It’s usually a good idea to state straight out where you stand on an issue. I’ll therefore lay my ideological cards on the table: when it comes to defence, I’m not a pacifist. The reason for this is quite simple. I’m old enough and have mixed widely enough to have been in the company of out-and-out genuine racists.
I prefer to try and argue the issues out with them and to win the argument. I don’t fool myself for a second that this is always possible. There comes a time when you’re dealing with people who enjoy violence and suffer from blind hatred of those who differ from them and then there’s no alternative but to fight back.
Britain needs a defence strategy
That applies as much to a country as it does to an individual. So, I’ve never had any illusions about the possibility of dealing with leaders like Assad in Syria, or Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, by being nice to them. There are people who only understand power and have every intention of exploiting weakness.
I therefore have no problem believing that Britain needs a defence strategy and that it will occasionally have to use military force in exceptionally difficult circumstances.
What I do have a problem with is the idea that spending huge quantities of money on increasing its stock of nuclear weapons is a wise use of the limited resources at our disposal, or an intelligent response to any reasonable assessment of the risks that we face.
How useful are nuclear weapons?
Consider, for instance, the recent disputes with China and with Russia. Of what actual value has it been for the UK to have access to nuclear weapons when dealing with issues where the interests of Britain and the interests of those countries clash?
Did it help us fight off cyber-attacks from Putin’s cronies, or stop their deliberate interference in our referendums and elections? Did it assist us in preventing the arrival on our shores of Putin’s murder squads, hunting down people who dared to disagree with him?
When it comes to China, has the existence of Britain’s nuclear weapons made one iota of difference to the determination of the Chinese one-party state to impose its full authority on any part of the country where it encounters resistance? Were British nuclear weapons helpful to Hong Kong? Did our possession of them help us speak out on behalf of the Tibetans or the Uighurs?
The answer is a resounding no. Indeed, their existence helps strengthen people like Putin by helping him to convince many people in Russia that he needs a powerful military to defend them against nations armed with dangerous weapons.
Modern conflicts need flexible defence options
Nor have nuclear weapons been of any value in any of the actual conflicts that Britain’s been involved in over recent decades. What use were nuclear weapons in Syria, Libya or Iraq? What help did nuclear weapons provide in Afghanistan? How do they help protect schoolgirls from being attacked by extremists inspired by a warped interpretation of Islamic faith?
Almost any conceivable modern conflict requires the use of flexible forces that rely heavily on intelligent use of a huge variety of different means of achieving a military objective. That includes digital warfare and it includes the ability to deliver highly trained people to particular locations to achieve carefully defined purposes.
Yet the British government has chosen to cut funding on the kinds of defence activity that might actually prove necessary in any conflict, whilst expanding funding on nuclear posturing.
Cutting spending in all the wrong places
The British armed forces are to be cut again by a further 10,000, leaving the country with a force of only 72,500. Spread that over the entire range of services and it quickly becomes evident that it will leave serious gaps in the country’s ability to do simple practical defence work, which is already necessary but neglected.
How exactly is the navy going to protect our coastal waters from exploitation, by massive super trawlers scooping up every creature in the sea for miles around, without a serious increase in the number of fast ships patrolling our coasts and preventing rule breaking? Where are the staff and the small fast ships that are capable of doing such an enormous and important job?
This goes to the heart of one of the biggest problems with the surge in fake nationalism that the Johnson government has indulged in. He claims to make our nation stronger and to be serious about its defence. In reality, he is making us weaker and indulging in the worst kind of empty posturing.
Britain needs alliances, not nuclear weapons
There are no shortages of threats in the modern world. What Britain most lacks are any allies that will help us fend off those threats.
The British government has rightly got huge issues with Putin’s Russia. Yet it allows Russian money laundering to continue unabated through London.
It has genuine grounds for massive concern over concentration camps in China. Yet it is desperate to expand trade with China.
It has entirely legitimate concerns about states that foster an extremist interpretation of Islam. Yet it eagerly sells weapons to Saudi Arabia and buys oil from it.
With enemies like this, any military analyst will tell you that you need some friends. Right now, they’re not easy for the British government to find.
After the way Johnson and Gove cosied up to Donald Trump, it is far from certain that the United States is going to automatically look to Britain to be its closest friend during the Biden era.
Looking to South Asia and trying to build better connections with countries like India could prove to be an even more deluded fantasy. Britain is now a long way from being top of India’s priorities.
Having a prime minister who thinks it’s a good idea to quote Kipling when on a trade mission to Myanmar (Burma) doesn’t exactly help to improve Britain’s image as a country that understands the realities of forging post-colonial relationships.
There is, however, one reliable ally that Britain could realistically forge good relationships with. A place where people share many of our values and the vast majority of our strategic interests. It is called Europe.
I wonder how Johnson’s work on building good relationships there is going?