Government Spending

The Guns of Britain

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We've all been burned by politicians promising to cut the size of government, so it's natural to be wary about the wonderful rhetoric that's been coming out of London since the Tory/Lib Dem coalition came to power. One way to test their willingness to make serious reductions: See if they'll stand by their call for substantial cuts in the military budget.

Simon Jenkins comments:

Push having come to shove, the coalition is now asking direct questions—such as why does Britain's defence require a nuclear capability? [Defence Minister Liam] Fox and the service chiefs were desperately reduced to pleading that renewing Trident was not about defence but about "politics". Its cost should therefore be removed from the defence budget and borne centrally, presumably by the Foreign or Cabinet Offices.

That sold the nuclear pass. If renewing Trident is not about defending Britain but about some global diplomatic posture, then not renewing Trident cannot jeopardise Britain's defence….

Darker questions swim into view when [Chancellor of the Exchequer George] Osborne demands cuts options of between 25% and 40%. The old arguments long paraded in parliament and the press suddenly dissolve into glibness. We apparently need a navy to defend our food supplies. Against whom? We need £50m Eurofighters to skirmish with Russian MiGs. Really? We might lose the Falklands again and need a fleet to recapture them. If so, the entire defence ministry should be shot. We apparently need to transport troops at the drop of a hat anywhere round the world, served by air bases, naval depots and barracks and training facilities, just in case another Blair wants to fight someone. Besides, you never know.

You never know what? No area of public spending is so imbued with intellectual sloppiness as defence. At a time when Britain's wars are "wars of choice", not necessity, there is no such thing as a defence strategy. There is a standing military capability and a burning itch to use it by politicians and generals alike, like Plantagenet barons in the hundred years war.

With an opposing view on Britain's nuclear arsenal, here's Sir Humphrey Appleby:

NEXT: Killed on a Technicality

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  1. The UK would be fools to give up their ICBMs.

    1. ^^THIS^^

    2. The UK doesn’t have any ICBMs, only Trident SLBMs.

      1. Nevermind, wiki tells me that apparently SLBMs go far enough to count as ICBMs now.

        1. an SLBM is an ICBM

          ICBM does not inherently mean land based

          1. It wasn’t a land vs. sea thing, I just didn’t think SLBM’s went far enough to be ICBMs.

  2. You can’t blithely dismiss fears about the Falklands. If oil is found, you can’t write off the possibility that the Argies will invade again. Whatever you think about George and Tony’s Excellent Adventures, protecting your people from invasion by an avowedly fascist military dictatorship isn’t a choice.

  3. Supporting your argument with a long quote from the Grauniad’s CiF section… probably not the very best way to convince people around here, you know?

    1. I’d like to think most of the readers “around here” aren’t as small-minded as that, but we do attract all kinds. At any rate, regular readers of The Guardian know that Jenkins is no apologist for big government.

      1. HnR teems with obnoxious trolls, and this is what you save your insulting putdown for? I’m disappointed. Though not as disappointed as I was by your half-assed excuse for an argument in favour of nuclear disarmament – which, you might note, has been roundly dismissed by every other commenter on the thread. You really can do better.

        1. which, you might note, has been roundly dismissed by every other commenter on the thread

          Some of whom seem to think that only Marxists invoke Plantagenets. The only argument I’ve heard here that moves me at all is the idea that the UK’s military budget is kept artificially low by American protection. But England isn’t Japan or South Korea, with an aggressive, nuclear-armed enemy right next door. Pace Shannon’s scenario of a fascist Russia with designs on Albion, the threats Britain faces are of the 7/7 variety, and I doubt that Trident does much to prevent terrorism.

          Put another way: I do think the U.S. needs to stop paying for other countries’ defense, and if that means some of those nations choose to maintain a nuclear arsenal, then so be it. But that doesn’t mean nukes are a wise investment for the taxpayers of any given country. Does Sweden need a nuclear deterrent? If not, then why does Britain? (Because it used to be a world power? Hell, so was Macedonia.)

          If I were to write a serious article exploring the subject, I’d start from there. But I’m just linking to an engaging (and to my mind persuasive) article by someone else here, and throwing in a clip of one of my favorite sitcom scenes. I’ll do better when the occasion demands it.

          1. I think the case for Britain cutting its nuclear arsenal is possibly solid; cutting its conventional military capabilities beyond that may be less so. Part of the ‘special relationship’ they maintain with the US is a tacit agreement that they will join us in whatever military endeavors (poorly thought out or not) we undertake, to at least present the appearance of a ‘coalition’. Maybe they’ve recently learned that isn’t always worth it in the end… Or not. I don’t really know. But there is something to maintaining buddy-buddy with the largest military in the world, and it does depend somewhat on their being able to offer some practical assistance. Things like buying airplanes from us doesn’t hurt either.

