Time to give the lion its roar – better statecraft means Britain can punch above its weight again
In 2017, as a foreign office minister, I proposed 3 Commando Brigade should protect the key port of Hudaydah in Yemen under a UN mandate, allowing its huge port cranes to offload vital aid for the millions caught up in the civil war.
The Yemeni government and the rebel Houthis were unlikely to object. This was a crucial geopolitical and humanitarian issue and yet the proposal was dismissed. Why? To avoid bad publicity if a single marine commando ended up a casualty.
This was a sign of the times, showing how our appetite for problem-solving and risk-taking had diminished. A failure of will which means Yemen’s civil war now rumbles on into its devastating ninth year.
No creative accounting can disguise the fact that we have 10,000 fewer soldiers, 800 fewer tanks and 100 fewer fighter jets than we had just decades ago
This so-called “Westlessness” has prompted both Russia and China to test our resolve. Since the end of the Cold War global security has been eroded. Today we face a time more dangerous than the 1930s. The next decade will see our security worsen – leading to a crescendo clash between America and China which is likely to define the century.
Democratic nations must pull their weight for the long haul. That involves a grand strategy combining our diplomatic, economic and military strength – our hard and soft power – to join our allies in this seminal struggle.
The good news is that statecraft is returning to Downing Street. By securing the Windsor Framework Rishi Sunak demonstrated what can be achieved through leadership in pursuit of a higher national cause. We must rekindle our traditional reputation as strategic thinkers, problem solvers and alliance builders who find solutions not just to Britain’s challenges but those beyond our shores as well.
The bad news is we don’t have the tools to finish this job. Soft power is nothing without hard power. With the most highly trained military in Europe we should be in a position of strength to step up. But swingeing cuts to our land, sea and air power aren’t being reversed. No creative accounting can disguise the fact that we have 10,000 fewer soldiers, 800 fewer tanks and 100 fewer fighter jets than we had just decades ago. France, Germany, Poland and Japan are increasing their defence budgets and so must we.
I have long called for our headline defence spending to be increased to three per cent of GDP. Our military is now too weak given the threat coming over the hill.
But can we afford this with decreasing productivity, a cost of living crisis, inflation and domestic industrial action? This is a false choice because our economy is suffering because of insecurity. As the partial blockade of grain from Odesa shows, if trade is disrupted our prosperity suffers. Increasing military aggression, trade wars and economic battles over critical technologies and rare earth metals threaten half our GDP.
Ukraine has become ground zero in the battle over our global order. If Russia holds its line, this conflict becomes frozen and Putin achieves a form of victory. The message which then echoes around the world is how timid the West has become in defending democracy. And China is watching carefully.
The free world has always relied on our country to step forward to defend freedom. We must get real, and we must pay for it.
The Windsor Framework exhibited a renewed sense of discipline and resolve that appeals beyond our party base and will absolutely improve our electoral prospects. If ever there was a time for the United Kingdom to revitalise our historically respected leadership credentials it is now.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and chair of the Defence Select Committee.
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