Tribune leader, 10 July 1992
“We are not a global power, nor do we have aspirations to be a global power. We are primarily a middle-ranking European power.”
So said Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, on Tuesday, the day he published the Government’s 1992 de­fence White Paper, and it is difficult to disagree with the sentiments. Britain’s world empire is long gone, its economy is only the fourth biggest in Europe (and sixth biggest in the world) and its influ­ence in world affairs is minimal.
Yet the practice of Mr Rifldnd’s Min­istry of Defence does not match his mod-eat rhetoric. For all the talk of a new de­fence strategy in the White Paper and for all the spending cuts planned in the next five years, British military procurement decisions are still being made as if the cold war were in full swing.
The most obvious sign of this is the MoD’s decision to place the long-delayed order for the fourth Trident nuclear sub­marine with the VSEL shipyard in Bar­row. That decision will be widely wel­comed there because it will save the yard from closure for a few more years. But there is absolutely no rationale for the fourth Trident boat except as a job-creation scheme. In the absence of a Soviet nuclear threat, precisely whom is Trident supposed to deter? Is it really worth spending £33,000 million or so over the next 30 years to provide insurance against the unlikely eventuality of a rogue Third World state acquiring not just nuclear weapons but also the ability and desire to threaten Britain with them?
But Trident is not the only evidence of continuing MoD delusions of grandeur. Almost as telling is its response to the German government’s decision last week to pull out of the production phase of the four-nation European Fighter Aircraft. The Germans, after more than two years of weighing up the options, have decided that EFA is not the sort of fighter that they will need at the turn of the century. Because it is designed to counter the very best Soviet aircraft, it is extremely com­plex and therefore expensive. But because the cold war has ended, there is no need to counter the very best Soviet air­craft. The Germans believe that they can make do with a cheaper fighter.
There is no reason that Britain cannot do the same. Indeed, as with Trident, the only rationale for continuing with EFA in its current form is as a job-creation scheme. There is no military reason for producing such a high-tech aircraft and the export market for EFA is shrinking by the month.
Labour has responded to all this by ex­pressing concern about jobs and the preservation of Britain’s manufacturing base, which is fine as far as it goes. In the long run, however, the fact is that Britain cannot remain reliant on military indus­try if it is going to compete in the interna­tional markets of the next century. Labour must make it clear that, rather than paying billions to keep the shipyard workers of Barrow employed on Trident and the British Aerospace workforce beavering away on EFA, the answer is to switch that expenditure to civilian projects, particularly retraining and research and development, to give British high-tech manufacturing a chance to prosper beyond the end of the decade.
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