            The issue is complex – as you rightly point out, the US has a certain effect in subsidizing/replacing our allies defense capabilities; however, there are certainly situations where Britain would want to maintain independent military capabilities to maintain international influence, as well as its veto-holding position on the UN security council.

            If strength of diplomacy is “war by other means”, maintaining military capability is an implicit corollary; without the capability to resort to force, diplomatic power goes out the window. The Falklands war was probably as much about demonstrating to the world that the British still had independent military capability (and will!) as it was saving a few thousand islanders from nominal Argentinian rule. Those sorts of things give countries pause when dealing with regional British allies, no matter how small.

            There may also be a role in providing at least symbolic military support to commonwealth nations where they have significant trade interests (and whose votes they can count on in the UN for whatever purpose). Although I have no idea what kind of security relationships (if any) Britain has with commonwealth partners, other than occasionally training/assisting each others soldiers from time to time. There could be scenarios in the future where some commonwealth partners ask for military assistance? Like Brunei in the 60s? Oman in the 70s? Just speculating. Shit happens. Britain’s global power is as much as part of its relationships with commonwealth nations as it is its own local/regional military capability.

            As I said, its a complex discussion, and there is more to be considered than simply the security of the british isles.

            Related: Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague recently gave a speech speaking to future concerns in British international policy, including security, and while the majority of it is vague bureaucrat-speak, I think some of his points do indicate a need to maintain a robust military capability.

            Here: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/…..d=22462590

            I am in the middle of a book called ‘Forgotten Wars’ (2007), about the series of independence movements in SE Asia following the Japanese defeat in 1945; it is also, in many ways, about the end of British ability to exert decisive military power around the world as it had in the past. There are lots of little fascinating details in the stories of the british army in Burma, Malaya, helping the Dutch try and recover Indonesia (Battle of Surabaya?), and fighting on behalf of the French in Indo-China in 1945 (the british fought the beginning of the ‘first indo-china war…did not really know that! They also rearmed Japanese prisoners to fight the Viet Minh). Not super-relevant to the discussion I guess, but interesting stuff nevertheless. Most of these fights were also preludes to the end of Indian contribution to the British army. Most of the troops deployed in these engagements were Indians & Gurkhas, with British officer corps. The fights were notable for Indian soldiers in some cases repressing independence movements similar to one they themselves were involved in at home. Just a shout out of a good book for those interested.

      2. The Grauniad is an old Private Eye joke, not an accidental misspelling. (At least not an accidental misspelling by peachy)

  4. MAD properly explained:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..re=related

  5. SLBM’s are a geopolitcal bargain I suspect.

  6. like Plantagenet barons in the hundred years war

    Take that, you Plantagenet bastards.

  7. Surely one of the former colonies will step up to defend GB if the Vikings come back across the North Sea?

  8. Push having come to shove, the coalition is now asking direct questions — such as why does Britain’s defence require a nuclear capability?

    Is that a serious question? Is there a better way to say “Don’t Fuck With Us” that I’m not aware of?

  9. What will always make Britain (slightly) classier than us heathens in America are names like Sir Humphrey Appleby.

  10. Trident is the singular defensive weapon system the UK has, everythingelse is potentially offensive.

  11. When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come?
    With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?

    I always figured I’d be linking that in the comment to a Balko column…

  12. We apparently need a navy to defend our food supplies. Against whom?

    Translation: “The Americas keep the world’s sea lanes open so even though we are an island nation, we can just let our cousins take care of everything and blow our pounds on the latest leftist fad like building windmills in places where there isn’t enough wind.”

    No area of public spending is so imbued with intellectual sloppiness as defence.

    I agree but from the opposite direction. A lot of people think that if you just wish really hard you suddenly don’t have any bad guys. The degree of rationalizing required to view mass-murdering, paranoric sociopaths as utterly rational in matters of foreign policy *cough Stalin *cough is incredible.

    At a time when Britain’s wars are “wars of choice”, not necessity, there is no such thing as a defence strategy.

    Because, hey, if history has taught us anything, it is that immediate conditions never change suddenly and unexpectedly. It would be impossible, for example, for Russian to suddenly slide off into fascism. Besides, how long does it take to rebuild a military, a few weeks? Don’t you just write a check and presto and you can fight anybody?

