The resignation of Liam Fox from the position of defence secretary for the UK is entirely justified. Allegations of professional misconduct surrounding his working relationship with a friend – who appears to have been allowed to accompany the minister on official business trips – are correct. It was both stupid and negligent for Britain’s highest defense official to compromise himself.
Sadly, this is merely the latest in a long line of shake-ups in the UK’s top defense post. Since 2005, the position has changed hands a shocking six times due to self-serving politics and the inherent difficulties of managing British defense policy. As with any job, such regular turnover will affect performance and will make personal working relationships with foreign allies like the U.S. more difficult. This merely compounds the challenges facing the cash-strapped Ministry of Defence (MOD) and UK armed forces.
The reason no minister has held this post for over a year since 2005 are depressingly political. During the second half of Tony Blair’s and into the Gordon Brown government, Labour infighting and a dwindling parliamentary majority created a “ministerial merry-go-round,” in which top politicians swapped positions annually to improve their own political portfolio.
Later, when the Conservative Party came to power, they declared an “end to the merry-go-round.” Apparently this was not a promise Liam Fox could keep, and far from being merely political bad practice, this constant changeover has been bad news for the MOD and British armed forces.
UK defense policy had become a difficult balancing act even before the financial crisis. At exactly the same time people started swapping chairs in Westminster, the army found itself increasingly over-stretched by commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When prosecuting two wars, it would seem like good practice to keep the same people at the table in NATO, London, Washington, and elsewhere in order to help develop personal relationships between officials. The UK has offered no such continuity at the highest level, which cannot have smoothed cooperation with key allies such as the U.S.
Meanwhile, the MOD was experiencing an inexorable rise in the military’s budget deficit. Faced with ballooning equipment costs, several reform programs were started, but no single minister could keep a firm hand on these inherently difficult efforts.
The MOD and British armed forces have now been handed an even bigger task: Simultaneously wrapping up engagements in Afghanistan and Libya whilst under-taking the sharpest decline in defense spending since the end of the Cold War.
This ambitious program, if successful, should get the budget books balanced and next generation of equipment up and running by the end of the decade. It will maintain Britain’s place as one of just a few European nations capable of meaningfully contributing to military missions with the U.S.
Such an endeavor requires careful political management at the highest level as well as a coherent diplomatic effort to re-assure allies that the UK will have its defense house in order soon. Given this, the advice for the new UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is simple: Take the job seriously, and stay in your seat.
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