Many a commentator, in reflecting upon the country's fiscal crisis, has suggested that - whatever else happens - one important consequence will be Britain's finally withdrawing from the world stage and, in military and geopolitical terms, becoming a conventional medium-sized European power. I don't accept that this is inevitable at all. In fact, it's totally unnecessary and if it occurs it will be self-inflicted, self-hating, self-indulgent, and a renunciation of our duty to mankind and to history.First, why would it be self-inflicted? Well, why would defence spending be a priority for cuts? Defence spending has been falling for decades as a proportion of GDP and indeed fell in real terms over the last Parliament. Whilst other spending mushroomed, defence spending didn't. So why do there need to be any cuts in defence spending at all? We could choose to solve our fiscal problems by cutting back on the areas of spending where it rose. We don't have to cut it where it didn't rise. If we choose to cut defence spending, that will be a choice, not a necessity. And if we choose to cut defence spending in such a way that that undermines our international role, that, again, will be a choice, not a necessity.
Were you thinking that our withdrawing from a global role in affairs is something to do with our experiencing a diminished significance as a country? How? Don't we have the main international financial centre, still? Are we not still one of the half-dozen-or-so largest economies in the world? Don't we still have an important network of alliances and blood- and business-relations bonding us to many countries?
Who were you thinking ought to be more important than us? Well - the US, obviously. But the US isn't the only country in the world. Someone has to be second-most-important. Who were you thinking that should be? Russia? But Russia's economy is a fraction of our size (barely 60% at $1.68tr in 2008 vs the UK's $2.67tr), and by the middle of the 21st century even its population is projected to be less than ours. China? Perhaps one day, but for now China is a desperately poor country and has very little power to project out-of-theatre. Brazil? India? The ambitions of such states are to deliver clean water to their citizens, persuade families not to murder infant girls, teach people to read, reduce infant mortality. They don't aspire any time soon to strut upon the world stage moulding events. Japan? Germany? Oddly they lack appetite for world domination just at the moment for some reason or other.
France? Now you're talking. France is a serious candidate to be second-most-important country in the world. Almost as serious a candidate as...well...Britain. Essentially, for the moment it remains us or them.
Why not us? Only because of our self-hating. Our chattering classes are so eager to belittle and condemn all that Britain has brought to the world. They want to tell us about the evils of slavery, the oppression of empire, the waste of war. Phooey! Britain has brought to or fought for freedom, peace, prosperity, law, stability, tolerance, civilisation, science, engineering, and true religion in somewhere between a third and a half of the earth, including North America, Europe, Australasia, and (at least for a while) to India and Africa. Imagine history without the contribution of Britain!
And why should you assume that its contribution is now done? Because, for now, we are less powerful than the US, our daughter? You assume that that will last forever? Why? Because more people live in the US, perhaps, or because its land-mass is larger? But the landmass of France is much larger than that of Britain and vastly more people lived in France than in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Did people then accept that French dominance was inevitable?
And suppose that the US will always be more powerful than Britain? Why should that mean we play no global role? Do you assume it's all for the US to do as top dog? Why that, rather than a team game? Only because you are gripped by self-hatred and self-pity, fixated on what you conceive of as our mistakes in Iraq or wherever and ignore what is much more important: our contribution.
Or is it that you are self-indulgent, interested in your own comforts and content for the US to look after us all, cover us with its global shield? Has noblesse oblige so totally deserted us in our modern plenty, with our medicines to fight our ailments, our supermarkets to keep us fat, our reality TV and computer games to keep us indolent, our work to keep us busy, our wine to stop us thinking, our gym memberships and our annual charity porn weeps to salve our consciences - have we so reduced our sense of the suffering of the world that we are content to focus entirely on our petty day-to-day concerns and to persuade ourselves that their continuation is all that really matters and that it is no business of ours if someone, somewhere far away, is suffering?
We are rich. We are strong. We are good. We have duties to those that lack these gifts. Most others are not so rich and strong as we are, and few of those that are as rich or strong are as good. Yes, we spend more on defence than many other nations in many ways comparable to us. Yes, that means we don't have as much to spend on infrastructure or public services or low taxes. That is our fate, as the good guys. Burke probably never actually said: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." But here is something he did say:
"It is not enough in a situation of trust in the commonwealth, that a man means well to his country; it is not enough that in his single person he never did an evil act, but always voted according to his conscience, and even harangued against every design which he apprehended to be prejudicial to the interests of his country. This innoxious and ineffectual character, that seems formed upon a plan of apology and disculpation, falls miserably short of the mark of public duty. That duty demands and requires that what is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent; that what is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the public man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect it is an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a man's life, that he has always acted right but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence."
- Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents, p106