    There is a standing military capability and a burning itch to use it by politicians and generals alike, like Plantagenet barons in the hundred years war.

    Because nothing says “I’m not an idiot marxist” like comparing modern politicians to those of 600 years ago. For every example of military capability tempting people into foolishness, there is an example of military weakness tempting bad guys to do something stupid. World War II, for example. Militaries are like emergency equipment. It’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.

    Having said all that, Britain has been trying to fight outside its weight class for a few decades now. They could stand to trim rather a lot I think. Without effective force projection for a combined European military force, a nation of Britain’s size can’t really project power globally where it is needed. Why keep all those troops you’re never going to be able to use even if things get really bad.

    However, they should keep their nukes even if they get rid of everything else. Nukes are like an old lady with a shotgun, they make bad guys less likely to think they can get away with something. That makes them less likely to do something stupid. Europe needs its own independent nuclear deterrent. Nukes are cheap.

    1. “For every example of military capability tempting people into foolishness, there is an example of military weakness tempting bad guys to do something stupid.”

      Still, some military capabilities lend themselves more to aggression than others. Nukes are the foremost example of military capabilities most useful as a defense or deterrent, but a strong Navy is also critical for defending an island nation, but not that useful for offense (aside from a campaign of piracy or a blockade, I suppose). A large army is much less useful — if the enemy can start dumping noticeable numbers of ground forces on your island, you’re already in deep trouble.

  13. One thing I’ve always found interesting:

    The military is the only part of the government that (at least in liberal-democracies) directs is threats of violence against foreigners. All other parts of government direct threats of violence against a country’s own citizens. Militaries always pose the least threat to liberties of any part of the government.

    People who reflexively support cutting spending on the military are usually pissed off that we’re spending money threatening foreigners that we could be spending threatening our next door neighbors.

    From that perspective, overspending on the military might be a waste in the absolute sense but to the degree it diverts money from the government increasing its control over its own citizens, military spending is a benefit to liberty.

    The military is also the core function of a national government and the source of all its real power. Protecting against mass external violence is the only function that has to be done by a national government. If the government can’t or won’t do that, why do you really need the national government? Every other function can be carried out by local governments or by private actors. If a national government packs in the military it might as well pack it in altogether.

    1. I heart Shannon. (assuming you are female)

      Peace through brute force!

      My Danish cousin’s husband was yapping on about the US military one afternoon. I replied, “In 1940, how did that peaceful self-defense stuff work for you?”

      Ironically, a Danish uncle, a ship’s master, was impressed by the Germans, but managed to survive the war. Another Danish uncle, also a ship’s master, volunteered to serve the allies. His ship sailed for the UK (this was before the convoy system was going strong) and him, his crew and his ship was never heard of again.

      MT1(ss) GoNavy

      PS: I suspect I am one of the few who post on here that have actually been to sea on a Brit Trident (2 of the 4) and all of the R class Brit Polaris boats. Having a beer at 400ft is nice.

      1. In 1940, how did that peaceful self-defense stuff work for you?

        I realize this isn’t exactly what you meant, but Denmark is one country where peaceful resistance to the Nazis did a fair amount of good.

        1. Denmark was the only country in Europe to cover itself in glory during occupation. The Danes worked collectively to protect everyone and they managed to protect the majority of their Jewish population.

          However, it is also true that the Danes benefited greatly from the Nazis racial biases. The German saw Danes as an Aryan people to be converted ideologically to National Socialism and not as a untermensch to be enslaved or exterminated. This lead the Germans to use a relatively light hand when dealing Danes that they did not use with others.

          In short if the Danes had not been the blond haired, blued eyed people they were, their relatively non-violent resistance would have had a much different outcome. Non-violent resistance always requires that your enemy plays along.

    2. “”The military is also the core function of a national government and the source of all its real power. “”

      It’s not the core funtion. It’s one of five functions according to the US Constitution.

      1. Establish Justice
      2. Insure domestic Tranquility,
      3. Provide for the common defence,
      4. Promote the general Welfare,
      5. Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,

  14. This is madness. Britain’s military budget is not like America’s-it is too small. Actually, the puny military budgets of America’s “allies” is one reason that America must cut military protection.

    1. “”Actually, the puny military budgets of America’s “allies” is one reason that America must cut military protection.””

      Must?

  15. As a Brit my feeling is keep the nukes

    buy a few more in fact

    scrap the army, its only useful for invading countries which is a waste of money

  16. “”We apparently need to transport troops at the drop of a hat anywhere round the world, served by air bases, naval depots and barracks and training facilities, just in case…””

    Who do they think they are? The US?

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