10 Mar 15. In an interesting article published on the BBC website Diplomatic correspondent James Robbins questions whether the Foreign Office has now suffered such a severe level of cuts that it can no longer do its job properly. He also questions whether, due to our reluctance to spend more money on defence, Britain is becoming all but toothless.
Well he might and well might I agree the same thesis. We have it seems lost our way in the world and more and more are we failing to get our priorities right. We are a rich nation and yet we act as if we are a poor one. We are a powerful economy albeit one that appears to have forgotten that it needs to manufacture more of what it consumes and to export more too. We are nation and a people that seems to thrive on short-term thinking and that has, it seems, all but forgotten about investing in the long term. Yes, it is also true that we are a highly indebted economy as well and one that, because it flaunted the rules that you should not spend more than you earn, is running an unacceptable level of public sector deficit. But our problems in terms of both deficit and debt are far from being considered insurmountable and slowly but surely I do believe that we are addressing the problem. That problem could of course be made easier if we removed ring fencing from some of the areas that we do not for some reason believe that public sector spending should be cut. It could also be made a lot easier if we learn the old lesson that everything that the ‘State’ provides has to be paid for meaning that if the books still don’t balance then taxes will have to be raised rather than cut.
In terms of the wider issue of having possibly lost our way in the world this is far more related to foreign affairs, defence plus our lack of ability to decide what it is and where it is that we want to be in the world. To remedy this requires determination, strategy, policy and strong leadership.
Meanwhile we squabble about our continuing membership of the European Union and there is a body of opinion that believes we would be much better out than remaining in. I do not happen to share that view but I do understand not only that the EU has great strengths but also that it has great weaknesses too. Sadly it is perhaps because I see those that would have us out as believing that if we were to no longer be a member of the EU that it would mean there would be more for ‘me’ that worries me most.
James Robbins also questions whether it is because countries like Britain have taken their eyes off Russia that they seemingly ‘missed’ seeing Russia’s Vladimir Putin redrawing the map of Europe’s borders. Maybe so and the point is well made.
But thinking rationally I see all this as being further evidence that Europe or should I say European member of NATO have become far too comfortable with their own cosy existence and that there because of this and the apparent lack of threat there remains a feeling that no matter how much further we cut back spending on defence that Russia wouldn’t dare threaten us directly. How naïve is this. NATO may be unified, better coordinated and strong today but it can only ever be as strong as the sum of its parts.
This morning, adding to the list of voices including my own over the past few months stressing that Europe must spend more on defence, comes yet another voice in the form of a US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power calling for the same. But we might as well all be pissing in the wind as far as believing that anyone is listening. Wake up Europe, Wake up Britain, wake up all of you to the sound and challenge of reality and to what is going on around you. Realise please that it is time to start looking outward and accepting that the world is no longer if it ever was a safe place.
Aspects of foreign affairs and defence are very interesting concepts and they are issues that are thankfully increasingly now in eye of the public even if politicians prefer to keep their eyes closed. So they should be issues that the public is concerned about too and suffice to say that in my own personal recollection Britain for one has never been more inward looking than it is now. Our culture has become far too selfish and it is sometimes as if we consider ourselves invincible. Is it any wonder that to those watching on the outside including our adversaries, Britain does appear to have lost its way. Indeed, as I said in a speech a couple of weeks ago, the bottom line for us right now is that even if we were prepared too, we can no longer punch our weight let alone punch above it.
Britain may no longer be a ‘world power’ but due to our strong emphasis on international diplomacy, we have until now remained a voice that the world would listen too. This has required a combination of statesmanship on the part of our leaders combined with sound foreign policy, ambition and determination. Moreover it required strong leadership and direction from the top. But if we keep cutting Foreign Office and Defence budgets for how long will this remain the case?
Today we may question what our ambitions are or at the very least recognise that whatever they had been they are now because of the need to play to the public and press galleries much diminished. Our empire is long gone and we recognise too that rather than being a nation that all can look-up to we are but a mere cog in the wheel. Led by the press, the public have become far too comfortable with that.
We continue to have a voice of course and a wish to play a part in world affairs but we lack determination today just as we do leadership because we are no longer prepared to finance what ambitions we might have. We talk the talk but we fail to back up the words with deeds and actions.
We regard our Foreign and Commonwealth Office as being a powerful instrument in the diplomatic process and also in terms of supporting our international trade ambitions. Through our membership of the United Nations and the Security Council we still play a relatively active role in determining hopes for peace and stability in the world and in the past we would never flinch when conflict determined that military action could not be avoided.
Not so today it seems as there is little or any will in Government for our military to interact with our allies in future conflict. To play out the former role required that the Foreign Office was represented in the UN, in the Security Council and in our various embassies abroad strong experienced diplomats that would wherever they were sent command the respect of national governments. That is still the case today but it requires that Britain is always seen to have not only diplomatic strengths but military strength and prowess as well. Will that be the case tomorrow if we keep on cutting our Foreign Office and Defence budgets back? I doubt that it will!
Through the 1950’s until relatively recently despite large scale defence cuts that have taken defence spending as a percentage of GDP down from 7.4% in 1955 to around or slightly less than 2% now Britain understood the need for and meaning of deterrence in all its forms. It understood what possession of deterrent capability provides and what defence diplomacy achieves. As a wealthy nation and still one that commands seventh place in the list of most powerful economies it is absolutely right that we should have an obligation to make a meaningful contribution to world peace and stability through playing our part in the United Nations and the Security Council. We have an important contribution to make to the upholding of international law.
So why is to that we seem to be in retreat and that despite our very many strengths that we appear to have lost the will to play our part in the wider world? Why is it that we don’t appear to have any idea of where it is and what it is that we want to be in the world any longer? We have so much going for us and yet we appear to have lost our ability to be ambitious and to do anything other than look inward on ourselves. We have not only lost our will but it seems that as a nation our only ambition is to pay less tax and yet demand that the government provides more health, welfare and pensions and less on all the other things that really do matter to our nation such as working for long term peace, stability, security and reassurance.
In part the reason is that there is an undeniable belief that the government is there to provide everything. Blame the welfare state for that. Free education, free health at the point of delivery and vast amounts of support to those who are unfortunately out of work, unable to work, physically impaired or that lack sufficient funds to support themselves and their families. Just like everything else this is a political choice we make but have our expectations now exceeded what the state can be expected to deliver?
We will all have our individual views on this and I doubt that you would be surprised if I was to say that as far as I am concerned until we realise that it should is not the duty of the state to provide some of this we will continue to go downhill.
We are losing our skills ability too. It isn’t only engineers that we are short of it is future diplomats too. We are, it seems to me, confused. On one hand our leaders and those that oppose them politically realise that in terms of winning votes today the only thing that matters is what is in it for me. Worse is perhaps that we have lost our ability to realise that if we demand more from government then we must also accept the need to pay more tax.
Enough – you get the point and how ironic that last month marked the seventieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference, an event that perhaps marked the pinnacle of the UK as a member of the ‘Big Three’ and that was held in the resort town on the Crimean peninsula in what is today supposed to be Ukraine.
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