In Defence of Defence

3 mins. to read
In Defence of Defence

I was at Mercers Hall near the Bank of England last night for a lecture delivered by Lord Robertson, the artist formerly known as George Robertson MP, erstwhile Secretary of State for Defence. This was the Peter Nailor Memorial Lecture on Defence. A lecture it seems they thought may have had its day just a few years ago, when everything was looking rosy, and it was hard to imagine the sort of threats that are all too real today, particularly the asymmetric ones like suicide bombers. But after a generation of laissez-faire attitudes, we have seen over recent years a desire to re-arm and get tooled up to the back teeth by just about every nation you can think of, even Japan.

Robertson is an engaging speaker. He had plenty of quips and anecdotes, although I’m pretty sure he misspoke when he said ‘European arsehole’ quickly correcting to ‘European arsenal’. I wonder what was going through his mind at the time. He quoted George C. Marshall, American luminary of the theatre of war: “the only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” I’m not so sure. Preventing wars often seems to put a cork in a bottle which has to pop at some point. Tito in Yugoslavia may have simply made things worse by delaying the inevitable.

The world’s biggest arms exporters are the US, closely followed by Russia, new kid on the block China, and Germany. It seems that Russia has quadrupled its global arms sales since 2000, and has sold to well over 100 different countries. Don’t worry the UK is in the top 10, belying a casual disregard from successive governments about our own military needs. I was quite surprised that Robertson, having been a Labour MP, was quite so supportive of the need for effective armed forces. But supporter he certainly is, notably for Trident, which he points out costs a fraction of the £12bn in aid we give each year, or the £10bn we spent on the Olympics. He said “That amount [£2bn p.a.], 0.13% of government expenditure, is our insurance policy against inter-state war and nuclear blackmail.” He went on to explain how the Ukraine had been cheated by Russia after the leading nuclear nations some years ago – Russia, the UK, the US and France – had talked them into nuclear disarmament “in return for solemn assurances… to respect its sovereignty and independence inside its existing borders”.

The fact is, at this point in time we are seeing a very precarious situation in Europe. During years of plenty you have little to worry about, but that’s not true now and tribal groups in any situation will seek to take advantage of instability. I suspect we’ll see a resurgence of trouble in Northern Ireland and hopefully it’ll be called what it is this time: not the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ but Civil War. Alongside that, expect civil unrest in, among others, Spain, many of the Balkan states, Hungary, and of course Ukraine is next to Moldova, another fragmented tinder box of a nation waiting for a spark. Moldova and Ukraine share a border with Romania.

I spoke with Lord Robertson at the reception after the lecture about my proposal for solving the Migrant Crisis (Master Investor Magazine, Oct ’15 in my Final Word column). He thought that re-colonising unstable nations might be hard to do in the present climate as people wouldn’t be too keen on the inevitable cost of life. The past is another country where it certainly would’ve been fine, but right now he’s probably right. The future is another country too, and hopefully it’s a country that isn’t as so pathetically naïve as the one we’re passing through now. Pragmatic solutions can ultimately cost fewer lives than what we’re illogically comfortable with doing. While we were speaking he received a missive from the House, keen to have a chat.

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