It is hard to escape the impression that Britain's major political parties are coming over all pacifist – or at least are going into the election rather less enthusiastic about military intervention than they once were.
First Kim Howells, chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees the intelligence services, told this newspaper that Britain should stop routinely deploying troops to trouble spots, focusing rather on security interests closer to home. More surprising, however, and more indicative perhaps of the general political mood, was the Conservatives' policy document on national security, A Resilient Nation, launched yesterday.
This argues for the creation of a UK "stabilisation" force to lead post-war reconstruction overseas – an idea apparently derived from the existing interdepartmental stabilisation unit. It also argues for more realism in committing our armed forces and for greater emphasis on conflict prevention and diplomacy. Thus would seem to be ending a decade of active interventionism.
There are two obvious explanations for the change. The first is the financial stringency that will face all government departments, especially high-spending ones, after the election. The second is the unpopularity of the most recent foreign interventions. Iraq is a particular case in point – and, as the Chilcot inquiry is showing, remains fiercely divisive, even though British troops have been withdrawn. But the military presence in Afghanistan – about which the public initially had fewer misgivings – also faces growing domestic opposition.
The appetite for intervention, of course, was in part a reaction to the West's failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide and the massacre at Srebrenica. It was also fostered by the perception of success in Sierra Leone, then in Kosovo. But Iraq and Afghanistan have proved much more costly, and left many more questions behind.
What is unclear about the narrowing political gap on defence, however, is how far the parties' more modest aspirations for British military power are dictated by electoral considerations and how far they reflect a genuine reappraisal of Britain's place in the world and necessary capabilities. We hope that it is the latter.Reuse content