This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics
Do you have a general rule as to what to look at? Is it a 50:50 split between, say, the human impact on armed forces staff versus the strategic things? How do you ensure that kind of spread, particularly when you have such an enormous pool of potential subjects?
I would say it’s more split into thirds. A third on the fluffier issues…
What counts as ‘fluffier’?
The ‘fluffier’ issues are things like accommodation, education and medical help. That does, however, morph into a frontline issue when you see some of the things that people go through in Afghanistan, some of the injuries they sustain...
And then there are the industrial and money issues as another third, like the accounts relating to how equipment is procured, whether it’s been procured in the right quantities and in the most sensible way. After that, there are the larger issues: Is Russia still posing a threat to the West? Are our alliances appropriate? Will Argentina invade the Falklands?
We’ve been at war throughout your time as defence select committee chair. Do you get emotionally attached to certain issues, or have you deliberately kept one step back?
It’s difficult to avoid getting involved with these issues, but we have to maintain a certain sort of objectivity. The personal equipment that the armed forces have now is very good indeed – they say it’s the best it’s ever been. The problem is whether, at the same time as affording good boots and good protective armour, they can afford the right mobility, whether there are sufficient numbers of helicopters, stuff like that. That’s been the real problem over the last five years, though the personal equipment has been getting steadily better since I became chair... There’s no ‘cause and effect’ there.
There’s been an increase in the number of attacks made by Afghan soldiers and Afghan police on British soldiers. There was the attack on the airbase where Prince Harry is serving. From your work on Afghanistan, what conclusions have you drawn concerning our continued involvement in the conflict? Are we going along the right lines with the strategy, and could we withdraw, come 2014?
The attacks by [some] Afghan policemen and soldiers upon NATO troops are very distressing – for the professional Afghan soldiers and policemen as well, because they’re concerned that their friends are being attacked unjustifiably. However, it’s a fact of life, and we can only leave Afghanistan with honour if we leave it in the hands of a competent security force, and can only create a competent security force by working alongside current security units, to help them become as proficient as possible. Inevitably, that involves a degree of risk, but it also involves a degree of protection; the more you get to know the local people, the more they’re likely to want to protect you – in most cases. There will be some who infiltrate the police or the army in order to have a go at NATO forces, and there’s no way of getting around that. The problem about two or three years ago was getting the Afghan security force numbers up. Now, we have to greatly improve the vetting process so that those who could harm our soldiers are least likely to be able to do so. But it’s a constant dilemma, and there isn’t any real answer to it.
No, but considering the timetable to withdrawal in 2014, do you think it’s going to be possible to leave the Afghan security forces to look after their country?
It will be an imperfect security force, but David Cameron has made it plain that, in terms of large numbers or any combat role, we’re going to be leaving by 2014. I was open about having strong doubts about that when he first announced it. Then, with Cameron saying we were going to be leaving by 2014, President Obama saying the same thing and President Karzai saying he wanted us gone by 2014, I thought maybe I was wrong. I was struck by the statement of a soldier who returned from Afghanistan a couple of months ago: he initially thought that Cameron had been wrong to announce a set leaving date, but having been deployed there for six months, he was embarrassed when it became clear to him that, in order to force the Afghans to take control of their own destiny, the British had to leave. So I might have to change my mind about it.
Alongside the moral reason why we’re in Afghanistan is the impact on our armed forces of the imminent MoD cuts. With your strategic hat on, how do you assess what the British forces will be, and be able to do, in the future?
There are two aspects to this. It will be able to do less because of fewer personnel, but modern defence is such that we can do a huge amount with the more powerful weapons we have. There’s quality in quantity: although you need a decent number of soldiers to be able to hold ground and stabilise a place, modern weapons capability means you don’t need as many as before. That said, the most powerful weapon a country can have, in its own defence, is a sound and strong economy. The government has to ensure that we can continue to borrow at a low interest rate, and thereby ensure that we have the future prosperity to be able to defend ourselves. In the long run, you can’t afford to have a huge army that you can’t afford to pay, with masses of equipment that you can’t afford to buy.
As a Conservative MP, do you feel some sadness at seeing historic regiments disappearing?
Yes, of course, but we must remember to fight the future battles. It would be a disaster if we spent money unnecessarily on preserving a regiment rather than spending it arming ourselves against new forms of threat. So the SDSR announcing that £650m extra would be spent on cyber defence is the right thing to do. It’s a new form of threat, and that money has to come from somewhere. Making money available quickly usually means a reduction in personnel.
You talked about meeting Cameron last week. Do you find that he listens to what you say?
Yes, I do. He’s got his own opinions, and a lot on his plate, but he’s a highly intelligent politician who’s doing his best in a country that’s in an extraordinary economic position. He’d very much like to be able to spend more on defence, just as he’d like to spend more in a number of areas where people are under real pressure. But, strategically, I think he’s decided that the economy has to be put right, and it’s very difficult to argue with that.
What about the defence secretary? His public image is that of a slightly dour, forensic man who cuts through the figures that fall across his desk, and who will understand trends immediately, but who perhaps doesn’t have the same empathy with the armed forces that maybe Liam Fox had. What’s your perception, having worked closely with him?
I haven’t worked that closely with him; he tends to work more alone and to announce his decisions rather more than most other politicians. The greatest challenge which faced the incoming government was a defence budget that appeared to be completely out of control; maybe it was a problem that’s been growing for years. But, the coming of Philip Hammond, who is good at money and with figures, meant that possibly the greatest threat to the MoD – the Treasury thinking that the ministry had no idea what it was doing – was dealt with. While Hammond had no clear or obvious defence experience beforehand, he had the ability to persuade the Treasury that the government was back in control, and that’s going to have a long-term benefit for the MoD. And yes, it would be good if over the course of the next few years he could also develop a sense of empathy with the forces. That’s something he has to work on, as I said very strongly in the last session in July, when he came in front of us.
So, you’d want him in place for a number of years ahead? It sounds like you see him as being able to change a culture and fight for MoD causes...
Well, I don’t know about that... I don’t know whether he’s going to be able to build that empathy, so that’s something I’ll keep an open mind about. But certainly, his priority has been getting on top of the money, and it seems he’s been rather successful about that. That will make it possible, either for him or someone else, to create an MoD and armed forces with higher morale and increased sense of direction than they have at present.
Is this the most enjoyable part of your political career?
(Resoundingly) Yes. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s much better than being chief whip, government whip or minister for defence procurement, wonderful though that [latter] job was. I have the freedom to do and say what I think is right, and I’ve never felt that before in my political life. As chair of a select committee, I’m required not to take a party-political view. I realised that it was a job I wanted to do when I was a defence minister.