Britain can no longer neglect defence

British army soldiers on a Foxhound protected patrol vehicle during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Brilliant Jump 2024
British army soldiers on a Foxhound protected patrol vehicle during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Brilliant Jump 2024

In 1991, Margaret Thatcher warned against taking the “peace dividend” of the end of the Cold War for granted. “All too often,” she said, “democracies rush to cut back defence and increase domestic public spending.” Today, as Russia makes gains in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East risks further escalation, her words sound prophetic.

For 30 years, successive governments lavished ever greater sums on the NHS and the welfare state while spending on our Armed Forces was whittled down to a miserly 2 per cent of GDP, and sometimes less. That era is now well and truly over. Geopolitical tensions have reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, and failure to act swiftly will leave Britain in the unenviable position of realising the true value of defence when it is already too late.

Over, too, is the era when it was sufficient to pledge a rise in defence spending from 2 per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent. A great deal more will be needed. As the axis of evil between Russia, China and Iran coalesces, we must take a more realistic view.

Nonetheless, many politicians still appear to subscribe to the fallacy that voters care little about defence, or that they are too preoccupied to reward any party for defence spending. As Penny Mordaunt writes in these pages, such arguments are wrong. The electorate well understands that military might both acts as a deterrent and gives Britain a voice to which our allies will listen. And at such a dangerous juncture, voters will also understand that we cannot continue to run our military on the cheap.

It is no longer enough to set an arbitrary target for spending, but to work out what capabilities we need for the defence of our interests, and then to provide whatever funding is needed. During the Cold War, defence spending often hovered around 5 per cent of GDP. While we will not need to spend this much, it hints at the scale of the increase that should be aimed for.

It would be wrong, however, to presume that such spending would be funded by higher taxes. Far greater effort must be put towards squeezing public spending, and to reviving economic growth by cutting red tape. It is also true that the defence debate must focus on more than the total spend.

Few could argue the MoD has consistently deployed what funds it has to effective use. We have failed to buy military equipment off the shelf, instead collaborating with Europe to reinvent American wheels from scratch. Such projects are unsuited to the more dangerous times we find ourselves in. We must now do everything in our power to ensure we have a military our opponents fear. That will only be achieved by at last providing the money and attention it requires.