Whatever one thinks of the justification for and effectiveness of the air strikes against Syrian chemical warfare targets, there can be no doubt that the UK has to reassess what its diplomatic, defence and security needs will be in our fast approaching post-Brexit world.
The UK will, of course, remain a nuclear power, a member of Nato, sit on the security council of the United Nations and be a highly valued partner in the five eyes intelligence sharing. None of that will change any time soon, but as we leave the EU there has to be a government review and public debate about what we wish our country’s role to be in the world reflecting what is in our national interests – and crucially what our economy can support.
We need to ask ourselves are our diplomatic, defence and security services fit for purpose, for there is no point in holding on to a false view of our capabilities only to find them exposed later as wanting because patriotic hubris led us to overreach ourselves.
It is entirely legitimate to ask “what has the Syrian civil war got to do with us”? Is this latest military intervention, targeted though it may be to send a message of world condemnation while avoiding escalation, what we should be doing? And if it is, why do we choose to intervene on this occasion when we stood by and failed to do anything to save lives from the monster that was Mugabe or the atrocities in Rwanda?
Unfortunately the validity of such questions is undermined by those among us who appear to like nothing more than doing down our military personnel, our consular officials and our secret services. Our military equipment is ridiculed, our force levels joked about and their impact doubted. Intelligence and insight is constantly questioned, second-guessed and the advice dismissed. Yet we know both our allies and enemies rate our protectors at the military and civil level as among the best and most proficient.
One always has to first ask what are the sympathies and agendas of these critics so we can tell the difference between objective analysis and the blind prejudice that permeates so much of the debate. To establish balance we also have to recognise those in the private and public sectors of the defence industry who have their own interests in commerce or power that can skew their view and tempt us down the wrong path.
To have this debate and set aside the appropriate means to deliver our chosen goals – be it deciding whether or not aircraft carriers are still relevant or how drones might be deployed – we need to start from first principles. What, within the bounds of possibility, do we want to be, what can we actually do, and what does it take to do it well?
Worryingly, and without any apparent scrutiny from politicians, our armed forces are being committed to long-term obligations with the new and fast-developing EU army. As one of the few Nato members that spend 2.0 per cent of GDP on defence it is no wonder the laggards in the EU wish to entangle us in this new venture. Given how our vision must be global rather than continental are we not in danger of binding ourselves in to joint operations that might be against our interests and take resources away from where we need them?
To make a success of leaving the European Union it is vital we open ourselves to the whole world and do not turn inwardly to become protectionist and isolationist. For instance, advocating more international trade requires us to build better, safer bilateral relationships that allow the cultural and commercial exchange to take place.
It requires us to develop a consensus around what today constitutes “British values”, and we must then be prepared to stand up for them. You cannot have cultural and commercial exchange if you do not have something of value to trade or that others want
The days of the British Empire are long gone, but we have replaced the hard power of colonial rule with the soft power of culture, education and discrete influence. The UK is repeatedly ranked as one of the world’s top two leading soft powers thanks to the many strengths we have developed either through accident or design.
English is by far the pre-eminent language in the world due to its dominance as most people’s second tongue while our advantageous commercial legal system helps make London repeatedly the world’s leading financial centre. The strength of our best universities – with Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Imperial, Edinburgh and King’s in the world’s top 30 – and the richness of our artistic and creative talents help us punch above our weight and earn billions of pounds while inspiring millions.
The charitable efforts that are invested in helping the world’s weakest and poorest to become healthier and wealthier wins friends, gratitude and influence that cannot simply be bought.
This should prompt us to ask is there a bigger role for the British Council than we have given it at the moment so that the influence of our soft power and our values are maintained?
Is our direct aid budget – now the largest per capita in the world – being appropriately distributed and does it achieve what it sets out to do? Having worked for the last 11 years on international development projects I suggest there is significant room for obtaining better value for both the taxpayer and the recipients. Are we helping the right people, are we going about it the right way and should we broaden what we classify as aid in our brave new post-EU world?
With, soon, our own fisheries to protect do we have enough vessels to do the job? In the Gulf, the Royal Navy has just opened its first permanent overseas facility in 50 years, should we not consider if we might need more to ensure our most vital trade routes are clear of pirates and airborne forces have the strategic reach for rapid response or rescue?
The answer to these and similar questions must be that if we decide against retreating inside our shell we must then increase our capability in diplomatic, defence and intelligence services to ensure our international exchange can flourish and the consequential domestic prosperity – that we all have a stake in – can grow for the benefit of British generations to come.