Ancient warriors were said to terrify their foes by piling high their valuables in full view and burning them to flaunt their power. That is now official British defence policy.
Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com
Boris Johnson feels the need to show the world he is fit and well by humiliating his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and indulging his most spendthrift department, defence. He is giving it an extra £21.5bn of taxpayers’ money, a rise of up to 15% in real terms. This has already shattered the foreign aid budget and mocks all talk of belt-tightening to pay for Covid. Johnson has also effectively dumped next year’s “integrated defence review”, a pet project of the now clearly defunct Dominic Cummings. This is chaotic government.
The language in which Downing Street is selling this bonanza leaves no doubt. The intention is to portray the locked-down prime minister as fearlessly decisive. It is to please the US president-elect Joe Biden in the hope of a post-Brexit trade deal. It is “to bolster our global influence” which Johnson knows will be damaged by Brexit. It is also to show other cabinet ministers that blind loyalty – like that of Johnson’s friend, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace – will be amply rewarded.
None of this has to do with defence. As far as that is concerned, Johnson says his spending will “end the era of retreat” and enable Britain to “defend free societies around the world”. What retreat and which societies we are not told. Nor does Johnson list those of his predecessors he thinks are the lily-livered retreaters. We are merely to imagine Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping reeling in terror at the sight of Johnson’s profligacy and power. They will gasp at his ruthlessness in spending so much while snatching food from his schoolchildren’s mouths, starving his care homes of migrant workers, stuffing the chumocracy with £21m backhanders and blowing billions on a Birmingham railway. Such a man, they are supposed to fear, will do anything.
The department now crowing with delight is notorious for waste. Cummings himself blurted out in a March blog that “it has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”. The Ministry of Defence is said to suffer from a procurement black hole, calculated at £13bn of accumulated overspending on top of its £41.5bn annual budget. Francis Tusa of Defence Analysis describes this hole as “not a Treasury problem but an MoD problem”, adding that the settlement is merely “rewarding bad management”.
We can accept that some of this money is going on sound defence. It will upgrade cyber-protection to defend Britons, says Johnson, from attacks on “the mobile phones in their pockets or the computers in their homes”. That is fine but it is surely appalling that the MoD is only now getting round to a “cyberforce” and “an AI agency to develop autonomous weapons systems”. What has it been doing with our money for the past 20 years?
The answer is that almost all procurement is focused on fighting the infamous “last war but one”. To read modern defence literature is to disappear into memories of the second world war. Billions is spent on tanks, jet fighters, aircraft carriers and Trident missile submarines, poised to “hit back” in a matter of hours,as if Stalin or the dreaded Hun were on the horizon.
‘Inexhaustible lasers’: Boris Johnson’s plan for defence after budget boost – video
Desperate to make some use for his new £3bn aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, Johnson is sending it to the South China Sea at vast expense with four protection vessels. It is hard to see what this will do beyond offer target practice for China’s massive air and submarine defences. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force wants a new generation of Tempest jet fighters. Earlier this year a similar debate broke out over the future of the army’s Challenger 2 tank force, designed to fight El Alamein on the plains of central Europe.
There is no remotely conceivable military threat to what Johnson calls “Britain’s realm” requiring massed conventional defences, nor has there been for 70 years. Other European countries are not quaking in their shoes for want of Britain’s armour. The wars that Tony Blair and David Cameron fought were all ventures of aggression not defence, mostly against poorly armed but highly motivated Muslim countries whose troubles proved too much for us.
These “retreats”, as Johnson calls them, were because defence resources had gone on glamorous kit, rather than on infantry trained for street fighting. Nowadays the principal threat to British interests abroad is precisely such entanglements. The UK’s ability to send soldiers round the world encourages ambitious ministers into senseless interventions. Had Donald Trump won the US election it is possible he would have seduced Johnson into a war with Iran.
Public spending that can only be validated by such abstract nouns as influence and status is likely to be wasted. The only concrete use announced for the cash this week was for the army to police coronavirus, and for procurement to aid “job creation”. There must be less costly ways of achieving these benefits.
As it is, we are left with a budget underpinned by waffle – waffle concealing waste. Some of the money is apparently to be spent on a new military “space command”, so Johnson can send rockets to wage war in space. Citing opportunity cost can be glib, but when 280,000 people are homeless, spending on such boys’ toys is obscene.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist