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As a young officer in the 1960s, I listened to the ‘old duffers’ in the Mess proclaiming that the Army was not what it used to be and that with a Regular strength of some 180,000, the nation was internationally impotent. Now, as an old duffer myself, I not only find myself sympathising with their views but also feel more keenly than ever that, with a projected strength for the Army of just 80,000, the UK has a diminished influence in the modern world.

As the doubtless well-intentioned Foreign Secretary William Hague bestrides the international stage, attempting to influence more prosperous and/or significantly greater military powers, one wonders, ‘Are they really interested?’ As an elderly cove who recalls the simplicity of geography when maps of the world were largely pink, denoting the British Empire, it is hard to admit to the inevitable answer: ‘No.’ Those changes to the international order have been worsened by a Prime Minister of recent times who apologised to the international

TOP by Michael Nicholson

community for our poor imperial behaviour - an act of public soul-washing that arguably diminished the UK’s international status. We not only apologised for the sin of running an Empire - we also set in train the depletion of our Armed Forces to such an extent that our right to be a senior player on the international stage might reasonably be called into question. We should recall Mao Tse-Tung’s dictum that ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Or as Charles Moore put it more recently in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Diplomatic power is but the shadow cast by military power.’

However, one enduring consequence of that Empire and the spending that was required to defend it, is that the UK sits at top tables that in truth should be out of her reach; she is an influential member of NATO, occupies a seat on the UN Security Council and just clings on to membership of the G8. But for how much longer can the UK expect to dine in such exalted company? In Washington recently, General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, bravely addressed these issues in the context of the UK’s relationship with the US, and by extension, NATO and the


world as a whole. He asked, ‘Will we in Britain invest in the capability, and want to do things, to preserve our special relationship – this influence we have over here?’ The implication is clear. Britain may not be able much longer to afford her 'special relationship' with the US.

Of course these deliberations mean little since we live in a democracy that requires short- term populist decisions in the pursuit of power. So the delusion will continue that an educated and allegedly cultured Foreign Office can exert great influence on the world stage without any serious military backing. Thus, a parsimonious approach to defence expenditure has biting national and international consequences. Although parsimony in a democracy may be understandable it is not necessarily forgivable. The UK’s expensive democracy is manacled to the heavy ball and chain of a welfare state that is ossified in a culture of rights rather than one of earned privileges. Power hungry politicians seem to forget that everything has a price - even neutrality; in the 1970s Sweden and Switzerland spent more per capita on defence than any other country in Europe!

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