Reading Paul Goodman’s article yesterday it may seem remarkable that the Defence budget remains as large as it is. He echoes Niall Furguson’s narrative about how great powers decline; for today’s great powers, defence becomes an optional luxury, rather than an essential like pensions or education. But Paul’s piece reflects many fallacies.
The first is that today’s defence budget, at barely 2% of GDP, is the one thing that holds this country back. From the end-WW2 high of nearly 50% of GDP, it has declined dramatically. Even at the end of the Cold War it was only 4%. Since then, we have halved it again. This is in stark contrast to the inexorable rise in the burden of health, pensions, welfare and the general cost of government. So the very idea, advanced by Corelli Barnett in past decades, that we are continuing to inflict uncompetitiveness and decline on our economy because we spend too much on defence is clearly complete baloney. It is the burden of other programmes, and of taxation at destructively high rates, and of over-regulation, which has destroyed, and is destroying growth in our economy.
The second fallacy is that it would be politically impossible to cut other programmes. Where is the cost-benefit analysis which demonstrates the effectiveness of the government’s environmental programmes, which, for example, are adding billions of pounds to the cost of energy in this country? Why did the government uncomplainingly accept the massive increases in the UK’s net contribution to the EU (rising from under £3 billion in 2009 to some £12 billion by 2015) inherited from Labour as a result Blair’s part-concession of the Thatcher rebate? And what of aid? I support the 0.7% aid target (though I prefer to target outcomes rather than inputs), but the 2015 commitment was made before the spending and debt crisis was apparent. Why is aid so much more strategically significant to the UK than, say, spending on the diplomatic service, or on defence? If there has to be another round of spending reductions, the government cannot allow itself the luxury of continuing to protect these programmes for its own political convenience.
The third fallacy is that defence spending is simply consumption. Defence spends much on training and educating some of the most dedicated and talented people in our society. They contribute hugely to the wealth and talent of the nation. Moreover, without excusing the incompetence and extravagance of the MoD, defence spending supports a major and highly competitive part of our engineering industry. The UK is the world’s second largest defence exporter. The sector accounts for a staggering 14% of UK R&D and employs over 300,000 in highly skilled, high added value jobs. UK industry maintains a global lead in key areas of defence technology. This sector is a commercial, political and strategic asset in its own right. Further defence cuts would undoubtedly undermine this.
But the worst fallacy is that the choice lies somewhere between “fighting wars abroad” and shutting our eyes to the rest of the world so we simply look after the home turf. One of the reasons that SDSR is so disastrous is that the choices seem to have been framed in this asinine, sub-GCSE mentality. This is not a choice between large armed forces with lots of wars abroad, or small armed forces and no conflict. Sadly, we have become inured to the idea that the sole purpose of the Armed Forces is to use them in anger, but their prime purpose should not be “liberal interventionism” but to influence and to deter. As Sun Tzu points out, supreme excellence is not to fight and to conquer all your enemies in battle; it consists in breaking the enemy’s will without fighting. I am grateful that Paul Goodman supports the nuclear deterrent, but it becomes a less and less credible deterrent if you cannot do very much to deter aggression in the world short of threatening nuclear Armageddon. This is just one aspect that demonstrates how the idiom of thinking reflected by Paul Goodman itself reflects a massive failure strategic thinking at the heart of today’s politics.
The real question is about what sort of nation we want to be. This is explored in a paper I co-authored earlier this year, The tipping point: British National Strategy and the UK’s Future World Role. Is the UK simply to become just another European country, with our head in the sand, pretending that things happening outside Europe are of little consequence to us? If we were to quit the field as a global player, who would take our place? Other nice countries, or nastier ones? The US is already threatening to become more isolationist, yet they are the only guarantor of European security. If the UK gives up on NATO, by cutting our defence budget, so we are even less capable of contributing to US and global security concerns, why should the US continue to bother with us?
The reason we are a global power and must seek to remain one is not just historic. Our interests are global. Our political reach and influence is global. Our trade is global. One of the disasters of SDSR is how much it neglects the simple fact that we need maritime power to project our influence so we can protect our trade and energy supplies. There is no sign that any other EU power, except perhaps France, is remotely prepared to think about this.
The Chichley Professor of History at Oxford, Hew Strachan, has remarked that the UK has not been so complacent about the possibility of future conflict since the mid-1930s. Paul Goodman flatly asserts that nobody is threatening the UK homeland at present. Ergo, we can cut defence. I would remind him that it is far cheaper to spend enough on defence to be able to prevent wars, than to lack the right means at the right time and to finish up having to fight them.