War is at the heart of the UK's summer election
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War is at the heart of the UK's summer election

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech calling for a general election, outside Number 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, May 22, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech calling for a general election, outside Number 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, May 22, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)

Rishi Sunak’s election announcement on Wednesday afternoon was such a farce that people could be forgiven for ignoring what he said.

The rain gave the prime minister a soaking (“Drown and Out,” blared the front page of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror), and his words were indeed frequently drowned out by the sound of Labour’s 1997 election anthem, Things Can Only Get Better, blasted by a member of the public. Mr Sunak’s insistence that Labour could not be trusted to plan for the future was undercut by his own failure to plan for an umbrella. Yet what he said matters because it prefigures the themes that he will focus on over the next six weeks of campaigning.

One remark was particularly interesting: Mr Sunak said that the election is taking place at a time when “the world is more dangerous than it has been at any point since the end of the Cold War”. Vladimir Putin is waging war in Ukraine and will not stop there. Islamic extremism is on the rampage across the Middle East. China is looking to dominate the 21st century by stealing a lead in technology. The electorate has a clear choice, Mr Sunak said, between a prime minister who has proved he can take tough decisions, and a leader of the opposition who dodges difficult choices.

Whether Mr Sunak will score any political points by presenting the Labour Party as weak on defence remains to be seen. There is no subject on which Keir Starmer has done more to de-Corbynize his party than on the military. Labour’s defence spokesman, John Healey, is widely respected in the defence establishment. Mr Sunak likes to boast that the Conservatives are raising defence spending to 2.5% of GDP — the “biggest strengthening of our national defence for a generation”. But Mr Healey rightly points out that the figure is an aspiration for the end of the decade rather than a fait accompli — and that the last time defence spending was that high was when Labour was in power in 2010.

Mr Sunak is nevertheless right to inject defence into the heart of the election campaign. The public is understandably focused on NHS waiting lists and public-sector scandals (before Mr Sunak’s announcement, the headlines were dominated by infected blood and the Post Office). But leaders have an obligation to avoid the hidden iceberg rather than just respond to the passengers’ worries.

Talk to anybody in the West’s military and intelligence establishments and the nervousness is palpable. Admiral Rob Bauer, Nato’s most senior military officer, recently warned that the alliance could well be at war with Russia within 20 years. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas puts the figure at three to five years. Sweden’s commander-in-chief, General Micael Byden, tells Swedes simply that they need to “prepare for war”. In some ways, war has already begun: The Russians and Chinese are stepping up non-conventional assaults on Britain through malicious cyber campaigns and espionage.

Mr Sunak is also right to add that foreign uncertainty has domestic implications. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already raised energy prices. Russia and China’s bids to control the global supply of rare minerals threaten to cut us all off from our smartphones. And a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might well push the global economy into depression. As a mid-sized trading nation, Britain has more to lose than most from global uncertainty.

Yet Mr Sunak errs when he argues that his promised 2.5% of GDP by the end of 2030 will be enough to prepare the military for a new world. The army is smaller than it has been at any time since the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy is decommissioning ships for want of sailors. The war in Ukraine has exposed gaps in Britain’s munitions stockpiles as well as the inadequacy of some of its kit. What money we do spend on defence is often badly used. The nonpartisan Public Accounts Committee has accused the Ministry of Defence’s acquisition system of being “broken” and “repeatedly wasting taxpayer’s money”.

In a sensible world, Mr Sunak and Mr Starmer would be arguing about how to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP rather than who is best positioned to hit 2.5%. The very least they can do is to explain how they will shake up a lethargic defence establishment so that it delivers better value for money.

This debate Mr Sunak prefigured in his rain-drenched speech is all the more urgent because the world may suddenly get a lot more dangerous in November if Donald Trump wins the US election. The one thing that we know about this otherwise unpredictable figure is that he hates the idea that Americans are being taken for a ride by feckless allies. At the very least, Mr Trump will expect other Nato countries to stump up more for their defence. At worst, he will take America out of Nato, emboldening Mr Putin in Eastern Europe and forcing Europe to reconfigure its entire post-Second World War defence posture.

So, let’s hope that Mr Starmer rises to Mr Sunak’s bait and fights back on security. And let’s hope the resulting clash of opinions forces the public to think more seriously about the defence of the realm. The age of the peace dividend and Pax Americana is long over. Foreign policy and defence spending need to be given as much emphasis in the election as the domestic questions that have dominated Western politics since the end of the Cold War. Bloomberg

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the 'Economist', he is author of 'The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World'.

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