The United Kingdom considers itself a world power – well, some in its government do. But we all know the extent of power depends not just on the size of our economy (the latest World Bank figures show it to be the fifth largest in the world), but on our willingness and ability to defend ourselves. Events in Ukraine over the last eighteen months or so have been an object lesson in this: mighty Russia was supposed to crush its plucky little neighbour in no time, but instead the humiliation of Putin and his cronies continues. Britain has been so helpful in assisting Ukraine that Russia keeps making minatory remarks about what we, and the West generally, will have coming to us unless we stop taking sides. What is less obvious to the British public, though not, one suspects, to the Russians, is just how depleted our armed forces are, and how by even just giving high-grade technological help we’re stretching our capabilities to very near the limit.

At no time since the end of the Cold War has the world been such a combustible and dangerous place. Russia, in its fractured, decaying and implosive state, is perhaps the least of its problems, though one cannot rule out Putin’s demented desire to go out with a bang, if it comes to that. China, which for the moment seems content to engage in imperialistic acts using money rather than force, remains determined to get its own way, just as powerful and heavily-armed nations always have when confronted by weakness elsewhere. And then there’s Iran, whose capacity to destabilise the whole Middle East and much of the West shouldn’t be discounted.

At no time since the end of the Cold War has the world been such a combustible and dangerous place

And yet the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, has said that the already depleted armed forces may face further cuts of personnel, even though it means that the army (at 76,000 soldiers but already heading for 73,000), will have fewer people in it than at any time since the Napoleonic wars. For the Admiral fighting is no longer about numbers: it is about kit. Drones and other forms of new technology can carry the fight to the enemy, he says: and one has to agree that this is a good thing if it saves lives and prevents injury. But even the Labour party, which almost until the eve of war in 1939 was voting against increases in the defence budget, is arguing that enough is enough, and with the international situation so potentially dangerous, numbers should not be cut further.

A familiar pattern has emerged since at least the early days of the Blair administration: defence chiefs who didn’t lift a finger when in office to prevent cuts in the armed forces, now, from the safety of retirement, contend that it’s all gone too far. Of course soldiers can to an extent be replaced by technology, but there always comes a point where boots on the ground are just as important.

Put simply, the UK’s decision since the financial crash of 2008 to run down conventional defence spending has made us vulnerable. Currently, it’s around two per cent of GDP, with some of our NATO partners spending even less. When the Cameron government sought to restore stability to the economy in 2010-11, defence cuts were high on the agenda. The services shrank. To cite just a handful of statistics: in addition to the army’s cuts, the Royal Navy has 33,390 active personnel, just 70 ships (with another 13 in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary) and 160 aircraft. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force has 32,740 active personnel and 466 active aircraft, two-fifths of which are trainers and only 133 aircraft classed as “attack units”. Compare this to 1989 as the Cold War came to an end, when the RAF had 93,300 personnel and 850 fighter jets; the Royal Navy had 65,000 personnel including almost 8,000 Royal Marines, and 80 destroyers, frigates and submarines; and the army had 152,800 soldiers. Were we under greater threat from malevolent foreign powers then than now? It would be a brave person who would say unequivocally “yes”.

The decline in spending has been exacerbated by the fact that in recent decades Britain’s had an unhappy record of defence procurement, which has become a by-word for waste and imprudence. The notion, common among politicians (whether they themselves served in the armed forces or not) that we’re getting too little bang for our buck, has further corroded serious debate about the defence budget.

In an ideal world it would be better to spend money on welfare than on warfare: but sometimes one’s neighbours make the latter the more essential, and we can’t expect the Americans to keep fighting our battles for us. The present Conservative government, which seems to live in fear of attacks by a small minority on the hard left, regrettably continues to favour the former over the latter. This is linked not least of all to the number of people of working age who aren’t working because of long-term sickness. The official Labour Force Survey suggests that 2.5 million people, or six per cent of those of working age, are currently neither seeking nor available for work, and this figure has rocketed by around twenty per cent since the start of the pandemic in 2020. The Centre for Social Justice found that 740,000 of these (which it considered a “conservative estimate”) actively wish to return to work, but require some degree of support from the government to do so. Also, much of the difficulty with returning to work consists of psychological rather than physical problems, which some local initiatives are attempting to address. The Labour party has, quite sensibly, attacked the government for simply writing off the long-term sick rather than finding ways to get them back into work. It’s a bizarre policy at a time of labour shortages, but even more so when other priorities – such as defence – are arising because of global tensions. As the cost of welfare provision continues to rise, the government increasingly lacks the resources to deal with these other urgent problems.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine certainly provoked a strong and moral response by the UK government, but not one that has enhanced our defence capability. This means that a major lesson concerning the conduct of our foreign policy (and that of many other western countries, almost all of whom have similarly allowed their defence budgets to decline) has gone entirely unlearned. Is it a coincidence that this conscious decline in capability has been accompanied by growing aggression? Not just on the part of Russia, but also the constant threats by China against Taiwan, and by Iran generally against the West and allies of the West in the Middle East?

The size of our economy leaves us an inch ahead of India, and two ahead of France, meaning we’re not yet a poor country. Over the last thirteen years a supposedly “prudent” Conservative government has chosen to make the state more interventionist in matters where it’s historically been non-interventionist: the pandemic and the response to it being the obvious example. And yet, at the same time, it has allowed our armed forces to waste away, seemingly forgetting that some other nations regard our values and way of life as inimical to their interests and seek to undermine them. We protect those interests principally by diplomacy backed up, as a last resort, by the threat of force. We should not, at the moment, delude ourselves that that “threat” is anything of the sort.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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