Jthere is a fascinating tension in the British attitude towards war and military matters. When writing about England in 1941, George Orwell said his home country was defined by the “softness” of its civilization, and such a “hatred of war and militarism” that the restlessness of the flag and patriotic boasting were always the prerogative of a small minority. . The events of the past 40 or so years may have proved him wrong: from time to time a widely shared chauvinism has surfaced in our national life, focused either on real conflict – as happened when Britain fought for the Falkland Islands – or some senseless substitute, like Brexit. But there’s something about Orwell’s portrayal of people with an innate distaste for bellicose posturing that still rings true, across every country in the UK.
Among some politicians, however, there is far too little of this kind of thinking. Over the past three weeks, the unimaginable horror of what happened in Ukraine and the fact that Vladimir Putin’s invasion is such a matter of moral clarity has encouraged much rhetoric and posturing that has been strident, banal and full of inappropriate machismo. The war, says a Tory MP, is Boris Johnson’s ‘Falklands moment’. Vocal Tory backbench MP Tobias Ellwood – a former soldier in the Royal Green Jackets and now an active reservist – insists the West’s response shows ‘we’ve lost our appetite, we’ve lost our confidence to keep us upright.” . And while he and other Tory MPs – including zealous supporters of Britain’s break with the EU, suddenly denouncing the urgent need for international unity – made foolish demands for NATO to impose a no-fly zone, some cabinet members have made their own very troubling statements, apparently thinking that if Putin speaks loudly, they should speak louder. When Sajid Javid was asked about the recent Russian attack on a Ukrainian military base just 10 miles from the country’s border with Poland, we saw the strange sight of the Health Secretary seemingly embracing the prospect of nuclear war. “Let’s be very clear… if a single Russian tip enters NATO territory, there will be war with NATO.
With the arrival of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement on Wednesday, a familiar sound is growing louder: Tories are demanding more money for the military, even as the UK currently spends the fifth largest annual sum in the world (after the United States, China, India and Russia). For more than a decade now, most Tories have been united in the belief that just about every public service is best cut to the bone and subjected to endless lectures about inefficiency. But defense is suddenly a glaring exception: Labor may have credibly identified £13billion of departmental waste since 2010, but that doesn’t seem to be a stumbling block to calls for a spending hike of around 25% .
If you want to get a sense of the thinking at work, a good place to start is a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph by former Brexit minister David Frost. He believes that “Western muscle memory is returning and we are returning to the principles that helped us win the Cold War”. He says: “We’re going to have to spend more on defense and that will mean tough choices.” We all know what they are likely to be: the price for our supposedly central role in a reshaped world may well be paid in social care, education, childcare and everything in between.
Although he would likely voice his opposition to cuts elsewhere, Keir Starmer has joined calls for more military money, which fits perfectly with his leadership’s “I’m not Jeremy Corbyn” narrative. Given Starmer’s apparent determination to follow the lead of his New Labor ancestors and Tony Blair’s recent offer to help his former party with policy advice, we should listen carefully to what he has to say. Last week he published an essay on the Ukrainian crisis. His most sobering passage was: “When Putin threatens NATO and stokes fear of nuclear conflict, there is something incongruous about our repeated assurances that we will not respond with force. Naturally enough, Blair also wants more money for the armed forces. “We are awake,” he said. “Now we must act.” It’s the same register he used at the start of the “war on terror”, when he spoke of shaken kaleidoscopes and the need to “reorder this world around us”. Hearing it again is not really reassuring.
As usual, Boris Johnson’s tone oscillates between serious and rude. At the Tories’ Spring Conference this weekend, he and his colleagues repeated the familiar argument that war demands an end to ‘woke’ ideas and criticism of British history (which actually sounds like a milquetoast version of Putinism), and he made this farcical comparison of Ukrainians to Brexit voters. When caught in a more reasonable mood, he also advised a measure of caution and poise. “It is very important that we are not locked into a logic of direct conflict between the West and Russia, because that is how Putin wants to describe it… as a fight between him and NATO,” said he told The Economist last week. ” This is not the case. It is about the Ukrainian people and their right to defend themselves. This line was repeated on Sunday. But around it, very dangerous currents still swirl.
In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was speculating about a limited nuclear war in Europe and we were warned of the prospect of an accidental nuclear exchange, I grew up with a cold sense of fear. Now, a new generation must deal not only with those same anxieties, but also with the existential threat of the climate emergency and the prospect of regular global pandemics. Unsurprisingly, there is a growing crisis in children’s mental health: a sign not only of failing public services, but arguably of a system of power and politics that does not alleviate these visceral fears, but inflames them endlessly. .
In a situation as fragile as this, bellicose rhetoric can have terrifying consequences. It also tends to highlight how the armchair generals of Westminster are neglecting their duty of care to their own citizens. I am now having conversations with my 12 year old daughter about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. I tell him everything will be fine, but his fears – and mine – are hardly alleviated by the reckless words we hear sporadically from some of the would-be officials.
Yes, the world has clearly changed. Even though liberal values are still being undermined and compromised by those in power, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still the best hope we have, what Putin’s move into something close to fascism clearly shows. But those same values — not to mention the delicate things of geopolitics and diplomacy — demand nuance and calm. Moreover, there is one thing we forget at our peril: no matter how much we spend on our military, our social fabric must be resilient and secure enough to face a new reality of shocks and disruptions. constants, and for the moment it is anything but. At this terrible time, these seem like things in danger of being forgotten. I worry about that. I think we all should.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to the John Politics Weekly UK podcast, search for “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday