THE BLOG

Whether I Chair It or Not, the Defence Select Committee Must Be a Powerful Force to Hold the Government to Account

16/06/2015 08:39 BST | Updated 15/06/2016 10:59 BST

On Wednesday I am seeking election for the position of Chair of the Defence Select Committee. This is one of around 25 or so Select Committees which have taken on an increasing importance in recent years. The position of Chairs was once in the gift of the whips but now are decided in a secret ballot of the whole House.

Just five years ago we had a Strategic Defence and Security Review which proposed armed forces configured for an age of austerity when most of the threats we faced were, at the very least, containable. We were pulling out of an expensive war in Afghanistan. We were unlikely to face an immediate need to do another operation in some dusty plain requiring the construction of another Camp Bastion and a decade of blood and treasure being invested in "nation building". There were emerging threats from countries like Russia and China but not in a way that was felt required any great change of defence doctrine.

Just five years later we live in a very different world. One which is arguably more dangerous than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. On Europe's eastern borders Russia has annexed territory of a sovereign state and continues to attack and destabilise the region. This threat includes a danger to countries like the Baltic States which NATO is treaty-bound to defend if attacked. If five years ago it had been suggested that a highly sophisticated Jihadist movement in the Middle East would seize and hold territory the size of France and continue to defy the West and highly resourced (if hopeless) Iraqi armed forces, eyes would have rolled and heads would have shaken. From northern Nigeria through the Sahel, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa into Yemen the flames of Jihadist chaos seems undiminished. To make the storm perfect there is a worrying emerging instability in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Far East.

It is against this backdrop that the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is being pulled together across Whitehall. If logic prevails there will be an intellectual and strategic thread that runs from the National Security Council's risk assessment through the SDSR and into the Comprehensive Spending Round. The latter is what allocates departmental spending limits for the next three years. To have armed forces that can have the capability to play their part in addressing such an unstable world we need logic to prevail. If the thread runs in the other direction and the Treasury dictates the spending limit and all else has to fit within that, there will be a big problem.

Firstly, there is a serious risk Britain could fall below the NATO commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. As recently as September the Prime Minister was making a virtue of our achievement of this line in the sand. Secondly there is the risk that we will no longer be seen as "worthy allies". The United States might share our desire to do less in the world but when it does intervene it wants its oldest ally to be there. Or at least capable of being there. If we are no longer in the game we have to resign ourselves to a reality that the only game Britain is in is that of managed decline. This is not a scenario I and many across the House of Commons want to see.

The Select Committee has a duty to dig deep into the SDSR to see what the Government is trying to do. The Committee has the power to draw on huge amounts of skilled understanding in strategic defence thinking that either resides in the UK or that passes through it regularly. Whether I Chair it or not, I want the Select Committee to be a powerful force to hold the Government to account. Equally important is for the Committee to be seen as a respected contributor to evidence-based thinking on defence and security in a dangerous world.

Richard Benyon is the MP for Newbury, and is running for Chair of the Defence Select Committee