The UK parliaments recent rejection of the principal of using military force against the Assad regime has had huge consequences globally. It led to Obama conceding a similar vote to congress, and it also led to a wave of triumphalism from those few still aligned with Assad. In the UK, it has seriously damaged Cameron’s authority, and boosted Millibands electoral prospects.
There has however been one consequence of the landmark decision that seems strangely absent from the discourse surrounding the event, that is, without the political will of the majority of the British public to even contemplate an incredibly limited military intervention, how can the government continue to justify funding one of the largest militaries in the world?
The UK spent roughly £60 billion over 2012 on its military, the 4th highest expenditure globally, beaten only by the US, China and Russia. The UK also spends one of the highest amounts on its military budget in terms of a percentage of GDP. For this money, the UK can boast one of the worlds few blue water navies, a top of the line air force, and a medium sized land force capable of multiple deployments. Much of the UK’s forces, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, is geared towards power projection beyond western Europe. This is why the UK, unlike many other modern military forces, is able to deploy, in strength, in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, or Sierra Leone or the Falklands effectively. This capability however comes at a huge price. As Eisenhower said during his presidency “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,” Every penny spent on the military is a penny not spent on healthcare, education or pensions and thus, every penny needs to be justified.
The UK has a long list of operations in its recent history, and since the start of the early 1990s has been involved in dozens of NATO lead operations around the world. This culminated in two large deployments that eventually exhausted the Ministry of Defence’s capabilities, that is Iraq and Afghanistan. As well as this, the public were never really given a convincing argument as to why Afghanistan needed to be stabilized. for years the Northern Coalition had been fighting the Taliban, but even in the immediate aftermath of September 11th it was never really black and white as to why a large deployment was needed here to defend the country from terrorism.
The war on terror was obtuse and never really captured the public’s imagination, nor ever fully convinced them. Iraq suffered similarly, and as the badly conceived post-conflict reconstruction began to collapse and Iraq descended into its first sectarian civil war since the topple of Saddam, on top of the revelation that perhaps the intelligence the intervention was based on wasn’t quite as compelling as first believed, the public soon began to feel a sense of distrust towards such military interventions and the governments that espoused them. The UK managed to secure a commons vote on Libya, yet this was a much more limited engagement that the two previous wars and with a well organized, united and non-sectarian resistance it seemed an easy decision for many.
However, the massive public support for MP’s from all parties to oppose even thinking about military intervention shows that the UK may well have reached the limits of its appetite for humanitarian conflicts. Recent polls by the BBC put 71% of those asked in favour of the House of Commons decision. Perhaps this is a another example of a cynical society, no longer trusting in its government in foreign matters. Perhaps the public’s relationship to the armed forces is much different now, and the idea of more soldiers dying after ten years of TV screens showing coffins draped in union flags lined up in some distant desert outpost has brought home the reality of conflict. Perhaps the public no longer feel military force is capable of any positive change.
Regardless, after MP’s rejected the government motion, it certainly feels Britain’s age of foreign interventions has passed, and there seems to be a mood, complimented by the surge of euro-scepticism, anti-immigration and a suspicion of foreign aid, that many citizens of the UK dream of some sort of splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Not to suggest those that oppose military action in Syria necessarily agree with other aspects of British anti-globalization of course, but many, especially on the conservative right seem to idealize the ‘independent’ self-serving state over being an integrated member of global society.
What is crucial however, is that if the UK public, by and large, no longer feel comfortable with the idea of British military intervention in foreign conflicts, continuing to fund huge military projects and massive, multi-role capabilities is simply nonsensical. If the public cannot conceive of a limited cruise missile strike against limited military targets, then how could they ever realistically contemplate anti-city warfare that systems such as Trident are built specifically to perform? It seems the UK’s attitude to the military runs on a bizarre paradox.
Public opinion is in favour of upgrading Trident, and building new aircraft carriers and honouring soldiers, but it is not in favour of actually using them in armed conflicts. We cannot have it both ways, especially when essential services, such as policing, healthcare and education face a crisis in funding. Indeed, as it was revealed recently, the UK cannot seem to afford enough primary school places for what is a relatively aged population. Put simply, if we lack the will to act, why do we covet the means?
As we said earlier, every penny spent on the military needs to be justified, and at the moment £60 billion a year on weapons we refuse to actually use cannot be justified. It may well be that Syria is just the mark of a country sensibly wary of entering a conflict that could end up being the middle-east’s very own Thirty Years War, and perhaps there will come a time again when the public feel they are able to contemplate armed intervention against blood-soaked regimes responsible for thousands of deaths and the destabilization of an entire region. What is clear however, is that if the UK no longer wishes to intervene it is a gross paradox to maintain the means of intervention.