The Liberal Democrat Conference: Embarrassing commitment to cut spending on defence is dropped

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The Independent Online
THE Liberal Democrats yesterday reversed a piece of policy which had long been an irritation to Paddy Ashdown when the conference dropped the party's aim of halving defence spending by 2000.

Securing the change to a 'serious policy', Menzies Campbell, the party's defence spokesman, said early optimism about a peace dividend had now to be tempered with realism.

The 1990 commitment to slash the MoD budget was regularly used by Conservatives to portray the Liberal Democrats as weak on defence, with jibes about whether they would scrap the Royal Air Force or the Navy.

Ending the embarrassment, party members voted by a clear majority to maintain the current real level of defence spending or even increase it if European security was threatened. This 'hard-headed' approach had a much better chance of being accepted by the public, Mr Campbell said.

He maintained that if a political settlement was reached in Northern Ireland, rather than cut the size of the Army its expertise should be made available to the United Nations. 'Our army has become the most effective counter-insurgency force in the world. It would be folly not to put that peace-keeping skill at the disposal of the United Nations.'

The conference also rejected a move to delete from the defence policy a commitment to retain a minimum nuclear deterrent provided by Trident submarines with no more warheads than deployed on Polaris.

Keith Melton, of the Liberal Democrat Peace Group, said that 50 years after the first nuclear war it was time to 'stop this madness'. Jake Jacobs, of Bexhill & Battle, said scrapping the two Tridents under construction could save pounds 33bn.

Mike Hopkins, of Edmonton and Southgate, said the party should be strong on defence and 'not pander to the idea of a new world of peace and harmony'. Drawing shouts of 'rubbish' and one of 'sieg heil', he said the United Nations should be wound up. No country should be too reliant on others to protect their sovereignty and 'aggressors should be given a bloody nose, not just a slap on the wrist'.

In a crumb of comfort for the peace wing, delegates backed a call for a limited extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, rather than a indefinite one, in order to maintain pressure for multilateral disarmament. Extensions would be linked to progress towards eliminating all nuclear weapons.