Britain faces profound strategic choices all of which will demand the generation of real diplomatic and military power and influence and its intelligent application in Washington, Europe and the world beyond. Britain’s armed forces will necessarily be at the core of strategy but will need a sufficiency of high-end military capabilities to establish Britain’s soft power influence on a hard power foundation. That is the essential message of this book.
In August 2013 General Sir Nick Houghton, the Chief of the British Defence Staff warned that because of defence cuts Britain needed to “re-calibrate our expectations” of the global role and capacity of British armed forces. He might well have suggested that Britain as a whole needed to recalibrate its expectations. It would be almost comforting to think that any such ‘recalibration’ would simply be a short-term reflection of the financial challenges of this age. Certainly, for the foreseeable future British governments will have precious little money to spend.
However, attend any meeting in Whitehall or Westminster and a profound divide becomes apparent. The bureaucratic elite believes its task is to manage inevitable decline and a political elite that seems to revel in a false strategic consciousness that Britain is far more powerful than it actually is. There is even a term invented to offer a chimera of strategic respectability – managing decline. In fact, ‘managing decline’ too often simply masks a lack of imagination of a political class and a bureaucratic elite who have for so long seen strategy made elsewhere that they now take decline for granted. In short, British strategy has for too long been the fruitless search for common ground between the American world-view, the French and German European view and the search thereafter for a political and bureaucratic consensus about which bits of both to support.
The retreat from big thinking at the top of Britain’s government is reinforced by an inability by Britain’s civil service to implement big thinking. Three failures are apparent: an inability of the civil service to manage big, complex projects successfully; a refusal by ministers to permit the civil service to think long-term or about big policy issues; and the politicisation of the civil service. All three contribute to a culture of denial and a refusal to tell ministers hard facts even when giving guidance.
Such failings are apparent across government. A September 2013 report by the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the failure of management for an IT programme to support the new system of so-called Universal Credit. The report highlighted a recurring theme of failure in the civil service. Problems are suppressed or denied by a culture that always seeks to protect ministers from hard truths. When a problem is finally too great to suppress both ministers and the civil service claim the problem has been solved only for failure to be admitted long after those responsible have moved on. Be it IT programmes or building aircraft carriers a culture of incompetence exists at the heart of government that has also helped to cripple British national strategy. For a long time Britain’s relative power in the world could mask such failure but no longer. Indeed, as Britain declines strategy will become more important not less, but as yet government – both political and bureaucratic – has proved itself incapable.
The motivation for writing this book emerged from the cold realisation that the two essential ‘truisms’ upon which post-war British national strategy is established are in fact myth. The first myth concerns the so-called special relationship with the United States. After over ten years of painful sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq my many visits to Washington have demonstrated to me all-too-clearly that Britain’s relationship with the American is ‘special’ only in the minds of fifty per cent of London’s elite Establishment, mainly those responsible for Britain’s defence. One senior American said to me recently that the relationship is only special if Britain does not test it. The August 2013 decision by Parliament to block Prime Minister Cameron’s use of British military forces to punish Syria’s President Assad over the use of chemical weapons demonstrates this new reality; the special relationship is not what it used to be.
The second myth adhered to by the other half of the London elite Establishment is that Britain can be a leader of what European federalists dub the European Project. The Eurozone and the existential crisis it has created, demonstrates once and for all the utter impracticality and impossibility of Britain playing such a role. Indeed, to do so would in effect mean the abandonment of Britain’s vital and enduring role in Europe – to balance power. Not only will neither Germany nor France ever allow Britain to play such a role as the EU and the Eurozone become one, over time Britain will be further marginalised. Britain is today in the worst of all Euro-worlds – paying an exorbitant cost for little or no influence.