Britain Can be a global leader but not this way

Last week the government published The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. “Global Britain in a competitive age”. The very title belies its misguided assumptions, rooted in a desire to return Britain to its 19th century role as a global power through unsustainable force projection abroad at the cost of real human and earth security.  

In the Foreword Boris Johnson says “we must be willing to change our approach and adapt to the new world emerging around us.”  Instead of demonstrating adaptation here is retrenchment. The Prime Minister commits the UK to “the biggest programme of investment in defence since the end of the Cold War.” In 2021 the PM tells us, “the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, will lead a British and allied task group on the UK’s most ambitious global deployment for two decades, visiting the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.”

 There is new funding for high tech warfare including armed drones, £6.6 billion for military research and development over the next 4 years and, as we learned last week, Trident nuclear warheads will be increased from 180 to 260.

This review follows a budget announcement that boosted military spending by more than £6Billion this year, the largest increase since the Korean War. Over the next four years, MoD spending is being boosted by £24Billion even as development aid is to be cut by some £4 billion, with cuts as high as 90% in some conflict zones. There’s a cut of roughly 50% for humanitarian efforts in Yemen where the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world has been caused by a Saudi bombing campaign for which the UK has provided the bombs.

The review brings defence spending up to 2.2% of GDP and prioritises expensive military kit such as aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons that do nothing to address the greatest threats to our security, climate change and pandemics, just as the government has refused an adequate pay rise for NHS nurses and while it is failing to adequately fund climate solutions. 

This includes billions of pounds for new areas of warfare including a new artificial intelligence centre, £76m for a National Cyber Force and a new RAF space command to be sited in Scotland. This new spending comes at the expense of urgently needed infrastructure investment needed to tackle the climate crisis. In December the government pledged to invest £12 Billion to help the UK achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The Committee of Climate Change (CCC) however has estimated that spending to hit reduction targets for carbon emissions for 2020-21 was just £5bn. As we’ve discussed elsewhere this included £2bn devoted to the Green Homes Grant scheme for which it appears that only £0.1bn will be spent this year, meaning total spending is only £3.1bn of that £12bn pledge. We must ask why it is necessary to militarize space at a time when we can’t find the funds needed to save the earth from climate catastrophe.

The decision to increase the number of UK Trident nuclear warheads is dangerous and destabilizing. It reverses decades of disarmament and makes a mockery of the government’s claims to be in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory and under which it promised those countries that have no nuclear weapons that it would disarm. This move risks the ruin of the NPT and is likely to provoke other countries to increase their own numbers of nuclear weapons.

This decision contradicts the UK’s own assertion that the 180 nuclear weapons in its present arsenal represent a “minimum credible deterrent”. Recent studies have shown that the  nuclear warheads on one Trident submarine are enough to plunge the world into a nuclear winter that would last a decade, causing crop failures that would lead to famine and could mean the death of over a billion people. That’s one seventh of the world’s population. The UK’s current stockpile is enough to ensure that three of its four Trident submarines are fully armed at all times. Nuclear deterrence theory is predicated on the assumption that any enemy would not attack us while we have the capacity to inflict unacceptable destruction on it.  If the existing capacity to cause such destruction several times over is not a sufficient credible nuclear deterrent then what is?  

Responding to the announcement of an increase in the number of Trident nuclear warheads the UN Secretary General’s spokesperson expressed “our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT. It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons. At a time when nuclear weapon risks are higher than they have been since the Cold War, investments in disarmament and arms control is the best way to strengthen the stability and reduce nuclear danger.”

Sixty years ago as he left office President Dwight Eisenhower said “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Yet we fail to learn.

Surely, now, as the world is passing through a pandemic that threatens us all and a climate crisis that will destroy the very living systems of the earth we can finally recognise that real security does not come from high tech weapons, a space force and more nuclear bombs. Surely now we can rethink our security policies and build a better future with real security for every human being on this shared planet. 

In this year, when the UK will host the COP26 climate conference, Britain has the opportunity to lead the world away from imminent climate catastrophe. Only by scrapping these worthless military plans and instead fully funding the infrastructure needed to address the climate crisis and pandemic response and committing to do our part to support sustainable development can we be a truly global Britain.

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