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Where is Britain’s grand strategy? Neither party is prepared for the coming war

Starmer visited Kyiv in 2023 (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)


June 6, 2024   7 mins

In The Kindly Ones, Anthony Powell’s fictionalised portrayal of the Britain of the late Thirties, the approaching war appears like a spectre “now materialising in slow motion,” a “looming, menacing shape of ever greater height, ever thickening density”. The mood of the time, overbearing in its intensity, was one in which “crisis was unremitting, cataclysm not long to be delayed”. It is hard not to empathise with Powell’s detached hero, soon to be swept up in the world’s convulsion.

After all, Powell’s recollection of the newsreel footage of the time — of “close-ups of stocky demagogues, fuming, gesticulating, stamping; oceans of raised forearms; steel-helmeted men tramping in column; armoured vehicles rumbling over the pavé of broad boulevards” — could be a description of the Conservative Party’s first election broadcast. CCHQ’s offering looks like government propaganda from Children of Men: over images of missiles firing and a Chinese tank parading down a boulevard, we are assured our nation’s survival lies only with Sunak’s Conservative Party. The voters, it appears, do not share this conclusion.

As this week’s exclusive UnHerd poll revealed, 54% of voters believe that Britain will be at war within five years. If the majority opinion of the poll respondents is correct, Britain is about to elect a wartime Prime Minister, and have reluctantly chosen Starmer. Given a choice between Starmer and whichever Tory plotter next takes their turn on the throne, this is not an unreasonable decision. Yet in a general election driven by voter apathy, disenchantment and a widespread dissatisfaction, one of the strange lacunae so far has been the absence of any serious discussion of British foreign policy. The election is taking place in the shadow of a volatile international order, and yet the wars in which Britain has found itself embroiled have been sublimated, in the campaign discourse, into parochial domestic concerns.

The Gaza war, whose regional escalation has already seen British jets ineffectually bomb Houthi militants in Yemen and shoot down Iranian drones heading for Israel, has been transmuted into a culture-war debate about the policing of demonstrations in London. In Ukraine, Western allies have just crossed another long-standing red line over permitting Kyiv to use donated weapons to attack inside Russia, provoking a furious debate among security and international relations analysts — and yet the war itself has, for most people, long faded into the background. In the Far East, where Johnson’s ill-fated government committed the Royal Navy to a “Pacific tilt”, Chinese sabre-rattling against Taiwan is ramping up alarmingly. The rising costs of energy, food and consumer goods driven by geopolitical disorder — a mere foretaste of what is yet to come — have taken euphemistic form as “the cost-of-living crisis”, like a permanent shift in weather patterns to be grimly adapted to, rather than a consequence of political choices.

The drumbeat of war is growing ever louder, yet even as Sunak disastrously moots conscription for the young and Starmer pledges a triple lock on the nuclear deterrent, campaigning on the threatening international situation is either an afterthought or an opportunity to posture. Even in the first televised election debate, vital questions of national security were only discussed towards the end, as short soundbites tacked on to a question from a Muslim voter about Gaza. We are told, again and again, that we are living in a 1938 world, and then the dire warnings are overtaken by the usual Westminster gossip and dysfunction. Lobby journalists badger Starmer on whether, and even when, he will use Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Britain’s genuinely alarming security situation, a topic that requires urgent national debate over both the country’s preparedness and willingness to go to war, is just more fodder for the soundbite class.

It is alarming to observe on social media a growing conspiracy theory, notably stoked by the former Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, that Britain will “reveal” at some point this summer that it is at war with Russia (why Putin would respect the needs of Sunak’s election campaign in obscuring this information has not been convincingly explained). Yet no doubt such anxieties spring from the simultaneous reality of the threats Britain now faces and the strange, cynical unreality of the political discourse surrounding them. It is genuinely irresponsible of Sunak to throw out half-baked plans for national service, which would do nothing to address the modernisation needs of Britain’s still-shrinking and under-equipped Army, purely as desperate bait for wavering conservative voters. In doing so, the entire discourse around national security is cheapened, and warnings about the genuine threats we face are rendered less credible.

