On Monday morning at the eleventh hour, the British people marked the Armistice in the customary fashion. In his column for the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson writes that these occasions represent “more than an act of remembrance”:
“More than 5,000 of our soldiers are at war today, and we’re more mindful than ever of the needs of those who return. For every two who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan, one has had to return as an amputee. Donations still flood in to the charities which do extraordinary work caring for them.
“Not all of the wounds are physical: more soldiers (and veterans) took their own lives last year than died in Afghanistan. The toll continues…”
Nelson’s argument then takes a strange and significant turn. Quite rightly, he expresses serious concern about the weakening of Britain’s defence capability, but throughout he treats the concepts of a strong defence position and an interventionist foreign policy as if they were much the same thing. Furthermore, in doing so, he appears to be reflecting the Downing Street view:
“After losing the Syria vote two months ago, [David Cameron] has agonised over whether Britain is now just tired of conflict and worries that failure to project military force would diminish us in the eyes of the world. To George Osborne, the vote was not about firing missiles in the direction of Damascus but whether Britain wants to be ‘that big open and trading nation that I’d like us to be – or whether we turn our back on that’.
“In the aftermath of the Commons defeat, it was as if the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had caught a glimpse of what the world would look like if they did not have such a strong military at their disposal.”
George Osborne is known to have neo-conservative sympathies, but can he really believe that British involvement in the Syrian conflict is crucial to our success as a trading nation? If he does, then he might want to look at leading exporters like Germany and Japan and ask how many countries they’ve bombed lately. Moreover, the Syria vote wasn’t about whether we should have a strong military or not, but about the wisdom of intervention.
And there’s something else: As Fraser Nelson says himself, Cameron and Osborne have no right to blame MPs for Britain’s military weakness – not when “the biggest threat comes from their own systematic degrading of the British Armed Forces”:
“We are now into the third year of defence cuts. Soon the Army will be reduced to a size not seen since the 19th century. Soon we will have aircraft carriers without aircraft and an unpatrolled east coast…
“Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary… wants to stop the cuts. But when he has these conversations with the Chancellor, he is presented with polling data that shows that defence spending is not in the public’s top 10 list of concerns.”
A strong defence position and an interventionist foreign policy are distinct concepts, but you cannot have the latter without the former. You can, however, have the former without the latter – or as the Romans used to say: Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war).
Wanting peace does not make you a pacifist. Nor does it make you a lefty. All conservatives share a certain scepticism about the ability of governments to build a better world from the top-down. It’s just that some conservatives, when contemplating the hierarchical power of the state in its most concentrated and destructive form, suddenly seem convinced of its infallibility. After the terrible mistakes of the last decade, it is time for us to put aside this misconception.