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banner Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Defence spending rise backed
Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell
Campbell lost manifesto battle, but may win campaign
Nick Assinder

In an extraordinary move, Liberal Democrats have welcomed a demand to increase spending on defence.

With the US terror attack still dominating the political agenda, the party's foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell told delegates there was a pressing need to boost spending on the country's armed forces.

And, while there were clearly many delegates deeply troubled by the proposal, he won warm applause from the conference for his uncompromising speech.

It was the sort of address to a Lib Dem conference that would have been inconceivable just a year ago.

And Mr Campbell himself confessed that he had lost the battle within the party for such an increase in spending when the last election manifesto was being drawn up.

But the terror attacks in New York and Washington have dramatically redrawn the political landscape.

Numerous challenges

Policies which were once unthinkable are now firmly on the agenda. And it was a hugely significant move that a Lib Dem spokesman could make such a speech on defence without being greeted with some howls of protest.

The party, which represents many constituencies with defence links, has always adopted a fairly robust line of the issue. But this was of a different order.

Mr Campbell is one of the most senior and well-respected members of the party's front bench team and is always given a hearing.

He told the conference that, without a boost in spending, Britain's already over-stretched armed forces would be unable to meet the numerous challenges currently facing them.

He pointed out that Britain played a leading role in operations in areas like Macedonia and was ready to act with the US against global terrorism.

Unpopular demand

"But if we are to go on playing such a role, if we are to go on being a force for good, if we are to assert and implement the right of humanitarian intervention where there are systematic breaches of human rights I simply do not believe we can do all this on the existing defence budget," he said.

He implicitly accepted that such a demand was unpopular, pointing out that both the then Tory defence spokesman Iain Duncan Smith and Labour's Geoff Hoon had also failed to persuade their political masters to promise an increase in defence spending.

"No political party campaigned in the general election on the footing of increasing defence spending .

"And yet every party, indeed all our citizens, want the armed forces to do more, to be better equipped, better manned, to make a better contribution to our foreign policy objectives - we want them to be just plain better," he said.

It is not yet party policy, and may not become part of its programme, but Mr Campbell has started a debate within the ranks that could easily see the Lib Dems becoming the first party to argue for large increases in defence spending.

See also:

26 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems warn of race dangers
24 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy cautions on 'war' talk
23 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Shadow over party conferences
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