21 March 2024
Jesse Norman calls for strategic readiness and defence investment in times of global crisis

Jesse Norman highlights the unparalleled complexity and threats facing the world and emphasises the need for strategic readiness and a shift in defence thinking. He calls for a more intelligent deployment of resources between public and private sectors with the ultimate focus being on preparing for potential conflicts and the necessary increase in defence spending.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con)

We face a world of complexity and threat unparalleled in our recent modern experience. Scanning across Europe, south-east Asia and the middle east, we see that this is a world where there are threats emerging, or already in place, to which we as a nation, with our allies, must attend and deal with. We do so in an environment where the most powerful—or almost most powerful—mechanisms affecting our lives are working every day: the effect of technology and changes in price. Their effect is to bring forward new ways of making war that might have been unimaginable two years ago. They have the effect of bringing new actors—private actors, not merely states—into the picture; that might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. We see evolution rapidly occurring in the nature of the threat that we must deal with.

The report produced by the Select Committee, which I was proud to join earlier this year, is in my view not just an exemplary piece of work, but testimony to the Committee’s quality. I speak as someone who sat for five years on the Treasury Committee —no slouch when it comes to quality and expertise—and then chaired a Select Committee myself. I have been deeply impressed by the quality of thought, the experience and the attention that my colleagues and Clerks have brought to these matters. The report is a very good example of that.

Crucially, the report brings out some of the foundational assumptions that have not yet been adequately tested in our defence thinking. It is above all about our readiness; not just our operational and warfighting readiness, but our strategic readiness and our capacity to think ahead to where the escalating, multiplying and developing threat might be in future, and how we can, in a full spirit of resilience, prepare for it. I congratulate the Committee on its work. I have been proud to be associated with it, and congratulate those who made previous contributions to this excellent debate.

We know, because there is ample historical evidence, that democracies can fight wars with an intensity and endurance that is not available to autocracies. However, it has historically taken democratic states time to get moving—time to move public opinion; time to bring the people, the demos, with the politicians and with Government, in order to bring the full resources of a nation to bear. In the modern world, we may not have time to do that; we must start to prepare now—and not just our warfighting capability. It has rightly been highlighted today that we are moving from a post-war to a pre-war world. In that sense, we must give the need for resolution and resilience the profile that it requires among people across the country.

It is not the first time that these matters have occurred, as the House will well know. In the 18th century—a time when this country was more or less continuously at war, with relatively small intervals of peace—there was a period when there was tremendous concern about the effects of commercial society and peace. There was a worry that martial virtue might yield to “luxury” and “softness”, as it was put. We must be aware of that problem; we see it everywhere. I myself was in eastern Europe before 1989. I have experienced what it is like to live under a communist country and in the shadow of Russia. It is nothing that anyone in this House should feel the tiniest appetite to even glimpse, let alone endure or invite our citizens or allies to contemplate. We must be absolutely resolute in thinking about how we can ensure a gradual process—without the loss of our democratic values, and given our constraints—to ready our people for strategic decisions in due course. Everyone in this House prays that it will never happen, but we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that there could be some development for which we are, as yet, inadequately prepared. We must address that as a matter of money, organisation and, of course, talent.

We must fill the strategic gap in our thinking—a gap that is only being accelerated by the rapid growth in artificial intelligence, which threatens to upend not just many of the resources and systems that we use in this country, but much of the strategic thinking that we are bringing to the whole question of what it is to be at war. If Members doubt that, they should look at the work that is being done. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) rightly mentioned maskirovka: the use of AI in mimicry, spoofing and false-flag operations. That is something that we as a country are just beginning to get our head around, even at an advanced defence and security level.

We have an escalating series of security challenges. The solution to them is not more state, as such, but a much more intelligent deployment of the relationship between states and markets; between the public and the private; and between the secret, the grey and the not-so-secret. We have to bring all those resources with us if we are going to be successful, and we have to be more emphatic about the desperate need for competence. That means competence not just in our civil service and our military capability, and of course in the agencies that work alongside them, but in this House. Our political parties have a responsibility to develop, recruit, enable, understand, enfranchise and promote talent, and I put it to the House that no political party is doing that adequately at the moment. We should have chief talent officers in political parties—people actively thinking about where we can find competence, capability, knowledge and experience, and how we can deploy those things in this great Chamber in which we have the honour to sit.

The deep issue here, if I may say so, is not just that we have a civil service that is—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford mentioned—preoccupied with process in a way that is understandable in peace but, I am afraid, inadequate to the preparation for war. It is not just that there is a preoccupation with process over outcome, when outcome is the only thing that matters when we are trying to deliver a capability; it is that we as a nation have not yet made the intellectual, moral, emotional and spiritual shift towards deeply preparing for a pre-war situation. If I may make a party political point for a second, the Government have done a splendid job in starting to take control of a very difficult fiscal situation, which they inherited and was built up through crisis over the past few years, but to what end?

As was said famously by a man nearly 250 years ago in Bristol, we come to this House not as a “congress of ambassadors”, but as

“a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest”.

That interest cannot be sectionalised, including within Government. I say that as a former Financial Secretary; my Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin), is also a former Financial Secretary, and we do not say that the budget for defence should go up because we want to be profligate, nor that there should be anything less than proper constraint and proper scrutiny of the long-term spending of this country, but it must go up. That must be shared across both parties; it must be something that even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should bear in mind and account for in this Chamber as if they were preparing for war, so that we can all know that they have come to terms with the compromises, difficulties and challenges that we all face today.