Friday, 12 April 2013

What is the legacy of Lady Thatcher for the Armed Forces?

The news that former UK Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher has died has led to a wide ranging series of social debates in the UK over the legacy of the former Prime Minister. It is rare to see the death of a national leader lead to such strident debate, not only at home, but also abroad – normally the death of a PM attracts a short amount of coverage in the UK, perhaps a couple of one paragraph articles in foreign newspapers and a quiet funeral in an obscure part of the nation. The death of Baroness Thatcher has led to a wide ranging and very polarized debate between those who were strongly in support of her, and those who see her legacy as less positive.

Normally Humphrey tries to steer clear of political matters in this blog, but he’s decided to try and put across some very personal views on this subject due to the fact that the life and legacy of Baroness Thatcher was more than just political, and that in many ways she transcended politics in her reputation in order to become something more potent. Whatever her wider political actions, there was one area where she had arguably a long lasting impact and bequeathed a very long term legacy, and this was with the Armed Forces and Defence in general.

From one perspective Lady Thatcher enjoyed an extremely close and very personal relationship with HM Forces that transcended the normal political/military divide. Over the years some politicians have had better relationships with the military than others – speak to any Military Officer or MOD Civil Servant with experience of dealing with Ministers, and after a couple of drinks then they’ll usually be happy to pass observations on who was ‘rated’ and who was not. Generally this had nothing to do with political party or views, but on the ability of the individual and the manner with which they were able to get on with the unique combination of military culture and lifestyle which permeates the department.

Lady Thatcher, despite never having held any office within Defence, seemed to enjoy a tremendous and mutually held respect within the Armed Forces. This was not for her political views,  but because in her ethos, attitude and manner of conduct, she seemed to place an emphasis and importance on the sort of values that are at the very heart of military culture. This, coupled with her realisation that in many ways after 1982 her continued hold on the Premiership owed much to the Falklands War victory, meant that she bestowed a great deal of affection on the armed forces. This is perhaps borne out by the reaction on sites such as the Army Rumour service or PPRUNE forums where a genuine sense of loss can be felt.

This closeness has never been seen to be bestowed in any other currently serving politician; while many recent PMs and Ministers have had good working relationships with the military, it is hard to see the same level of affection and mutual respect exist for any other politician of any party. That being said, other than Winston Churchill, it is hard to think of any other 20th Century Prime Minister or politician who enjoyed a similar status.

One way of conducting a cabinet reshuffle?
A Long Term Legacy?
One of the challenges of managing Defence is that decisions taken now will have to be implemented and supported for decades to come. One only has to look at the CVF project, where initial design work began in the mid 1990s for the replacement CVS studies, for a design that will not enter service till 2018 and which is likely to remain in service until the 2050s or beyond. One example of this long term impact can be found today in some the decisions taken in the 1981 defence review – for instance the structure of the RN is still inherently built around not only the SSBN fleet, but also the Type 23 Frigates. The decision to implement a small, cheap and size limited design as part of the review is a decision which made sense given the operational imperatives at the time (namely ASW in the GIUK gap), but which has hamstrung the modern RN and will lead to major changes to the Type 26 force. One of Lady Thatcher’s legacies to this day is that current Governments are having to work with a force structure which was largely bestowed on them by the Labour and Conservative Governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In particular, the decision to commit to the replacement of Polaris with Trident has ensured that the current administration is faced with the challenge of taking tough politicial and financial decisions as a direct result of decisions taken over 30 years ago. This is perhaps a useful reminder in a generation where it is difficult to find people who can think in terms of more than one electoral cycle ahead – namely that some decisions will have ramifications for decades hence, and that your successors are very much tied into the decisions that you make today.