Equally, it is irresponsible of Starmer to suborn Britain’s approach to the Middle East conflict to Labour’s internal psychodrama over Corbyn. By initially pledging his unflinching support for Israel’s poorly-planned punitive campaign in Gaza — which now looks set to end with Hamas still in power, tens of thousands of civilians dead, and Israel’s leadership facing war crimes charges — Starmer chose to exorcise Corbyn’s ghost and avoid any serious analysis of the war’s aims and likely outcome. Despite pledging to place country over party, when it came to the first serious test of his future foreign policy, Starmer placed his own intra-party feuds over Britain’s national interest. Had Starmer chosen the path set out here at the beginning of war, of entirely disengaging from the conflict — a policy, the new UnHerd poll reveals, that a majority of the country supports — he would be in a stronger position now.

“It is irresponsible of Starmer to suborn Britain’s approach to the Middle East conflict to Labour’s internal psychodrama over Corbyn.”

Instead, just as the Conservative Party finds itself outflanked on the Right among its core voter base over immigration, Starmer finds the Labour Party, in essence a fragile coalition of southern liberals and northern Muslims, struggling to maintain the support of a demographic whose votes could previously be weighed rather than counted. Indeed, the growing antipathy to Israel’s very existence revealed by the poll, now the dominant opinion among the young, can perhaps be partly attributed to the country’s rapidly changing demographics, until now welcomed by Labour Party functionaries as both a desirable outcome in itself and a sure source of votes. Despite the Greens’ attempt to capture Labour’s wavering Muslim vote, the future of politics in Northern towns may soon enough look more like George Galloway’s vision of social conservatism and anti-Western foreign policy than the top-down Zionism of Starmer’s rightward revolution. Blair may have failed at exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, but by radically transforming the country’s immigration policies, he was unintentionally successful in importing the Middle East’s deepest passions to Westminster. No doubt future analysts, observing the increased salience of Indian and Nigerian political passions in Britain, will make the same observation of Johnson’s most transformative contribution to British history.

Yet until the twin effects of both a rapidly changing world order and Britain’s changing demographics hit the Westminster system, British foreign policy careens down the road of path dependency. As David Lammy’s recent distillation of the Labour Party’s strategic worldview proves, there is no meaningful choice on offer in this election of what foreign policy to pursue, or serious discussion of what British national interests require: such matters are intentionally depoliticised, kept carefully away from debate in front of mere voters. The Tory rebel Robert Jenrick’s call for an “Anglo-Gaullist” foreign policy, ruthlessly focussed on British self-interest, is the majority opinion in the country, according to the UnHerd poll, but it is nowhere to be found in Whitehall: to even suggest such a thing would be an unforgivable offence against mandarin dignity.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that British security and foreign policy is made in Washington: with our closed and inward-looking national caste of securocrats dedicated to the Atlantic alliance as a good in itself, the only decisions available to the two parties is how far to acquiesce to America’s strategic whims of the moment. Whether or not these whims, bitterly debated in the imperial capital itself, are in Britain’s interests are irrelevant: the choice we are given is only how best to interpret Washington’s confused and ambiguous desires.

While the international situation looms like a threatening cloud over this election, the absence of any meaningful discussion of Britain’s strategic vision merely reflects the fact that, until we know who wins the American election, we cannot say with certainty what our foreign policy will actually be. Now Biden reigns, both parties’ Ukraine policy is to support Kyiv until Russia’s total defeat, no matter how unrealistic that now sounds. Should Trump win and seek peace negotiations with Putin, even at Ukraine’s expense, then that will automatically become Britain’s policy too — though there has been no domestic discussion of what that outcome would look like, and how Britain’s future relationship with an aggressive, aggrieved Russia can be securely managed. Whichever of America’s two gerontocratic rivals wins the election, Starmer will bend the knee and pledge Britain’s security and prosperity at his service. The great questions of strategy, even when they determine national survival, are after all a matter for great powers, not mere client states: as ever, the weak do what they must.

