20th March 2021
As the British government continues to struggle with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the highest death rate in Europe and fifth highest in the world, the time would hardly seem right to be proposing massive increases in spending on weapons of mass destruction. Yet the integrated review of foreign policy and defence published this week does just that.
Titled, in typically grandiose fashion, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the review seeks to carve out an international role for Britain, in a post Brexit relationship with the European Union but not beholden to the United States.
Since 1945 Britain has carved out a role in the twilight of its former Empire as the reliable European military nuclear power in NATO, ready to support US intervention around the globe, while also providing an economic bridgehead into Europe for US capital and a safe offshore haven for billionaires and despots of any description.
Less a case of Britannia ruling the waves than being shipwrecked on the shores of US foreign policy.
At the heart of the new review is the proposal to increase the nuclear weapons capability linked to the Trident submarine programme from 180 to 260 warheads. Each warhead is immeasurably more powerful than anything which eviscerated the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and provides nothing in the way of defence against cyber attack, terrorist activity or conventional military force.
Military spending in the modern age is euphemistically referred to as ‘defence’ by the political establishment but is as much to do with sabre rattling and a perception of international status. In his autobiography, A Journey, former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, summed up the position with unusual candour in relation to Trident saying that “The expense is huge and the utility… non-existent in terms of military use.” However, the crux of the matter came in Blair’s assertion that giving up Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation.”
The new review, as well as increasing nuclear capability is predicated upon a ‘tilt’ towards Asia, more specifically an area vaguely referred to as the Indo-Pacific. This would appear to refer to a swathe of territory somewhere from the Indian sub-continent to the South China Sea, in which Britain, apparently, has a key strategic interest.
The real strategic powers in this region are China and the United States, neither of which is going to allow Britain, in its newly found independent upstart role, a look in. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson has ordered the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship ever built for the navy, to sail to the Pacific with two destroyers, two frigates and two supply ships. This is in spite of a former chief of defence staff describing Britain’s new aircraft carriers as “unaffordable vulnerable metal cans.” To suggest that the mission is unclear would be an understatement.
The review has been led by Prof. John Bew of King’s College London in an attempt to give it a veneer of academic respectability and objective credibility. Whatever the standing of Prof. Bew before the publication of the review, it will certainly not be enhanced as a result.
There is no review of ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia or its allied Gulf States, currently perpetrating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in bombing Yemen. There is no review of how to address the nuclear arming of Israel in the world’s most volatile region or the ongoing human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no reference to the £17.4bn funding gap in the Ministry of Defence’s 10-year capabilities plan, identified by the Commons public accounts committee. There is clearly no concession to the need for strategic arms limitation which appears to have gone out of the window in the context of the new role of ‘Global Britain’.
An alternative scenario is possible, in which Britain is not one of NATO’s big spenders, or even a member of the military alliance; in which Britain does not see military intervention as a means to addressing political problems; a world is which nuclear disarmament is the cornerstone of foreign policy; a world in which Britain does not have to pretend to be a military superpower and can turn its attention to feeding the poor, housing the homeless, caring for the elderly and paying its NHS staff a decent wage.
It is all possible with the political will and mass mobilisation of those interested in changing the balance of power in the interests of the working class in Britain and the world. The only truly global Britain will be one based upon principles of working class internationalism and solidarity with those in struggle. It will not be a safe haven for finance capital, despots, or the military industrial complex, draining valuable resources from the real needs of the people.
That is a global Britain for which it would be worth developing a roadmap.