UKIP’s latest election campaign poster is quite striking, and not just because it has none of the bland, derivative unoriginality that marks out Labour’s feeble effort to capitalise on public fears about ‘our NHS’.
The body shot of a soldier in camouflage gear, holding out his helmet as though asking for a donation, with the words “Don’t Make Our Heroes Beg For More” should prick the consciousness of the nation – in Britain we do far too little to fund our national defence, honour those who currently serve in uniform and support those who have borne the burden of keeping us safe.
UKIP has set out its defence policy, including a new independent veterans’ minister and a national defence medal for all members of the armed forces.
It would also cut foreign aid in order to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
The party said there was “not a cigarette paper” between the defence policies of the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.
Sadly, not everyone sees UKIP’s announcement as a good thing. The Conservative Party, perhaps having finally rediscovered their sense of shame at the way they have squandered their traditional position as natural party of the armed forces, has gone firmly on the attack, accusing UKIP of “playing politics” with the topic of defence.
From the Daily Mail:
A Conservative Party spokesman said Mr Farage was ‘playing politics with the military in a calculated and completely irresponsible way’.
He added: ‘We’ve balanced the defence budget after inheriting a truly enormous black hole from Labour. We have the second largest defence budget in Nato after the United States and will spend over £160 billion in the next decade on new military equipment.
‘It comes down to this: you can only have strong armed forces if you have a strong economy first. That’s exactly what this Government is delivering. Ukip would put that at risk – making it up as they go along and letting Ed Miliband into Downing Street by the back door.’
In truth, UKIP are not so much “playing politics” with defence as they are being the only party bothering to talk about what should be a central issue in 2015. Can UKIP really be blamed for daring to bring up the British government’s shameful neglect of our armed forces and military capability when the other major political parties are determined to bury their heads in the sand? Can Nigel Farage really be accused of political opportunism for bringing up an important topic for public debate when David Cameron and Ed Miliband would rather pretend that the issue did not exist?
Rather than being ill-considered and opportunistic, UKIP’s focus on national defence is nuanced and thoughtful, drawing from best practice in other countries such as the United States, where a cabinet-level official is in charge of veterans affairs, ensuring that those who have protected the nation are cared for once they return to civilian life. And even where the United States falls short (it is certainly the case that Americans are quick to laud their soldiers as “heroes” but much less eager to actually fund and deliver veteran care), there is at least a government department and recognisable figurehead who must assume ultimate responsibility.
And if one thing is lacking when it comes to Britain’s attitude to our national defence, it is a sense of responsibility. We are quite willing to turn “our NHS” into a national religion and make the slightest issue with public services the Prime Minister’s personal concern, but when it comes to safeguarding our vital national interests or ensuring that the government properly undertakes its most sacred task – the defence of the people – we can’t seem to motivate ourselves to take an interest.
This blog rarely finds common cause with neo-conservatives like US diplomat John Bolton, but George W Bush’s UN ambassador was absolutely right when he used his Telegraph op-ed to reflect:
When the Cold War ended victoriously, shattering the Warsaw Pact and the USSR, those who had always opposed strong Western defences hardly paused to celebrate. Instead, they added a new argument to their long list of reasons why safeguarding their way of life didn’t qualify as a political or budgetary priority. Proclaiming “the end of history”, they demanded redirecting the “peace dividend” to social-welfare programmes.
In Europe, this was especially easy to advocate, sheltering as Nato’s members did under America’s nuclear umbrella and massive conventional capabilities. Defence budgets collapsed across the Continent. Since land war no longer seemed imminent, why worry?
This rosy scenario missed the point: Communism collapsed in large measure from the pressure of Nato’s collective deterrent, including the prospect of US missile-defence programmes providing the alliance with yet another defensive shield. Deterrence reduces the risk of conflict, whereas weakness invites it. The last century taught us painfully that reducing our mutual defences simply as a matter of budget mathematics entails extraordinarily dangerous consequences in the real world.
Advocating a prohibitively strong national defence does not necessarily require Britain to galavant around the world acting as chief peacekeeper or interventionist, even if the likes of John Bolton would urge this approach. Indeed, UKIP want quite the opposite – a stronger UK military funded in part by reducing expenditures on unnecessary and counterproductive foreign entanglements.
As this blog recently pointed out:
It is often said that there are no votes in defence. This may or may not be the case. But the mark of a statesman, a good politician, a good leader, is the willingness to tell the difficult truths that people do not want to hear, when the occasion demands.
In the year 2015, in austerity Britain and an uncertain world, few people delight in the idea of protecting defence spending while public services are squeezed and tax cuts deferred. But anyone aspiring to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom must demonstrate a willingness to do the unpopular thing for the greater good of the country.
And yet in one sense, David Cameron is right – some people have indeed been “playing politics” with British military spending and defence policy. But it is not UKIP and Nigel Farage. The guilty parties are the successive Labour and Conservative governments who have been only too happy to view the defence budget as a piggy bank to be raided on a whim to fund Britain’s insatiable public services.
The real pity is that it has taken UKIP’s intervention on defence to shame the Conservative Party into mentioning the subject at all.
Update – Here is the text from UKIP’s email on defence policy:
Today, alongside our Defence Spokesman Mike Hookem MEP, I launched the details of UKIP’s defence policy.
The establishment parties have been quick to commit our troops to a number of foreign wars in recent years, but the troops who serve have been let down both while serving, and when they leave our armed forces.UKIP is the only party that has found the money to commit to Britain’s NATO obligations of spending 2% of GDP on our defence budget – and UKIP is the only party committed to a Veteran’s Administration, with its own minister at the heart of government, to ensure our men and women are properly looked after after they serve our country.
And we recognise that we need to prioritise those who have served: for mental health care from our NHS, for social housing, and for jobs – whether that is in the police, in prisons, or in our border control. Only UKIP is committed to this.
Samuel, we believe in Britain. We believe in our armed forces. We believe in defending this country. And we believe in treating our service men and women with the respect they deserve.The Military Covenant has been abandoned by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Labour are in a shambles over defence spending because they’d rather spend the money on foreign aid and EU membership.Voting UKIP on May 7th is the only way you can get our policies, and MPs to represent them, into the House of Commons.
Samuel, please play your part. Volunteer with your local UKIP branch, donate online, or spread the message to your friends and family, in person and online.
Together, we can ensure that Britain is well defended and our troops don’t have to beg for more.Together, we can do great things.