We learn today that Britain is now getting involved in the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) crisis in Iraq beyond the supplying of humanitarian aid to the refugees who fled – or who are still fleeing – from persecution and/or genocide.
This raises many issues, not least David Cameron’s approach to diplomacy and foreign relations – and indeed all crises that rise to the top of the public or media agenda. Increasingly, he is being criticised for the fact that, just like Tony Blair in his heyday, his default reaction to any new crisis is that ‘something must be done’ (or rather, ‘must be seen to be done’), without thinking through the principles, or anything but the short-term implications.
The fact is that, since losing its empire, Britain has been impaled upon the horns of a dilemma.
Having once been a nation almost at the top of the global tree, it still retains a seat at the top table and more influence than its economy and real power justifies. Nothing wrong with that, it’s an accident of history, welcome or not.
However, as regards ‘defence’ – in other words, military capacity – Britain has been all over the place for fifty years and more. The Defence department has a consistent record of ineptitude in terms of procurement. Our politicians, with stunning hypocrisy, see nothing inconsistent in their insistence upon ‘having their cake and eating it’.
On the other, especially in times of economic crisis, they see no irony in their willingness to slash the military budget to the point where even pulling together enough troops to mount a half-decent annual Trooping The Colour ceremony becomes a serious issue.
This state of affairs highlights a widespread conundrum within British politics.
We (or rather, our politicians) want a military that can not only defend Britain at home – often described as the first responsibility of any government – but can also go on the offensive anywhere around the world, that is, if and as our supposed ‘national interests’ demand or require it.
In which case, surely logic demands, the British government (or taxpayer) must foot the bill required – however unpalatable the total at the bottom of the invoice – to fulfil that remit?
[I leave my readers to decide the answer.]
Similar logic applies to the National Health Service, or national pensions, or care for the elderly, or welfare benefits – indeed, anything positive and worthwhile that might appear on any sensible person’s idealistic ‘wish list’ of behalf of his/her nation’s population.
In principle, before budgets and how they’re paid for come into it, the majority of us would want – indeed, in many respects demand – these things for our people as a ‘matter of right’.
However, when the bills for each and every one of them metaphorically flop onto the doormat of the British government, it doesn’t require the brainpower of an accounts clerk, let alone a professor of economics, to recognise immediately that that the nation cannot afford them, individually or collectively.
Presumably, in order to be able to set up and implement all these nobly-hatched aspirations, it would require either some incisive campaign to slash their current costs (e.g revise them to make them more efficient) and/or a many-fold increase in taxation receipts.
Given that taking the necessary actions to achieve either would be deeply unpopular with the voters – or at least enough of them to potentially endanger victory at the next General Election – even those few of our esteemed politicians who possess the brainpower to work out and understand the implications tend to keep very quiet.
(Nobody wants to admit the truth that, from a ‘balancing the books’ perspective, for a long time now, Britain has been de facto ungovernable).
There is another alternative. For example, the military brass hats could analyse exactly what capacity they have and then tell the politicians what is possible, and what is not, for Britain to do in practice upon the world stage. Thus the British government could then restrict its ‘interfering’ in geo-political issues via direct military action to just that which it can afford, in all senses of the word.