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How essential is national defence?

An army General is breaking with tradition this week to publicly state that the defence budget is being shrunk to dangerous levels because voters are more concerned about the NHS and other public services than the armed services. The Chancellor, looking for economies to reduce the budget deficit, sees the MoD as a convenient target.

The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is new to his job and finding it hard to persuade Mr Hammond to make cuts elsewhere. The Chair of the Select Committee on Defence moans that “people in the Treasury are insufficiently persuaded that there are enough votes in defence to justify taking away money from other areas even though the Government in power perpetually mouths the slogan defence is the first priority of government’.”

The total UK budget is £814billion of which defence receives £45.4 billion. That compares with £160.5 billion for pensions, £146.8 billion for health and £86 billion for education. The Defence Ministry say they need at least £20 billion more to avoid making serious cuts. Those cuts might include decommissioning or selling naval ships, cutting numbers of defence personnel and merging the Royal Marines with the Parachute Regiment.

The General’s concern is that our capacity to cope with the threats posed by Russian expansionism will be weakened. As the second largest contributor to NATO the UK has troops stationed in Poland and Estonia to deter Russian attempts to repeat what it has done in the Ukraine and Syria. Its suspected cyber interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections and the UK 2016 Referendum are also seen as attempts to destabilise the West. Our Left-wing politicians reject this thinking and call for closer links with Russia.

What this overlooks is that our armed forces are an important bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations. Britain & France are the only European nuclear nations and whilst the USA spends far more on defence and has a much longer reach; Europe can no longer rely on President Trump to come to their aid. It is in Europe’s interests that Britain’s military resources would be there for them if the need arises. Last week President Macron asked for the loan of three British helicopters capable of lifting heavy equipment in Mali. As the Tory MP Johnny Mercer observed in relation to the Defence budget, “This is the key reason for No 10 and No 11 to stump up more cash to keep our world-beating reputation”.

Christians may be uneasy about spending billions of pounds on defence. We are taught to love our neighbours as ourselves and turn the other cheek when challenged by an aggressor but that is not the way President Putin, the Islamic extremists, or Kim Jon-un thinks. Whilst there are such hostile and malevolent leaders in the world the need to be able to defend ourselves is surely necessary but not sufficient on its own.

Much hostility to the wealthy West comes from peoples and countries struggling with poverty, hunger, inadequate medical provision and education. Our overseas aid budget is just as important as our military expenditure. That British doctors and nurses were in Sierra Leone fighting the Ebola epidemic and are now in Bangladesh caring for the Rohingya people in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp goes some way to balance our international reputation.

It is also simplistic to understand the Bible as being consistently pacifistic. The prophet Isaiah said “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) However, the prophet Joel (3:10) takes a contrary position and even Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword”. (Matthew 10:34) Just as we take precautions to protect our homes from burglars, so we fund our armed forces to deter those who might attack us if they thought they might gain from doing so.

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