An interesting phenomenon within fiscal conservatism in the West is the treatment of defence spending. The theme goes like this: everything the government does should have its budget shrunk – except for defence, which should essentially be limitless in terms of what can be given over by the taxpayer. This reaches its sickening apex in America, a country with no health system and little social democracy besides that has the largest national debt in the history of the universe, all down to spending enormous amounts on defence.
This is relevant in the UK again, as former minister of defence Liam Fox has popped up and said that the Tories should make a pledge to spend 2% on defence for the rest of time. On the Sunday Politics yesterday, Fox told us:
“We have to do what we need to make that happen and I think that we have a commitment to Nato as part of our international treaty obligations to spend that 2%. I think to say that we were willing to guarantee a proportion of GDP for international aid but not willing to implement our commitments in terms of defence, I think a lot of Conservatives would find that very difficult to swallow – especially at a time when you can see that the international security environment is deteriorating.”
I can also imagine that a lot of Tories would have problems making huge spending commitments out of the blue at a time when public finances are very tight, but hey what do I know. Fox actually did say some things in the interview I agreed with. He talked about how big a threat Putin is to liberal democracy and that we should be arming the Ukrainians. So I’m not speaking as some sort of peacenik here. I just think that setting an arbitrary number on what we should spend on defence until infinity is silly.
What if Putin starts attacking the Baltics, thus initiating a war between Russia and the West and 2% of GDP turns out to be deficient? What if Putin falls under a bus tomorrow and what we need to do is spend money to keep Russia from falling into chaos as opposed to ramping up our armed forces? Whoops, we made a commitment to 2% on the MoD, so no room for manoeuvre.
What really annoyed me, ultimately, about Fox’s bid for a pledge is that surely the Tories of all people should be arguing that spending commitments made out of nothing are bad ideas, and that we should simply look to spend what is absolutely necessary, no more, no less. Except, of course, we come onto why the Right throughout the western world does tend to turn a blind eye to defence spend when it comes to slashing budgets: it has become part of the conservative furniture, not to mention a certain cosiness with the military establishment. I would say that all of this will hurt the Tories in their bid to distance themselves from being seen as too close to the elites – but we currently have a Labour Party that ties itself in knots over this stuff, of course, so the rebuttal will be nonexistent.
“Tories like war, we could go with that….but we can’t be seen as being soft on defence…..it’s about them being pro-public spending….is that good or bad for us?….syntax error…. (smoke emerges from Victoria Street)….”
So that will, as usual, probably save the Conservative Party on this occasion. But the 2% pledge is still a silly idea that won’t solve the problems that Liam Fox is trying to solve.