Leaders: It could be time to pay back peace dividend

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, there was much talk about “the peace dividend”.

Britain now has fewer military tanks than Switzerland. Picture: PA
Britain now has fewer military tanks than Switzerland. Picture: PA

The British military, and its Nato partners, would no longer have to maintain a massive defence capability in central Europe as a bulwark against the Russians.

Tank squadrons would no longer have to be based on the German plain, ready to roll if the Russian bear showed its claws.

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This, it was generally agreed, was a good thing. There was no shortage of other priorities on which politicians could spend those defence millions.

This has been the way of defence spending throughout history. It has always gone up and down, responding to the perceived level of threat at the time.

The question now, according to General Sir Richard Shirreff, who recently stepped down as Nato deputy supreme commander, is whether a heightened level of threat should now require an increase in defence capability, and therefore defence spending.

Sir Richard is eminently qualified to make such a judgment, of that there can be no doubt. He is saying the dismantling of the West’s presence in mainland Europe has gone too far, leaving us vulnerable in the face of a renewed Russian threat.

The facts tend to support his case. A defence analyst’s report earlier this year revealed that Britain now had fewer tanks than Switzerland.

And there can be little doubt that the threat level is now very different to what it was a decade ago. Russia has annexed Crimea and is making less and less pretence about the fact that it is at war with Ukraine.

It is Nato’s role to defend its members from military threat. Sir Richard questions whether Nato is able to perform that key function, at current strength.

“The reality,” he says, “is that Nato would be very hard-pressed and they would find it very difficult to put into the field the means required, particularly on land I would assess, to counter any form of Russian adventurism.”

It is a stark warning, and one that deserves to be the start of a serious debate.

At a time of economic austerity, this is the last thing our political leaders want to hear. The “peace dividend” has been taken for granted for almost a quarter of a century. Even wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not led to a reversal of the thinking that says Britain needs fewer soldiers and fewer sophisticated weapons.

Understandably, the focus of efforts to keep this country safe has moved away from hard power. Instead it has been on intelligence and security measures aimed at tackling jihadist terror groups, at home and abroad.

While this is bound to remain the key priority, the challenge posed by an expansionist President Putin can no longer be ignored.

Sir Richard says we do not have the necessary military capability. The simple question is this: do we want to have the necessary capability?

To be a country that takes the defence of the realm seriously, the answer, after due reflection, is going to have to be yes, we do.

Cancer care more than just physical

There can be few families that have not been touched by cancer, and experienced the mental strain it puts on both the sufferers and those around them.

By its very nature it is a huge mental challenge – all too often an existential one – and people respond to this in different ways. For many it can lead to a period of mental illness, with varying degrees of intensity.

Mental health has always been the Cinderella of health care. Despite a determined effort by the Scottish Government, going back more than a decade, to try to make it a much higher priority across the NHS, it remains in too many minds a secondary concern to the more tangible business of physical mending.

An Oxford University study of more than 21,000 Scottish patients has reported an incidence of serious depression among cancer patients up to six times the level in the general public.

Perhaps the most damning finding, however, is that often these men and women do not feel their depression is being treated seriously enough. Indeed, almost three-quarters of cancer patients diagnosed with clinical depression are not receiving any kind of effective treatment.

Could it be that even medical staff think mental illness not worth bothering about when a serious physical condition is also present?

Whatever the reason, this is unacceptable. Cancer sufferers have enough to deal with without having to cope with untreated mental illness as well.

Most campaigns about changing attitudes to mental illness have been aimed at the general public. Perhaps it is now necessary to aim at members of the medical and caring professions.