In his 1940 memoir Strange Defeat, the pioneering historian Marc Bloch, who had latterly served as a staff officer, and would later be executed by the Gestapo for his Resistance activities, ruminated on the causes of France’s sudden military collapse. The army was poorly led and unprepared; the country was bitterly divided. Yet Bloch reserved his deepest antipathy for “the parliamentary system [which] has too often favoured intrigue at the cost of intelligence and true loyalty”. In the France of 1940, Bloch wrote:

“Our party machinery had already begun to give off the smell of a dry-rot which it had acquired in small cafés and obscure back rooms. It could not even offer the excuse that it was strong, because at the first breath of despotism it collapsed like a house of cards… More often than not they failed even to determine who was to wield the power. They served merely as spring-boards for clever careerists who spent their time knocking one another off the top of the political structure.”

In the situation we now face, such immediately recognisable political dysfunction is a luxury Britain cannot afford: our nation’s security is a matter of far greater import than the Westminster rigmarole we sank into in safer times.

Yet the overriding theme of the election — from the Left-wing and Muslim discontent with Starmer, of which Galloway is now the sole Westminster incarnation, to Farage’s reinvigorated revolt against the Conservatives from the Right — has been a message from the electorate that Britain’s political system works against the British people’s interests, and requires total root-and-branch reform. This is doubly true of our foreign policy, the shadowy presence looming behind every rote stump speech on this campaign. Domestically, and internationally, history has fated us to live at the end of one political order and the troubled birth of another. We cannot go on as we are: and for good or ill, soon enough we will not.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

We decided that, rather than waste time and energy fighting them over there, it would be wiser and cheaper to fight them over here.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

Fighting them? Looks like surrendering to me.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

Correct. Our political dysfunction has reached crisis point in the third decade of the revolutionary EU/Blair Progressive State. Historians in 30 years time will have little problem in diagnosing the causes of the Fall. Becoming an EU State in the 1990s, we unwittingly allowed Four Horsemen to run riot. The new Empire sought to imitate the United States of America, seeing population growth and mass migration as a way to generate economic growth and to help form the new multicultural identity. A lie we can see even before AI arrives to usher in a new era where armies of low wage workers are a burden not an asset. By adopting a toxic Leftist, anti nativist policy on communal assimilation, all Europe would suffer the bitter harvest of communal sectarianism, ghettos and the dark shadow of Islamist terror – the first Horseman. America is a country committed to free enterprise and wealth creation. The Europe of EU and Blairite Britain is not. It imposed a heavy handed suffocating technocratic elite on society and thus let regulatory paralysis and an ever bigger welfarist Big State crush and drive out innovation and growth, saddling us with groaning debts. The Third Horseman to prosper in the New Empire was all green and red; the ideological derangement of a supposed climate catastrophe and the auto destruction of Europes supply of cheap energy. German industry is falling and this act of continental suicide – atop the disasters of the Bank Crash, QE and the real catastrophe of lockdown- has sealed our fate. The final Horseman has brought a terrible plague of progressive cultural atrophy and the collapse of trust in law. The secular Leftist credos of human right entitlement, the warped cult of identity victimhood and greviance expressed in twisted equality laws has poisoned the very idea of a nation state. This is why debates of foreign policy are now so vague and disembodied. Our State surrendered itself to collective Soviet style rule from Brussels, lost the habit of sovereign thinking and became a detached entitled class hostile to the British people. Now the die is cast. This is the third decade of this new system of governance – the new progressive EU state. Its multiple strategic failures – uncontrolled mass migration, war on enterprise, poisonous leftist ideologies and toxic top down coercive rule – are now baked in and unstoppable, leading to the paralysis and fog Aris describes on the terrifying affairs beyond our shores. We are simply drowning in debt, tied to the corpse of a giant socialist health system. We are sinking into the depths, and so unable to regain control of our destiny, here or abroad.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Not every modern ignominy can be covered in a brief reply, but I wish you had touched on the deliberate assault on beauty in art, architecture, music and wherever else it formerly existed. Ugliness has been enthroned to demoralize the people and darken their spirits. The latest example — they are many and daily — is the selection of a 500 pound woman as Miss Alabama in a beauty contest. Miss Germany in another contest wears a niqab so you can only see her eyes. Needless to say, she is not German as it has been understood for millennia. The use of victimhood to degrade standards everywhere you look is meant to make obsolete the idea of merit and quality and to advance the standard of the grotesque and monstrous, the incompetent and lazy and the perpetually aggrieved.

