The Daily Mail is serialising Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s new book about the armed forces: White Flag. Today’s extract asks if political correctness is turning them soft. “An army cut to ribbons, a Navy struggling to stay afloat and a tank unit so weak it’s nicknamed ‘Operation Tethered Goat’,” the paper proclaimed on Saturday, above the opening extract. “As Putin flexes his might, a new book claims the British military is at breaking point.” Isabel will be interviewing Gavin Williamson on the Monday of Party Conference at 8am in Hall 5 of the Conference Centre. Some of all this just might come up during the proceedings.
We add one point to this dispiriting summary which we have made before. Brexit will force changes in the way we think about defence. Very crudely, much of the debate about its future has been held between what one might call a European Strategy and a Global Strategy. The former emphasises defending our common continent against the Russian security threat, as Putin continues to modernise its forces. The latter stresses our maritime history and Britain’s global reach, pointing to wider defence challenges – such as Islamist extremism, the external and internal dimensions of which interact. The European strategy school tends to emphasise the army, the Global Strategy tendency the navy. Then there are the new potential threats from non-state as well as state actors.
Leaving the EU should render some of this debate obsolete, because it casts our needs and obligations in a new light. On the one hand, it makes no sense for Global Britain, as Theresa May herself has called it, to abandon a global strategy. On the other, it would be inconsistent for an internationalist, outward-looking, post-Brexit Britain – sitting as it will continue to do on the UN Security Council, meeting the NATO minimum obligation and remaining one of the only two committed military powers on the continent – to muddle leaving the EU with abandoning our part in the defence of Europe. Whatever short-term rows we may have with the EU27 over the terms of Brexit – about which Andrew Murrison wrote a marvellously sardonic piece on this site on Saturday – that commitment will endure in the medium-term.
The difference is drawn between hard power (exemplified, say, by “boots on the ground”) and soft power (shown, for example, by the work of the British Council). But, if you think about it, the two are not separated altogether, at least outside wartime. Hard power in the form of properly equipped armed forces can be a form of soft power in peacetime. In the case of post-Brexit Europe, this has the potential to further wider UK interests, diplomatically and economically. That’s the point of soft power, after all. However, this will be impossible if the armed forces aren’t funded adequately.
As big public spending loom for the Government next year, we are where we were before – and where our panel of Conservative Party members is, too. Last summer, two out of three members of it backed Gavin Williamson in his long wrestling-match with the Treasury. We agree, but hitting the two per cent NATO minimum consistently, and indeed upping that percentage, will mean balancing savings elsewhere, which is easier said than done. But raising our defence game is a Brexit consequence. We should have been doing it anyway – but now have new reason to do it during the years ahead.