Image Credit: Will Haigh/MOD
When it comes to government ministries, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has perhaps the worst reputation when it comes to fiscal overspending. The recent assessment from the National Audit Office (NAO) describing how poor the management and infrastructure of the Trident nuclear armament, costing the country another billion pounds unnecessarily, is just one example out of many across the past decade of continued overspending from the MoD. In an era of austerity where, not only royal palaces are refurbished to the tune of hundreds of millions but the defence ministry is irresponsibly using the people’s money, the character of a supposedly watertight, strategically-minded government is naturally questioned, especially when our social services are struggling. With this zeitgeist in mind, the question inevitably arises whether the Trident is relevant at all?
In the midst of realigning the country following the slow divorce from the EU, the UK’s arsenal is now arguably more important than ever. Though among the largest efforts to maintain relations with Europe are grounded in military and security concerns, WMDs provide a degree of sovereignty that isn’t found in most non-nuclear powers. The potential for unimaginable destruction sets clear barriers for how a state must be treated and that, if anything, is the legacy of the last 30 years of foreign policy. Regularly, the world’s superpowers seek to maintain countries in a state of disarmament so as to further cede their independence to the hegemon. Of course, other factors are involved in international relations; I’m not pretending that the UK can threaten the US with mutually-assured destruction so as to avoid getting chlorinated chicken and inflated drug prices, but access to nuclear weapons can’t be taken for granted. The lengths that nuclear powers go in order to prevent that same armament from being available for the rest of the world just goes to show how significant it is to a nation’s security.
When it comes to the armed forces themselves, the MoD has regularly overspent, however the efforts to make the forces more cost-effective have their own consequences too. For instance, one way in which the British Army is seeking to limit spending is by moving regular forces from barracks, such as where the Yorkshire Regiment is based, to expanding super-bases such as Catterick where land is cheap, selling more expensive land in cultural centres such as York for housing development. This cuts costs sure enough but makes the armed forces less appealing as regulars are more likely to be stationed in more rural areas, which is worrying given the army has had falling recruitment numbers for several years now. Efforts to avoid the problems related to relocating troops may result instead in cutting pay or the quality of equipment provided.
Reforms must be made, though. The journalism that circulates about mismanagement and overspending doesn’t exist in a vacuum where a few billion disappears here and there, but in a context where the cutting of social services has resulted in a demonstrable loss of life. These fiscal decisions have a real impact on people and that must be remembered when talking about unimaginably large amounts of money. The armed forces are made up of people, too, with their own pay, pensions and concerns for the future. When it comes down to the record of the Conservatives, however, even if the military faced significant cuts that freed up billions, that money still likely wouldn’t be spent to amend the most desperate socioeconomic and political concerns.