UKIP has launched what it calls a fully costed election manifesto, pledging to introduce generous tax benefits and take better care of the elderly and veterans. To pay for all this, it plans to make massive cuts in areas it deems frivolous.
While the defence budget would be steadily increased, adding an extra £4bn to the budget by 2020, overseas aid spending would be drastically cut. The Department for International Development would also be shut down.
But cutting aid while purporting to be dedicated to defence shows how naïve the party is about what it takes to keep the country safe. It is spending on development that keeps the UK safe in the long-term, not weapons.
Presenting the manifesto, deputy chair Suzanne Evans said aid was turning into a “fat-cat industry” that supports corruption. The manifesto sets out an aim to cut the aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.2%, which would take it from £11.4bn to an unspecified sum. UKIP has been clear that it would not spend less than £4bn a year, but with plans to save £11bn per year by 2019-2020, it seems unlikely that it would be very much more.
The defence debate
UKIP has pledged to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP in 2015-16 in order to meet its NATO commitment. It would then exceed that commitment “substantially” in the years to come.
It has criticised the government for failing to meet the commitment in the past and indeed, it is not the only party or politician to do so.
Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls has said Conservative spending plans would leave the UK with the “the smallest army since Cromwell”.
And former Conservative defence minister Liam Fox has expressed similar anxieties, warning that the defence of the realm is any government’s first duty. He argued spending must be based on “the realities we find around us, not short-term considerations”.
Former Tory MP Peter Luff also laid on the pressure in a recent parliamentary debate by claiming that “there is no more important role than to keep those who elect us safe from our enemies” – again referring to military spending.
This all sounds very reasonable. Voices on all sides of the election campaign are reeling off warnings about the threat posed by Islamic State and transnational terrorism. They are implying as much about Russia and countless unknown unknowns.
They say we need to ensure that we have the military capacity to resolve these issues, and that we need to be ready to intervene in order to protect our people. But they are arguing on a false premise.
The real threat
It is certainly the case that the armed forces have been stung by budget cuts and are likely to face more in the near future. But it’s important to question the nature of the threats at hand.
It’s easy to imagine the UK as facing an imminent and existential attack from either Russia or radical Islam. But the increased emphasis on these issues in the media and the election campaign doesn’t necessarily mean there is an increase in activity, or that the UK is the intended target.
Many people have an unfortunate habit of conflating military and defence – and UKIP has fallen into the trap. The antics of IS make for shocking headlines but they don’t necessarily pose a threat to the UK and it’s important to question how best to fight this extremism. When facing the likes of IS and Boko Haram it is questionable whether military action is likely to offer long term solutions.
The failure to deploy a military solution to tackle this issue is not solely down to a lack of capacity or capability. It may be a signal that other means are more appropriate, or even that the military option is the wrong one.
Governments need to move away from narrow, military-focused readings of security. That’s why the coalition’s continued commitment to international development expenditure is so important.
A modern nation state must navigate all kinds of problems to be truly secure. Investing development money in education and other infrastructure will directly challenge the root cause of insecurity, whereas the military will at best only tackle the symptoms. It could even make matters worse.
The US fears a decline in UK defence spending in part because the American approach is to see the military as the primary tool at their disposal to fix the world’s problems. And in fact UKIP specifically attempts to align the UK and the US in its manifesto by suggesting that cutting UK aid would bring spending down to a level similar to the US budget.
But the UK doesn’t have the military capacity of the US, so other avenues need to be explored. Some might see it as weakness, but a non-military approach to security in the UK is more sustainable and breaks the cycle of violence and extremism of the post-9/11 world.
The money spent on aid and development is as much a part of defence expenditure as that spent on weapons and armies. Money spent in this way enables a government to use a carrot rather than a stick. It is important that it should be argued as defence spending too, alongside other non-military spending like intelligence.
The clamour to spend more on defence is unsurprising when one examines those doing the clamouring. It should not come as a surprise that military personnel, former defence ministers, and their counterparts overseas, would be calling for more spending on “defence”.
And UKIP has much to gain by taking a similar stance. It is positioning itself as the new party of defence, appealing to veterans and staking a claim to being a safe pair of hands to defend the realm. It seems to think that in order to appear strong on defence one needs to provide, or at least promise to provide, a powerful military.
As voters decide on the next government, it is more important than ever that worst-case thinking and scare mongering do not exaggerate the strategic situation or create threats where there are none.
It is interesting to see international relations being so passionately discussed in the lead up to the election but it is concerning that the discussion is so uncritical. The decisions made now about development and defence will have ramifications for years to come.