Empire state of mind


by James Maxwell

In this age of austerity it makes no political or financial sense for Britain to cling to its imperial past.  Last year the United Kingdom’s defence expenditure totalled £37 billion, which represents 2.5% of its GDP and £7 billion more than Scotland’s entire current annual budget.

In Europe, only Greece, locked in perpetual impasse with Turkey over the issue of Cypriot sovereignty, spends more on defence as a proportion of its national income, while other comparable countries like Germany, Spain and Italy spend substantially less.

What can account for Britain’s massively inflated war fund?  In the context of the government’s radical deficit reduction plan, is it sustainable?

The dissolution of the Empire after the Second World War left Britain drifting in a post-imperial no-man’s-land, its role as the dominant global power suddenly and irreversibly reduced to that of a middling state with regional limited influence.

In the space of ten years London ceded control of its colonies on the Indian sub-continent and in Africa, confirming its eclipse by Washington and Moscow as a principal actor on the international stage.

Although ultimately successful, the Falklands campaign of 1982 was really an indicator of decline – an illustration of the lengths the British state would go to in order to prolong its grasp of even the smallest and most distant colonial outposts.

More recently, the failure of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan emphatically confirm the UK’s decreasing geo-political status.

But the British establishment, lead by a deluded political and military class, has decided to pursue the fantasy that this is a first rank nation with regards to military capability well into the 21st century.  That this conceit comes at great cost seems to matter not.

Take Trident, the UK’s sea-based nuclear strike force located at Faslane, as a prime example.

Twenty years after the Cold War and in the knowledge that its maintenance and eventual replacement will cost more than £100 billion over the course of the next three decades, both public and military opinion are increasingly skeptical as to its rationale.

Yet regardless of the massive expense it incurs and the growing doubts as to its relevance all of Westminster’s three main parties remain committed to the independent nuclear deterrent.  They believe that any price is worth paying to retain a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

A similar lunacy prevails north of the border too.  With the honourable exception of the Greens, all parties represented at Holyrood are in agreement on the need to complete the aircraft carrier construction projects in Rosyth, Scotstoun and Govan.

Honouring the carrier contracts, made some years ago with BAE, will cost the tax payer £5.2 billion.  One of the vessels in question will be active for just three years before being ‘mothballed’ – scrapped or sold on.  The other will not be available for ten years until the aircraft it was built to support are assembled, which adds a further £10 billion to the overall bill.

Even the SNP, traditionally hostile to the military status assigned to Scotland by the UK government, feels bound not just to join in the defence of the aircraft carrier contracts but also, in a time of rising unemployment, to support further investment at Faslane, the home of its nuclear bete noire.  Given the considerable stress the UK’s public finances are currently under why were these redundant projects not simply abandoned?

In accordance with last October’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Conservative administration’s initial plan was to do just that.

But heavy lobbying from Alex Salmond and his opposites in the Scottish Labour, Liberal and Tory contingents convinced Cameron and Osborne to think again.

Perversely, none of the parties can really be satisfied with the situation they are left in.

The Tories are hog-tied to contracts they would rather have ditched.

Labour is committed to a patently unsustainable level of defence expenditure which in Scotland threatens to displace a serious industrial strategy.

The Lib Dems are effectively anchored to the Conservative position on defence with only marginal room for manoeuvre.

And the SNP is politically trapped into defending a UK military procurement policy which neither matches the defence needs of an independent Scotland nor would be affordable within a separate Scottish budget.

The rise of the global South and East as financial and military counterweights to Western power is already well underway.  The Chinese are increasingly flexing their muscles in Africa and the Middle-East and the increasing economic clout of Brazil and India is becoming harder and harder to ignore or dismiss.

British defence strategy must be based on a realistic analysis of the new world order. It must make absolutely clear that our position in that order is at best peripheral. The claims for Pax Britannica have long lost their credibility.

Faced with a crippling national debt this country cannot justify a defence budget built around the fantasy of full spectrum dominance.  Instead, it requires an unsentimental realism that recognises the ever narrowing limits of a multi-national state entering an advanced stage of political and institutional decline.