Published:

James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.

Issue

Ensuring Britain’s defences are strong enough to cope with threats at home and abroad.

Background

Even after Britain deployed vast amounts of troops and firepower to Afghanistan and Iraq, the national political conversation quickly moved on to issues other than defence. There was a brief discussion on renewing Trident and aircraft carriers, but defence has mostly been left to sector specialists.

Things seem to be changing, for four reasons: two practical ones and two more existential. Firstly, there are greater concerns about the intentions of Russia in Europe and the Middle East. While at one level entirely incidental to Britain, the pictures of the Russia’s aircraft carrier steaming through the Channel brought things into sharp focus. Secondly, the recent migrant crisis and the prospect of mass human trafficking means there are new demands on the Royal Navy.

Thirdly, while it doesn’t mean we’re exiting from a global role (on the contrary), Brexit has clearly made people think about Britain as an “independent” country for the first time in a while – and about the relative importance of Britain’s armed forces to Europe. Fourthly, most importantly, there are justifiable fears about what a Trump Presidency brings to the UK and our allies.

It is possible that fears of Trump’s scepticism about America’s historically interventionist role are overblown. However, it is also clear that many American politicians and American voters are tiring of carrying what they see as an unfair burden to defend Europe. Why should they be doing this, their collective argument goes, at a time when European countries are spending vast sums on welfare, pensions et cetera to keep voters comfortable and happy? They have a point.

What next

Given how little politicians talk about defence and defence spending, it might be expected the public care little about it. While “defence” tends not to rate highly in the traditional polls that track public priorities, when people are asked about the importance of the security of the country, it is right up there in the public mind. It is reasonable to assume that it will stay there as people debate these threats and uncertainties.

Simply put, we need to spend more on defence and shave off as much from other departments’ spending to fund it. And politicians – other than the Secretary of State for Defence – need to make the case for it aggressively. Former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen recently suggested that Britain should be spending something like 2.5 per cent of GDP on its defence budget – something closer to the figure we were spending in the 1990s.

Can we afford it? Well, can we afford anything? And it we can’t fund defence, what can we afford? We can debate the merits of specific defence projects – like Trident or the carriers – and we should. But we should answer the fundamental question first: are the threats and uncertainties facing Britain serious enough to justify higher spending? The answer must be yes, and we ought to be moving on to a debate about our strategy for meeting these threats and how best to spend the money we’ve committed.

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