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Unconquerable and pacific: a new security and defence policy for Britain

brittish defence and security
Written by Philip Cunliffe

Philip Cunliffe argues against the idea of a global Britain in a post-Brexit world. Instead he advocates a less global future in which Britain focusses on its own defence with a revitalised nuclear deterrent and ceases to intervene in the wider world as an ‘armed wing of Oxfam’.

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With Boris Johnson’s announcement on 19 November of the largest increase in defence spending since the end of the Cold War, the Tory government has begun to actively mould its vision of post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, with lavish spending promised for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, expanding their capacity to deploy far afield in global theatres. Boris Johnson announced the increased military spending by saying that the ‘era of retreat’ was over. Given the fact that Britain has been permanently at war since 1997, in areas ranging from West Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East through to North Africa and Central Asia, Mr Johnson’s promises do not bode well. If permanent war counts as ‘retreat’, what might the Prime Minister’s notion of advance look like?

Britain has fought these forever wars for democracy and human rights even while democracy atrophied at home and while civil liberty was eroded. As Richard Tuck argued, the state is now seen as the armed wing of Oxfam – it bombs people abroad to bring them human rights and democracy, while it treats its own citizens as passive consumers of public charity rather than democratic agents and participants in public life. The Brexit vote was a vote against this kind of state. It represented a popular attempt to recapture a state that had become defined by its liberal globalism and integration in supranational structures; a state that was oriented externally towards allies rather than internally towards its citizens; a state with humanitarianism rather than democratic sovereignty as its organising principle.

Johnson’s militarised vision for Global Britain indicates something profoundly important about the political elite’s views of Brexit. Even with a nominally pro-Brexit government in office, Brexit is still seen as something to be clambered over, a problem to be overcome rather than a goal to be pursued. In the eyes of Johnson and other political leaders, Brexit requires ever greater commitments to military globalism to compensate for the voters’ unruly aspirations for more control at home. The implicit promise of Global Britain was always a pledge by the British political elite to major banks, corporations and its Euro-Atlantic allies that whatever the majority of British voters might have wanted, they were not going to allow Britain to turn inwards to focus on its own peoples that these institutions had ‘left behind’. The clear implication is that British democracy is incompatible with maintaining Britain’s international status. All the convolutions and contortions of British diplomacy since the vote of 2016 have been efforts to contain and limit the damage inflicted by Britain’s voters on the liberal globalist aspirations of Britain’s elites.

It is evident that the democratic gains of Brexit require deep institutionalisation to prevent liberty and democracy being kidnapped by elites again. So what would a defence policy that drew on the wellspring of democracy and sovereignty flowing from the Brexit vote look like? The free traders’ vision of Brexit is exhausted by the aspiration of scrapping tariffs – as if Brexit was a vote for cheaper cornflakes rather than an aspiration for greater popular control. What would it mean to take control in the realm of defence and security policy?

Such a policy would need to defend British democratic sovereignty and the liberties on which it rests, while checking globalist aspirations that could be used to subvert democratic interests. As a vote for sovereignty and independence, how would we ensure that this respect for sovereignty and self-rule was extended to other nations too? How might we craft a vision of international cooperation that rested on the solid foundations of popular democracy, as opposed to globalism? The following short manifesto sketches out a list of policies that would embed the democratic logic of Brexit into defence and security policy.

Taking control of defence.

As an inherited legacy of the empire and then the Cold War, Britain’s armed forces were retooled as instruments of liberal globalist militarism and expeditionary warfare after the end of the Cold War. In particular, they were committed to the Forever War against terror and permanent war for human rights and democracy. Boris Johnson is now recommitting our armed forces once again to globalist goals in far-flung theatres of future war, remote from Britain’s shores and interests. If the vote for Brexit was a vote to put the concerns of the British public uppermost, then seeing this through requires a radical restructuring of the armed forces so that they are focused on the needs of the British people rather than globalist pretensions of Britain’s elite.

