Waiting for the axe to fall

Stuart Nathan

Features editor

It’s difficult to get away from the subject of cuts at the moment. Every public figure seems to be either attacking them or seeking to justify them. Every organisation is gearing up for them. We’re being told they will have a pervasive and long-lasting effect on pretty much every aspect of our lives over the next few years.

In only a week, we’ll be put out of one sort of misery — that of anticipation — and possibly put into another one, as we try to come to terms with the effects of the cuts. That’s the thing with cuts. Someone always ends up miserable.

The latest rumours centre around the Defence Review, which is due next Monday. The Guardian reports today that both aircraft carriers are to survive the Review, at the expense of several RAF fast jet squadrons and some tank regiments. However, one of the carriers might not have any aircraft. In practice, presumably, one carrier will be in dock while the other patrols, and the patrolling vessel with have the aircraft. It makes the aircraftless carrier look like a bit of a white elephant — a floating section of motorway, someone uncharitably called it yesterday — and it isn’t an outcome anyone would have particularly wanted. Again, that’s the thing about cuts.

Meanwhile, an eminent array of scientists are calling for a portion of the defence R&D budget to be rerouted away from the MoD and into the civil R&D budget, to mitigate the impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), due to be delivered on October 20, on science and technology research. Of course, the barrier between civil and military research can be very permeable, but the signatories to the scientists’ letter — including Nobel laureates such as fullerene discoverer Harry Kroto —may have a good point. It’s very hard to see how the Coalition’s stated aim of rebalancing the economy towards manufacturing industry as the main driver for growth will be possible if funding is withdrawn from the basic research which primes the pipeline of technological innovation.

And there’s still no word on the replacement of Trident and the submarines that will carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent; that might be a decision that we have to wait for a little longer. My colleague Jon Excell has already come up with the ingenious plan of cancelling Trident but not telling anyone — after all, the whole point of the submarine deterrent is to be undetectable, and if nobody knows it isn’t there, they still won’t be able to find it. Work is progressing on the Successor submarines, but no equipment has been ordered yet and, unlike the carriers, there are no financial penalties for not going ahead with the project. If George Osborne is so certain that his plan to eliminate the deficit in five years will lead to prosperity, why not delay the replacement until then, when we’ll apparently be swimming in cash?

Everybody wants something different out of the CSR, and nobody will be satisfied. The cuts themselves won’t begin to bite until next year, but in the meantime they’ve stalled discussion of pretty much everything else. Nobody can plan if they don’t know if they’ll have any funding. Students and their families are already looking nervously at their bank accounts and wondering how and if they can take on an even bigger mountain of debt. Until next week, all we can do is bite our fingernails, and hope that the messages have been put out, have sunk in. But the messages are contradictory. That’s the thing about cuts.