Honey, I sunk the navy

One of the saddest things in the newspapers is the collapse of British military power. A century ago Britannia ruled the waves and a good thing too. Now they seem ready to cede the waters to the Chinese or Iranians and lose the Battle of Britain by default. Might I ask why?

Wednesday's Daily Telegraph revealed that the British air force is going to cut its purchase of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from 138 to about 50, and probably get rid of all its Tornadoes, shut two bases and ditch almost 5,000 people. But you just know how politicians talk when doing something ruinous and dumb.

"We've got aeroplanes that are ready to do dog fights with the Soviet Union air force. That's not right," droned Tory PM David Cameron. Whereas not having aeroplanes at all is right because ... ?

The closest thing to an honest answer, and the farthest from their lips, is we couldn't get them anywhere useful anyway because the fleet is going to be deep-sixed (or, given budget realities, probably deep-threed). As the same newspaper reported last Friday, the British navy "is set to be reduced to the smallest size in its history ... cut by almost half to just 25, with frigates, destroyers, submarines, minesweepers and all amphibious craft scrapped" in order to fund two new aircraft carriers which won't have any planes but that's OK because one will probably be mothballed as soon as it's finished if it ever is.

How did this happen? Part of it is a failure of nerve; five years ago when the British celebrated the 200th anniversary of the magnificent victory at Trafalgar that helped inaugurate the century-long Pax Britannia, they did it with "blue" and "red" fleets rather than British and combined French/Spanish lest they should seem to be happy and proud that they won.

Mostly it's budgetary. The welfare state is unaffordable but, because of its political dynamics, it takes everything else down with it as it goes. The first duty of the state may be defence but it's the last thing most democratic governments are going to fund today, even if it means the glorious geopolitical role Albion has played for 500 years becomes a curiosity in a glass case.

What galls me about this miserable business is that nobody said they were going to do it before they did it and, worse, nobody admits they are doing it now. I realize politicians are not in the habit of telling you what they are going to do on those rare occasions when they know; the same Prime Minister David Cameron recently admitted that they probably should have mentioned during the campaign that they would cut the child benefit for millions of single-income families instead of, um, saying the reverse repeatedly, ending with the classic "yes I acknowledge this was not in our manifesto. Of course I'm sorry about that, but I think we need to be clear about why we're doing what we're doing."

OK. Be clear. Start with we're cutting middle class entitlements cuz we're busted. Then tell us, before you mothball the fleet: Does the world seem a safer place today than 10 years ago? Are we more confident that we can dispense with the capacity to project force into troubled regions?

If only they were that wrong. But in the case of former PM Tony Blair we know the reverse is true. No hard Realpolitiker, he openly believed that British and American military power should be used unsparingly for the improvement of mankind. He just didn't spend the money necessary to support his ambitions.

What on earth was he thinking? How was it all supposed to work?

We may never know, just as it's impossible to figure out what Canadian politicians think about a budgetary situation that has left us even less able than Britain to afford crucial defence spending. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty just admitted in his economic update that last year's deficit was even higher than predicted and two of the next three will be too. But as to whether stimulus spending is now over, he pledged that the government would not be "inflexible" while Liberal finance critic Scott Brison retorted "It's very important that governments remain nimble." So you have no idea what they're going to do and even less idea of why.

When everyone veered from supporting balanced budgets to running vast deficits, did they tell you they suddenly realized Keynes was right? That they'd always believed it? No, they just insisted we had to spend money we didn't have on stuff we didn't need for reasons we couldn't explain, even if it meant neglecting the military while radical states dominate international debate and scramble to acquire lethal weapons.

Stand by for a full, honest and sensible explanation ... just as soon as we discover why sinking Britain's navy and crashing its air force makes sense in the modern world.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson