Yesterday the rally in support of the Dockyard by Portsmouth Trades Council took place at the fountain in the city centre. Despite horrendous rain – there were sporting events called off all over the place because of waterlogging – a good few hundred people turned out. The first arrivals had to huddle under shop canopies but the sun soon came out and everyone gathered round the fountain.
A gaggle of Lib Dem councillors turned out to support Mike Hancock, who spoke to the crowd. He got a mixed reception. Overhearing a conversation between two Lib Dem councillors, their hope is very much that this will be seen as an example of “Tory cuts” and that all the blame will fall on the Conservatives and Penny Mordaunt. Not for the first time in the course of this coalition, local Lib Dems are pretending that they have no responsibility or accountability for what happens at Westminster. I don’t know what makes them adopt such a complacent attitude; I can only suppose they feel a sense of security given the long tenure of Mike Hancock as MP for Portsmouth South and Gerald Vernon-Jackson as Council Leader. Both these men bear a good deal of responsibility for the conduct of the Lib Dems nationally. But all of the national parties have a case to answer when it comes to the appalling state of our defence infrastructure.
The union speakers all made the right sort of points with regard to reversing the decision, building more ships, and keeping three yards open. There was some of the usual Socialist Worker stuff – as will be seen from the placards some people were carrying – and a demand to nationalise BAe mixed in with some rather unrealistic attitudes generally.
If the unions want to make this fight an attack on everything the government is doing, from education to welfare reform, they will lose focus, the media will tune out, and it will be ineffective. By all means demonstrate (a demo is planned at the Grammar School before Question Time on Thursday, and next Saturday at the Dockyard), but don’t give in to the temptation to let any old comrade get on their hobby horse about the coalition’s evils.
A sharp, politically-astute campaign that highlights the inadequacy of defence policy and the idiocy of ring-fencing overseas aid is what is needed here. Gerald Vernon-Jackson was on the local segment of the BBC’s Sunday Politics earlier on, and while he hinted that perhaps defence policy is wrong he failed to turn that into the attack on the reasoning behind the closure that the situation requires. It is no good any politician saying “give us money to ease the pain”. We are caught up in the unravelling of a policy which leaves the Navy under strength while the overseas aid budget keeps growing.
Just about every interviewer I’ve seen and heard is approaching the question the same way. “Is this a political decision, or is it something that was always going to happen anyway?” is the tone of the question and we require interviewees to make the point that everyone suffers, not just Pompey dockies, from an unsafe defence policy and an obscene giveaway of taxpayers’ money. In this case, the decision to close Pompey is actually both a political decision (as Labour’s ex-Defence Secretary John Reid helpfully reminded Scots voters earlier) and an inevitability, because national politics puts a higher value on the political problems of Scotland and the Indian space programme than on the defence of the UK. Last of all on their list of considerations are the views and votes of the people of Portsmouth. Tomorrow at the Shepherd’s Crook at 6pm there is a meeting for anyone who wants to change that, but it will have to be a concise one since Radio Solent have now scheduled a debate on the issue from the Dockyard at 8pm.
I thought it was unsurprising that when the Chief of the Defence Staff was on the Andrew Marr Show this morning and the closure was mentioned he trotted out the government line that “this is inevitable because the orders aren’t there”. All I’d observe about this is that every CDS quickly “goes native” in Whitehall (they have generally been there a long time before they get the job), but after they’ve retired they start telling the media the exact opposite of the political orders they obeyed in office.
It was quite something to see a serving officer explaining how he is lobbying to keep the Union together. It is impossible for anyone to argue that he has not politicised his position. General Houghton said “It is not the purpose of the defence budget to under-write elements of industry”. He is quite right; the purpose of the defence budget is maintaining adequate forces. It fails to do so at present, as he of all people should know. But at the same time, it is not the purpose of the Chief of the Defence Staff to campaign for a “No” vote in a political referendum!