A Global Presence Restored?
One area where Lady Thatcher had perhaps more impact than she is widely given credit for is the re-establishment of the UK as a globally deployed military power. The context of the 1970s was one of retrenchment, withdrawal and an ever deepening focus on supporting the Inner German Border as the central point for all defence planning. Margaret Thatcher was the first Prime Minister to come to power who had not played a role in the previous 15-20 years of Imperial withdrawal and refocusing on NATO. While she had roles in Government, she did not handle any Defence or Foreign portfolio matters. It is perhaps noteworthy that one of her earliest military engagements was not only the deployment of Royal Marines to the New Hebrides, but also the deployment of Royal Navy vessels to Armilla to focus on the increasing security threat in the Gulf. Well over 30 years later and the RN is still deployed in the Gulf, and in ever great numbers (today at any one time over 25% of the RN is deployed East of Suez). The Falklands War naturally marks the most well known of her wider military engagements, but it is telling that throughout her premiership, she was a strident supporter for the deployment of UK forces outside of their traditional operating area (for instance the significant Exercise Saif Sareea in Oman in 1986), bucking the trends of previous years. In the very twilight days of her time in Office, she saw through the Options for Change defence review, which not only heralded the end of the Cold War military structure, but also saw the first steps in the UK military re-establishing itself as a much more globally deployable power, as was seen by the deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1990.

This may sound somewhat obvious, but it is worth considering that the current state of UK military capability may well not have existed if a different party had taken power in the 1980s. It is clear that a win by the Labour Party in the 1983 or 1987 General Election would have seen a radically different defence policy implemented, and one which would have seen significantly different force structures imposed on the military – for instance SSBNs, almost certainly SSNs, Carriers and other vessels would have been scrapped as part of wider ranging defence cuts. The political scene in the UK in the early 1980s was perhaps more markedly split between Left and Right than at any other point in recent history. While most elections since then would have had relatively small impacts on the military capability, it is fair to say that history would have turned out tremendously differently had the Labour Party won these elections. Therefore, one direct legacy of Lady Thatcher is that through her actions, she set the conditions for the current military force structure to exist, and to enable current political party leaders to continue have a genuinely global military capability.

This is perhaps a somewhat rose tinted spectacle approach – after all the 1981 Defence Review would have cost the RN its assault ships and reduced the carrier fleet, but the ultimate result though was that despite this initial policy, the legacy of the first leader to not have known withdrawal from East of Suez was to adopt a defence policy which paved the way for a return to Suez and beyond. Her actions directly saw the UK recommitting itself to the Gulf for a generation, and set in train a chain of events which have seen UK forces based there ever since.

A Very Special Relationship?
Of particular importance is the manner in which the strong personal relationship between Lady Thatcher and President Reagan manifested itself in the significant re-invigoration of the Anglo-US alliance. The very genuine bonds of friendship at this level, and the renewed confidence which saw the two leading NATO powers take a far more proactive approach to tackling the challenges of the Soviet Union almost certainly paved the way for the much stronger co-operation of the years that followed. Again, this is a point often forgotten, but by the 1980s, the UK and US were still close, but the relationship perhaps lacked chemistry. Many of those who drove it forward were senior, approaching retirement and perhaps it owed more to their shared wartime experiences than it did about current matters. The series of events, such as the re-engagement on the global stage, success in the Falklands, and the later joint work to tackle the Soviet Union, as well as wider engagement helped restore the UKs reputation and working relationship for a new generation of military and civilian staff. This is not to say that the Anglo-US relationship would have further declined without Lady Thatcher, but it was definitely given a fillip that helped reinvigorate it. The impact of this was the ability for the UK to restore its place at the side of the US as a genuinely credible ally, which has endured to this day. Again, this is not something that should be taken for granted, as the election of the Labour party in 1983 / 1987 would have seen the emergence of a Government committed to the withdrawal of US forces from UK soil, and with it the likely ending of the Anglo-US alliance. It is fair to say that the legacy of Lady Thatcher is that the relationship is far strong now than it could well have been. Of course actions speak louder than words, and much of the strength of the relationship comes from willingness by the UK to offer troops, diplomatic support and other measures to work with the US. But, this can only come about if there is willingness at the top of Government to see this level of commitment. Lady Thatcher set the tone for a reinvigoration of the relationship that all of her successors since have seen fit to continue to support.

