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Friday, November 23, 2007 

The UK National Defence Association and snouts in the trough.

If the way that five former chiefs of the defense staff stood up in the Lords yesterday and condemned the government for its failure to "adequately" fund the armed forces smacked of a campaign being got under way, then you'd most certainly be right. What few of the reports of their speeches has made clear is that all five Lords, Boyce, Guthrie, Craig, Bramall and Inge also share something else in common - all are either patrons or vice-presidents of the recently formed United Kingdom National Defence Association.

On why such an organisation is needed, the UKNDA's website explains:

The fundamental problem to be addressed is that for many years now:
  1. Defence has been, and still is, too low in the nation’s list of priorities. and therefore

  2. The Armed Forces are under funded for the tasks they are set and consequently over-stretched.

Which is fair enough, as it goes. You could of course argue that in actual fact, especially since 9/11, rather than defence being too low in the list of priorities, war itself has been far too high in the list of priorities, but it is undoubtedly true that those forces that had no choice in being sent to Afghanistan and Iraq were poorly-equipped, on some occasions fatally so, are being curmudgeonly compensated when they are injured, and are currently living in completely inadequate accommodation while back here.

I do however think that it is thoroughly disingenuous for the UKNDA to be comparing the military spending of 1984 to now, as it goes on to do. Whatever your thoughts on the cold war as it entered its last ebb, we then knew who the "enemy" was meant to be, and it was a monolithic Soviet Union that had eastern Europe in its grasp and came right up to the Berlin wall. The situation now is wholly different, and will especially be once we eventually fully withdraw from Iraq: the only country where we will actually be involved in a war is one in which there clearly isn't a military solution, and the military themselves are coming around to that fact. The main emphasis for the military will most likely remain to be peace-keeping, outside of Afghanistan, crossing fingers that we won't be involving ourselves in the madness of an attack on Iran if such a thing happens. The current defence budget still stands at roughly £30bn a year; that's a third of what we spend, again roughly, on the NHS. Robert Fox on CiF provides a pessimistic counter-argument.

It's surely right though that we ask whether the grandees of this new organisation have any personal interest in an increase in defence spending. As the latest issue (1198) of Private Eye sets out, Lord Guthrie is for instance a director of Colt Defense, which supplies the US military with a number of rifles and weapons. Lord Boyce is a director of the VT group, currently a subcontractor on the T45 destroyer, which is over two years' late and £635m over budget. He's also a director with consultants WS Atkins, who on their website boast:

In the defence and aerospace sector we turnover around £150m per year in supporting the definition and delivery of many of the largest defence and aerospace programmes in the UK.

Lord Owen, who didn't speak yesterday but who is one of the UKNDA's patrons, is a paid adviser to Terra Firma Capital, whom the Eye points out bought the MoD's married quarters in 1996 in a deal the National Audit Office said lost the MoD £139million. Since then, it's leased the homes back to the MoD, but refuses like all other normal landlords to take responsibility for repairs, meaning the MoD has to pay others to do something that TFC should be doing themselves. Lord Inge, who did speak yesterday and who's on the vice-presidents' list (PDF), is the chairman of Aegis, the private security firm set-up by Tim Spicer and which was previously exposed in two videos posted online which showed civilian vehicles in Iraq being fired on for no apparent reason. He's also an adviser to ICX Technologies and a consultant to OWR AG, who provide decontamination systems. Moving down onto the "civilian" list, of the MPs signed up, Patrick Mercer does consultancy work for Blue Hackle, another private security firm (the ones we used to call mercenaries) while Nicholas "Fatty" Soames is a director with Aegis.

It's also just ever so slightly opportunistic for the Conservatives, who have previously never mentioned how Des Browne combining being both defence secretary and Scottish secretary was a problem, upon hearing Guthrie claim that it amounts to an insult set about parroting that it was exactly that. The claims that Brown is the one that has shown contempt are also surprising; it was only back in January that Blair showed how patronising he could be in a speech on HMS Albion by demanding that the military accept that conflict and casualty "may be part of what they are called upon to face," as if they didn't already know what was expected of them after taking them into a war which will rightly become known as his and his only. All those in the cabinet and parliament who voted for it are culpable, including Gordon Brown who was, as Vince Cable points out, the man who signed the cheques, but the ultimate responsibility lies with Blair. The way the attack has been personalised, especially in a week when the government has rightly been under intense pressure, is also hardly going to encourage the ministers under fierce criticism to feel anything but incredible anger at the way the UKNDA campaign has been orchestrated.

As Private Eye in its piece elucidates, it's not just how much money is being spent on the armed forces, it's also how that money is being spent. Additionally this week we've seen how QinetiQ, the government's defence research arm was allowed to be partially sold off, with the private equity group Carlyle able to make a profit of £300m just 3 years after buying a stake for just £42m, with the chairman and chief executive able to turn investments of £129,000 and £108,000 into assets worth £22m and £18m when QinteQ was floated last year. Unlike with the above, the Treasury under Brown's paws is all over this. None of the Lords who spoke up yesterday though had anything to say about it, but that might have had something to do with three of them potentially able to make plenty themselves out of how the defence budget is spent. Lord Gilbert and Bruce George MP both criticised the deal and are vice-presidents of the UKNDA, but neither has any financial dealings with defence firms. Gilbert is an adviser to ABS, which manufactures hovercraft, but is unpaid. It's one thing to stand up for the troops who are in the thick of it and more then fed up, it's quite another to be sticking your snout in the same trough which feeds them while doing so.

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