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Turning up the volume

There’s a famous scene in the 1984 spoof documentary movie This Is Spinal Tap in which a member of the band proudly shows a reporter one of their amplifiers on which the volume control (normally numbered 1 to 10) goes up to 11 – at my age I’m a bit hazy on details, but something tells me the origin of the joke comes from a similar throwaway remark by one of The Who.

Regular readers will know that my cynicism towards politicians in general is a close to infinite as makes no difference – in fact, on this theme, I love the famous remark of Marlon Brando’s nihilistic ‘outlaw’ character Johnny Strabler in the 1953 movie about a motorcycle gang The Wild One [which I’ve never seen] when a scared local asks him “… What are you rebelling against?” and Brando replies “Whaddya got?”

Today my subject is politics, Defence and – to an extent – the ongoing travails within the upper echelons of the British Labour Party (specifically the parliamentary establishment old guard’s clashes with Jeremy Corbyn and his accolytes following Corbyn’s resounding victory in last years’ leadership election).

On Defence, the Labour top brass – if that term is permitted – have been tying themselves up in knots. I’m not sure whether Corbyn is a committed unilateralist in terms of nuclear disarmament – we know he is against the renewal of Trident and by extrapolation presumably regards the purpose of the military as a whole as little more than to mount ceremonial displays for the benefit of the tourism industry – but the bulk of his ‘troublesome’ opposition within the parliamentary party (most of it in favour of renewing Trident) are either tearing their hair out and/or conducting a guerrilla campaign of opposition on the basis of their conviction that Corbyn’s stance would be catastrophic if adopted as a policy plank in the Labour manifesto for the 2020 General Election.

I was reminded of these issues this week by the reports of new shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry’s humiliation as she gave a presentation to Labour MPs on the issues surrounding Trident:

See here – a report on the meeting as reported by – THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

I’d also like to cite in evidence two articles that appear on the website of The Independent today:

Firstly, an article by Matthew Norman on the issue of – TRIDENT

And then, secondly, a report by Kim Sengupta on Britain’s military response to the perceived Russian increased threat to Eastern Europe – NATO CONTRIBUTION

To my mind, these developments simply go to highlight the dilemmas that attend the world of politics at both global and domestic levels.

It is generally accepted – well, it is regularly stated – that throughout history the first duty of government is ‘the defence of the realm’ (and/or perhaps, your national population).

As it happens, of course, achieving this is far easier if you are a communist or socialist republic (in short, anything but a democratic nation) because – as night follows day – you don’t have to take the views of your population into account. You can spend 50% of your GDP on ‘Defence’ if you wish and nobody is going to raise the hint of an eyebrow, possibly partly because they know there’s no point and partly because, if they did, they’d soon be half-way to Siberia (or its equivalent) armed a one-way train ticket to oblivion.

Democratic nations – or those who maintain the veneer that they are democratic – have more complicated relationship with the attendant issues.

[I’m riffing here, so please allow me some latitude on the ‘sweeping generalisations’ front.]

On the right wing there exist those who regard resources as finite, being grounded in this view by a ‘personal finances’ attitude to national spending (‘You cannot spend more than you earn, otherwise it will all end in disaster and a massive, overwhelming on-cost being saddled upon future generations …’). For those in this camp, budgetary responsibility demands that sometimes – okay, some of them difficult – decisions have to be made as regards priorities, simply because (whatever the size of the available cake) you cannot dish out everything to everyone and therefore some departments (maybe all of them) are not going to receive what they would like.

Meanwhile, on the left wing end of the political spectrum, there are those who regard resources as effectively infinite – or perhaps it is that they would be, if only the rich and established paid all their taxes, i.e. instead of spending vast amounts to hire experts who arrange for them to pay less than is due, or indeed nothing at all.

For adherents to this view – and of course to achieve great things you have to dream them first – the world would be perfect if only every human being was able to share every resource equally and none could have more than their share. Peace could be achieved if only people laid down their arms and lived in harmony. To get there, you should spend according to need, not what budget is available. If that means borrowing, so be it. You get the thrust of my drift here …

But then back to Defence for a moment.

putinIf you’re a belligerent chancer Putin in Russia, or indeed a deluded despot Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in North Korea, the normal rules of diplomacy don’t apply. Why? Because you don’t recognise them. Mr Putin doesn’t operate by reference to conventions and international law. He sees the global tide of events solely from a ‘spheres of influence’ perspective and it’s important to him and his supporters that Russia is strong and Russia is feared. He doesn’t need to pay even lip service to the vagaries of democracy.

Kim Jon-un, of course, is bonkers – so he’s rather a dangerous and unpredictable chap to deal with.

In 1980 I spent my part of first honeymoon on a British military base in Cyprus for reasons which need not concern us here. But it was an open secret amongst the army officers I met there that – to be frank – at any time, if Russia was so minded, simply in terms of stocks of military personnel, equipment and conventional armaments, it could invade through Eastern Europe and subdue the continent for itself, complete with Christmas-time victory parades down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées if it wished, barely without breaking sweat. Any NATO forces on the ground would simply be overwhelmed in the first 72 hours.

That’s why – ran the argument in our dinner conversations – having a nuclear deterrent was so important. Plus, of course, it wasn’t just the fact of having one, but maintaining the willingness (indeed the certain and unyielding willingness) to use it as a source of mutual destruction in the event an aggressor went thus far, was a vital component of the strategy.

tankNuclear deterrents depend upon the certainty of mutual destruction. If Mr Putin ever got out of the wrong side of bed one morning, and knew that the British PM was even just a bit nervous of pressing the button, by sundown he could be dining with his pals in the ‘Jungle’ camp of migrants at Calais if he so desired.

What Mr Corbyn and his crew conveniently choose to ignore – or delude themselves about – is that, were Britain to reduce its conventional forces to a Toytown army, and specifically not to renew Trident as currently envisaged … and if out of the blue Russia or some similar aggressor was then to invade Europe, or Scotland, or the Isle of Dogs, or just generally the UK, then their loopy dreams of an Utopian wonderland would be immediate toast.

Unilateralism, pacifism (and the like) tend only to ‘get traction’ in supposedly-democratic countries. Why? Because only democratic countries have politicians who are petrified of alienating each and every native interest group of electors, simply because any of those groups on any particular day might possibly affect the outcome of the next General Election and prevent those politicians from being re-elected and/or gaining power.

Arguably, ‘defence of the realm’ is too important a matter to be left to the whims of politics.

Mine’s a ‘vodka on the rocks with Clamato juice, celery salt, tobacco and Worcestershire sauce to taste’, Vladmir!!!!

About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts