Robertson keeps his powder dry

Nothing rash, nothing radical - the new Defence Secretary seeks a consensus
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The Independent Online
The Secretary of State for Defence's spacious Whitehall office has a 1940s feel about it. The furniture is wooden, hard and uncomfortable, and the imposing desk once belonged to Winston Churchill. Labour's new man on the job, George Robertson, thought about replacing it, but soon decided that would have been taking New Labour just a little too far.

There were other, more pressing decisions to be taken. For instance, within minutes of his appointment Mr Robertson was presented a cheque made out for pounds 207m, and asked for a signature. The new minister stalled, consulting Gordon Brown. The "Iron Chancellor" was initially reluctant to part with the cash, but relented immediately when he learned that the money would be spent on a submarine refit at Rosyth. Rosyth lies in Mr Brown's constituency.

Politics at the Ministry of Defence ranges from the pork barrel, with constituency MPs fighting for jobs and cash, through to arguments about the purpose of Britain's armed services, especially after a week in which Boris Yeltsin announced that Russia's nuclear weapons will no longer be trained on the west.

It is a formidable agenda, and the first news from the new Secretary of State is that his caution is not confined to interior decoration. Expect nothing rash or radical. Mr Robertson's first decision was to announce that nothing would be done until a thorough defence review has been completed. All we know so far is what it will not recommend. "It is not about cutting us down to three frigates, five tanks and a white flag," he says.

THERE have been two defence reviews in the past decade but Mr Robertson did not admire them. When we talked last week he dismissed the work of his Conservative predecessor. "Their last exercise was not motivated by getting a long-term review, it was designed to get cuts. People did understand that, after the Cold War, there had to be some changes in defence, but they didn't see any sense in what the government was doing. We have to build consensus on what follows from that."

There is no shortage of things to discuss. Britain has a role in the post Cold War settlement, and withdrawal from Hong Kong this July marks the end of a concluding chapter in the withdrawal from empire. At the same time, British expertise in smaller scale military operations, such as humanitarian and peace-keeping work, is internationally admired.

The review is being conducted by a new government which has already shown a taste for dramatic gestures. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has outlined a foreign policy mission statement with human rights and ethical considerations at the core which could conflict with arms sales to, say, Indonesia. Clare Short, overseas development minister with Cabinet rank, would emphasise the peace-keeping role of the armed services. The man in the driving seat is sending out distinctly cautious signals.

Far from raising expectations of this review - to which Labour have been committed for years in opposition - Mr Robertson argues it "may only produce changes at the margins". Consultation is the order of the day. "We have to bring people along with us. The Tories ran the country as if they owned it, they were the board of directors of the UK plc. Our process is different. It is not a matter of me sitting in Winston Churchill's chair with a map of the world, deciding the military configuration."

Mr Robertson wants to bring some glasnost to the proceedings; something for which his department is not renowned. There will be Foreign Office involvement. Academics and other defence specialists will be asked to contribute. By the end of July there should be a document outlining the policy framework. A report will go to the Defence and Overseas Policy cabinet committee. The exercise should be completed by the end of the year.

"What we don't want to do is to throw the armed services upside down. They have had a 30 per cent reduction, and what we need is coherence. It is already clear that there are shortfalls as a result of the overhaul in equipment, proper training and rest periods. That has to be examined." Mr Robertson has also made it clear that spending is not going to increase. While the Euro-fighter project will be backed, other big procurements such as a new frigate, the replacement maritime patrol aircraft, and the advanced anti-armour weaponry will go into the review. Troop deployments in Germany, which are already declining, look vulnerable, although the minister sees a presence there as part of a bigger commitment to a stable Europe. Besides, too radical a reduction would mean Britain would lose the prestigious leadership of the Rapid Reaction Force.

Some Labour left-wingers sense an opportunity to expand peace-keeping activities at the expense of traditional "high-intensity" warfare. One favoured option is an extensive reorganisation of Britain's armed forces so they concentrate on the areas in which they would best contribute to our multi-national obligations. Consequently, functions at which, for example, our European partners excel - like heavy artillery - would be judged surplus to requirements.

But for the Party's radicals, the message is not encouraging. Expertise in high-intensity conflict is, the minister argues, a vital component in conflicts like Bosnia where heavy artillery has been deployed with considerable effect. While the MoD played a big role in promoting a ban on landmines, export licences for military equipment to Indonesia have to be decided soon, and Mr Robertson will not be drawn on the result. As for the nuclear deterrent, it is under no threat at all.

In fact, the new government's attitudes appear remarkably similar to those of the Conservatives. Mr Robertson argues, "The armed forces have to be able to fight the sort of war which might be deployed against Britain or its allies. They will probably need to perform their role in support of the civil authorities in Northern Ireland, while playing a role in European and UN operations." In other words, the broad commitments do not change.

SO, why the caution? In tactical terms, Mr Robertson makes a virtue of the fact that the review will be led by the Foreign Office and not the Treasury, and will not, therefore, be simply about cost-cutting. Indeed defence has been removed from the Treasury's immediate survey of spending. If a radical line is to emerge, it will come from Mr Cook. Yet he has been so pre-occupied with the imminent European Inter-Governmental Conference that he has given little thought to defence.

But there are deeper influences that go back to the 1980s, when Labour paid the political price of unilateralism in the 1983 election and the suggestion that it was soft on defence in 1987. The changing political map of Britain is a second influence. Defence is one of the biggest job- creators, and Labour has always been sensitive about cuts. One reason for the party's commitment to a jobs diversification agency is to divert military technology into civilian projects. Work on this is in the pipeline, although Mr Robertson says that it might now become one of the scientific and research divisions of the MoD.

But one of the unexpected consequences of Mr Blair's landslide is the extent to which the Conservatives have lost their grip on the defence heartlands. The Chancellor is not alone on the government benches in representing a seat with large service populations or many defence-related jobs. Mr Robertson argues: "We are now the party of defence, with seats in areas like Portsmouth and Plymouth where defence is most important. We have changed completely, and the parliamentary Labour Party has a far greater interest than ever before. You can't go anywhere without finding a procurement angle." Mindful of the inexperience of Labour MPs, Mr Robertson is anxious expand the Parliamentary Armed Forces scheme, under which MPs spend at least 21 days a year with the armed forces.

ALL in all, this sounds like an agenda with which the Chiefs of Staff will be able to live, despite the danger that Britain's forces will be stretched ever more thinly. One left-winger argued last week that the civil service, aware of Labour's manifesto commitment to look at defence, had "already written the review sometime ago".

One MoD veteran echoes this cynicism, and believes it improbable that the Labour government will grapple with the great issues of defence which question the need for the armed services. "What the Conservatives did with 'Options for Change' was not so much to look to the future, but more to rectify the deficiencies of the past few years," he says, and expects much the same again. By coincidence, the MoD's Permanent Secretary, Richard Mottram, happens to be one of the authors of that report, though the suggestion that minds are already made up may be too cynical. The minister stresses that his mind remains open.

After years in opposition, Mr Robertson says he relishes the task of taking tough decisions. Moreover, he is glad to be out of the maelstrom of Scottish politics. "A week ago I held a press conference in Sarajevo and no-one asked me about the West Lothian Question or the Tartan Tax," he says. "That conference was the most peaceful, sensible and constructive I've done in the last four years."