  • Take back control of the nuclear deterrent. The roots of British globalism today were laid decades prior to the Maastricht Treaty, during the era of the high Cold War. Taking back control in the realm of security means taking it back not only from Brussels, but also from the USA – specifically, the nuclear deterrent. At least since 1957, British nuclear weapons have been explicitly conceived as interdependent with the US – reliant to varying degrees on US patronage, weapons, technical input and political oversight. Indeed, the British nuclear arsenal is the only one in the world that is so intimately intertwined with and dependent on the interests of another state. A British vote for self-determination is incompatible with interdependence in the realm of security, and especially with respect to the most powerful weapons available to humanity. A vote for independence is worthless unless it means control of one’s own security, and this is denied to British citizens by the interdependent structure of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

To realise fully the benefits of independence requires the capacity to defend that political independence with the greatest power available, and this requires that we extract our own nuclear interests from those of the US. Brexit requires complete self-sufficiency in the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear weapons to maintain a strategic and sub-strategic nuclear strike capacity. Britain’s nuclear deterrent and submarine fleet should both be expanded. The redundancy of the Trident / US Polaris system fortuitously coincides with the process of Brexit, providing a providential moment for establishing a new generation of fully sovereign nuclear weapons.

If the problem with nuclear deterrence is establishing a credible commitment to their use, then Britain would be in the robust position of enjoying a self-reinforcing deterrent – a nuclear deterrent whose credibility would be demonstrated by Britain’s reinvigorated commitment to its political independence, and in national determination to prioritise our own sovereignty and democracy over the conventions and pieties of the so-called ‘rules-based’ globalist order. This enhanced nuclear capacity could be used to complement an expanded domestic nuclear industry that wold also ensure Britain was self-sufficient with abundant atomic power and thereby no longer reliant on dirty fossil fuels. In order to signal the country’s willingness to cooperate with newfound friends and allies, Britain should also commit to universal nuclear disarmament – but until the point at which a democratically elected British government deems such a process credible, there would be no unilateral nuclear disarmament.

  • Take control of defence: replace the army with a militia based on national service. By withdrawing from the Forever Wars of the present, renouncing the forever wars of the future and with the political independence and national security of the country protected by a newly expanded and fully sovereign nuclear arsenal, the British army would no longer need any expeditionary capability that would allow it to be an instrument of imperial globalism in remote theatres of war justified on spurious humanitarian grounds. The standing army should be reduced in size and refocused on territorial defence, area denial through anti-aircraft systems, as well as being ready and equipped to respond to natural disasters and civic emergences. We would no longer need an army that wears desert khaki.

At the same time as the army was reduced in size, it would be strengthened and renewed. In order to ensure citizens’ control of their own security over the long term, a national militia should be formed encompassing the entire population, modelled on the Swiss-American and Finnish examples. The reduced standing army should provide the professional core of this new model army and would oversee the training of the new militia. Every capable citizen would serve in the militia for 18 months after secondary school and prior to higher education, with an auxiliary role in emergency services only allowed to conscientious objectors. Militia membership would be accompanied with legal duties to control and maintain the nation’s stock of firearms and munitions as part of militia service. This would also help ensure that security remained firmly under the control of citizens and not just the state bureaucracy. To this end, venerable civil society organisations such as the British National Rifle Association should be empowered.

A population that had democratic control of its own security through popular and permanent participation by citizens providing that security themselves would have no interest in expeditionary or globalist warfare. At the same time, such a population would well understand the personal costs and necessity of protecting its rights through force if necessary, and would constitute a formidable, trained opposition to any potential aggressor that succeeded in landing on British soil. Combined with the expanded nuclear deterrent, Britain would be at once unconquerable and pacific, at once indomitable while also being structurally incapable of globalist aggression against other sovereign states.

