Letting down our defences

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 October, 1993, 12:00am

THERE were plenty of raw nerves in Whitehall this week as President Bill Clinton made clear that what the British like to see as their ''special relationship'' with the United States was perhaps no longer quite so special. His comments inferring that we had let the side down over involvement in Bosnia hurt even more when US Secretary of State Warren Christopher commented that Asia was now more important than Europe.

Britain has always been extremely sensitive about transatlantic ties from before the days when the brave convoys dodged the North Atlantic U Boats up through the years when NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) squared up against the Warsaw Pact.

Part of our problem has been our continuing ambivalence towards Europe - and our natural leaning towards American culture and shared language. Besides there has always been a suspicion that the Belgian Prime Minister Theo Lefevre was right when he commented 30 years ago: ''In Western Europe there are now only small countries - those that know it and those that don't know it yet.'' True the ''special relationship'' was really special when President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dominated Downing Street and the White House but it has been adrift for some time now - not helped by the British Government's overt support for the candidature of George Bush in the Presidential election.

Add to that the Treasury's search for GBP1 billion (HK$11.6 billion) cuts in the defence budget this week, threats of mutiny from backbenchers and fuming anger from the Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and you have a lot of glum faces at Westminster.

Mrs Thatcher always railed against severe cuts in defence spending, it was part of her vision of Conservatism. But those days are gone and it seems to be no more sacrosanct an area than anything else today. Indeed Mr Rifkind squared up to the issue suggesting that if there were to be any deeper cuts then a thorough review of Britain's defence commitment was needed.

Perhaps coincidentally, Hong Kong's Secretary to the Treasury, Donald Tsang, was in London this week spending some time at the Ministry of Defence and hopefully resisting pressure to get Hong Kong to pay a greater share of its own defence than the current 60:40 relationship with Britain under the Defence Costs Agreement.

The Defence Ministry does have some friends - the Department of Trade and Industry usually joins in the club rallying against defence cuts, so does the Department of Employment. The Foreign Office too is concerned that our global role should not shrink too much - there is, after all, considerable and growing pressure for Britain to be ousted from our permanent seat on the UN Security Council. If China walks all over the British Government today imagine what it would do if we were reduced to the status of a Holland or Belgium.

The calls from the Tory back benches against the cuts are gathering momentum - the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, warned that he would vote against the Government if there were any further major cuts and several MPs have said they will join him.

Nonetheless, there has to be room for some serious thinking about our defence spending now. So much of it has been predicated upon the fact that it was vital for the British forces to have the absolute best of everything in the past. If the principal enemies now are to be second rate powers surely there can be an adjustment in requirements? Britain does, after all, continue to spend a greater proportion of its national income on defence than either France or Germany and nobody would pretend that they were minor players on the world stage.