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DEFENCE: SITUATION IN THE RED SEA

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Categories: News

Martin spoke as SNP Defence Spokesperson in a general debate on the situation in the Red Sea. Here is an extract of Martin’s speech in the Commons transcribed via Hansard:

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): It is always good to follow the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), and I actually agree with quite a lot of what they had to say—I might go into that in a bit more detail in the next few minutes.

It seems strange to be having a general debate of this kind on a Wednesday afternoon in Government time. As the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), suggested, a general debate on defence and security has morphed into a debate on the situation in the Red sea—a more current and certainly more substantive topic, but one that will, I have to say, allow me to make the same points that I was going to make in a general debate, albeit within the frame of what I hope I am wrong in thinking is looking increasingly like some type of long-term commitment.

Those of us who speak about defence on a regular basis—I see some familiar faces here today—can probably finish each other’s speeches by now, as Members will probably have seen on the odd occasion. Whether we are colleagues on the Defence Committee—and I see that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) is present—or ordinary Members who are interested in the subject, we tend to be a very dedicated bunch. While I certainly do not agree with everything that everyone has to say, I certainly always learn a lot from the contributions of Members such as my friend the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), who is also present, and indeed the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who has left the Chamber. It is safe to say that when it comes to debates such as this featuring as the last item on a Wednesday, Members usually have to care to take the time to participate.

That is why it is so frustrating, from my perspective, that time and again the Government’s rhetoric in relation to our defence and security, the current situation being a case in point, so rarely matches the action taken—again, from my perspective—and why I sometimes wonder, if His Majesty’s Government pay so little heed to the contributions of those on their side of the house, who exactly they are listening to.

Before I explore that much further, and perhaps add to what was said by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, let me state the obvious: the Houthi movement is an obscurantist, antisemitic and theocratic death cult that has violated human rights and international law every step of the way. Not only does the Houthis’ current strategy continue these violations of international law, but they seek to use the suffering of the Palestinian people in a way that cannot be justified.

However, in my view—this is the point that may distinguish my remarks from not just those of the Government but those of the shadow Defence Secretary—the fact that current events in Palestine are not the cause of the Houthi attacks on shipping does not mean that they are not symptoms of the same phenomenon: namely, western indifference to the region, followed by periods of intense military involvement, and little effort made to address longer-term issues.

My SNP colleagues and I gave the first round of strikes against the Houthi targets qualified support earlier this month, and we do so again in respect of the latest strikes, but as we begin to slide towards what seems almost like an inevitable longer-term commitment, it cannot be said often enough that the “what”, the “how’” and the “why” of UK grand strategy are, at least from my perspective, dangerously out of sync. Let us start with last week’s keynote announcement from the Defence Secretary, who I see is no longer in their place, that “The era of the peace dividend is over and 2024 will mark an inflection point.”

On the surface, that is a pretty banal observation, but whether we call it the polycrisis or the age of grey-zone conflict, those of us who come to these debates on a regular basis have been talking about the possibilities of this type of thing happening at least since I arrived in 2015. I am not sure how 2024 will be anywhere near the inflection points that 2014 or 2022 were; none the less, that is a bold statement from the Secretary of State. It is important to say that he also backed it up with the announcement of a £405 million investment in so-called drone-killing Sea Viper missiles.

On the surface, it would seem that the Secretary of State has got his why and his what sorted. We just need a how, and that is where I think we begin to run into trouble. For all the high-falutin’ rhetoric from the MOD main building, I am not sure that anyone here really believes we are going to meet the how in the form of an increase in defence spending to meet these new threats, given the disastrous state of the MOD’s finances, as seen in the latest National Audit Office report.

We are in the middle of the cost of living crisis, as we all know well. Inflation seems to be coming under control; it is only worse in the defence sector, and the proliferation of US dollar-dominated contracts is not going to make things easier, especially with a soft pound and the reality that we are now living in one of the poorest countries in western Europe. Any increase in defence spending at this time means a cut elsewhere in the budget; that is simply a reality. Although there are those, particularly on the Opposition Benches, who are brave enough to say that they would like to make cuts elsewhere to do this, I have seen absolutely no indication from the Government that they intend to do so.