A war that redefined a nation
One area for which she will always be remembered, but for which it is challenging to identify specific a legacy is the Falklands War of 1982. While her leadership and position at this time will probably be one of the enduring memories of her premiership, the Falklands remains very much a unique occurrence in British history. If anything perhaps the legacy is the fact that the war came as a timely reminder that the UK continues to have a truly global footprint of interests, which still needed protecting. This came at a point when the UK was seemingly going down the road of having to politically choose between a military entirely optimised for the defence of the Central Front, or one which was essentially a home defence force. The Falklands came as a strong reminder that no matter what the primary threat, the UK needed to retain a broader global intervention capability. Any future defence review will have to be conducted under the ‘Falklands Factor’ – namely that the UK will be expected to be able to do something to intervene in support of its overseas interests, which was not a given even in the 1981 defence review.

Perhaps though the most challenging legacy she left is that of Service pay. In 1979 the armed forces were significantly underpaid compared to the wider population, and morale was low and retention a challenge. Many forces personnel really struggled to get by, and the pay simply wasn’t enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. One of the first acts of the new government was a very substantial pay rise, which in turn started the long road to service pay providing a genuinely competitive salary. This made a real difference to service morale at the time, and it is telling that many of those who served then have remembered this pay rise on their internet forum eulogies. While in the short term this had a positive effect, it could be argued that in fact it set in train the ever increasing challenge of an unaffordable manpower bill. One of the real challenges in Defence today, and often touched on here, is that manpower is now extremely expensive.

One of the reasons the UK could afford large armed forces until the mid-1960s was because the pay was so low by comparison to wider industry that it was possible to have large forces for relatively little cost. By contrast, todays armed forces are phenomenally expensive to pay and employ as their wages bill is out of all proportion compared to the 1960s (even allowing for inflation). By providing the military with a more reasonable salary, the stage was set to see the long running problem of how manage an ever more stretched defence budget – personnel or equipment? This is a problem which has only gotten worse in recent years, and is likely to prove a continued challenge – how do you pay for a military which requires highly specialist skills and experience, and also afford the equipment that goes with this? This is perhaps the most difficult legacy, for in choosing to increase the pay to the armed forces which she supported; the long term reality has been to make them increasingly unaffordable for the nation as a whole.


  1. As I've said elsewhere a good analysis.
    I seem to recall from back in the '80s and '90s the RN was concerned that the Trident programme was seriously unbalancing their budget. IIRC I've heard that the LPH requirement that eventually became Ocean was pushed to the right several times because of the spiralling costs of Trident. I'm sure I've also read that the navy tried to argue that the costs of Trident should not solely come out of their share of the defence budget.
    Will need to read my copy of 'Defence Under Thatcher' again.

    1. Yes, the LPH requirement existed from 1985 onwards (when Hermes decommissioned), but nothing was done until Ocean was ordered under the Major government. It has to be remembered, though, that the amphibious capability was quite low in the pecking order until the end of the Cold War.

      Although the then Defence Secretary George Younger announced in December 1986 that £200 million would be made available for replacement of the LPDs, this was not due to happen for another decade as the lives of Fearless and Intepid were to be extended until at least the mid-1990s. The £200 million would not be sufficient for like-for-like replacement, and a number of options were being considered. These included a pair of large general purpose landing ships (probably similar to the "Bay" class and flagged out to the RFA), a mini-LPD design and merchantile conversions.

      There would not have been sufficient funds for a new-build LPH so a merchantile conversion (the Aviation Support Ship or ASS!) would have been provided in place of Ocean. The 6 LSLs would probably have been replaced with 4 similar ships of modern design.

  2. Thatcher would ultimately deploy HM Armed Forces when needed--Falklands, Gulf States (SAS) and then the Gulf War. She fought the Cold Waar however, through the Reagan eyes with the support for cruise missiles at G Common. Trident was always meant to be for the UK-US Relationship.

    Beyond that, her defence reviews weren't exactly armed forces friendly.

    1. Deploying the armed forces when needed hardly makes her unique. Every one of her predecessors since 1945 deployed British forces somewhere in reaction to a crisis, or small war.
      Britain's Small Wars is a good guide to just how many places our forces were deployed to post-WW2:

  3. "how do you pay for a military which requires highly specialist skills and experience, and also afford the equipment that goes with this? "

    Sensible goals and proper prioritisation.
    An infantryman earns half what a pilot does.
    Obviously a pilot costs a lot more, but our ground forces provide very little bang for their wage bill.

