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Geoffrey Van Orden MEP: Rebuilding our armed forces

Van_orden_geoffrey Geoffrey Van Orden MEP is Conservative Defence Spokesman in the European Parliament.

The Prime Minister's defence assessment, delivered on board HMS Albion, is correct. What a pity that the policies of his Government are wholly out of step with his analysis.

There is indeed a deep-rooted, worldwide and long-term terrorist threat; this threat certainly requires well-equipped armed forces; success depends on a three-way compact between Government, the armed forces and public opinion; both 'hard' and 'soft' power are important; the alliance with the US is vital. All this is spot on.

But while our troops are valiantly holding the line in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Government offers them nothing but insult – whether it is the wrong ammunition, lack of proper protection, the cancellation of parachute training, cannibalising equipment from units in training to equip those on operations, or the parsimonious imposition of year on year 'efficiency' savings which have led to appalling living accommodation in many places.

Our armed forces are undermanned and inadequately equipped for the tasks demanded of them. This is as much down to Mr Brown as to Mr Blair. It is an interesting comment on this Government that, in recent years, Social Security spending has increased by an amount (£35.5 billion) that is greater than the annual defence budget (£30.1 billion). As a proportion of our national wealth, defence spending is now at its lowest level since the early 1930s.

For decades our armed forces have suffered both massive cuts and 'salami-slicing'. There now needs to be massive injection of new money, guaranteed for the long term. The armed forces are one of the few public bodies in Britain that actually work. They have an influence which goes beyond their immediate tasks. They are worth investing in and the case for this needs to be made strongly both in Whitehall and in the country at large. And fresh roots need to be developed among a wider public, particularly young people.

The Iraq adventure and Mr Blair's fawning attitude to the President, have seriously reduced public affection, even in Britain, for the US. A British Prime Minister should stand up for British interests. The key institutional framework for military co-operation with the US is NATO, but the Alliance has been sidelined.

Military and diplomatic resources have instead been dissipated and distracted in the construction of an EU Defence Policy. It is this Government that has been instrumental in encouraging EU involvement in defence. This has added nothing to military capabilities but has led to wasteful duplication, and merely serves another country's foreign policy objectives. The defence budgets and political will of our continental allies have declined alarmingly and the commitment to NATO seriously weakened. If most continental countries have retreated to the peacekeeping option and abandoned the capability and will for war-fighting then the attitudes  promoted by this Government in the EU must take the blame. If the EU must have a role, then it should be solely in the realm of 'soft' power, putting its humanitarian, development and reconstruction programmes to better use.

The domestic terrorism threat would be much reduced if our borders were secure, if extremists were expelled, and immigration from countries that are hotbeds of terrorism properly controlled. This might also help the successful integration of our settled immigrant population. At the moment, our forces have sallied forth from the castle to engage the enemy at a distance while the ramparts are unmanned and the drawbridge is down.

I agree that we need a new defence covenant. There are three elements to this - a secure and supportive home base; well-equipped military and security forces, and reliable alliances. This Government has failed to deliver all of these and has betrayed the trust of our people and our armed forces. And, given the widespread public distrust of the Prime Minister, his attempt to identify publicly with the armed forces at this late stage will be damaging to their cause.


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