Leading Article: Labour, much too defensive

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The Independent Online
THE LANGUAGE of Thatcherism has at last entered the world of brass hats and brass bands. Malcolm Rifkind's defence costs study, published last week, is spattered with references to 'rationalisation', 'efficiency', 'closure of non-viable establishments'. To judge from some of the cuts proposed, there was a deal of rationalising to be done. How have the services got away all these years with 219 recruitment offices, many of them on prime high street sites, at a cost of pounds 100m? (Do you expect to find recruitment offices for teachers, nurses or social workers next to Marks & Spencer?) Why have we been spending pounds 6m a year on training buglers and drummers for the Royal Marines in Deal? Why do the armed forces have so many animals and vets that they can readily save pounds 3m a year under this heading? Why have airmen been allowed to retain Spanish practices - including a 117-hour working month - that would cause ministerial apoplexy if discovered on factory floors or in school staff rooms?

For years, the armed forces, like the police, were excused the babble of productivity and performance indicators that has been inflicted on other public services. It is to John Major's credit that he has, at least partially, ended their special status. You would expect Labour to be cheering last week's cuts. The questions could have been: why was waste allowed for so long? Can we find more cuts? Are the 'sweetners' - new equipment orders worth pounds 5bn - really necessary? But no. Labour's spokesman, Donald Anderson, praised the forces as one of our 'great centres of excellence' (compare but do not bother to contrast Mr Rifkind's 'among the most impressive in the world') and demanded 'an assurance to our shell-shocked service personnel . . . that there will be a period of stability'. Even more extraordinary, he promised they 'will receive better under Labour'.

There should, of course, be sympathy and help for the 18,700 people who will lose their jobs. But if Labour is serious about its commitments to put more resources into education and health, without soaking Middle England in taxation, it must address the question of where it does intend to restrict spending. Politics, in Harold Wilson's words, is the language of priorities. Cutting defence is still the best answer to the inevitable questions about 'how will you find the money?'. And members of the armed forces are far more likely to have transferable skills, and prospects of employment elsewhere than, say, redundant miners. This indeed is one of the arguments for controlling defence spending: it eats up too much of our most precious resources, such as skilled scientists and engineers and research and development effort.

Britain's defence policy is still based on the idea that we should strut the world as a great military power. In 1992, we spent 4.1 per cent of GDP on defence, a proportion exceeded within Nato only by Greece (with special regional problems) and the United States. Mr Rifkind's cuts will reduce the proportion to 2.9 per cent in 1996-97, closer to what is now the Nato average but, since others are making cuts, probably still well above it by then.

Perhaps Labour's stance is not so surprising: Britain's long post-war love affair with tanks, planes, battleships and rockets dates from a Labour Cabinet decision to begin a huge rearmament programme in the spring of 1951. Many historians believe this was a turning point. 'It was precisely in these years,' wrote Professor Sidney Pollard, the economic historian, 'that other countries, above all Germany and Japan, could begin to build up a technical lead and start . . . wresting one export market after another from Britain. While we built tanks and planes, they built machinery with which to achieve their later success'. Our best hope for a German- or French-style economic miracle, wrote Professor Peter Hennessy, 'was scattered . . . on the hills above the Imjin in Korea and along the Rhine in Germany'.

The end of the Cold War provides a belated opportunity to unpick that error. The 'peace dividend' so far has proved a miserly one. Labour has called, albeit very feebly, for a full-scale review of Britain's defence commitments. So there should be - a fundamental one to include such questions as why we still need troops on the Rhine. But it is no use Labour pretending that it can be done without loss of jobs and much consequent pain. And it is no use pretending that it can avoid hard choices in this or any other area. If he does become Labour leader on Thursday, Tony Blair should act at once to stop the kind of wet and vapid thinking that did his party so little credit last week.