David L
David L
1 month ago

Both the Tories and Labour foreign policy can be summed up as…

Bend the knee to Islam.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
1 month ago

Why does Jenrick’s proposal involve us getting involved in an alliance with France? I seriously doubt swapping Washington for Paris would be a wise decision.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

That threw me – but I think “Anglo-Gaullist” means UK only and behaving like Gaullists, rather than any sort of alliance with France.
It’s certainly very clumsy phrasing that proper editing could have cleaned up.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Tired of commenting on yet more drivel from Aris Roussinos.
Where is this “war” which he prophesies ? Who will we be fighting ? Where ? When ? Why ?
Not one of these things is specified.
Instead, yet more hyperbolic language about how the West is somehow warmongering by providing support for a state illegally invaded by a neighbouring bully. And an almost tribal hatred of the US – the country that saved Europe in 2 world wars and 1 Cold War.
If it is 1938 (as Roussinos claims: “We are told, again and again, that we are living in a 1938 world”), then how is he unable to notice that WWII started by a large, expansionist power bullying, destabilising and ultimately invading its smaller neighbours ? And that we’re seeing the same behaviour today.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Who will save Europe from the USA?
The USA never acted altruistically in either World War. Before her entry into the Great War, Woodrow Wilson’s government attempted to broker a peace in Europe on the basis that no side won. This was undermined by Britain, even though British leaders doubted that even the British Empire had the resources to defeat the Central Powers.
Imagine anyone in Westminster even dreaming of attempting that now.
When the USA invaded Grenada, Reagan never bothered to warn his ‘friend’ Thatcher beforehand. Nor the late Queen. Thatcher, feeling scorned and personally pained, wrote a letter to Reagan complaining about the betrayal. But she never sent it.
In the Second World War, if the USA had not saved Europe, the Red Army would have.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago

Time for Europe to save itself, and not expect others to do it, the EU economy is as large as the US. Let’s face it , Britain has been in decline since WW2, the empire is long gone, they are just another country like any other. It no longer is capable of ” grand strategy “. The economy is not large enough and the people don’t want it. They can only survive in conjunction with allies like the US and Europe. Brexit solved nothing, it was just an exercise in frustration of long lost power. The future belongs to Asia, where the growth is.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

Guess you have never heard of lend-lease. W/o the us the red army would have collapsed.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

But the author doesn’t predict war; he merely confirms that many others do.

The headline is not written by the author but is “clickbait” to get us to read the article which is cogently argued and a rational analysis of the present situation.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Russia’s invasion is not illegal. It’s stupid, wrong and horrifying, but it is not illegal.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

So, to sum up: Enoch was right!

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago

Starmer is to grand strategy what a mask is to preventing the spread of covid. He changes his mind depending on the currents (how many definitions of a woman so far?) And you can literally see his freeze response under pressure. He is not a leader.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

The article is about the imminent threat of war. It’s nothing to do with defining what a woman is. There may soon be far bigger fish to fry.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Usual GCSE stuff from this Author.
Does he really expect the complex details of how our foreign policy must evolve to emerge via soundbites during an election when both journalists and public attention to any detail is minimal and nuance inevitably gets crowded out as people look for a headline? Or did he know that and this his points here merely the usual performative stuff?
He’s also another Unherd Author who toots the dog whistle with references to Muslims. Keeps him employed one supposes, but utterly dreadful. (Anecdotally on speaking to late teens grandkids they don’t get taught much about middle East history, the formation of Israel and what subsequently happened much at all. Hardly a surprise we thus suffer from some historical amnesia. Who’s been running the Curriculum last 14yrs? They did know about the Spanish Armada though)
His understanding of history, where there are lessons but caution on assuming there is an inherent cycle, he should go and read more about how united or otherwise we were in 38. Or perhaps how a series of crises in 73 played out despite at the time looking like the West assailed and failing in all directions.
As regards his suggestions on how we effectively navigate all this – zilch. Just an over simplistic play to the gallery.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

“He’s also another Unherd Author who toots the dog whistle with references to Muslims”.

Evidence?

“As regards his suggestions on how we effectively navigate all this – zilch. Just an over simplistic play to the gallery”.

