UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace's shocking remarks about Ukraine highlight the UK Government's lack of long-term perspective in foreign affairs – Stewart McDonald
In the days before significant events in Ancient Rome, priests and prophets would scan the skies and pore over animal entrails in search of a message from the gods. One does not have to wonder long to guess what these augurs would have seen in the cascade of water that suddenly poured through the roof of Portcullis House, one of the parliamentary estate’s newest buildings, at the start of a momentous week for UK foreign and defence policy.
“When it rains, it pours!” the prophet might pronounce. But we do not live in Ancient Rome or a country ruled by the whims of the gods. We live in the sixth-largest economy in the modern world whose parliament is decaying daily before our eyes because of institutional myopia, and there are only so many times one can muster a grin at quips about “leaks in parliament” or “Tory wets” before the inevitability of parliament’s slow, crumbling collapse stops being a laughing matter.
The same structural problems which have plagued parliament’s restoration and renewal project were laid bare in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s China report, published on Thursday this week. I wrote last week about the value that the ISC adds to our democracy and this report, candid and forceful in equal measure, showed that to be as true now as it ever was.
The week before that, I wrote about the UK’s dangerously disjointed approach to foreign and defence policy. This came up again and again during the report, with one security expert noting that “we do not have a China strategy… We have got essentially a situation where the centre has not made it clear what the China strategy is and articulated it in a clear and coherent fashion… We have lots of institutions that are, frankly, doing their own thing.” Sound familiar?
I bring up these previous articles not to secure my credentials as a modern-day Cassandra, but to illustrate the simple fact that this chronic problem with the UK Government’s policy machine is plain for all to see, and the fact that the administration does not seem willing or able to address it. The ISC’s frustration with the UK Government’s lackadaisical approach to the China challenge is evident throughout the report: in one section, the authors note the promise of hypothetical forthcoming legislation and conclude, in an exasperated tone not normally seen in committee reports, that this would be “better late than never, perhaps”.
In other parts, the committee was more frank. “HMG is focusing on short-term or acute threats and failing to think long term”, the report states. “The government must adopt a longer-term planning cycle in regard to the future security of the UK if it is to face Chinese ambitions, which are not reset every political cycle. This will mean adopting policies that may well take years to stand up and require multi-year spending commitments – something that may well require Opposition support.”
I have written in these pages before about the hopelessly oppositional nature of Westminster politics, and the dangers it poses to our democracy and society. During my time as SNP defence spokesperson, my 2020 submission to the UK Government’s integrated review of defence, security and foreign policy made the same recommendations as the ISC – namely that the UK Government look to our Nordic neighbours and adopt the multi-year, cross-party defence agreements that they use to find a common, long-term and durable solution to their defence and security needs. Long-term planning builds the kind of resilience that countries like Norway, Finland and Denmark are admired the world over for and, despite our many political differences in this country, I believe that to be something worth striving for.
Both the Conservative and Labour parties, however, are again too monomaniacally focused on winning and wielding executive power to think seriously about how cooperation and collaboration might strengthen our democracy, improve our society, and protect our national security – a political pathology also laid bare in their shared opposition to electoral reform and proportional representation. This short-termism and inability to think beyond petty partisanship, notes the ISC, has left the UK “severely handicapped” in its efforts to deal with modern threats. Who benefits? It certainly isn’t us.
We also saw the UK Government’s short-sightedness at this week’s Nato Summit, when the Defence Secretary quipped that the UK is not an “Amazon” delivery service for military equipment, arguing that Ukrainians must do more to convince politicians in the West that the money they are spending on military aid is worthwhile.
I could barely believe my ears when I heard this. Ukrainian citizens are not only fighting and dying to protect their families and communities from genocide and the horrors of Bucha. They are fighting every day to protect the post-war international order and our way of life – something that is obvious to anyone who takes even the briefest moment to consider the consequences if Russia were to succeed in its war of colonial aggression. There are many across Europe and the wider world who could and should be expressing more thanks and gratitude, and none of them are Ukrainian.
Ben Wallace has done an admirable job since the invasion. But his unfortunate statement, made no doubt for a domestic audience, could only ever be made by someone who can see battles, but not the wider war. That is an unenviable situation for a Defence Secretary to appear to be in, whether he quite meant it or not.
This, however, is also the situation that UK ministers and senior officials repeatedly find themselves in when it comes to foreign and defence policy. The current and next Prime Minister must show they are serious about addressing this crisis of perspective that afflicts Whitehall and Westminster. Perhaps we will only know that they have succeeded in this mission when the Palace of Westminster stops crumbling around their ears.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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