In the 1984 US presidential election, Ronald Reagan came up with an effective way of embarrassing his rival Walter Mondale over defence. ‘There’s a bear in the woods,’ ran his television advert, showing a grizzly bear wandering through a forest. ‘For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it all.’ During the British general election campaign, the Russian bear isn’t making any attempt to hide — it is standing on its hind legs and pawing at the trees with its claws. Although everyone can see the bear, none of the political parties want to focus on it.
You wouldn’t know from this election campaign, but Europe is in crisis. On its eastern border, the threat from Russia is as great as at any point since the end of the Cold War. Crimea has been annexed and large parts of eastern Ukraine are under control of Russian-backed forces. Russian aircraft have even been taunting the RAF in the English Channel. The Baltic states are increasingly fearful that they will be next to suffer from Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russian dominance on its doorstep.
On Europe’s southern border, Islamic State continues to cause death and destruction — the recent decapitations in Libya were filmed along the shore to make the point that the jihadis have reached the Mediterranean. More worrying, perhaps, is the number of Europeans fighting for it. Last weekend, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, warned that the number of Europeans who will have taken up arms with Isis may treble to 10,000 by the end of this year. As these radicalised youths return home, the terrorist threat in Europe will rise exponentially.
But neither of these subjects features with any prominence in the election campaign. Isis and the Russian threat are deeply inconvenient truths that don’t fit into the party leaders’ scripts. The Tories’ six-point long-term economic plan doesn’t have room for foreign entanglements. Labour wants to talk about the National Health Service, not international security.
There are a variety of reasons for this. The first is the consequences of austerity: when money is tight at home, foreign policy seems like a luxury. The second is a general war-weariness. The Afghan campaign dragged on for far longer than the public wanted or policy-makers imagined and it is hard to declare victory when the Taleban is poised to seize control of parts of the country once more.
There is a sense that the political risks of a foreign intervention outweigh the advantages. David Cameron has yet to recover the authority he lost in the Syria vote two years ago, when he bet on the opposition backing the government on an issue of national security, but that consensus has broken down. The problem is compounded by the insurgent parties — Ukip in England, the SNP in Scotland — which tend to oppose wars. It might be different if Britain could boast of a series of successful interventions. Instead, we have a large part of Iraq being run by a terrorist organisation and Libya descending into civil war.
Philip Hammond has hardly set the heather alight as Foreign Secretary. He has been oddly invisible during these crises. Cabinet colleagues have been puzzled by this and ask if he has recovered from getting too far forward on his skis when advocating limits to EU immigration last autumn. Hammond’s parliamentary supporters offer another explanation for his low profile — that he is hard at work preparing for a rapid renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership after the election.
But the Prime Minister has not been saying much about the outside world either. Such debates raise awkward questions, including whether he will honour the Nato commitment to spending a minimum of 2 per cent of national economic output on defence. If Britain won’t do this, despite having led the charge to pressure other European members to increase their military budgets at the last Nato summit, it will further weaken the alliance. It is hard to argue against maintaining a basic minimum of defence spending when Russian fighter jets are forcing civilian flights into and out of Dublin airport to be diverted. The military has also ceased maritime surveillance, a task that has become imperative in the light of Russia’s bellicose attitude. Britain stopped patrolling its coastline on the basis that Moscow was a partner for peace.
It’s harder to argue that now. The senior ranks of the Tory party fear there will be no commitment to 2 per cent before polling day. Those close to George Osborne point out that, given the growth in the economy, honouring the basic Nato commitment would mean major increases in defence spending from 2018. The Chancellor is not prepared to make such a commitment. There is also a worry, given that the government is only halfway through its austerity programme, that protecting some departments will force the axe to fall harder on others. The Tories will have many unpleasant spending decisions to make after the election and don’t want to be drawn into discussing them beforehand.
But if Britain does join most European countries in reneging on its Nato commitment, a huge strain would be placed on the special relationship with the United States. This will unnerve those Tories who believe that a strong defence policy is the bedrock of Conservatism. Tory unrest is being contained by pre-election discipline but once that is lifted, those opposed to spending 0.7 per cent on international aid while failing to hit 2 per cent on defence will swell rapidly. As one Cameron ally warns, it could become a proxy issue for wider dissatisfaction with the government.
For these reasons, a growing number of Tories think that Cameron will end up committing to 2 per cent after the election; there are reports that the government is working on accounting wheezes to massage defence spending up. Honouring Britain’s Nato obligation would please both his parliamentary party and the United States. A cynic might observe that Cameron is unlikely to still be Prime Minister when the cost of this kicks in. More broadly, it makes little sense for Britain to be committed to spending money on international aid but unable to guarantee defence spending. In this increasingly uncertain world, security must come first.
The era of stable governments is over
Join us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Spectator.co.uk/election Our shiny new campaign website.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10