  • Refocus the navy on coastal defence. Britain is as incapable of policing the world’s sea lanes and trade routes as Italy, the Netherlands or Norway; the claim that global trade routes depend on British sea power is risible. Ultimately the real purpose of Britain’s inflated military spending on a blue water navy is to help legitimate US military efforts. After all, Britain’s navy adds nothing in material terms to US power; the US is more than capable of fighting whatever wars it wishes without British help. The British defence posture therefore inflates the ego of our ruling elites by giving them ‘a seat at the table’ in the US-led war rooms of the future. It provides an internationalist gloss for the US, and gives nothing for the British people. Instead of focusing on defending tiny atolls in the remote South China Sea or on fighting Somali fishermen off the Horn of Africa, British naval forces should be focused on coastal defence, responding to emergencies, natural disasters and the defence of territorial waters. The whole of the surface fleet should be reduced and retooled for this purpose, and the aircraft carriers scrapped or sold off.
  • Abolish the air force. Itself an artefact of imperial policing, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has long since became an instrument of globalist policing, allowing Britain to over-commit militarily by engaging in permanent ‘air occupations’ in the Middle East. Air campaigns have rolled over Kosovo, Libya, Iraq and Syria without any material capacity or political will to occupy and rebuild these countries after having bombed them. The RAF facilitates globalist wars, despite itself being increasingly redundant in the new era of drone warfare. Instead of existing as a separate branch of the armed forces with all the convoluted inter-service rivalry that comes with it, the air force should be scrapped and turned instead into air wings of the army and navy. These new air wings would be focused on new technologies dedicated to defence of Britain’s air space: they should have the capacity to deny air supremacy to any aggressor but carry no capacity for global power projection.
  • Defend civil liberty: withdraw from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. The so-called ‘five eyes’ system of intelligence cooperation with the US and others is a globalist state apparatus for mangling civil liberty around the world. Collecting mass data on citizens on a global and industrial scale is incompatible with the most basic notions of civil liberty. In place of such globalist structures, Britain should develop new defence capacities in cybersecurity at the national level, rather than maintaining a permanent globalist surveillance state.

The vote against supranationalism.

The Brexit vote was quite obviously a vote for sovereignty and a vote against supranationalism. The express intent of supranationalism is to diminish national sovereignty by diluting it. This latter effect is achieved by removing decision-making from popular control, extracting key decision-making capacity from within nation-states and suspending it above them in elite networks remote from democratic pressure and popular political contestation. In this way supranationalism disenfranchises citizens. A vote for political independence and sovereignty is incompatible with supranationalism of any sort, whether European or global. The consistent pursuit of the democratic logic of Brexit requires withdrawal from all supranational structures.

  • Brexit from the United Nations. The United Nations (UN) is the original, globalist supranational organisation par excellence. Britain’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council institutionalises globalist aspirations for Britain’s rulers that disenfranchise Britain’s citizens. The responsibility for maintaining international peace and security granted to the permanent members of the Council by the UN Charter mean that by definition, Britain is legally obliged to consider global security rather than self-defence – and that we must do so moreover, in permanent concert with other major powers. It is the UN that has provided the world with an endless series of euphemisms that expand the rationale for war: peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, nation-building. Permanent membership of the Security Council not only skews Britain’s foreign policy, it also empowers its executive as against parliamentary government, giving the executive a license to wage war for reasons far beyond any national self-interest. Britain’s membership of the Security Council is an artefact of the pre-Brexit era, and it should be unilaterally renounced. New forms of post-globalist international cooperation are needed, and Britain should be ready to pioneer them once freed of the shackles of twentieth century globalism.
  • Brexit from NATO. After the UN, the single institution most dedicated to perpetual war is NATO. It is NATO that yoked Britain into Afghanistan, a war that has still not ended nearly two decades after the terror attacks on the US and almost a decade after Osama bin Laden was killed. It was through NATO that David Cameron bombed Libya in 2011, plunging that country into a civil war from which it has still not escaped, thereby enabling jihadis to take root and scale up their activities – as seen in the Manchester arena bombing, committed by a Libyan jihadi cultivated by British security services for the war in Libya. It was through NATO that Britain participated in the humanitarian war over Kosovo in 1999, in which globalist claims of defending human rights were expressly used to trounce the sovereign rights of Serbia.

NATO began life as an alliance to protect Britain from invasion during the Cold War, and to prevent the prospect of the European continent being dominated by a single power. That risk has evaporated; the USSR and Warsaw Pact are long gone, and there is no prospect of Russian tanks invading Belgium or north-eastern France. This redundant military alliance only survived by globalising – extending from its original area of operations in Europe by finding wars to fight in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Central Asia. From starting off as a Cold War-era regional military alliance, NATO has since grown into a bloated globalist organisation that feeds the Forever War an endless supply of blood and treasure. To end Britain’s permanent wars, to prevent Britain’s elites from being lured into the globalist mirage of military glory for human rights, and to stop future governments from frittering away British blood and treasure in wars as yet undreamt of for decades to come, it is time to Brexit from NATO and expel all NATO military presence on British territory.

