Brother can you spare a dime?

By | 29th April 2010

Bing Crosby* singing a song from the Great Depression seems a long way from where we are now in 2010, but to borrow a phrase, buddy can you spare £80 billion?

I know that at election time, we, the voters, are supposed to ask the difficult questions and receive the collective wisdom of our political masters, even if it bears little resemblance to the policies they then pursue once the ballots have been safely counted.

With a deficit of around £160 billion, you would imagine that the odd £80 billion would come in handy. By almost halving the deficit it would, in fact, help Chancellor Darling or Chancellor Osborne or even Chancellor Cable ( surely some mistake here) to achieve at a stroke what the present Government has said it wants to do over the next 4 years.

It sounds too good to be true, and like everything which sounds too good to be true, it is!

The figure of £80 billion is the figure commonly bandied around by the cognoscenti who are thinking about the cost of replacement of our Trident nuclear missile capability. Being no military expert, I am led to believe that this is not in fact the cost of replacement but the overall lifetime cost presumably spread over the next 10 to 15 years but even so the annual amount would come in handy!

I was prompted to think about Trident by a trenchant article in The Times  [Money spent on Trident can’t go on troops, 21st April, 2010] written by four eminent former commanders. Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham, General Sir Hugh Beach and Major-General Patrick Cordingley asked whether the nuclear deterrent was good value for money.

You can read the article for yourself but it was not so much the arguments nor the conclusion reached by the authors which intrigued me but the process by which they evaluated the problem and the various solutions.

Firstly there is the financial aspect of potential replacement. At a time of straitened economic circumstances, with a black hole of some £35 billion in the defence equipment budget, it is difficult to see how anyone can be thinking of replacing Trident at £80 billion or any sum in the same stratosphere. (Incidentally, had the deficit run up by Messrs Brown & Co been incurred by directors of a public company, whom this Government loves to hate, they would have surely lost their jobs and/or resigned before they were pushed and would now be expecting criminal and fraud charges to be brought against them).

At the very least, the long term consequences for the military and the equipment budget need to be examined.

Secondly, there is the growing international consensus around cuts in nuclear and other defence spending as evidenced by the recent Obama-Medvedev meeting to sign a treaty bringing about some multilateral disarmament.

Thirdly, is it sensible to spend large sums of money on replacing a defence system with something so eye wateringly expensive that even this Government might baulk at the cost? God knows they have thrown money in staggering amounts at almost every other project imaginable. Not only that, but the relevance of such a system to warfare in the modern world is questionable. What may have been essential in the 1980s and 1990s may look out of place in 2010 to 2030.

Fourthly, the effect of spending that money has to be considered. What will be the effect on the finances of our nearly bankrupt country and on future “normal” spending on our troops who appear in recent conflicts to have lacked such basics as good boots, flak jackets and other basic kit to protect them as much as possible in the field?

Fifthly, what would the effect be on international disarmament negotiations if we were committed to renewing Trident? As the former head of the International Atomic Energy Authority, Mohamed El Baradei, put it: “It is very hard to preach the virtues of non-smoking when you have a cigarette dangling from your lips and you are about to buy a new pack”.

The Generals called for a full and proper evaluation of all the options and urged all political parties to allow a full and open debate about Trident replacement as part of the forthcoming strategic defence review, from which the whole issue of Trident is currently (inexplicably) excluded.

As I have said, it is the process of it all rather than the arguments which intrigued me as I read the article, although the arguments are themselves fascinating. It set me thinking about the process which lawyers go through when evaluating the options in the electronic arena.

Often, the major issue, the elephant in the room as it is sometimes called, is excluded from the discussion, just as Trident appears to have been excluded from the defence review. People involved in e-disclosure often ignore the end game. What is the objective to be achieved? How much money is available for this process? How will spending that limited amount of money on e-disclosure impact on the costs throughout the rest of the case?

I am not sure that I can claim that it is an original statement but it seems clear that in many cases, the tyranny of the technology is that you do things because you can and not because it is appropriate (or indeed proportionate) to do so.

What is needed in each case, and I stress in each case because every case is different and there is NO one size fits all, is a thorough evaluation of the problem and the possible solutions so that clients and lawyers can come to an informed decision about what is best for them in that particular case after an expert consideration of the position armed with all the relevant facts. Without that, it is so much guesswork and often pure luck if the right conclusion is reached.

That cannot be sensible and almost certainly will involve spending too much money for a system which will not be fit for purpose. Could this be the result of the defence review to be conducted by whatever Government we have after May 6th? It is a possibility!

Governments, generals and those advising clients in the e-disclosure field all need to consider all the options from a position of knowledge if they are not to be sold a pup!

*The song “Brother can you spare a dime?” (also sung as “Buddy can you spare a dime?”) has been recorded by many artists down the years – from Bing Crosby, Rudy Valee and Al Jolson in the 1930s to Tom Jones, Tom Waits and George Michael in more recent times.