Leading the Way to Where?

Ministers rarely make public statements which go beyond established policy and appear to be arguing for change. So when two Ministers, Anne-Marie Trevelyan (formerly Defence Secretary and now in the FCDO) and Tom Tugendhat (Security Minister in the Home Office and a former Army reservist) published an article arguing for increased defence spending, it was bound to attract attention.   

There’s plenty we could discuss here. What is the increased threat the UK faces and what specific measures should be taken to address it? How to prioritise between conventional forces, the nuclear deterrent, cyber defence and other areas of defence? Given that we can’t do everything, what’s the best additional contribution we can make to NATO? How do we ensure that extra money is spent effectively? Is setting a target for inputs (spending) rather than outcomes the right approach? Is strengthening the domestic defence industry a strategic priority in its own right, and if so, should it influence spending decisions?

But it’s one specific line in the article that attracted my attention. They stated it was “clear that the UK needs to lead the way in increasing our own domestic defence and security spending commitments to 2.5% and beyond.” There’s nothing unusual in that sort of language. We’ve heard for some time from politicians and others talking about the UK leading the way. Many aspire to UK ‘leadership’ in multiple sectors from defence to climate, international development to soft power. In science and space, the aim is to be a ‘superpower’. While its meaning is often vague, for some ‘Global Britain’ encapsulates a lot of these leadership ambitions.

This prompts the question as to what leadership means, how is it measured and what is it for?

Leadership could be based on inputs – how much we invest in a particular sector, either in absolute terms or, more likely, as a proportion of GDP, or in relation to population size. But while it shows commitment and makes for a good Ministerial statement, there’s a risk it becomes the end rather than the means and doesn’t incentivise delivering either the best results or value for money.

Can leadership better be based on outputs, in which case how are they measured?   Are we looking for a return for the UK or more widely? Climate leadership might be measured in terms of CO2 emissions reduced, though the metrics may be contested.   Soft power could be measured in terms of revenue from tourism or cultural activities, but that seems like only half the story. Perhaps we can measure leadership not only by how much the UK contributes directly, but by how much our involvement leverages engagement from others. That sounds like true leadership, but I suspect it will be hard to put a number on it with much credibility. 

If we can’t (or don’t want to) put a crude number on leadership, can we instead   measure it by the views of our international peers? But whose views should we consider? More importantly, can we expect peer review to tell us what the UK’s policy should be? I’m reminded of those endless industry competitions: I suspect that shareholders will put more trust in company performance and customers in the quality of the service they experience rather than the inevitably subjective views of other members of the producer’s own profession. It’s often the case that politicians who score highly with their foreign peers are unceremoniously ejected by their own electorates. Are the most respected countries the most successful? The trouble is that when there are many metrics for ‘success’, the argument about leadership becomes circular.

Talking about leadership is more complex than it looks. But it might also be counterproductive. In economic terms, what’s the opportunity cost of leadership for other potential areas of expenditure? Is the focus on national interests or on the bargaining power of the sector in question?  In terms of our international relationships (‘soft power’ if you like), while leadership may sound a positive aspiration, for a country like the UK it may often come across as arrogant (“who does Britain think it is?”).   

Should we take it for granted that the UK wants to be a leader? It’s worth at least asking the question and digging into how we’ll know whether we’ve succeeded, rather than taking others’ word for it.


David Landsman

David Landsman is a Senior Advisor at BFPG