Go for growth! A narrative for British grand strategy

Posted on December 17, 2010

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If work is getting you down, and you feel frustrated intellectually, then the answer is Hew Strachan. My afternoon yesterday was spent reading his 2009 essay ‘The Strategic Gap in British Defence Policy’, which puts succinctly many of the problems I’ve been struggling with for months. As well as the internationalisation of national security and our reliance on the United States, Strachan writes about the absence of public participation in strategy-making. ‘This gap is the biggest challenge confronting British strategy today’, he argues.

Proper public concern about military welfare needs to be allied to proper public awareness about the purposes for which the armed forces are used. This particular circle will never be completed unless there is a “strategic narrative”, a plan against which the events in Iraq and Afghanistan can be set; which relates setbacks as well as successes to an overall strategic vision; and which is adjusted against the realities of war.

His message has had some resonance. In the run-up to the SDSR, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee criticised the government on these grounds. ‘Our people would support our deployment to Afghanistan if they thought we had a good strategy for winning,’ James Arbuthnot told the House of Commons in September. ‘That gap between the public view and the country’s policy is both very important and deeply worrying. The SDSR was an opportunity to narrow the gap, but because of the speed with which it is being carried out, that opportunity has been missed.’ I wanted to write about the lack of a strategic narrative at the time, but never managed to get round to it. With reading Strachan, I felt I should revisit the issue.

As the Treasury haggled with departments throughout the summer over budgets, and then sold the subsequent cuts to the country in the autumn, many Conservative pundits criticized the government for its lack of an economic growth message. They talked only about doom and gloom. I felt the same was true with defence and foreign policy. ‘My great fear for the whole SDSR debate,’ academic Julian Lindley-French told MPs, ‘is that it gives the impression of a cliff edge. It gives the impression that there is this age of austerity and there is nothing beyond that.’ As a result, the Services had the opportunity to fill the void with their own narratives about what cutting this or that weapon would do to Britain as a great power. The government needed a ‘strategic growth’ message. One night, I jotted down what I felt that message should look like:

  1. The postwar world order is changing rapidly, with focus shifting to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  2. Britain has to define its role in this new world, probably for the first time since the Suez crisis.
  3. Our freedom to define that role and act upon it has been limited by Labour mismanagement strategically, militarily and financially.
  4. The government believes that future prosperity must depend on sound finances and a sustainable economy, and that demands a period of strategic retrenchment.
  5. This retrenchment is simply moving backwards to go forwards; putting on more weight to pack a harder punch.
  6. Key interests for the United Kingdom are maritime based, so emphasis will be placed on our Navy; an expeditionary force will also be necessary, as well as expanding and developing our reserve forces.
  7. The SDSR is temporary, for this Parliament only; from 2015, retrenchment will end and defence spending will rise.

If I had written this list up on the blog in September, I might have won a reputation for foresight, as the government has communicated most of this since then. When a letter by the Defence Secretary was leaked, which talked about the impact defence cuts would have on Britain’s role in the world, the government managed to change the story to one about Labour mismanagement. ‘Of all the budgets I have seen,’ the Chancellor George Osborne told one newspaper, ‘the defence budget was the one that was the most chaotic, the most disorganised, the most overcommitted.’ The best bits of the National Security Strategy were those that talked about the relationship between security and economic prosperity. ‘An economic deficit is also a security deficit’, Cameron and Nick Clegg wrote in the foreword. In his statement to the Commons on the SDSR, the Prime Minister also confirmed defence spending would rise in the next parliament. Still, there is enough to be uneasy about, as I’ve written about here and here.

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