James Gray is MP for North Wiltshire

Paul Goodman was quite right to warn on this site earlier this week against too large a NATO potentially sucking us into unwelcome interventionist wars. Had Ukraine joined NATO (as was at one time being considered), we would now be facing an urgent recall of Parliament to consider military involvement in what is by any standards a remote and distant land.

He is also right to point out that if President Putin were to start to cast envious eyes on Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, all of whom have substantial Russian-speaking populations, and all of whom are members of NATO, we would then be facing an “Article 5 Moment.” The whole principle of NATO is that foreign aggression against one means defensive action by all. Were this not to be the case, there would be precious little point in NATO.

Yet the point which Paul makes needs wider thought. In this post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq era, what is Britain’s role in the world, whether that be as part of NATO, or of the EU, or as an independent nation state? That is the challenge which will face the House of Commons Defence Select Committee over the next twelve months, and as one of the candidates for its Chairmanship, let me try to answer Paul’s  challenge.

There are those who welcome the imminent end of Britain’s involvement in overseas wars as an end to ‘interventionism’ in the world; there are those who support cuts in defence spending as a way to divert scarce resources back to the Home Front; there are those who attack overseas aid spending arguing, amongst other things, that it is money which would be better spent on the Somerset Levels; there are those who are opposed to warfare of any kind, and some who would leave the peace of the world to America or ’someone else.’

Now there is some intellectual strength in each of those arguments. But were any of them to hold sway, it would imply a very significant change in Britain’s global positioning and influence. So before accepting any of them, it is only right that we should first have a wide-ranging and serious debate about what role we believe we ought to have in the world, and how we are going to achieve it over the next generation or so. Does Britain in fact have any such role, and is our membership of the UN Security Council and NATO important to us? Do we have any residual moral obligation to play our part in securing international peace and security or does our defence outlook end at Calais with an isolationist abandonment of our global duties?

These are questions deserving of detailed debate and consensual agreement, especially in the run-up to the next Security and Defence Review, which is currently scheduled for just after the general election in 2015. The National Security Strategy which should be its fore-runner and bedrock should be the mechanism by which we decide as a nation what we want our government to do in the world.
There are, however, four largely external influences which risk pre-empting that process and taking these crucial decisions out of our national hands.

First, defence spending which, at about £40 billion or two per cent of GDP (leaving aside Afghanistan) is still the fourth highest in the world is being cut – albeit not as harshly as in many other EU/NATO countries. Do we really believe that the smallest regular army since Waterloo of 82,000 people (cut from 102,000) will be sufficient, irrespective of what world events may throw at us? And is the bold target of 30,000 fully trained and deployable reservists by 2018 remotely achievable? The Royal Navy and RAF have faced deep and damaging cuts, too. Vital to them must be our commitment to increase equipment expenditure by one per cent per annum from 2015.

But that, like the main spending budgets, must seem vulnerable to cost-cutting Chief Secretaries to the Treasury of whichever party both now and in the future. An apparent end to aggressive expeditionary warfare of the kind we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 15 years will no doubt lead to all kinds of political pressures from other :more worthy” spending departments. Overseas aid, education, health, social security, deficit reduction and tax cutting may well prove more attractive to governments in the coming years.

Now the problem with that – quite apart from the unforseeability of world affairs –  is that the American commitment to NATO must come under increasing strain unless we, and even more so our EU partners, step up to the mark with regard to defence spending. The US has already indicated that their strategic thinking is increasingly turning towards the Asia Pacific region rather than to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Cuts in defence spending across Europe can only encourage the US to turn its back on NATO in such a way. Without reasonable defence spending, we have no US; and without the US we have no NATO; and without NATO we are a very much diminished force for good in the world.

Second, while the British public have a very high regard for our military personnel and all they do, they have a currently poor understanding or even regard for what they are doing. The people of Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency turned out on 167 occasions, in all weathers, to honour a total of 345 coffins as they were carried down their High Street. Their respect for our armed forces and their self-sacrifice is second to none. But it would be wholly wrong to imagine that these repatriation ceremonies week by week signified any kind of support for, or even real understanding of, what we had been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.  People talk of ‘our brave boys and girls’, but they actually mean that they would prefer them to be back in barracks at home rather than risking their lives engaged in military activity abroad. In other words, there is a bigger, and most worrying, disconnect  than ever before between respect for our armed forces – which is at an all time high; and respect and support for what governments are asking them to do – which is at an all time low.

Third, and closely linked to that, the end of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq and the sour taste left in our mouths in their aftermath has removed any possible popular appetite for expeditionary warfare. No matter what happens in the world now, would we really persuade a sceptical public to intervene in it?  Probably not. Let us hope that we find a peaceful diplomatic solution to Syria, Ukraine, Central African Republic, Pakistan, and so many other global flashpoints. I do hope so, but none of us can have much confidence in that outcome. But I would not want to be the Prime Minister seeking to explain to a sceptical public why we should engage in any form of military intervention in any of those places or many like them.

David Cameron’s difficult Syria vote last August may well be a stark warning of similar votes to come in the future. No matter how worthwhile or even necessary the proposed military action in Syria may or may not have been (and that is a matter for a separate discussion), there was no way in the world that he would have achieved a majority for it in the Commons. A year before the next election, an MP defending a majority of – let us say – a hundred votes will pay a great deal of attention to the thousand emails he or she might have received opposing some piece of expeditionary warfare. (The abandonment of the use of the Royal Prerogative to go to war in the Syria vote and its strategic consequences is another matter for a separate discussion.)

And, fourth, it is becoming harder and harder to conduct any form of conventional warfare because of international legal constraints. As Lord Justice Moses has said in his introduction to a recent Policy Exchange paper by Thomas Tugendhat and Laura Croft entitled The Fog of Law, An introduction to the legal erosion of British Fighting Power, “None have succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Napoleon, Falkenhayn and Hitler could not. But where these enemies failed, our own legal institutions threaten to succeed.” By a majority of four to three, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled last June that Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights should apply to soldiers in the field of battle.

As Tughendhat and Croft argue, “The customs and practices of Britain’s armed forces are now under threat from an unexpected quarter: the law. Recent legal developments have undermined the armed forces ability to operate effectively on the battlefield.” They go on to describe ‘legal siege, legal entitlement, judicial creep and even lawfare’ and to argue that fear of prosecution in the international courts risks significantly undermining our national ability to commit troops to war. I am no lawyer, but commend their very worrying paper to you.

Now if you put these four largely coincidental pressures together you would predict a peace-loving, pacifist, non-engaging UK for the foreseeable future. There is a powerful feeling around that we are at last bringing our military home – both from Afghanistan and from Germany – and that we want them hunkered down in their barracks, their main function being to defend our homelands. Something of the same can be said of popular opposition to the UK’s record high spending on overseas aid. The people want to retreat behind our castle walls with the drawbridge firmly pulled up  behind us, and turn our backs on world events.

Yet all of this is happening at the same time as most of the rest of the world are increasing their defence spending, and more and more of the world is looking ever more dangerous. There’s an eerie echo here of the early 1930s during which we disarmed, with Churchill as a lone voice warning against it. Are we not once again risking leaving ourselves unprotected against world developments and unable to play our historic part in influencing them for the good of humanity? Are we unwittingly heading for Splendid Isolation?  If so, that must at very least be a product of a clear and conscious decision by the people, rather than an almost unseen and coincidental result of concurrent pressures.
The debate over the National Security Strategy must be full and comprehensive, and it must be conducted well in advance of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. There is not a moment to be lost.