Ready to Spend for King and Country? Making the Foreign Policy Case for Defence

There is apparently bipartisan support for increasing UK defence spending to 2.5% of GDP.   Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has committed to doing so by 2030, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer has the same target “as soon as resources allow”. However, as Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, there is less to both pledges than meets the eye. Grant Shapps, Defence Secretary, has said that the Conservatives will meet the target by eliminating 72,000 civil service jobs, implying (in the absence of rarely achieved efficiency savings) cuts in public services which are already widely regarded as inadequate. Meanwhile, Labour’s promise has generated many satirical imitations along the lines of “I’ve promised my family a private jet when resources allow”.

What’s going on here? Our own polling and others’ suggest that there is public support for higher defence spending, even among Labour supporters, nearly half of whom want their party to match the Tories’ pledge. As both Sunak and Starmer discovered, equivocating about defence spending elicits hostile editorials in much of the mainstream media, as well as criticism from a broad range of defence and foreign policy interests and commentators. 

Back in the real world, politicians of all parties, whose connection with their constituencies often make them more realistic than expert commentators, recognise that voters are unlikely to be ready for the trade-offs that higher defence spending would inevitably require given the dire state of the public finances. BFPG’s polling last year showed overwhelming support for NATO, as well as for the UK sending more of almost every type of military assistance to Ukraine. (There was also strong support for certain forms of international development spending.) This year we will be diving deeper by asking respondents how they would prioritise additional defence spending against, say, welfare or health. The challenge is that we have long become used to spending the “peace dividend” and have forgotten where it came from.   

Supporters of greater defence spending assert that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to European security and therefore to the UK, but are voters sufficiently convinced that they would support spending on tanks rather than on, say, hospitals? Some may hope to solve the problem by higher taxation, or borrowing, or both. But this misses the point: even with some additional income, the trade-offs will remain, only slightly less acute. 

If a Government of any colour is to ask the British public to make a real sacrifice, which the proposed numbers would imply, it needs to make the case actively. The level of trust in politics is low and the defence and foreign policy establishment tends to speak its own language. We should go back to first principles to make a convincing case that appeals both to head and heart, articulating  what precisely we are defending, and what the threat is. To many readers the answers will seem self-evident. But if you can’t make the case to the unconvinced, you are leaving a lot to chance. 

First, what are we defending? Compared with countries facing a long-standing adversary across a land border, we have found this question strangely difficult to answer, at least since the end of the Cold War.    

In Britain, “nation” as a concept is probably contested more than it has been for centuries. Polling suggests that fewer than half of young people regard themselves as “patriotic”, in comparison with a strong majority of pensioners. However, that may signal a reluctance on the part of the young to define themselves by what may sound like an old-fashioned term, rather than an unwillingness to stand up for Britain. In recent years many political figures, from Tony Blair onwards, have tried to redefine Britishness with little success.    

Today much of the narrative is about defending “British values”. This is abstract enough in itself. But a call to arms to defend values is hard when there is little agreement on what the values are. “Freedom” probably features on most people’s list, but do we agree enough about what kind of freedom we would be prepared to fight for? If a Russian invasion seems far-fetched, perhaps we can agree that we should defend ourselves against Chinese cyber threats, though it’s not even clear that TikTok users would be happy with a ban on the use of their app by a Government which itself seems quite keen on all sorts of intrusive surveillance. If climate change is the greatest threat we face, would we go to war against polluters? This is of course frivolous, but it does suggest that, when push comes to shove, a narrative based largely on values can’t take on too much of the strain. 

We are of course fortunate that, for the UK, military action essentially takes place away from our own shores. It is entirely possible to demonstrate the national interest in such action. The problem is that, since the end of the Cold War, liberal interventionism in defence of an “international world order” has taken us into a number of disastrously unsuccessful conflicts. Does the foreign policy elite have sufficient credibility left to take us towards war? 

By being so embarrassed by a realist concept of national interest, we have made it harder to argue the case for strong defence. So we need to go back to the threat. 

Where’s the threat coming from?  How we identify the threat will determine how much sustainable political support there is for defending against it. The debate over 2.5% of GDP, while important in NATO terms, is unhelpful from the point of view that it focuses on inputs rather than outcomes. The UK, still under something of a Great Power illusion, finds it difficult to do the bit of strategy which identifies “what we aren’t going to do”. But the danger of asking for a bit of everything is that we fail to make a convincing case for anything.  

The strong public support for Ukraine has in large part been a response to a moral outrage at Ukrainian suffering at the hands Russian might. Cost was hardly mentioned as a factor. Where there has been an opportunity cost, a cynical public is more likely simply to blame the Government for shortfalls elsewhere. But support for NATO doesn’t automatically imply that defending Eastern Europe is accepted as a vital national interest for us. If Russia really is a threat to the UK, is preparing for conventional war in Europe the best route to defending Britain? Doesn’t the case have to be made rather than assumed? 

It’s not as though the British people are incapable of recognising threats. There was strong appetite for action once blame was attributed to the Russians for the Novichok attack on Salisbury in 2018. Defending our critical national infrastructure (think NHS if you want to bring the challenge closer to home) sounds like an unarguable priority. And now that so much of that depends on satellite technology, we can certainly make a strong case for defence which goes well beyond our physical borders. This justifies investing in defence without falling into the internationalist trap that everything is our business. A clear focus on homeland security also allows for a stronger connection between resources and action on the one hand and tangible benefits on the other, enabling greater accountability which in turn strengthens the credibility of the case. 

Identifying the national interest is all the more important the further away from home we are. The days in which a British presence East of Suez is taken as read are long gone. The case for action against Houthi drone strikes in the Red Sea has been caught up in the wider Middle East narrative, while it would probably be better to focus more clearly on the simple “national interest” narrative about the need to keep sea lanes open which previous generations would have well understood.    

Even further afield, how do we demonstrate that our investment in Indo-Pacific security serves a national interest? Perhaps we are missing a trick. It’s a tall order to suggest that an investment in AUKUS, costly for the UK but a small fraction of the investment made by Pacific partners, will shift the dial in the region’s defences against a threat from China. Arguably the most important real-world benefits for the UK in participating in AUKUS lie in the way in which it can “buy” us ongoing US support for security closer to home, in addition to the undoubted economic benefits, often quite well spread across the country. We might say that our reluctance to talk publicly in realist terms about national interest constrains us from deploying some of the most powerful arguments for maintaining a strong defence capability. 

Support for Ukraine, for NATO and (in some areas at least for international development) show that the British people continue to want the UK to engage actively with the world. But they remain to be convinced by a distrusted political class that a substantial increase in defence spending at the expense of domestic priorities is necessary and will be effective. Some may accuse our modern age of complacency and decadence. Maybe so, but this line of attack is hardly likely to deliver results.     

BFPG was founded in 2017 to address the disconnect revealed by the Brexit referendum result between the foreign policy establishment (in its broadest sense) and public opinion. We continue to study public attitudes to the emerging foreign policy challenges, from Ukraine to the Middle East, from climate to migration. Those who believe that there is today a grave threat to the UK and our interests might do well to recall that before the 2016 referendum most polls suggested that the UK public wanted to remain in the EU. We’d be unwise to think today that we don’t need to make a sustained and sustainable case for defence.

David Landmsan

David Landsman is a Senior Advisor at BFPG