated Review’, the timing of the review has never been firmly decided upon by the government. Last month, the Defence Secretary said it would be published in early February, only to be contradicted by the Prime Minister just two days later.

That said, the timing for the review now may be rather well-placed, primarily due to it being able to take account of where the US is heading under President Joe Biden, and I look forward to the government bringing it forward in early-Spring.

At regular intervals, UK governments have been drawn back into the value element of foreign policy, without an honest examination of the cost.

According to the NAO, the Defence and Equipment Plan – the plan which costs UK defence programmes for the next decade – has been unaffordable for four years running. Its latest iteration places the UK defence budget £13bn in the red, even without the costings for almost 100 new F-35s, new unmanned mine countermeasures vessels, and rotary support.

This constant need to alter and correct may have contributed to the ‘review fatigue’ we hear about on Whitehall, and certainly contributes to the anxiety of industry

Its release two months prior to the Integrated Review should rationalise the government’s ambitions and remind the UK government of the need to cut its cloth accordingly and address ends, ways and means together. As Lord Stirrup told the House of Commons Defence Committee recently: ‘If you do not consider the whole package, including the money necessary, then you do not have a strategic review.’

This is not always the case. In previous iterations, the Security and Defence reviews have followed a similar route as the Defence and Equipment Plan. The 2010 review was followed by the three-month exercise in 2011, because the sums did not add up in the 2010 review.

The 2015 review was followed by the NSCR and the Modernising Defence Programme—again, the 2015 NSCR made entirely unrealistic assumptions about efficiency savings, which subsequently proved to be unviable. This constant need to alter and correct may have contributed to the ‘review fatigue’ we hear about on Whitehall, and certainly contributes to the anxiety of industry.

It also creates a foreign policy over-reliant on ‘presence’, of being seen to ‘fly the flag’ to provide assurances to international allies, without the attribution of credible force. This not only overextends forces; it risks reducing the important value element of foreign policy to virtue signalling and symbolism. As Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI has stated: ‘doing good, not feeling good, needs to be the guiding narrative for the ethical dimensions of UK foreign policy.’

Whilst the Prime Minister’s ‘Global Britain’ ambition and ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ may communicate the UK’s desire to protect our values and provide assurances to global allies, I fear the absence of a credible Defence and Equipment Plan could risk the Integrated Review immediately unravelling.

Last July, Professor Amelia Hadfield outlined during HCDC’s evidence sessions ‘unless we explicitly state within this Review what we as a country believe in and link these beliefs to how we act on the world stage at a strategic, operational and individual level, then our values could be unconsciously downgraded over time.’ I would agree, but also add that the same downgrade will occur if we are dishonest about the financial burden of protecting these values.

Once credibly costed, the Integrated Review must focus its foreign and security policy on activities and capabilities that deliver real benefits for national prosperity and security. Extra funding must be centred on the need for a new vision for British foreign policy; one that benefits domestic industry.

 

Kevan Jones is the Labour MP for North Durham and a member of the defence committee. 

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