Tuesday was a busy one for news regarding the UK’s defence posture. A Liberal Democrat-led review of alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been deflected and will, according to PM Cameron, not affect government policy: the UK remains committed to replacing its continuous deterrent. And yet Danny Alexander asserting that the review could still lead to a change of course before a final investment decision is reached in 2016.
On the same day, a freshly minted Minister for International Security issued a stern warning that “Scottish independence will severely damage Britain’s defences” and that he believes “defence is one of the SNP weaknesses“. As a man with thirty years’ service with HM Forces, Dr Andrew Morrison certainly can claim some qualification to so opine. Even if his service was as a Surgeon Commander, the way the Navy works, pretty much everyone out on the briny is in the front line and as likely to get shot at as the next guy.
A number of thinking people—and not just rabid ScotNats—will have difficulties with both positions (Cameron and Alexander are not disagreeing on the fundamental question of nuclear deterrent; merely on how best to extend it). But the real debate (whether, dare I say, Scotland remains in the UK or dismantles it) must surely be:
“What manner of threats face Britain from elsewhere and how best can we deploy resources to counter them cost-effectively?”
Both Cameron/Alexander and Morrison not only fail to answer such a basic question; they singularly fail to acknowledge that it even requires to be asked. This is self-referential idiocy of the highest order. Cuts or no, if we are to continue spending £40bn each year on defence (the thick end of £700 for each person in the UK) some serious reflection is in order.
Now, if us Brits were Americans: gun-toting, frontier-nostalgic, “Live-Free-Or-Die” types whose international relations seem scripted by Hollywood, then deploying 11 carrier strike groups and 5,113 nuclear warheads and throwing your weight around makes some kind of sense. After all, guns outnumber the 300 million people in the country and their self-reliant, anyone-can-make-it philosophy was made to support Harry Truman’s engagingly simple foreign policy: “walk softly and carry a big stick“.
But, much as we love parts of their culture and think of them as friends, whether English, Irish, Welsh or Scots, we are not Americans but have much in common with each other. We are less brash; we are more polite; we are proud of the NHS; we favour “Dixon of Dock Green” unarmed, friendly cops, not some gum-chewing, holster-on-hip Rod Steiger from “In the Heat of the Night”. So why we should retain ambition to be a Steigeresque global cop now that our overseas interests are mostly fly-blown specks marooned in endless oceans is a question all 60 million Brits ought to be asking—especially how better to spend our £700 each. A dozen cogent points relating to this must be addressed:
- Might the security of the British Isles not be improved if we stopped poking Iraqis or Afghans in the eye. 7/7 and the like could well be the price you pay for acting as the world’s policeman. Since one fifth of the globe is no longer painted pink, why are we still reaching for a status we neither have nor can afford?
- The Cold War is over; why do we still have Trident subs and heavy armoured Chieftains and global strategic lift capacity even after we’ve dismantled BAOR and admitted that the Soviet 20th Guards Division is not about to storm through the Fulda gap? If Russia is a threat, it’s not to us—and if it does become one, most of Europe has already gone under.
- Who, in God’s name, would we ever launch a nuclear strike against? In fifty years of having the capability, we have never, ever even come close to nuking anyone. If Iranian/Moldovan/Ruritanian terrorists detonated a dirty bomb that poisoned thousands and laid waste to a square mile of a major UK city, would we launch against their (possibly blameless) homeland? And if big boys like the Soviets did it we would be just one big radioactive slag heap so why bother contributing to nuclear winter?
- What are we trying to defend and what are the best ways to defend it/them? Seems that North Sea rigs are pretty vulnerable when we have ditched all maritime recon capability and have failed to provide either fast patrol boats or seaborne anti-terrorist forces. Why? And if we insist on doing anti-drugs patrols in the Caribbean, why do it with ASW frigates that can’t catch cigarette boats when the fast patrol boats (that we don’t have) could?
- Germany is a prosperous nation that leads the EU while the Brits are seen as stroppy ingrates squabbling on its periphery. Why don’t we take a lesson from the Germans, tailoring their armed forces to a local role as the core of European defence and an international peacekeeping role, costing 81m people only 31m Euros (or £330 per head)?
- What business do we have in Diego Garcia (or anywhere much east of Skegness)?
- Why the hell would we still need a major base at Limassol (Cyprus)?
- How can we argue against giving the Malvinas back to Argentina (they were snagged from them by force majeur in 1833 when the UK needed global bases and coaling stations) when we groveled our way into lucrative trade deals with the Chinese by giving them Hong Kong back?
- Why do we have 41 Admirals when we no longer even have that many warships?
- Why do we have 250 generals in the Army when we have fewer than 200 tanks?
- How can the MoD be short of money when it had £4bn to waste on Nimrod replacements (scrapped), £4.2bn to purchase non-explosive stock (that has seen no use since 2009) and The National Audit Office found at least £6.6 billion of stock was either unused or over-ordered?
- Is it not a fact that the most recent time the any part of mainland Britain came under direct attack was when de Witt led the Dutch Fleet’s daring raid on the Medway in 1666?
For all the lip-flapping coming out of Whitehall/Admiralty/MoD about how well defended we are, none of the above questions that undermine such guff have been provided with an answer. It is not just a matter of any independent Scotland being able to better defend itself—and its European friends, including England—on a per capita budget half of the UK’s (c.f. Germany). Just look at Denmark to see how it’s done. And the idea that the UK can even afford anything more than such peaceable, secondary roles is surely demolished by endless rounds of defence budget cuts.
More relevant is why a supposedly peace-loving nation like England, renowned for its genteel understatements, magnificent art and architecture, bucolic countryside and the subtlety of its argument would want—with or without Scotland—to crash around the planet waving its nuclear big stick just because English politicians envy Uncle Sam’s chest-butting bravado and swagger?