In this year’s general election all the major parties agreed that the extent of the deficit meant cuts in expenditure would be at the top of the incoming government’s agenda. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been able to work together because they share this priority; and Ed Miliband, even in opposition where ‘radical’ poses are easy, admits that cuts are inescapable.
While some areas have supposedly been marked as off limits or ‘ring fenced’, in reality nothing is sacred. The conventional view of the Tories is of a party of unembarrassed militarists, but the ongoing debate about the extent and nature of defence cuts shows that no area will be spared.
The idea of Tory defence cuts should not be a surprise. Look at the early 1990s. After the end of the Cold War and with the break up of the imperialist blocs there were widespread cuts in defence spending and reductions in the numbers of the armed forces. The total strength of NATO armed forces went from 5.4 million in 1985 to just over 4 million in1995. In the UK, under Conservative governments, the proportion of GDP expenditure on defence went from 5.2% in 1985 to 3.1% in 1995. There was talk of a ‘peace dividend’, but that’s all it was, just talk.
Liam Fox’s letter leaked to the Telegraph showed that the Defence Secretary doesn’t have the same view as Cameron and Osborne. In the summer he said that “We face some difficult, delicate and politically charged decisions” and that “We must act ruthlessly and without sentiment.” Yet now he is warning of the “grave political consequences” of “such draconian cuts.”
Fox warns that British imperialism “will be unable to undertake all the standing commitments” it is involved with today. For example: Britain “could not carry out the Sierra Leone operation again”; the Navy would have to withdraw from one of its “standing communities” – the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Caribbean; there would be a limitation on the “ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas”; there would be “some risk to civil contingent capability” including dealing with strikes, terrorist attacks and fuel shortages.
One commentator, referring to the possibilities of repeating the Sierra Leone operation, wrote “If the Government sticks to its plan of slashing the defence budget by between 10 and 20 per cent, we won’t be able to defend ourselves against the Icelandic fishing fleet, let alone drug-crazed groups of Afghan militiamen” (Daily Telegraph 1/10/10). This is a polemical point made for effect, but it is part of a real debate.
How close is Britain to America?
The divisions within the British government stem from a longstanding difference in the ruling class on the nature of Britain’s relationship with US imperialism.
When Fox went to the US in September he told US Defence Secretary Gates that in future Britain “would only be able to provide the manpower for medium-scale conflicts or for support in large conflicts where others took a greater part” (Telegraph 24/9/10) In practice this meant that “the military could only deploy 6,000 troops to any one war zone”. Currently there are around 10,000 in Afghanistan, but Britain is committed to leaving by 2014. During the meeting Gates warned the British government “that deep cuts in the Armed Forces could imperil the Special Relationship between the two countries”.
After the meeting Fox said “We need to concentrate on where we think we can be best contributors as an ally to the US.” This was part of his attempt to reassure his hosts. Fox is from that part of the British bourgeoisie that wants to maintain the closest links with the US. British imperialism might only be able to fight on its own in medium-sized conflicts, but would support greater powers if called on. ‘Greater power’ in this context can only mean the US.
Against this the main faction of the British bourgeoisie is more concerned to emphasise an independent orientation for British imperialism. The proposed defence cuts come partly from economic necessity and partly from an acknowledgment of reality. The basic question is asked: ‘what has Britain gained from allying itself with the US in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?’
In Iraq, for example, Britain has met with no successes. In a forthcoming documentary Colonel Peter Mansoor, a past US commander of coalition forces in Iraq says “I don’t know that you could see the British withdrawal from Basra in 2007 in any light other than a defeat.” A retired US general thought “it was a huge mistake to pull out of Basra and to leave the people of Basra to be subjected to the Iranian surrogates who brutalised them, intimidated them, terrorised them.” Whether seen as a defeat or a mistake the British bourgeoisie is still capable of learning from experience.
This year we saw another British retreat, this time in Afghanistan. After four years in the Sangin area of Helmand province British troops have been withdrawn and redeployed to an easier area, in central Helmand. Their role has been taken over by US forces. Again, according to those who advocate an orientation more independent of the US, withdrawal from Afghanistan can’t come too soon.
An article in the Spectator (2/10/10) summarises the differences “should Britain exercise an expensive blue water strategy or concentrate on a petite professional army designed for home defence and limited expeditions?” Part of the ruling class emphasises the need “to build more small ships to defend trade routes, target seaborne crime and aid humanitarian operations” and understand that “Britain’s military future lies in counter-terrorism and post-conflict resolution”. Of course there is more to British imperialism’s military strategy than that, but it shows that the debate over defence cuts is not just down to the state of the British economy.