What would Churchill do?

Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Is the U.K. Turning Chickenhawk?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The Conservative Party has traditionally been the champion of a strong defense in the U.K. (just think Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher). So with elections approaching in May and new military threats emerging from Russia to Islamic State, boosting the nation’s defenses might seem a logical campaign theme for Prime Minister David Cameron. The opposite has been true, which is disturbing.

Cameron’s coalition government has already cut the nation’s defense budget by about 8 percent in real terms since 2010, a shrinkage that led to as much as a 30 percent reduction in combat capabilities. A new defense review is due after the elections, but on current projections the downward trend will continue, bringing defense spending well below the 2 percent of gross domestic product pledged by North Atlantic Treaty Organization members as recently as September.

Former senior military commanders and the country’s preeminent military analysts have been sounding alarms, warning the U.K. can no longer sustain a major combat mission in the field and has only just enough aircraft to patrol its airspace against increased Russian penetration,  leaving few aircraft to spare for combat missions abroad.

That’s bad for NATO, because the U.K. has been one of the very few alliance members actually meeting the 2 percent target: Its fresh precedent of failure would encourage others to breathe a sigh of relief and continue theirs. A weakened British military is also bad for the U.S., because the U.K. has long been its most reliable military partner. (It has shaped its forces so they can work seamlessly with the U.S. military using much smaller, mirror-image capabilities.) And it’s bad for Europe as it tries to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has more than doubled defense spending since 2007, that the West possesses the will and muscle to check his aggression if needed.

The U.K. has often seemed a little hubristic in the past, seeking to “punch above its weight” in world affairs -- that surely peaked with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s enthusiastic commitment to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But now the U.K. has gone AWOL. It has been absent from the diplomatic efforts to deal with Russia over Ukraine, leaving that to France and Germany. And a recent parliamentary report found the government was playing a minimalist role in the coalition to fight Islamic State that belies its rhetoric, conducting only 6 percent of air strikes in Iraq (none in Syria) and deploying just three personnel outside Kurdish areas, compared with 400 sent by Australia.

“We must clearly acknowledge the previous failures in Iraq, and reform our approach. But that does not mean lurching to doing nothing,” said the committee chairman, Rory Stewart, a Tory. 

But in this election the Conservative Party is running as the champion of fiscal probity, rather than defense. That means producing a primary budget surplus in the next parliamentary term, while keeping promises to leave spending on health, education and international aid untouched. Failing a change of policy, according to the latest U.K. economic survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental think tank, U.K. government consumption will soon fall to its lowest share of the economy since 1948. Unprotected areas of the budget (such as defense) would have to suffer cuts averaging a massive 40 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Cameron has generally avoided talking about the military ahead of the election. When pressed he has defended the cuts so far, saying the financial crisis made them necessary and that they have made the military more efficient. He’s also declined to rule out further cuts. Yet this isn’t just about money. It’s also about ideology (the Tories favor small government) and how the U.K. perceives itself.

The brave course for a Conservative leadership would be to marry its fiscal probity with the promotion of a revived belief in Britain as an open, trading power, requiring a strong defense -- even at the expense of a slower return to budget surpluses. Instead it is chasing the polices of the United Kingdom Independent Party to win the election, which amount to withdrawing from the European Union and pulling up the drawbridges against immigrants. The main opposition, the Labour Party, might cut less from defense simply because it is less committed to austerity targets and prefers to raise taxes than cut government. Yet it isn’t making a pro-defense argument either.

Perhaps this rapid British retrenchment was inevitable given the severity of the financial crisis and the still raw memory of overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet defense budgets should be determined by security needs, not the other way around. With no political party arguing for U.K. defense ahead of May’s election, the outcome is likely to be a weaker, more insular Britain, increasingly undeserving of its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

It's not hard to imagine what Churchill or Thatcher would have to say about that. But you have to wonder: Could they get elected in the U.K. of 2015?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net