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What price our armed forces?

As a service wife, the treatment of our armed forces is obviously very important to me: it is also something about which I can talk with authority, unlike many of our politicians these days.

 At a time when government spending on defence is coming under increased scrutiny, we need to consider where we want to be in the world order and be prepared to spend money accordingly. Defence spending was 5% of GDP during the Cold War; it is now 2.4%. We can’t afford two medium-scale conflicts on current levels of spending: either we decide that we no longer wish to play a leading role on the world stage and scale down our armed forces and their commitments accordingly, or we bite the bullet (so to speak) and fund our armed forces properly to do the job we wish them to do.

Increasing defence commitments exponentially while only increasing spending incrementally has resulted in the situation we have today: an overstretched, underfunded army, with morale at an all time low and problems with recruiting and retention.

James Arbuthnott, Chair of the Defence Select Committee has gone on the record to say that, as a Defence Secretary, Des Browne isn’t necessarily doing a bad job, but all roads in this government lead, not to Rome, but to Gordon Brown.

I have been saying this for years, and it is small comfort to me that, suddenly, the media and other commentators have woken up to the fact that the crisis in defence spending can be laid entirely at the door of the former Chancellor. When I worked for the Army Families’ Federation, it was an open secret within the MoD that ‘Tony’ would happily give the forces whatever they needed, but the Treasury wouldn’t play ball.

Gordon Brown was part of the Cabinet that made the decision to go to war in Iraq: if he was so opposed to the invasion that he refused to fund it properly (and, in so doing, exposed our troops to what is quaintly called ‘unnecessary risk’), then he should have stood tall and said so. His was the second most powerful job in the country: many Labour MPs would have followed him into the No lobby and the vote might have been lost.

 We can speculate for ever on what the outcome of a ‘no’ vote in the House might have been, but, as he chose to vote with the Government, he should have followed up his decision with action where it counted.

Our service personnel don’t vote for war, but they expect the country to look after them and their families properly when they are asked to lay their lives on the line.

It sticks in my craw that a government that has found £24 billion (and counting) to prop up a private company, whose bullish business practices left it over exposed to problems in the credit market, has consistently failed to find the £2 billion that was needed to complete the upgrade of the entire defence housing stock.

Defence of the realm is any government’s top priority: no amount of feeble protestation by the Defence Secretary is going to persuade our service personnel and their families that they are genuinely valued by the government. 

What we need is action, not words.

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