The Imperial War Museum is commemorating the Centenary of World War One, a war transformed by the efforts of the British Armed Forces. Historically speaking, the legacy of the British Armed Forces is rather controversial, but being there I was filled with sorrow, respect, even pride.
However, coming home it sparked a blazing debate with my housemate about whether or not Britain still needs a ‘redundant, imperialist’ army at all. The Conservatives caused uproar in Manchester last month just for plans to axe the second battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, but why not cut defence all together? Even a fraction of the defence budget could transform the lives of British people throughout the country, and that’s before nuclear disarmament.
Britain is spending around fourty billion pounds this year on defence; the fourth highest in the world behind the USA, China and Russia, and the budget is due to increase. The national debt is spiraling out of control, and the recent announcement that we may be out of Afghanistan by June 2014 begs the question: where is the money going, and is it worth it? Historically wars occured an average of every thirty years, now we haven’t had a major war for nearly seventy years and the suggestions of pooling our militia into a NATO or UN based military to patrol our ‘civilised’ world sounds like a pretty smart move.
But that is the point; it’s only been seventy years since the last world war. And it hasn’t been seventy years because the superpowers have evolved past squabbling or because everyone has forged alliances and peace treaties willy-nilly, but because of nuclear deterrents. The price of war between the superpowers has become too high. For now. But, eventually someone may well use one of those Weapons of Mass Destruction on us or someone else, and we will either be able to stand them down with the threat of obliteration, or be paralysed and vulnerable because we’d put our faith on goodwill. Historically, goodwill has rarely prevented human destruction.
That’s the bigger picture. The daily role of the militia is still under question. There is set to be just 5200 British troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, out of around 130,000 personnel in total.
Lately the militia have popped up here and there- quashing the London riots and lending Gibraltar a hand. So they haven’t been making many headlines of late, but a glance at their websites revealed that the Navy just made a £58 million drugs bust in the Caribbean, the Army have teamed up with the NHS for their ‘Stop Smoking’ campaign, and the RAF have installed a Typhoon Simulator at the Science Museum… It doesn’t sound like 40 billion pounds worth of work.
However, the consequences of cutting all defence need to be considered. There are 102,000 fulltime regulars and 19,000 territorial reserves in employment whose livelihoods and life’s work would be overturned, leading to an unemployment surge. For many young people it provides structured way into a diverse and meritocratic career; the Manchester and Salford Univeristy Officer Training Corps recruits 100 new officer cadets during Fresher’s Fair every year.
Cutting the army would lead to huge strain on the police force, border control and affect our international relations in terms of alliances, NATO and the UN. Much of Britain’s international influence stems from, or is related to its sizable armed forces, and losing them would affect our global standing.
Finally, much of our technology and medical advancements (which pumps money back into the economy), is developed by the military in places like the Advanced Technology Centre. Cutting the defence budget would mean shutting all of those research facilities down, and sending those discoveries and any profit they may generate to countries like China and America.
Arguably however, these are not meant to be the functions of the military. It is not there to provide jobs and keep our phones up to date. The British Armed Forces are meant to protect and defend Britain and nothing more. And looking at the published list of threats to British security from 2010, we are looking safer than we have ever been, with the top threats being listed as attacks on British ‘cyberspace’, terrorism, natural disasters, nuclear attack on us or an ally and crime. Conventional military attack, the military’s most traditional function, is low on the list and remote as a possibility in general.
However, remote as these threats seem today, we cannot afford to simply ignore them.Scaremongering aside should any of them occur Britain needs an insurance policy to keep itself safe. True, most of these threats could be reassigned to the political budget (terrorism), the Secret Intelligence Service (cyberspace) or the crime budget (crime), and perhaps they should. The defence budget certainly needs some reevaluation and a severe trim. But to cut it completely would be madness. Forget any imperialistic pride or traditional values, or that cutting off a military that Britain has gained so much power and respect for would be foolish. If a country hasn’t got defence it has nothing, because no matter how hard you work on everything else it can be taken from you in an instant. So the military may seem redundant right now, but if push comes to shove they’ll be swiftly reinstated as the heart, soul and pride of the nation.