  4. The geo-political situation has changed so completely in the last 25 years that it is almost imposssible to assess the legacy of the Thatcher years upon UK defence in a meaningful way. However, the underlying problem that existed then (i.e. trying to do too much with too little with the result that resources are too thinly spread) still looms as large as ever.

    Incidently, I would argue that the T23 is one of the few warship designs we got right. Striking a good balance between capability and affordability, they compare well with other designs of the same era and have given excellent service over the years.

  5. I am sorry but my recollection of events is very very different. Mrs Thatcher was about to preside over a wholesale reduction of the Royal Navy. Had the Falklands not happened when it did and the planned cuts gone through even on a positive outlook it would have made our ability to get them back all the more difficult (sadly with addtional loss of life and ships, the penalty always paid when we turn our back on our true maritime strengths). No doubt the appetite for further cuts would have been all the greater had the Falklands or some similar crisis not occurred. John Knott rightly took the blame for what with worse timing would have been a disastrous defence review for this country, but it was Mrs Thatcher who was in charge! Presonally I honestly believe she and her government would have continued to make the same mistakes had the Falklands not happened.

    1. The remit Nott was given was to make cuts as defence had to take its share of the reduction in public spending. I don't like his conclusions any more than the next man, but it was his job and he would have been sacked if he had refused to tow the line.

      Portraying Nott as a comic book villain like the Dr Beeching of defence is nonsense as he actually had very little room for manoeuvre. The truth is that there wasn't going to be enough money in the budget to maintain the status quo and the axe had to fall somewhere.

    2. The context of the 1981 review though was to establish a balanced budget in a time when the primary role of the military was to fight in Europe and the North Atlantic. The RN changed to meet this threat - namely taking on T23s and SSNs at a cost of a wider global capability that while nice, was not directly relevant to the perceived threat of the time. People complain about government waste, but then complain when the Govt tries to focus scarce resources on what it is meant to do.
      Nott is vilified, but this is very simplistic. The cuts he saw through were not thought up by politicians and sent to the military to implement. Rather the military devised the savings measures which were sent to the politicians for approval. The situation in 1981 was that much of the RN was a two tier navy, with a lot of old legacy hulls still in service, not hugely useful for north atlantic duties and very much part of the East of Suez fleet of 20 years previously. This review helped refocus the RN on the then current threat and not the previous one.

    3. Not entirely correct I'm afraid Sir H. The proportion of "East of Suez" ships you refer to could probably be fairly aimed at the remaining Counties (three of them?) and the Type 81s (half a dozen), from a DD/FF total of 60-ish(!!!) The Type 12s, handful of T14s and the 20-odd Leanders that made up the bulk of the fleet were very much Atlantic ASW oriented.

      The really contentious elements of the review (in hindsight) were the deletion of Endurance and the LPDs, less so the third carrier (at the time - would still have put two ships in the ASWTG). One can see why Endurance was targetted - FCO would have been quite happy to retreat from Antarctica & the FI, which gave MoD no requirement to maintain her in service. What is less clear is the rationale for deleting the LPD which were a significant element for delivering 3 Cdo to the Northern Flank. I seem to recall some hare-brained scheme to commandeer North Sea Ro-Ro to deliver the brigade instead, which probably made some sense to people at the time, given the inability to see the LPD being used anywhere else. Given that Leach was 1SL and Lewin CDS at the time, it does show just how dire the budgetary situation must have been, as did the resignation of Keith Speed, whose book Sea Change is well worth a read.

      Nott wasn't a villain, merely a victim of the strategic mindset of the time. In some ways, we were luckier than we may realise that the real comedy villains (Galtieri and Anaya) chose to act when they did. Had Corporate never happened, I suspect we would not have had the Amphibious studies of the 80s, recapitalisation of the late 90/00s and been left with a model for engaging the world akin to the Netherlands today. SDR98 could never have contemplated regaining those lost capabilities.

