Jeremy Corbyn has said that he could not think of a situation where he would deploy Britain’s armed forces. If anything, the left should be championing greater defence spending.
The previous sixty years have seen consistent reductions in our national spend on the military. Once entirely reasonable, the dismantling of Britain’s overseas empire brought down the burden of defence to bearable levels. But the last two decades have seen this trend produce a military that is increasingly unable to defend Britain’s commitments, and relegates our country to a lesser role than is good for us or our allies. Often a sacred cow on the right, even amongst progressives there is a serious case for a stronger military – one that can protect our principles as well as our people.
Defence cuts have long been seen as the “soft option” by too many on the left. The Green Party’s headline figure of £100 billion savings by scrapping Trident as outlined in their 2015 manifesto is simply the most high profile example of this philosophy. Labour and the Lib Dems did not offer to ring-fence defence spending either; whilst defending Trident and its replacement, both proposed the scaling down of conventional and nuclear forces to meet budgetary pressures. This approach is strategically illiterate. No matter the fiscal situation, defence needs are dictated by outside pressures; with the onward march of Putin’s Russia and the tide of Daesh (aka ISIS) terror sweeping Europe, Africa and the Middle East, threats to Britain and our allies are increasing, not falling.
With Army personnel soon to drop to 82,000 regulars, and a front line navy of 19 vessels (none of them aircraft carriers), we risk abandoning our principles in the name of austerity – sacrificing the future to meet the craze of the age. How can we justify £38 billion in defence spending, whilst welfare and healthcare are slashed to the bone? This question is asked across the left, before George Osborne’s recent commitment to meet the Nato 2% of GDP target is even taken into consideration. But most of those who highlight the cost of defence in a time of austerity – from Diane Abbott to Jeremy Corbyn to Caroline Lucas – are highly critical of austerity under any circumstances. It is austerity, not a strong military, which cuts across the principles of the left.
There are clear, progressive purposes for our military in the 21st Century. Once the tool by which we conquered other peoples, we can now use our armed services to fight for self determination and democracy. A key example is the Falkland Islands; emphatically British by the will of its population, the Argentine government still harbours wishes to seize them. Currently, with no fixed wing naval aircraft at sea until the end of the decade (let alone a significant land force) were the Argentines to attack as in 1982, we would be forced to abandon those we had sworn to protect. If the left does not believe in defend the will of threatened communities, or to meet our international commitments, we risk morally bankrupting our nation.
The contingency that the Falklands or Gibraltar would be invaded is currently remote – but no responsible movement would develop a strategy based on a best case scenario. Self determination is a right we must defend, both as a country and as progressives. A strong military allows us to play a leading role in world affairs which is crucial if democracies are to work together to protect our values. The threat of 50,000 British soldiers intervening in Kosovo in 1999 played a key part in halting the genocide there. Although a bluff, it was possible because Britain had teeth and was prepared to use them for the right reasons. In future this will not be possible; a barebones military cannot give our values of tolerance and democracy any backing, instead handing the whip hand to those who would go against everything we on the left hold dear.
George Osborne’s establishment of a £1.5 billion joint security fund as of his July 2015 budget is also in principle a move that should be welcomed by the left. Provided it is not used solely to spy on our own citizens, this funding will strengthen efforts to crush Daesh (aka ISIS) in the Middle East. Progressives should lead the way in proposing increased force and funding against Daesh, who would slaughter its way to regional domination. In the spirit of internationalism, we must help others to enjoy the democracy and toleration we ourselves enjoy. This is only possible if we accept the need for a well funded and active defence outlook, rather than one based on cynicism and retreat.
The third great threat against our progressive values is the advance of Russia under Vladimir Putin. A ruthless autocrat, he rules like Mussolini and has foreign policy ambitions like Hitler, obsessing over racial links to claim border regions of Ukraine and Georgia. By maintaining a large military – including a nuclear deterrent – we keep Putin in check, as per our promises under Article Five of the Nato Charter. The threat Russia poses to democracy in the Baltic States and Poland cannot be overemphasised; we cannot claim to stand for all the positive values that the end of the Cold War brought to these nations whilst simultaneously disassembling the very systems that ensure their survival. Democracy is paramount. The left must unite about its defence, no matter the financial cost.
Too often the preserve of the right, defence spending is an area in which we must assert ourselves on the left. Already our forces are too weak to fulfil the roles they must perform. If we are to help those we swear to defend, and to ensure all can enjoy our positive program of human rights and democracy, we must ensure that is democracies like our own which hold the balance of military force, not autocracies like Russia or China. Whilst unpalatable for some, high defence spending is vital if we free nations are to promote progressive values in times of crisis like these.