The government’s current risk assessment of the threats facing the UK is set out in the 2015 National Security Strategy. Each threat is evaluated according to the likelihood of it occurring, and the severity of impact if it did occur. Placed in the highest category of risk, alongside terrorist and cyber attacks, is the threat of a public health disaster, “particularly pandemic influenza [or] emerging infectious diseases… [which] threatens lives and causes disruption to public services and the economy”.
As we now know, the Conservative government took a cavalier attitude to this ‘tier one’ threat to our national security. Ministers knew the NHS’s capacity to deal with a pandemic had been dangerously run down by austerity, and still did not provide the resources required. After Covid-19 struck, lockdown was imposed late, quickly undermined, and then dropped altogether, as the government prioritised the normal functioning of capitalism over the threat to human life.
As a result, the UK has been hit far harder by the pandemic than most comparable countries, with 75,000 deaths so far, and one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the industrialised world. Covid-19 has already killed nearly twice as many British people as died in the Blitz. It has killed over eighteen times as many of us as have died in all terrorist attacks in the past fifty years.
Meanwhile in South Korea – a country of comparable population size and GDP per capita, but with a government that is serious about public health – the death toll barely exceeds 500.
The principal theme of right-wing attacks on the previous leadership of the Labour party was that they were essentially traitors. People who could by no means be trusted with the nation’s security. One hesitates to reproduce inherently chauvinistic terms such as ‘treacherous’. But how else should we describe a government that places the interests of capital before the lives and safety of the British people in the midst of our greatest crisis since WW2?
In Britain, the politics of ‘national security’ has become completely detached from the real security issues the country faces. Another illustration of this is the recent announcement of a £16bn boost to UK military spending, the largest real terms increase since the second peak of the Cold War in the early 1980s. This is in spite of the fact that the government’s own assessment places the threat of a military attack on the UK only in the third tier of national security risks.
The threat of an international military conflict which Britain is drawn into is placed in the government’s highest category of risks. But as we know from bitter experience, the reality is that Britain tends to actively leap into such situations rather than get passively drawn into them. And operations launched under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’ in recent decades tended to increase the terrorist threat to ourselves and others, as was both predictable and predicted.
Turning to another prominent threat, tensions with Russia are part of an escalatory dynamic that is driven by both sides, as this column has previously argued. Tensions are escalated by Moscow, in its various acts of aggression from Salisbury to Ukraine, and by the West – including the UK – in the reckless expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep. After the experience of the Cold War, it should hardly be controversial that arms races and sabre-rattling are antithetical to securing peace. Our model for today should be the diplomacy of the late-1980s, not the belligerence of the early-1980s which almost led to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
The government’s own assessment of the threats facing us should not be our only reference point. A better one is that devised by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, set up in 1945 by leading scientists unnerved by the dawn of the atomic age, and committed to raising public awareness of how close humanity was coming to an apocalyptic event. They illustrated this proximity with the ‘Doomsday Clock’, updated annually, with the number of ‘minutes to midnight’ denoting the level of risk.
The first iteration of the clock in 1947 placed the world at seven minutes to midnight, moving to two minutes to midnight by 1953 at the height of early Cold War tensions. Agreements to major reductions in nuclear arsenals by the superpowers, plus the end of the Cold War itself, saw the clock draw back to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991. But to the scientists’ alarm in more recent years, the situation has gone into dramatic reverse. The US, Russia, the UK and others have committed to upgrading their nuclear capabilities, allowed previous arms control frameworks to collapse, and simultaneously failed to deal with the looming threat of climate catastrophe.
In January 2020 the Doomsday Clock was shifted to 100 seconds to midnight, its highest ever state of alert, now expressed in seconds rather than minutes for the first time in its 73 year history. This reflected the acceleration of the climate crisis coupled with the heightened risk of a sudden or accidental nuclear exchange in the context of tensions between the West and Russia.
On all of these points, the British government is actively helping to increase the threat level. It is refusing to take global heating seriously, indulging in an escalatory military build-up, and renewing its nuclear arsenal in flagrant violation of international agreements.
None of this can be explained purely with reference to managerial competence or understanding of the policy issues. The fact that the Conservative government is a major threat to our national security on several fronts does not mean that it is not performing its own specific function in a competent manner.
Britain’s military posture is a product of centuries spent as an imperial power, followed by decades spent attempting to hang on to as much of that status as possible, despite the loss of empire. The primary role of the British military is to project the global power of the British state, in alignment with the other leading capitalist powers. It is not primarily to defend the British people, any more than the purpose of the British state’s economic policy is to serve the public, rather than capital. The fundamental threat to our security lies, therefore, in the normal functioning of the system.
The left is often told that it must show it is serious on security issues. But there is a difference between performing ‘seriousness’ and substantively being serious on these matters. In the British political context, we can either do one or the other. A genuinely serious approach to security from the left will inescapably be anti-militarist and internationalist. It is no exaggeration to say that lives depend on our ability to formulate such a programme and advance it successfully.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.