Bishop of Portsmouth on defence and diplomacy challenges post-Brexit

On 8th December 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Sterling of Plaistow, “That this House takes note of the impact of the withdrawal from the European Union on the United Kingdom’s armed forces and diplomatic service.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:

portsmouth241016The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, there are few constants or certainties in Brexit other than that Britain’s future will be markedly different. Brexit will have far-reaching implications for our place in Europe and the wider world. From a security perspective, the decision to leave the EU represents as significant a shift as the decision in the late 1960s to withdraw from bases east of Suez. If that was not daunting enough, Brexit also represents the biggest administrative and legislative challenge that a Government have faced since 1945, and is likely to shrink government departments’ bandwidth to engage with other issues. During the referendum campaign the subjects of foreign policy and defence and security received scant attention. When defence was mentioned, it was in apocalyptic terms. The then Chancellor claimed that leaving the EU would trigger World War III, while the then UKIP leader argued that staying would see the UK in an EU army commanded by tin-pot generals from Brussels.

Sadly, because of understandable political sensitivities, the November 2015 defence review did not assess the defence and security implications of a UK exit from the European Union. In view of the profound strategic shift that Brexit signals, there is a strong case for government to undertake a fresh, measured review of key strategic judgments and policy choices. The SDSR set out that the Government will,

“invest more in our relationships with our traditional allies and partners and build stronger partnerships around the world, to multiply what we can achieve alone”.

Does this remain consistent in a post-Brexit world? Is the unilateralism of Brexit compatible with the ambition of developing with other nations a rules-based international order?

The Foreign Secretary spoke about this at Chatham House only last week, when he said that we must,

“redouble our resolve … to defend and preserve the best of the rules-based international order”.

He continued by explaining the importance of such an aim in preventing a return to,

“an older and more brutal system where the strong are free to devour the weak”.

His suggestion that we shall need to redouble our effort indicates some understanding that confidence in us as a partner has been dented, at least, by Brexit, which has left some confusion about our ambition. This will be a challenge, and it also presents a trap, as there may be the temptation to indulge in demonstrations of national defence virility.

There is some ambiguity in the political rhetoric. For instance, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place explained his decision to support Brexit on the following grounds:

“Yes we would lose the benefits of being part of an emerging superstate but our vision would be global as we have the weight to count, if not to command, alone”.

The United Kingdom’s Armed Forces and Diplomatic Service will need to navigate such speculation, if not confusion, as to Britain’s role in the world, and the uncertainty of Brexit at the very time when political and financial resources continue to be stretched and the international security and diplomatic environment is ever-more challenging. It will be important to be clear about our driving objective.

Very many here and elsewhere, including me from this Bench, welcomed the Government’s commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence. That totemic target is now seen in its true light: 2% of what? We already face the uncertainty of variable exchange rates and the OBR’s forecasts of future GDP growth. Since we import defence, or at least some of it, and economic growth is uncertain, we may get less for our 2% commitment. Our commitment must not be to a particular spend or symbolic percentage, nor based on a new US President’s reported, and at best confused, thinking on NATO, but to what is needed for our security and defence. That is surely what our people expect.

Clear and articulate strategy, with investment in capabilities that have been hollowed out over the years, is essential so that there is consistency of word, will and action.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (Lab) [extract]..As the right reverend Prelate asked: what is 2% of GDP? It is a sum we need to ensure we have, and perhaps should be converted to an actual figure, because GDP is now being questioned.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con) [extract]:.. It is always a challenge—I say this particularly to my noble friends Lord Sterling and Lord Hamilton and the noble Lord, Lord West—to meet all the demands on the public purse. Of course I understand why noble Lords would wish to spend more on defence, a call that was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. The commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence came after a thorough examination of threats and risks, after which the Government decided on an appropriate level of funding.