There has been much dismay in response to the British electorate’s decision to leave the EU, including the assumption that the UK is signaling a retreat from the world and its position as NATO’s second military power. On closer inspection, however, it is much more likely that exactly the reverse is happening: Theresa May’s priority is to remedy five years of neglect of foreign and security policy under David Cameron.
Since May entered Downing Street less than a month ago, she has already made two highly significant decisions. One was to push through the much-delayed Parliamentary vote to renew the Trident submarine-launched nuclear deterrent, which passed by a resounding 472 votes to 117. The second was to press pause on the £18 billion Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is to be operated by the French firm EDF with financing from the China General Nuclear Power Company and billions in UK government subsidies. Both Prime Minister May and her closest adviser, Nick Timothy, are widely reported to have misgivings over giving China such a strategically sensitive stake in the country’s energy supply. Their position was vindicated just a couple of weeks later when the FBI alleged that China General Nuclear Power Company had conspired to steal U.S. nuclear secrets for two decades.
The legacy that the Prime Minister must now address stems from the worldview of Mr. Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Having inherited atrocious state finances from Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2010, they embarked on an austerity drive from which defense and security were not protected. At the same time, they formulated a “mercantile” foreign policy that placed trade and inward investment above all else (of which the Hinkley Point scheme was the outstanding example). Both men appeared to have no real sense for or interest in security matters, rather viewing the Ministry of Defence as little more than a drain on the budget, and NATO as a dreary obligation.
The 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) was plainly driven by the need to close a £38 billion hole in defense spending, and the document’s coherence ends there. To take just one example, while the Trident nuclear deterrent was retained, the Review stated:
[We will] not bring into service the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft programme. We will depend on other maritime assets to contribute to the tasks previously planned for them.
The most important role of these aircraft is to sweep the seas off western Scotland as Trident submarines set out on patrol, to ensure that Russian submarines are not shadowing them; the boats cannot operate without this overwatch. To simply do away with it was a bizarre decision, obliging the government to beg the US and other allies to lend aircraft to cover the submarines. On July 11, the Ministry of Defence announced the acquisition of nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft, finally restoring capability from 2019.
More troubling still was the Review’s implied assumption that there was no territorial threat to the UK. For example on carrier warfare it says (my italics):
We will need to operate only one aircraft carrier [of two being built]. We cannot now foresee circumstances in which the UK would require the scale of strike capability previously planned. We are unlikely to face adversaries in large-scale air combat.
As part of this myopic scheme the excellent Harrier was de-commissioned, again leaving the UK for several years with no carrier strike capability until the F-35 enters service.
While defense spending threatened to fall under the NATO 2 percent of GDP threshold, Cameron instituted a rule that overseas development aid must be maintained at 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI). As the GDP grew during Cameron’s term, the Department for International Development scrambled to find new projects to allow the aid budget to hit its mandated level of 0.7 percent. Aware that this was not playing well in his own party, he responded with an accounting maneuver: Intelligence budgets and military pensions would be reclassified as defense spending, thus maintaining the 2 percent level. This was emblematic of his cynical approach to national security.
Theresa May, by contrast, was Home Secretary (i.e. interior minister) from 2010 until becoming Prime Minister, putting her in the middle of the counter-terrorism effort. One of her successes was the deportation of the extremist cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, which she personally negotiated. She also fought a running battle with Osborne over Britain’s approach to the billions in dirty cash that flood into London financial and real estate markets every year. He viewed these inflows as an indispensible tool for addressing the current account deficit, while May wanted to give law enforcement the means and the mandate to crack down. There is every likelihood that a reluctance to upset Russian “inward investors” played a role in Britain’s failure to engage in the Ukraine crisis, leaving France and Germany to act. It is now probable that London will become a far less hospitable environment for dirty money, and that its distorting effect on foreign policy will be curbed. There will be less kowtowing to China, less obsequious dealings with the Kremlin.
Prime Minister May is socially liberal but resolute on defense, viewing “security”—both economic and national—as the cornerstone of conservatism. She is also a committed Atlanticist, according to diplomats who have been briefed by Downing Street. The same diplomats say that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is being closely supervised on these matters by his boss.
While campaigning (rather half heartedly) for the UK to remain in the EU in April she said this:
A lot has been said already during this referendum campaign about security. But I want to set out the arguments as I see them. If we were not members of the European Union, of course we would still have our relationship with America. We would still be part of the Five Eyes, the closest international intelligence-sharing arrangement in the world. We would still have our first-rate security and intelligence agencies. We would still share intelligence about terrorism and crime with our European allies, and they would do the same with us.
And this is exactly the situation that the UK now finds itself in. Having left the EU, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the closest ally of the United States is one of its strongest suits on the world stage. The early signs suggest that the Prime Minister intends to play that suit by bolstering defense spending, taking foreign policy seriously, and (Donald Trump permitting) rebuilding the Transatlantic partnership. Should Trump be elected President, she may even find herself, along with Angela Merkel, as one of the last grown up leaders standing in the Western world.
There are several clear steps that the British government could take to reaffirm its commitment to global security. The most obvious is to return the Army from 82,000 to its pre-Cameron level of 120,000 plus reserves. Earlier this year the UK agreed to station an infantry battalion in Estonia to deter Russian aggression. But there are still more than 20,000 British troops in Germany and due to return to the UK; they could more cheaply and usefully be moved into Poland. The Royal Navy could also contribute more warships to the Mediterranean to counter ISIS and human traffickers would both push threats away from the UK and show that leaving the EU does not mean abandoning Europe. Doing more there (and in the Baltic and the Gulf) would require a larger force of destroyers and frigates, but again, Cameron’s cuts went too far and a reversal is needed to maintain credibility and effectiveness.
There are of course real risks to this course of action that may yet scupper it. The most serious is the possibility that the British economy suffers serious and lasting damage as a result of Brexit, undermining government finances further. Another is that Scotland leaves the UK, which would wreck the British Army, leave no viable base for Trident and probably result in the loss of Britain’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Yet neither eventuality is certain or even particularly likely (especially Scotland), despite Remainers almost willing them into being in order to be proved right.
The world is beset by threats, among them the disintegration of the existing order in the Middle East, massive migrant flows, terrorism, Russian territorial aggression, Turkey’s growing hostility to the West, and Chinese claims in the South China Sea. The UK’s departure from the EU has happened now, like it or not, and will be executed. However unexpectedly, it should mark the return of the UK to a serious and constructive role in international security and diplomacy, something its allies ought to be welcoming.