    4. Although the LPDs were actually reprieved several months before the Falklands, not after as is widely believed. No public announcement was made at the time as the government wanted to use retention of the amphibious capability as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the US over the size of the UK contribution to the Trident programme.

    5. Frigates like the Leanders were Atlantic-oriented, but by the early 1980s, and despite the conversion work done to prolong their effectiveness, they were becoming quite dated. The average life of a hard-worked RN escort was only about 22 years, so the average Leander would be about two-thirds of the way through its service life.

      The thinking was that ships like these were becoming increasingly vunerable to Soviet submarines and surface ships and were relatively ineffective ASW platforms in comparison to the SSNs. In order to protect funding for new SSNs, SSKs, torpedo systems and ASW helicopters the decision was taken to cut the escort force. The older classes would obviously bear the brunt of this as they had only a limited service life ahead of them.

  6. IIRC the RN still maintained a number of DD/FF between 50 and 55 right up till the "peace dividend" of the early 90s.

    1. I believe the most recent peak in escort numbers - 50-ish - was in 1991.

      But so far as the MoD's budget was concerned, the "peace dividend" epoch began with the 1987 fiscal year and at not in the 1990s. Yes, then-year cash budgets didn't start falling until 1994 but in terms of GDP share defence spending fell from 4.7% in 1986 to 3.6% in 1991. From those numbers it seems as if a numerical decline in ship numbers in the 1990s was all but guaranteed before the Berlin Wall fell.

      Now correlation is not causation, and it may be simplistic to say that Nott's cuts and those from 1986 onwards were directly related to the procurement of Trident. Still, the coincidence is striking and does raise doubts over the claim that Trident did not come out of the defence budget. In the literal sense that's true, but perhaps only because the Treasury imposed cuts in defence spending to create ring-fenced special funding for Trident.

  7. As always the London establishment as represented by 'Sir Humphrey' fails to see the wider impact of Thatcher. I know not, and care less, who was behind her policies, yet they have effectively ended the UK.

    Scotland is heading for independence, a slight issue for UK defence, don't you think Humphrey? This state of affairs can be laid fully at her and her party's door.

    Scotland was treated as some sort of appendage to England during Thatcher's reign. Although she used Islay as her idyllic retreat, she saw the country as little more than a socialist backwater to be avoided or used as a testing ground for UK legislation.

    A very bitter legacy for the Scots, and one that has come home to roost.

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  9. The Armed Forces Pay Review and pay rise pre-date the Thatcher election victory of 3 May 1979. In fact an early move of the Thatcher Government was to reduce LOA and favourable FFR Rate. HANSARD 1803–2005 → 1970s → 1978 → April 1978 → 25 April 1978 → Lords Sitting
    HL Deb 25 April 1978 vol 390 cc1632-43

    "The Review Body has concluded that the pay of the Armed Forces has fallen seriously behind in the period since April 1975 and the Report states that increases in pay of between 19 per cent. and 38 per cent.—averaging 32 per cent. —are now required to restore the full military salary. It recommends that the full military salary should be restored at the earliest possible date, but it recognises the Government's expectation that increases which exceed the guidelines would need to be staged. It has recommended that this staging should be completed not later than 1st April 1980.

    "The Government accept the Review Body's recommendations on the levels of the military salary. These will be fully implemented to the current levels for 1st April 1980 in two approximately equal stages after this year and, as the Review Body recommends, the Government give a firm commitment to that effect.

    "In considering the levels of the military salary, the Review Body has had regard to the element which recognises the balance of disadvantage of Service life by comparison with civil life, known in the Services as the X Factor '; it has also taken into account allowances and charges.

    "The Government have reached conclusions on these various elements in the light of the Review Body's conclusions and the following arrangements will apply for the year from 1st April 1978. There will be an increase of 10 per cent. in the military salary together with an increase in the X factor within the amount recommended by the Review Body, which 1634 will add 3 per cent. in total. The extent to which these percentages will be implemented will vary from rank to rank as differentials are restored. In addition, the rate of Northern Ireland pay will be doubled to £1 per day. There will he certain changes in allowances and a standstill in charges for accommodation pending a further examination by the Review Body. These together will add a further 1 per cent. to the net bill.