I am no economist—hard to believe, I know—but I believe that practitioners of that special art call it a “revealed preference”. An example would be when a potential leadership candidate advocates spending 3% of GDP, only to quietly drop the commitment when they become Chancellor. All our recent Prime Ministers have made all the right noises when it comes to the problems in international security, but none of them, at least from my perspective, has met that challenge with a significant increase. Indeed, I think we can all agree that if that redoubtable and dogged former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace)—I let him know that I was going to mention him in the debate—was only able to secure an increase to 2.5%, and even then only by the end of the decade, I do not think anyone is expecting his successor to be any more successful.

I should point out—I say this as something of a sceptic about increasing the defence budget or even the value in such arbitrary targets—that we judge Governments based on their record, and this is what this one has. Once we start to scratch at the how in the UK strategy, the what and the why also start to come unstuck. Let us take the Sea Viper order: what was presented as an announcement to counter this new and specific threat has actually been on the table since 2012, only to be constantly shifted to the right because of pressures elsewhere on the budget.

Far from being a simple drone killer, Sea Viper is a sophisticated ballistic missile defence system that has been in development since the 1980s. Each Aster 30 missile costs £2 million a pop. Whoever in the main building thought it was a good idea to call it a drone killer evidently had not done the cost-benefit analysis on taking out mass-produced Chinese drones, costing £100, with a £2 million missile. That is before we even get to the platforms that deliver the capability.

The Minister might be able to correct me, but the MOD is now officially refusing to publicly disclose the size of its escort fleet, which the Houthis probably already know—maybe it is in one of the TikToks that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned. That refusal got a bit of play last week, although we should consider the why of it all.

If we can all agree that we are living in a world of increasingly complicated and interlinked threats, why is the Red sea important to the UK? I consulted two principal documents published since I became an MP—the 2015 strategic defence and security review and the 2021 integrated review—but, alas, there was no mention of the Red sea. Yemen was given a single cursory mention in each, and both in the context of other regional conflicts. The Government’s defence is that both documents were written before the Ever Given accident reminded us that the Suez canal and the Red sea are an important bottleneck for global trade.

Ultimately, neither document, one pre-Brexit and one post-Brexit, tells a compelling story about UK engagement in that part of the world, which makes it harder for me, and certainly for the public, to see why sustained engagement, if it happens, is in our long-term interest. Do not get me wrong: even as a committed north Atlanticist who believes that the primary commitment of Scotland and the UK should be to our northern European neighbourhood, I am open to being convinced. But the mood music throughout that time was on global Britain, without elucidating what that actually meant.

Do not get me started on the Indo-Pacific tilt either. The integrated review made the incredible assertion that the UK wishes to be the European state “with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific”.

That claim received very little interrogation at the time. Again, as a committed north Atlanticist, I was perhaps never going to be on board with the idea of an Indo-Pacific tilt, but the more I try to find out about it, the less convinced I become.

The Indo-Pacific is a big place and is home to two of the three largest oceans in the world and three of the five largest states. Any tilt towards it would surely require some sort of prioritisation, but we have never heard any talk of this. The Red sea region could have been part of that, securing the freedom of maritime trade from the Indo-Pacific and bringing in European partners with a presence in the region, along with others, but there was a complete failure to communicate any of that to Members, never mind to the general public.

Forgive those of us who are sceptical about the what. With the strikes against Houthi targets, we can clearly see the how. The Royal Navy, which is doing a commendable job, is in its poorest and most diminished state for many years. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford alluded to that, and it is a consequence not only of budgetary pressures but of a complete failure of this and previous Governments to make the case for the why, be that in the Red sea or the North sea.

Instead, we have a manpower and retention crisis caused by over a decade of wage stagnation; the ongoing possibility that the two remaining landing platform docks will be mothballed, calling into question the long-term viability of the Royal Marines; and the admission in November that the entire fleet of SSNs was alongside at the same time. Yet if we were going by the MOD’s spin on things, all is well, because we can still field two carrier strike groups, even though everyone knows we would never have the manpower to do so at the same time; the AUKUS deal will allow Astute-class boats to operate in the Pacific ocean, even though, as we have heard, they sometimes cannot even get to the North sea; and—who can forget, from last week—we now have a space laser, or at least we will in 10 or 15 years’ time. So let me end with a general observation: when it comes to UK grand strategy in the Red sea, denial is not just a river you end up in if you take a wrong turn on your way there.

Watch the speech in full here.

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