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Former minister blasts Boris Johnson’s defence policy for cutting links with European allies

Archive photograph of Boris Johnson visiting HMS Victorious with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace - Credit: PA

“How many divisions has the Pope?” sneered Stalin at Yalta in 1945 when asked to lessen persecution of Catholics in the USSR.

Today that question is being asked around the world about Britain as the British Army is being reduced to its lowest numbers in 300 years. 

The figure of 82,000 men currently in the army sedulously spun by the UK Ministry of Defence lavishly equipped units in its public relations division in the army is phoney. Only one regiment, the Gurkhas, is up to strength. Others like the Scots Guards are well below the numbers they should have.  The real strength of the new Tory model army will be down to around 60,000 men.

This is not enough to put a fully equipped brigade into the field. Boris Johnson’s army is too small to retake the Falklands or to fight any war bigger than taking on drugged up militias as in Sierra Leone in 2000. 

Despite having a number of former army officers in the ranks of Tory MPs including defence secretary, Ben Wallace and Foreign Affairs Committee chair, Tom Tugendhat the usually pro-military, pro-strong defence Conservative Party has rolled over for this big cut in military woman/manpower. 

Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, one of the few in team Starmer with real-time government experience is getting positive headlines in the Sun and wants a Commons vote.

This may be one issue where Labour can really land some blows on Johnson and the damage he is doing to the British Army.

At best the British Army will be auxiliaries of the United States, on-call as required.

Tory funder Lord Ashcroft, who thinks seriously about defence, describes the presence of a few hundred Welsh Fusiliers in Estonia, meant to defend Britain’s Nato ally as a “tethered goat” – irrelevant should the Russian bear choose to pounce.

There is talk about cyber and brightly coloured berets for a new unit of so-called “Rangers” but as an American general pointed out on the BBC, the British Army will in future only have about the same number of soldiers as the US Special Forces.

The navy is to lose 15% of its destroyers and frigates now reduced to just 17. But there are still 41 admirals, vice-admirals and rear-admirals in the Royal Navy and 300 one-star and above general rank officers in the Army.

Around the world, in Bejing, in Washington, in Moscow, in Nato the message is clear.

Britain’s capacity to put boots on the ground or ships on the seas is being cut without much comment from the UK defence establishment. 

Dominic Raab is right to argue that Britain’s main threat comes from Russia. To counter that alliances in Europe are needed. But the UK has walked out of its main Treaty partnership with Europeans. 

This new strategic policy is described as a tilt to the Indo-Pacific region. Its author is John Bew, an academic and son of the great Northern Ireland intellectual, Lord Paul Bew who helped guide the Northern Irish politicians David Trimble to the Good Friday Agreement and a Nobel Peace Prize.

This peace deal is now under threat as Boris Johnson appeases ultra-Unionist and anti-Catholic Europhobe forces in Northern Island.

John Bew’s last book was a well-received biography of Clement Attlee, the UK’s Labour prime minister in 1945. Attlee with his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, repudiated any involvement with post-war Europe in opposition to Winston Churchill who argued after 1945 for more partnership and cooperation with Europe.  Instead, Attlee placed all trust and hope in the United States.

But at least in 1950, the UK had 170,000 soldiers stationed in Europe. Now it will be 60,000 for the entire world.

India, China, Japan, other Indo-Pacific nations are important but Britain’s security difficulties have always come in one way or another from Europe, including Russia.

It is difficult to see how Professor Bew’s thesis that stripping the British Army and Royal Navy of capability checks Putin, helps America, frightens China, or impresses Commonwealth nations in Asia.  

In a damning critique for Chatham House’s World Today, Baroness Joyce Anelay, a former Tory Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) minister, says the new policy “overpromises and under-delivers.”

She savages the decision to increase the number of nuclear warheads as lacking a “proper rationale” and announced just before the Review Conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “There could hardly be a less opportune moment for Britain to backtrack on disarmament” at a time when the US and EU are pressing Iran to turn back from a new nuclear arms race.

Baroness Anelay was one of the most respected Conservative FCO ministers and writes that as part of the Johnson’s Foreign and Security Policy “One might assume that Britain’s partners in Europe would be front and centre of the UK’s international strategy” but “the Review offers little on the vital importance of working alongside countries with which we share a neighbourhood – like-minded countries with whom we have worked for decades.”

The UK’s repudiation of partners and allies in Europe after Brexit may be what voters in 2016 and 2019 opted for but throughout history British military strategy from Waterloo to Normandy landings Britain has needed and sought European allies. A stand-alone British army of 60,000 is not a serious European let alone global player.

Paradoxically now the UK has left the EU might it be possible for Britain to join on its own account with other European military powers in developing drones on the model of the Airbus, the same weapons, armoured vehicles, most naval vessels, helicopters and even warplanes to achieve economies of scale in research and production that exist in the United States?

A go-it-alone, isolated UK military and defence industry will never have the resources to match the ambitions of 10 Downing Street for Britain to remain a global player in the next decades.

In the campaign for Brexit much was made of a phantom “European Army” which does not and will not exist. Sending soldiers to kill or be killed will always remain a sovereign state decision.

But the UK should have no problem with increasing cooperation and move towards a common approach to defence kit procurement and military cooperation with the rest of Europe.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and UK delegate to Nato Parliamentary Assembly.

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