  • Brexit from Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) entitles the British government to call a border poll in Northern Ireland, and it should do so at the earliest possible opportunity. The GFA is a supranational arrangement for governing Northern Ireland. Capped by the North-South Ministerial Council which blends Irish and British ministers, it substitutes international cooperation for democratic sovereignty as the mode of government. In this way, along with the cultural and communal divisions that the Agreement freezes in place through power-sharing arrangements, the GFA not only deprives the peoples of Northern Ireland of political self-sufficiency, it also deprives them of meaningful political representation in both Britain and Ireland. The reason that Britain conceded to the GFA in the first place was because British rule was impossible to sustain in Northern Ireland without an indefinite counter-insurgency, itself an indication that the political authority of the British state was weak. The logic of sovereignty embodied in the Brexit vote therefore requires that the supranational logic of the GFA be unpicked through an infusion of democratic choice and will. Let the citizens of Northern Ireland decide whether they wish to remain part of Britain or unify with the Republic. Either way, the convoluted structure of supranational governance will have to be revised and popular self-rule will be re-legitimated as the principle of government in these islands.

The vote against empire.

Of the many slanders levelled by Remainers against Brexit voters, the notion that Brexit was driven by imperial nostalgia was among the most laughable and egregious – as if voters in small towns and post-industrial regions were thinking about the Raj when they were asked to vote on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Indeed, it was Remainers who were far more concerned about maintaining Britain’s great power claims and international status than Leavers, as evident in all the euphemisms that they manufactured to voice these imperial pretensions – ‘a seat at the table’, ‘leading role’, etc. The decision to enter Britain to the EEC, the precursor of the EU, was clearly understood at the time as a substitute for Britain’s lost empire. By contrast the vote for Brexit was a vote to address the concerns of Britain’s left behind regions, not its global claims. To that extent, it was a vote against empire and imperial delusion perpetuated by the EU.

  • Renounce and withdraw from all overseas territories and bases. Britain’s overseas territories are the legacy of a maritime empire based on obsolete technology of coaling stations and strategic choke points entirely redundant in the world of submarines and aircraft carriers. To focus on our internal needs, to avoid globalist entanglements and the suppression of other nations’ sovereignty, Brexit necessitates that we unilaterally relinquish all overseas territories, including Gibraltar and the Falklands. The population in all of these territories should be offered the same rights to live and settle in Britain as those offered by the government to the citizens of Hong Kong this year. Britain should renounce any claim to Diego Garcia, and offer diplomatic support to Mauritius in staking its sovereign claim to the Chagos Islands. In keeping with the anti-imperialist character of Brexit, Britain should renounce and abandon all its global military bases and alliances – bases that either violate other country’s sovereign integrity (such as Cyprus) or that constitute the infrastructure of globalist military aspirations (Bahrain, Brunei, etc.)

By repudiating both the remnants of empire and globalist humanitarian warmongering, Britain will reach out to the peoples of the world who have been on the receiving end of liberal globalism and all its efforts to stamp out sovereign independence. Such a Britain will promote reciprocal relations and friendship between all the peoples who seek independence for themselves and peaceful and prosperous cooperation with others. Withdrawing from globalism in order to refound international relations on the basis of sovereignty is the kind of world leadership Britain should aspire to.

As Boris Johnson pontificates about the defence of the realm while cowering in self-imposed quarantine despite in all likelihood being immune to Covid, it is worth recalling that Britain did not have a stock of PPE fit for purpose when Covid arrived at our shores, despite the civil service having extensively planned for a global pandemic. This simple fact should put into sharp perspective all grand declamations about global ambitions, ‘seats at the table’, etc. Extracting a popular concept of security from the globalist one is a must if our dash for sovereignty is not to lead us back into globalist pretensions and the permanent wars of the future.

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About the author

Philip Cunliffe