No JW that will be you (D-).

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

The phrase “dog whistle” always means “I cannot put forward a valid counter argument”.

But if you have, do put it forward…

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

He won’t

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

We have no politicians today who I would call “serious” and precious few serious journalists and commentators.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
1 month ago

I have recently listened to Truss in conversation with several interviewers, including Triggernometry and Farage, and while I had reservations about some of her policies, she presented a coherent argument and did show she was up for the fight, including fraccing, for which she had to be removed.

If she wasn’t able to get her message through to the public, there are probably many more, and it would be in the national interest to remedy the situation, so that fruitful discussion an occur, not announce an absence of talent.

One suggestion is for parties to leave candidate selection to locals, with background checking left to the party.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 month ago

Why would we be so worried about the stance of either party, if as the writer contends, they’re a bit like the French political class of 1940?

Our political class of 2024, looking back on it, will be the kind of excruciating frippery that defines a soon-to-be-unimaginable interlude, like Jeremy Thorpe campaigning by hovercraft in the 1974 election.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago

As usual this is all rather passive. Britain has somehow just “found itself embroiled” in these conflicts and consequently “such anxieties spring from the simultaneous reality of the threats Britain now faces.” Apparently Britain, as a weak client state has to “do what they must.” This is nonsense.

Yes Britain is weak and getting weaker (four decades of Neoliberalism will do that to a military industrial base), but there was no ‘must’ in shilling for the war in Iraq. No must for doing so in Libya and Syria. There was no must in shipping jihadis around the world to ferment sectarian conflict (read Mark Curtis’s ‘Secret Affairs: Britains collusion with radical Islam’ for too many details). There was no must in the supporting and then whitewashing of the (very) far right in Ukraine. Bozo Johnson has just in the last few days been in the US alongside Azov Nazis FFS.

We suffer these threats because we’ve actively promoted them.

We have a grand strategy – it’s to ferment chaos whenever our Atlanticist Establishment finds a wheeze to do so. ‘We’ are not helplessly dragged along here – we’re one of the tails wagging the dog.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
1 month ago

A geninely alarming security situation?What is it?Neither Russia nor Chins nor Iran nor North Korea is going to bomb or invade us.. They havent threatened to do so, and they haven’t done so. With all the drum beating ,and talk of Chamberlain , does anyone remember what happened to Poland, when we went to war to save her? For some reason,we had no objection to the Soviet Union jointly carving up Poland, along with the Baltic States and,Finland. The speech praising the Soviet Union for fighting Germany, recently publicised, must have made Putin very happy, as for him that was Stalin’s finest hour. Roosevelt, had to cope with an Americian public who were 90% against the war, till Pearl Harbour came along. We never refer to Roosevelt as Chamberlain.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Lord Halifax’s guarantee to Poland effectively prevented the Polish government from having to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Germany over the disputed territories. It almost guaranteed war.
How similar, in effect, is NATOs, and in particular, Britain’s, promise to Ukraine to be with her as long as it takes?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago

Yes the analogy is almost perfect. Britain gave a guarantee which it could not fulfill…and didn’t.

The same has been given to Ukraine, and the consequences of seeking to fulfill it (if it is attempted…) will be even more disastrous.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago

Writing from Chicago, but your situation seems familiar.
Foreign policy in difficult times requires statesmen, men and women of intellect and purpose and courage who place the national interest at the center of their attention and priorities even if not eschewing personal matters. People who see beyond the superficial, for whom strategic thinking on behalf of the national interest is not alien. People who mobilize their people without pandering to their worst instincts. People like Pitt (either one), Washington, Castlereagh, Palmerston, Lincoln, Disraeli, Bismarck, Salisbury, Churchill, Roosevelt (either one), Thatcher, even Reagan, to name a few, and sorry if I missed your favorite. Not always right, but more right than wrong on the big things, and able and eager to stake out a position and lead.
Need I say more to make my point?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Splendid writers are often messengers of doom. Make that always.

P Branagan
P Branagan
1 month ago

Excellent article Aris. Tks.

Will K
Will K
1 month ago

Starmer’s strategy is to be vague, and ‘not Sunak’. Its similar to Mr Biden’s successful strategy in 2020.